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Sir Norman Cameron Coles (1907–1989)

by Stella M. Barber

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Sir Arthur William Coles (1892-1982), businessman, politician and philanthropist, Sir Kenneth Frank (1896-1985), businessman and philanthropist, and Sir Edgar Barton (1899-1981), businessman and philanthropist, were the sixth, eighth and tenth children of Victorian-born parents George Coles, storekeeper, and his first wife Elizabeth Mary, née Scouler (Scoular); their half-brother Sir Norman Cameron (1907-1989), businessman and philanthropist, was the only son of Coles and his second wife Ann Cameron, née Topp, also born in Victoria.

Arthur was born on 6 August 1892 at Newtown, Geelong, Victoria, and educated at a local state school and Geelong College. He then worked in branches of the chain of general stores that his father had established across rural Victoria until, in 1909, he joined the National Bank of Australasia in Melbourne as a clerk. In 1912 he resigned to assist as storeman in another of his father’s operations at Wilmot, Tasmania. In April 1914, following the return of his eldest brother, (Sir) George James Coles, from a tour of the United States of America (during which he had investigated F. W. Woolworth’s 'five and dime' stores), the brothers Arthur, George and Jim together opened a store in Smith Street, Collingwood, under the slogan 'nothing over 1/-'; this venture marked the beginning of a revolution in Australian retailing.

Arthur enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 17 August 1914 and landed on Gallipoli with the 6th Battalion on 25 April 1915. He was wounded in action in May and, again, in May 1916 while serving on the Western Front. Commissioned and posted to the 8th Battalion in August, he suffered a third wound later that month and was repatriated in November. Following the termination of his AIF appointment on 20 December 1917, he returned to the Smith Street store, but with George’s discharge in 1918 the two brothers decided to begin a new partnership. On 20 June 1919 they opened another store in Smith Street, now boasting 'nothing over 2/-' (commercial pressures soon pushed the limit to 2/6d, achieved sometimes by pricing shoes per foot, and pyjamas by tops and bottoms). On 27 September 1919 at the Gardenvale Presbyterian Church, Arthur married Lilian Florence Knight, a stenographer.

With their business identities increasingly conveyed by their initials, in 1921 the brothers began trading as G. J. Coles & Co. Pty Ltd with G. J. as managing director and A. W. as director. Kenneth—K. F.—soon joined them, also as a director. In 1922 A. W. became manager of store 'Number 2' in Chapel Street, Prahran. The following year, returning from a business tour of the USA, he argued that a greater variety in merchandise would attract more diverse patronage. From 1928 Coles 'Number 12' in Bourke Street demonstrated this initiative, gaining fame for its art deco detailing and in-store cafeteria. In that year A. W. went to Sydney to manage store Number 10.

Seeking further capital, the brothers floated the firm as a public company in 1927, A. W. becoming managing director, K. F. and Edgar Coles (E. B.) directors, and Norman (N. C.) its secretary. Its shares, released at £1, quickly rose by 220 per cent. Yet expansion fostered strain between the brothers, particularly as A. W. increasingly challenged G. J.’s caution as chairman of the board. G. J. objected to the lack of disclosure to shareholders regarding bonuses and share-issues granted to directors through an initiative introduced by A. W. In August 1936, A. W. engineered his own appointment as chairman. Negotiations over the following weeks, including a petition from managers and staff, saw G. J. restored to the chair and A. W. named managing director, a position he held until 1944. After the resolution of the 'big trouble', as it became known, G. J. made notes about each of his brothers: A. W., he recorded, was a 'good organiser, hard worker, quick thinker & speaker and honest' but 'conceited, over ambitious, dictatorial, difficult to work with and bears a grudge'.

By the early 1930s A. W.’s interests extended beyond the family firm, reflecting a commitment to public service: 'to give some return'. In 1930 he joined the council (chairman, 1939-69) of Geelong College, supporting the ambition of its headmaster, (Sir) Frank Rolland, for new buildings to match his educational ideals (the school’s new science block was later to be named in Arthur’s honour). From 1938 Arthur was a trustee (chairman 1952-78) of the Northcote Trust’s Children’s Emigration Fund, which administered a farm school for British children at Bacchus Marsh. In August 1934 he was elected for Latrobe Ward to the Melbourne City Council. Impressing fellow councillors with his business acumen, A. W. was elected lord mayor in 1938, and re-elected unopposed in 1939 and 1940. He promised a 'healthy, well-built city' with efficient administration and priorities of slum clearance and child welfare.

Coles’s mayoralty was marked by major appeals to raise funds to support the victims of devastating Victorian bushfires in January 1939 and, after the outbreak of World War II, to aid those affected by the bombing of British cities. Other initiatives ranged from hosting a Christmas party for over 1500 children of unemployed workers in 1938 to modernising the town hall’s offices and processes. As lady mayoress, Lilian Coles supported the free kindergarten movement, helped to form the National Women’s Register to co-ordinate women’s skills in wartime, and worked to establish the Australian Comforts Fund.

During 1940 Coles became increasingly disturbed by Australia’s 'apathetic' response to the war. On 24 September he was elected to the House of Representatives as the Independent member for Henty (resigning as mayor although remaining a councillor). He undertook to work towards a 'government of all parties', the nationalisation of resources, and the widening of social services (including national insurance, child endowment and public housing provision). In February 1941 he funded his own 'unofficial mission' to the USA and Britain to survey shipping difficulties and air-raid precautions. Returning in April, he presented a 23-point plan of action to (Sir) Arthur Fadden, the acting prime minister, centring on the expansion of central government powers over taxation, trade and employment. When (Sir) Robert Menzies returned from London in May, also emphasising the need for national unity, Coles committed his support to the United Australia Party. This trust was soon eroded by the circumstances of Menzies’ resignation—or 'lynching', as Coles saw it—as prime minister. On 3 October Coles resigned from the UAP and voted against the Fadden government with another Independent, Alexander Wilson, with whom he shared the balance of power.

On taking office, John Curtin’s Australian Labor Party recognised Coles’s strength and experience. He was appointed to the Commonwealth War Workers’ Housing Trust (1941-45), the War Damage Commission (chairman, 1942-48) and the Commonwealth Rationing Commission (chairman, 1942-50). Beginning work in the Coles boardroom, the CRC was charged with organising a rationing schedule for six million Australians, to be implemented in six weeks. In this massive task, as H. C. Coombs, director of rationing, recalled, A. W.’s retailing experience was directly relevant.

In January 1946, having decided not to contest another election, Coles acceded to a request from the treasurer, Ben Chifley, with whom he had a close working relationship, that he become the first chairman of the Australian National Airlines Commission. At the same time he was named chairman of British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines. As an advocate of free enterprise, in 1945 he had opposed the Chifley government’s commitment to providing a nationalised airline service. Yet his appointment to ANAC was to lead to an unprecedented venture in building a commercially competitive and accountable government-owned business. Within a year, he and a small team of executives had purchased and converted wartime aircraft, selected new aircraft, built hangars, established a commercial pilots’ training scheme and formed a network of offices throughout the country. By 1949 Trans-Australia Airlines’ fleet had grown to thirty-five, including the only pressurised aircraft on interstate routes. Resigning in April 1950, amid rumours of political pressure from the new Menzies government, Coles claimed, instead, simply that his job was done. He had donated his chairman’s salary to Geelong College.

In 1952 Coles was appointed chairman of the finance and organising committee for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Warned of the stresses of the job, he replied, 'I don’t get ulcers, I give them'. In May 1953, however, he resigned in protest at the Victorian government’s reneging on promises he had personally conveyed to international Olympic officials. By contrast, his appointment (1956-65) to the executive of the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial and Research Organization (member of advisory council 1965-70) was a more harmonious experience, reflecting his interest in the application of science in the cause of public service. In 1949 he was a foundation member of the Commonwealth Immigration Planning Council.

Described as 'tall, slim and fair with the bullet head and the rapid, incisive speech of the man of action', Coles was regarded as a 'human dynamo'. He was a gregarious man, dogged in his principles, stern, impatient, even ruthless in business, but warm and affectionate in family and personal contexts. His interests included music (he was a keen chorister), golf, tennis and photography. He was an active Presbyterian, in Toorak where he worshipped, as a member of the board of management (1933-50) and Kirk Session (1954-82), and on the trusts corporation of the Church in Victoria (1951-76). Knighted in 1960, Sir Arthur died on 23 June 1982 at Kew and was cremated; his wife (d.1985) and their three daughters and two of their three sons survived him. A portrait of A. W.—as of K. F., E. B. and N. C.—was painted by (Sir) William Dargie; all four paintings are held by the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

All of the Coles brothers, as Kenneth Frank Coles remarked in 1960, were 'bred behind a counter'. Frank was born on 19 April 1896 at St James, Victoria, where his father had bought a shop in 1892. Gaining his first business experience in the Wilmot store, he studied accountancy and book-keeping at night. Having been declared unfit for military service, he worked in New Zealand (1918-19) before returning to join G. J. Coles & Co. as a storeman. His apprenticeship was short. He was appointed a director (1921-76) and through the early 1920s managed stores at Prahran and Collingwood. On 22 July 1925 at All Saints’ Church of England, St Kilda, he married Marjorie Evelyn Tolley, a stenographer. In 1926 they sailed for London, where he became the European buyer in the new Coles office at Cheapside. Returning in June 1928, he ran the Melbourne office before becoming general manager (1932) and then State director (1933) in New South Wales. During World War II he chaired the Lord Mayor of Sydney’s Appeal that organised food for Britain.

K. F. was not as ambitious as his brothers. He provided a moderating influence during the 'big trouble', being (in G. J.’s assessment) 'addicted to compromise'. None the less, he rose to deputy-chairman (1946-56) and chairman (1956-63) of the company. His business skills were recognised in a wide range of corporate appointments: board member of the Equitable Life & General Insurance Co. Ltd, the Permanent Trustee Co. of New South Wales, and the Australian Oil & Gas Corp. Ltd; deputy-chairman of Rothmans of Pall Mall (Australia) Ltd (1961-69); and chairman of Beard, Watson & Co. Ltd (1958-59) and Bankers & Traders Insurance Co. Ltd (1963-71). He was president (1955-57) of the Associated Chamber of Manufacturers and in 1963 was appointed to the Decimal Currency Board, which co-ordinated Australia’s transition to a new currency three years later.

From 1939 to 1969 Frank was a director of the New South Wales Society for Crippled Children. He served as chairman of its welfare committee and board before succeeding Sir Henry Braddon as president (1947-69) during a period of remarkable expansion in the society’s services. He was world president (1957-60) of the International Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled and co-author with James Donaldson of a history of the society (1976). Knighted in 1957, Sir Kenneth, as he chose to be styled, was also awarded—by King Paul of Greece—the Gold Cross of the Order of the Phoenix (1962). He served on the board of the Sydney Hospital (1960-68) and as president of Sydney Rotary Club (1944-45).

Of slight build but with a quick sense of humour, K. F. enjoyed golf, tennis and swimming. He took classes in public speaking to overcome a natural shyness, and conveyed (and sought) integrity in business and social dealings. Survived by his wife and their two daughters and a son, he died on 2 April 1985 in Sydney Hospital and was cremated.

Edgar Barton Coles was born on 3 June 1899 at St James. Educated there and at Wilmot, he completed his secondary education at Scotch College, Launceston, where he was dux (1915). In 1916 he joined the Bank of New South Wales, Hobart, and (after a transfer to Albury, New South Wales) began studying accountancy by correspondence and teaching himself typing and shorthand. He started work at the family’s Smith Street store in 1919 and was soon managing the office. He formed the partnership into a proprietary company and in 1921-34 served as its secretary. In 1925 it was his turn to tour the USA, and he returned advocating streamlined procedures in management. At St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, on 15 October 1927, E. B. married with Anglican rites Mabel Irene Christian, a typist.

With the formation of the public company in 1927, E. B. was appointed a director (assistant managing director, 1938). In 1940 E. B. joined A. W. as joint managing director, and from 1944 he was sole managing director, taking charge of an expanding chain of stores represented in all States of Australia. After World War II he pursued a vigorous take-over program, targeting retailers such as Selfridges (New South Wales) in 1950, F. & G. Stores (Victoria and southern New South Wales) in 1951 and Mantons (Melbourne) in 1955, and next year merging with Penneys in Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Further travel to the USA (1955, 1957) convinced E. B. that the future of the company lay in suburban food retailing; accordingly, he acquired the supermarket chains of S. E. Dickens (Victoria), Beilby’s (South Australia) and Matthews Thompson (New South Wales). The first full-scale Coles supermarket opened in North Balwyn, Melbourne, in 1959 and by 1962 E. B. had captured popular enthusiasm for the 'space race' by naming these stores 'New World' and decorating them with model rockets. He also seized the opportunities of television advertising, in 1960 launching the 'Coles £3000 Question' (later $6000) quiz show on Channel 7. From 1961 his title was controlling managing director. At his retirement in 1967 he could survey 570 stores with annual sales of $280 million and net profit of $8.9 million; he could also envisage the complete transformation of food retailing to self-service.

E. B., six feet (183 cm) tall, was a 'big man' in every sense, feared by many of his staff. He mellowed in later life and, living at Mount Eliza, joined the Mornington Baptist Church following a Billy Graham crusade. Throughout his business career his restless drive had expressed itself in civic and charitable work through his service as a Kew city councillor (1936-38), as chairman (1958-62) of the Lord Mayor’s Fund appeal committee and numerous other charitable appeals, as councillor (1956-76) and life councillor (1976-81) of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria and as a director (1956-60) of the Melbourne Moomba Festival. He was also president of the Retail Traders Association of Victoria (1946-48, 1951-54) and the Australian Council of Retailers (1952-54) and a leading member of several amateur sporting associations. E. B. was knighted in 1959. His wife was appointed CBE (1965) and DBE (1971) for her community service, especially to the Royal Women’s Hospital (president, 1968-72).

An avid sportsman (Australian 'B' Grade singles tennis champion in 1922 and a champion golfer at the Commonwealth Golf Club in 1932), Sir Edgar also enjoyed contract bridge and 16-mm cinematography. Survived by his wife (d.1993) and their two daughters and son, he died on 19 February 1981 at Mornington and was cremated. In addition to the portrait by Dargie, another—by Paul Fitzgerald—is held by the family.

Inevitably seen as the 'youngster', Norman Cameron Coles was born on 17 September 1907 at St James and educated at Launceston Grammar School, Tasmania, and Trinity Grammar School, Kew, Melbourne. Joining G. J. Coles & Co. as a storeman at Smith Street in 1924, he transferred to the accounting area of head office in 1926. He became an associate (1933), member (1953) and fellow (1983) of the Federal Institute of Accountants. Having gained first place in the Chartered Institute of Secretaries’ Examination in 1931, he was elected to the institute’s council in 1938.

On 7 April 1932 at St John’s Church of England, Toorak, Norman married Dorothy Verna Deague and was then transferred to Coles’s first Queensland store in Brisbane. His overseas tour focused on the investigation of accounting procedures. While serving as a lieutenant in the Militia (1942-43) and the Australian Imperial Force (1943-44), he performed administrative duties in Melbourne. He returned to his post of company secretary (1934-50) and joined the board (1949). Over the following years, he concentrated on the financial and legal operations of the company as director of personnel (1950), superannuation and housing (1958), and finance (1963). Made deputy-chairman in 1961, he became managing director in 1967 and succeeded E. B. as chairman in 1968. His retirement from that position on 16 November 1979 saw the end of the brothers’ leadership of the company.

Norman’s major contribution to the empire was Coles’s joint venture with S. S. Kresge Co. Ltd in 1968 to introduce K mart discount stores in Australia. The first opened in Burwood, Melbourne, in 1969; by 1978 K-Mart (Australia) Ltd had become a wholly owned subsidiary of Coles. In 1971 N. C. oversaw the introduction of a store-wide discount policy into New World supermarkets, marking the beginning of competitive price matching in supermarkets. Under his guidance, in 1975 Coles became the first Australian retailer to achieve sales exceeding $1 billion in a twelve month period.

An imposing figure of 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) with a bellowing voice, but known for his kindness, courtesy and humanity, Norman described himself and his four brothers as 'just ordinary shopkeepers'. Even so, in May 1973 he joined the Whitlam government’s first trade mission to China. Knighted in 1977, Sir Norman was a member of the Retail Traders Association of Victoria, the Australian Retailers’ Association, the finance committee of the Victorian Liberal Party, and the board of the Multiple Sclerosis Society (1977-83). He enjoyed golf, music and gardening and, like all his brothers, was a devoted family man. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died on 24 November 1989 at Windsor, Melbourne, and was cremated. At his death, G. J. Coles & Co. was the world’s eleventh largest retailing network.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Ives, Arthur William Coles (1982)
  • J. McLaughlin, Nothing Over Half a Crown (1991)
  • B. Kingston, Basket, Bag and Trolley (1994)
  • J. Gunn, Contested Skies (1999)
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Aug 1936, p 12, 25 Jan 1968, p 13
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11 Oct 1938, p 6, 18 Sept 1940, p 5
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 30 Aug 1939, p 13
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 Apr 1941, p 11
  • People (Sydney), 16 Aug 1950, p 33, 1 July 1953, p 34
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 7 Aug 1960, p 75
  • Australian, 25-26 Nov 1989, p 3
  • S. Barber, Struggle for Supremacy (manuscript, 1996, Coles Myer Ltd, Melbourne)
  • M. Pratt, interview with A. W. Coles (typescript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • A. W. Coles papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Stella M. Barber, 'Coles, Sir Norman Cameron (1907–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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