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Keith William Halkerston (1935–1991)

by Peter Yule

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Keith William Halkerston (1935-1991), financier and corporate adviser, was born on 19 February 1935 in Melbourne, youngest of three children of Victorian-born parents William Paul Halkerston, grocer, and his wife Alma Minnie, née Syms. Halkerston grew up in the working-class suburb of Northcote. He was educated at Northcote Primary and High schools before winning a scholarship to Wesley College (1948-51). Awarded a Commonwealth scholarship in 1952, he excelled at the University of Melbourne (BCom, 1956), graduating with an honours degree.

In 1956 Halkerston joined the firm of Ian Potter & Co., Australia’s leading stockbrokers and underwriters in the 1950s and 1960s. (Sir) Ian Potter chose many of his recruits from the ranks of Melbourne’s top commerce graduates and Halkerston was among the most brilliant of a group that included Charles Goode, Laurie Cox, Bill Conn, and other future leaders of Australian business. With financial assistance from the firm, and from Fulbright and Earhart Foundation scholarships, Halkerston travelled to the United States of America in August 1956 for postgraduate study at the University of Michigan (MBA, 1957). He then worked for the Wall Street investment bank Morgan Stanley before returning to Melbourne in 1958. Goode later recalled that he always remained ‘slightly Americanised in some of his expressions and attitudes’ (Goode 2012).

Halkerston was elected a member of the Melbourne Stock Exchange in 1961. The next year he became a partner in Ian Potter & Co, the youngest in the firm’s history. Regarded by colleagues as one of ‘the really clever men’ (Weate 2012) of the firm, he had an uncanny ability to read the market. He specialised in the growing field of corporate finance. Following Potter’s retirement from the firm in 1967, Halkerston transferred to the Sydney office—a move symbolic of the shift of financial power from Melbourne to Sydney in the 1960s. Unhappy with the management of the firm, and disappointed that his own claims to leadership had been ignored, he resigned from the partnership on 30 June 1972.

In September that year Halkerston became an executive director of Development Finance Corporation Ltd, one of Australia’s first merchant banks. He soon formed an independent corporate advisory business, which later in the decade he aligned with the stockbrokers Ord Minnett. Among numerous major deals, he was the key adviser in 1978 on the takeover of Reed Consolidated Industries Ltd by James Hardie Asbestos Ltd (the biggest takeover in Australia to that time) and News Ltd’s first attempt to take over the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd in 1979.

In the mid-1970s, Halkerston designed Australia’s first cash management trust, selling the idea to the merchant bank Hill Samuel Australia Ltd, the forerunner of Macquarie Bank Ltd. He was also increasingly in demand as a company director, joining the board of the diversified energy and building products enterprise Boral Ltd in 1974 and the major mining company Peko Wallsend Ltd in 1978. With Boral, he played an important part in the firm’s rapid expansion in the 1970s and early 1980s, and with Peko Wallsend, of which he became chairman in 1982, he gave strong support to the managing director, Charles Copeman, in an epic and ultimately successful confrontation with the trade unions at the company’s Robe River mine.

Halkerston’s growing reputation in the financial world was indicated by his appointment in 1979 to the committee set up by the Fraser government and headed by (Sir) Keith Campbell to inquire into Australia’s financial system. Halkerston was an early adherent of neo-liberalism and quietly but effectively argued the case for freer markets. The final report of the committee in 1981 was a comprehensive and coherent plan for the deregulation of the financial system, which became a blueprint followed by the Hawke government in its radical economic reforms in the mid-1980s.

In 1983 Halkerston joined with a British merchant bank, Baring Brothers, and a financier, Mark Burrows, to form Baring Brothers Halkerston & Partners Ltd. While heavily involved in the frenetic corporate activity of the mid-1980s, unlike many of his contemporaries Halkerston never lost sight of financial fundamentals. Among other things he advised Warwick Fairfax against his ill-fated attempt to privatise John Fairfax Ltd, although he did agree to become chairman of the firm after the takeover proceeded.

Described by a colleague, Philip Weate, as having ‘a mind like a stainless steel trap,’ Halkerston was able to work through a business deal with ‘unemotional precision’ (Weate 2012). To Burrows he was ‘a man of charm, wit and great intellect’ (Mychasuk 1991, 21), although he could be impatient with underlings and those who were not on his intellectual level. He lacked the presence of business leaders such as Potter, but as a behind-the-scenes corporate adviser, he had no peer from the mid-1960s until his health failed in the late 1980s. His wider influence as a proponent of free market ideas was considerable in business circles, if largely unknown to the wider public. He was appointed AM in January 1989.

Halkerston had few interests outside work, though he enjoyed tennis and theatre; he was elected chairman of the Sydney Theatre Company in 1980. He was married twice, first to Beverley Mae Jewell in 1959 in Melbourne. They had two daughters and later divorced. On 13 November 1976 at Double Bay Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married English-born Patricia Ann Monteuuis, with whom he had three daughters. Although he was not a smoker, he developed lung cancer in the late 1980s. This led him to resign from many of his business commitments in Australia and move with his family to England. He died on 7 August 1991 at Nettlebed, Oxfordshire.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Financial Review. ‘Death of Keith Halkerston.’ 9 August 1991, 8
  • Dunstan, Barrie. ‘Broker Moves into Banking.’ Herald (Melbourne), 9 September 1972, 25
  • Goode, Charles. Personal communication with author, 22 March 2012
  • Mychasuk, Emiliya. ‘A Warm, Just Man and a Gentleman.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 9 August 1991, 21
  • Weate, Philip. Personal communication with author, 15 October 2012
  • Yule, Peter. Ian Potter: A Biography. Carlton, Vic.: Miegunyah Press, 2006.

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Citation details

Peter Yule, 'Halkerston, Keith William (1935–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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