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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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French, Hubert Charles (1882–1961)

by Joe Rich

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Hubert Charles French (1882-1961), businessman, was born on 24 October 1882 at Battle Creek, Michigan, United States of America, second child of Edgar French, civil engineer, and his wife Ruth Emma, née Van Syoc, both from Ohio. Educated at the local public school and at the Detroit College of Law, Michigan, in 1903 Hubert became a partner in a contracting firm. He married Clara Casterton (d.1910) and had a son who died in infancy. On 19 July 1911 he married Mildred Gillespie (d.1959) at Toronto, Canada; he was to be naturalized in 1920. Indulging his interest in things mechanical, he entered a speedboat-manufacturing partnership at Toronto, then managed (1913-19) a building supply company. In 1919 he joined Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd and in 1922 was appointed assistant sales manager.

In 1923 French was sent to investigate Ford's Australian operation. He revealed himself as an acute observer with a caustic tongue and a practical man's respect for thoroughness. A heavy smoker, he had curbed a gambling addiction only when it threatened his marriage, and consoled himself for having to spend Christmas in Australia with the thought that it was 'a land of liquor and sunshine'. But the influence of a puritanical upbringing persisted in his disdain for the slothful, 'easy living, luxury loving' independent Ford distributors. This outlook, coupled with his discovery of the expanding presence of General Motors (Australia) Pty Ltd (General Motors-Holden's Ltd from 1931), convinced him of the necessity for 'opening our own business in Australia'.

Ford Motor Co. of Australia Pty Ltd opened at Geelong in 1925 with French as managing director. At first the firm did not prosper, due in part to intensified competition and a backlog of superseded models, and in some degree to French's egalitarian style of management. While generally conservative, he was keen to foster a 'free and easy spirit . . . between employer and employee'; he was criticized by a Ford-Canada executive for relying on his 'genial personality' to secure co-operation instead of using 'more severe, less likeable methods'.

Staunchly loyal to the parent company, French protected its export business by resisting political pressure in the 1930s to manufacture vehicles in Australia. When threatened with the prospect of a state-owned industry, he submitted a proposal in 1945 which the Federal government preferred to that of G.M.H., principally because it involved trucks as well as cars. Fearing buyer resistance to local products, French demanded substantial financial and tariff support—which was refused on the grounds of cost and because it would have breached Australian trade agreements. To counter competition from G.M.H., in 1949 he announced a four-stage programme for increasing local content in Ford vehicles, but retired as managing director in 1950 before its completion. He remained chairman of the board until 1951, after which he served as a director.

Tall and burly, with a soft-featured, square face, French was a stickler for routine, an ardent proponent of the work ethic, and a keen golfer and swimmer. Although he had few close friends, he was gregarious and well liked by his many acquaintances. He speculated on the stock exchange and was briefly part-owner of an unsuccessful Collins Street business that sold custom-made corsets. Survived by his two daughters, he died on 4 April 1961 at Geelong and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His estate was sworn for probate at £99,429.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Wilkins and F. Hill, American Business Abroad (Detroit, Michigan, US, 1964)
  • Austra-Ford Gazette, Apr 1961
  • Federal Government Department of Business and Consumer Affairs, correspondence files, Australian Industry Motor Car, Local Manufacture, 1938-46, A425, item 1946/245 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Federal Government Trade Services and Industries Branch, general correspondence files, 1942-58, MP394/1, item 5/8/151, parts 1-5, MP267/1, item 5/5/400, part 2 (National Archives of Australia)
  • H. C. French papers (held in Archives of Ford Motor Co of Australia, Campbellfield, Melbourne)
  • French family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Joe Rich, 'French, Hubert Charles (1882–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 9 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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