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Kenneth Gowan Begg (1901–1975)

by L. W. Weickhardt

This article was published:

Kenneth Gowan Begg (1901-1975), businessman, was born on 22 October 1901 at Prahran, Melbourne, son of Arthur Begg, contractor, and his wife Caroline Mary, née Gowan, both Victorian born. Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1915-20, Kenneth showed no particular scholastic promise, but became a prefect, represented the school in athletics, football and rowing, stroked the first VIII and was captain of boats. Once he had gained experience with several mercantile firms and studied commercial subjects at night, he worked in Sydney for Henry York, a general merchant and agent for German dyestuffs, before going to New Zealand in 1926 to manage York's business there. On 12 December 1928 at All Saints Anglican Church, Woollahra, Sydney, Begg married Helen Raine.

Having bought shares to acquire 80 per cent of the capital, in 1931 Begg became sole owner of York's expanded company, Dyes & Chemicals (N.Z.) Ltd. These transactions had taken place in the Depression when Begg had confidence and his employers none. After World War II had severed links with German companies, in 1940 Begg negotiated the sale of his business to Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia and New Zealand Ltd which appointed him managing director of I.C.I. (N.Z.) Ltd. In 1942 he moved to Melbourne to manage the chemical division of I.C.I.A.N.Z.; he became commercial director (1946), commercial managing director (1948) and chairman and managing director (1953).

Begg made a smooth transition from agency work to head the complex, manufacturing organization in which petrochemicals were a rapidly-growing component. The transfer and adaptation of technology from the I.C.I. parent and from other sources demanded research and development skills of high order. Laboratories which were opened in 1956 produced several innovations that had international success, such as the flame ionization detector (1957) used in gas chromatography. When corporate growth required new headquarters, the firm moved in 1958 from the central business district to an eighteen-storey tower in East Melbourne: in 1990 I.C.I. House became the first, modern, high-rise block to be added to Victoria's historic buildings register.

Tall and dignified, Begg was highly regarded throughout the company for being approachable and humane; he was, at the same time, a very private and self-effacing man who shunned publicity. He served as a trustee (1958-64) of the National Gallery of Victoria, was a member of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, the advisory council of the Department of Supply, the board of management of Alfred Hospital and the council of the Victorian Artists Society, and belonged to the Melbourne and Australian clubs. Retiring to Portsea in 1963, he played golf, went fishing and cultivated carnations commercially. He died on 2 March 1975 at Portsea and was cremated; his wife, daughter and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • ICIANZ, Circle, Summer 1950, 19 July 1963
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 25 May 1953, p 206
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 May 1953
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 May 1953, 5 Mar 1975, 22 Mar 1990
  • G. Blainey, unpublished history of I.C.I.A.N.Z. (1959, Company Archives, Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

L. W. Weickhardt, 'Begg, Kenneth Gowan (1901–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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