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Sir Ronald Gordon Jackson (1924–1991)

by David Lee

This article was published:

Sir Ronald Gordon Jackson (1924–1991), company chairman and adviser to governments, was born in Brisbane on 5 May 1924, first son and third child of Queensland-born Rupert Vaughan Jackson, clerk, and his New South Wales-born wife Mary, née O’Rourke. Educated at Brisbane Grammar School, Gordon—as he was known—joined the Colonial Sugar Refining Company Ltd (CSR) as a clerk in 1941. Having been mobilised in the Citizen Military Forces as a gunner in May 1942, he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 13 August.  The army recorded that he was 5 feet 9 inches (175 cm) tall, with brown eyes, dark hair, and a fair complexion. From July 1943 to March 1944 he served in Papua as a sergeant in the 163rd Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battery. He then performed training duties in Australia until his discharge on 2 July 1946.

Returning to CSR, Jackson continued part-time studies at the University of Queensland (BCom., 1949), which he had begun before enlisting in the army. On 3 April 1948 at All Saint’s Church of England Cathedral, Bathurst, New South Wales, he married Margaret Alison Pratley. He moved to the company’s headquarters in Sydney and in 1951 assisted in negotiations of the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement in London. When the British government indicated its wish in 1961 to join the European Economic Community, the managing director of CSR, (Sir) James Vernon, saw the need to diversify the company’s overseas markets away from Britain and Europe towards Japan and Asia; Jackson shared Vernon’s vision. As head of the sugar marketing division, he was charged with helping the company to negotiate two long-term sugar contracts with Japan.

In 1964 Jackson was promoted to senior executive officer. That year the mining company, American Metal Climax Inc. (AMAX), approached CSR as a potential partner to mine massive iron ore deposits that had been discovered in 1957 at Mt Whaleback, Western Australia. Through partnerships with AMAX and later with Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd (BHP) in the Mount Newman Mining Co., Jackson built CSR’s connection with one of the largest and most successful mining companies operating in Australia, supplying the Japanese steel industry with iron ore. While the Mount Newman operation was still being planned, in 1964 the European company, Swiss Aluminium, approached CSR to join it in a project to develop bauxite deposits at Gove, Northern Territory. The two companies formed the North Australian Bauxite and Alumina Co. (Nabalco) after being awarded a lease to those resources by the Commonwealth government. In 1968 disputes over the structure of the project and the distribution of profits drew Jackson into complicated financial negotiations in Zurich and Sydney that resulted in a restructuring of Nabalco as a venture consisting of two separate companies, Swiss Aluminium and Gove Alumina, CSR’s vehicle for mining bauxite and producing alumina. Later, Jackson would steer Gove Alumina into the construction of an aluminium smelter at Tomago, New South Wales, using alumina produced in the Northern Territory.

Aware of his leadership potential, in 1970 CSR’s board sponsored Jackson on courses of management study in the United States of America at the Sloan School of Management (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the Stanford Research Institute. In June 1972 he took over from Vernon as general manager and chief executive officer. Hearing of an attempt by the mining entrepreneur Lang Hancock to acquire finance in the United States to take over CSR for use as a vehicle for planned mining operations in Western Australia, Jackson introduced far-reaching administrative and financial reforms to strengthen his company. The essential elements were long-term strategic planning, monthly reporting, and the creation of a less centralised structure with greater autonomy for its divisions.

Under Jackson’s leadership, CSR further diversified into minerals and energy in the 1970s and 1980s. At the suggestion of the Japanese trading house Mitsui, CSR purchased the Hunter Valley soft coal producer Buchanan Borehole Colliery in the early 1970s, and in the latter half of the decade secured a stake in a major coking coal project at Hail Creek in central Queensland. Jackson’s most ambitious acquisition was the $460 million takeover in 1980 of Thiess Holdings Ltd, the mining and construction company that was central to coal operations in Queensland’s Bowen Basin. At the time this was the largest takeover in Australian history. Increases in oil prices in the 1970s had raised demand for thermal coal; together with coking coal it became Australia’s main export earner.

Following Vernon’s example of providing service to government, in 1973 Jackson had been a member of Australia’s first trade mission to the People’s Republic of China. In July 1974 the Whitlam government appointed him chairman of a committee to advise on policies for the manufacturing industry. The Jackson committee, as it was known, focused on foreign ownership of Australian companies, deep-seated malaise in industry, and the need to rekindle enthusiasm in manufacturing. It made recommendations on tariffs, the exchange rate, balance of payments and capital flows, and criticised the Industries Assistance Commission’s approach to the manufacturing sector as academic. The government implemented only some of the committee’s recommendations. In 1976 he was appointed AC for eminent achievement and merit in the field of industry and business management.

After retiring in 1982, Jackson remained with the company as a director and deputy chairman until March 1985. Under his management CSR had developed into a large diversified industrial group with divisions responsible for sugar, building materials, aluminium, minerals, coal, and petroleum, and gross annual sales of more than $3 billion. He had succeeded in moving CSR out of many industries protected by government and into internationally competitive ones. More than half of its sales were exported to countries within the Pacific basin.

In retirement Jackson continued to serve on the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia (1975-91), donating his fee to the Salvation Army. The University of New South Wales awarded him an honorary doctorate of science in 1982, and in 1983 he was appointed AK. From 1983 to 1991 he was chairman of both the Australian Industry Development Corporation and the Police Board of New South Wales. He also headed a committee to review Australia’s overseas aid program. In 1983 the government adopted the committee’s main recommendations for more clearly identifying the objectives of foreign aid, improving its administration, and moving to country programming. Chancellor of the Australian National University, Canberra, from 1987, ill health forced his resignation in 1990. Sir Gordon was a profound thinker and compassionate leader. He was a member of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron as well as the Australian, Union, and Royal Sydney Golf clubs. His interests included fishing and photography. Survived by his wife, daughter, and son, he died of colon cancer on 1 June 1991 at Pymble, Sydney, and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. Policies for Development of Manufacturing Industry: A Green Paper. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1977
  • Australia. Report of the Committee to Review the Australian Overseas Aid Program. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1984
  • Bell, Stephen. Australian Manufacturing and the State: The Politics of Industry Policy in the Post-War Era. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1993
  • Gadiel, David. ‘A Review of the Jackson Committee on Policies for Development of Manufacturing Industries in Australia.’ Australian Quarterly 48, no. 2 (June 1976): 32-41
  • Lee, David. ‘The Development of Bauxite at Gove, 1955-1975.’ Journal of Australasian Mining History 12 (Oct. 2014): 131-47
  • Lee, David. ‘The Establishment of Iron Ore Giants: Hamersley Iron and the Mount Newman Mining Company.’ Journal of Australasian Mining History 11 (Oct. 2013): 61-77
  • Moynagh, Michael. ‘The Negotiation of the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement, 1949-1951.'  Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 15, no. 2 (1977): 170-90
  • National Library of Australia. MS 8353, Jackson, Sir Gordon
  • Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University. AU NBAC Z390, Sir Gordon Jackson Collection

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Citation details

David Lee, 'Jackson, Sir Ronald Gordon (1924–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 19 May 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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