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Sir Alwyn Bowman Barker (1900–1998)

by Martin Shanahan

This article was published online in 2023

Alwyn Barker, c.1955

Alwyn Barker, c.1955

Australian Institute of Management Education and Training

Sir Alwyn Bowman Barker (1900–1998), engineer and industrialist, was born on 5 August 1900 in Adelaide, younger of two children of South Australian-born Alfred James Barker, auctioneer, and his Tasmanian-born wife Elizabeth Jean, née Bowman. Educated as a boarder at the Collegiate School of St Peter (1910–14), Adelaide, and Geelong Church of England Grammar School (1915–18), Victoria, Alwyn excelled at mathematics, chemistry, and mechanical drawing. He was also a keen sportsman and talented batsman, playing A grade for the North Adelaide (later Prospect) Cricket Club, of which he became captain (1929–35). Between 1919 and 1923, while studying at the University of Adelaide (BEng, 1923; BAppSc, 1923; DipME, 1925; BSc, 1931), he mingled with Adelaide’s social elite. He was a member of the Adelaide Hunt Club, where his father was a well-known identity, even after a serious illness necessitated his early retirement in 1905

Barker’s first job after university was as an electrician near his childhood home Caithness, a large property at Mount Barker, south-east of Adelaide. In July 1923, soon after the death of his father, he took the advice of (Sir) Edward Holden, a friend of his uncle’s, and sailed for England. There, he worked as an electrical tester for the British Thomson-Houston Co. at Rugby, Warwickshire, before gaining experience at Hudson’s Motor Car Co. at Detroit, United States of America. Prior to leaving for the United States, he became engaged to Isabel Barron Lucas, daughter of (Sir) Edward Lucas, agent-general for South Australia. They married on 16 June 1926 at St Peter’s College Chapel, Adelaide, and settled in the city’s inner north; they had two children: Donald in 1927 and Shirley in 1930.

On returning to Adelaide in May 1925, Barker worked as an efficiency engineer and later production manager at Holden's Motor Body Builders, where he oversaw the expansion of its Woodville plant. He remained with the company until 1931 when, despite having made substantial cuts to the cost of car production, he lost his job during the Depression. Following encouragement from Holden, he began a part-time lectureship in industrial engineering at the University of Adelaide (1931–53). That same year he moved with his young family to Caithness. After a period without work, he spent several months with the South Australian Electrolysis Committee, before accepting a position as a works manager at Mechanical Products Ltd (later Kelvinator Australia Ltd). The company’s founder and managing director, William Queale, was a leading industrialist, and the two became close friends. As general manager of Richards Industries Ltd (later Chrysler, Dodge DeSoto Distributors Ltd) (1940–52), one of South Australia’s largest motor manufacturers, Barker gained a reputation as a prominent industrialist and businessman. He helped steer the company through World War II by using his network of contacts to secure lucrative government contracts to manufacture munitions, military vehicles, and aircraft, including Wirraway aircraft wings.

A long-time advocate of a scientific approach to industrial management, Barker was a member of the United States Society for the Advancement of Management, an organisation based on the principles of the American industrialist Frederick W. Taylor. From 1944 he and Queale led the South Australian division of the Australian Institute of Industrial Management (AIM) as its inaugural vice-president and president respectively. In 1947 they were founding members of the AIM’s federal council.

In 1952, after Queale’s sudden death in 1951, Barker succeeded him as managing director of Kelvinator and federal president of the AIM (1952–53, 1960–62). The following year he was appointed chairman of the Municipal Tramways Trust (1953–68), where mismanagement was being blamed for significant financial losses. He oversaw the development of a ten-year plan and the transition from an electric tramway service to diesel buses. For his service to industry and South Australia he was appointed CMG (1962) and knighted (1969), and was also the recipient of the Institution of Production Engineers’ Jack Finlay national award (1964) and the federal AIM’s John Storey memorial medal (1965). In 1964 he was elected an honorary fellow of both the South Australian division of the AIM and the international Academy of Management.

During the 1960s and 1970s Barker was appointed to several government advisory bodies, notably the Manufacturing Industries Advisory Council (1958–72), the South Australian Industrial Development Advisory Council (1968–70), and the Natural Gas Pipelines Authority of South Australia (1968–70). He helped to establish in 1972 the Australian Mineral Foundation (deputy chairman 1972–83). After retiring in 1967, he accepted several company directorships, including of Kelvinator (chairman 1967–80), F. H. Faulding & Co. Ltd, SA Rubber Mills Ltd (later Uniroyal Pty Ltd), and Santos Ltd (1967–79). Over the last two decades of his life, he spent much his time playing golf and tennis as well as raising sheep at Caithness. Predeceased by his wife and son, the latter having suffered fatal injuries in a car accident in 1954, he died in Adelaide on 25 September 1998.

Short of stature with brown eyes, a fair complexion, and blond hair that later darkened, Barker had a reputation as a strong and fair leader. He also had a good sense of humour and was widely known by friends as ‘Nap,’ a nickname thought to have been inherited from his father but which some assumed was short for Napoleon. His was a ‘working life [that] told the story of an industrialising state’ (Faulkner 2019, 10), and in Adelaide’s close-knit business and political world he used his family, education, and sporting networks to advance his interests. The federal AIM posthumously established the Sir Alwyn Barker medal in 2008 to be awarded annually to the top performing AIM graduate.

Research edited by Emily Gallagher

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide). Obituary. 7 November 1999, 37
  • Barker, Alwyn Bowman. Interview by Bernard O’Neil, 1997. Transcript. State Library of South Australia
  • Faulkner, Andrew. ‘News That Brought a City Back to Earth.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 July 2019, 10
  • University of Adelaide Archives. Barker, Alwyn Bowman. Student and staff files

Additional Resources

Citation details

Martin Shanahan, 'Barker, Sir Alwyn Bowman (1900–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barker-sir-alwyn-bowman-33141/text41341, published online 2023, accessed online 21 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Alwyn Barker, c.1955

Alwyn Barker, c.1955

Australian Institute of Management Education and Training

Life Summary [details]

Birth

5 August, 1900
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Death

25 September, 1998 (aged 98)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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