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Sir Walter McEllister (Mac) Leonard (1915–1985)

by Barrie Dyster

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Sir Walter McEllister Leonard  (1915-1985), businessman, was born on 22 February 1915 at Grafton, New South Wales, younger son of Walter James Leonard, storekeeper, and his wife Mabel Mary, née Gleeson, both born in New South Wales.  His father died of prussic acid poisoning in 1916 at Randwick, Sydney, and his mother died of pulmonary tuberculosis in 1926 at the Stockton Mental Hospital.  The boys were raised by their father’s family in the Cootamundra area and Mac excelled at Cootamundra Intermediate High School.  In 1932 he took articles with Dawson & Heath, a local firm of accountants.

Joining the Australian Motorists Petrol Co. Ltd at Balmain, Sydney, in 1938, next year Leonard became the company accountant.  On 3 February 1940 at St Philip’s Church of England, Church Hill, Sydney, he married Joye Lorraine Howard, a hairdresser; they divorced in 1947.  He had enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 25 April 1942 and trained as a navigator but was granted leave in 1943 to return to AMPCo, while the managing director (Sir) William Walkley , was in the United States of America buying petrol.  The RAAF sent Leonard to Britain in 1944.  From September that year until April 1945 he served in No.166 Squadron, Royal Air Force, navigating Lancaster bombers on thirty-six missions over Europe.  While taking off for one sortie his plane hit a high-tension cable, damaging most of its navigational aids.  Leonard accurately plotted the way to Pölitz, Germany (Police, Poland), and back, contributing 'materially to the success' of the mission.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  Demobilised as a flying officer on 27 September 1945 in Australia, he returned to AMPCo (Ampol Petroleum Ltd from 1948) as Walkley’s assistant.  On 8 May 1948 at St Matthew’s Church of England, Manly, Leonard married Yvonne Marie Brady, a bank clerk.

Leonard was promoted to associate-director (1947), general manager (1949), director (1957), managing director and chief executive on Walkley’s retirement (1963) and chairman (1970).  He sat on the board of Ampol Exploration Ltd from the outset in 1953, becoming managing director in 1967 and chairman in 1970, and was an Ampol representative on the board of West Australian Petroleum Pty Ltd.  He was the inaugural chairman, in 1976, of the industry association, the Australian Institute of Petroleum Ltd.  Ampol subscribed to Professor Harry Messel’s Nuclear Research Foundation (Science Foundation for Physics) within the University of Sydney; Leonard served as its president (1966-69, 1973-75).

Meticulous in organisation and in person, he was also confident and swift to act.  During Walkley’s long overseas business trips Leonard often dealt with major crises:  the push during the 1949 election campaign to end petrol rationing; the move by overseas oil companies in 1951 to tie service stations to a single supplier; inimical initiatives by the Queensland (1957) and New South Wales (1959) governments; and demands by the Seamen’s Union of Australia in 1962 that an Ampol oil-tanker carry an Australian crew receiving Australian wages.  In 1955 the board had sent Leonard to the Advanced Management Course conducted by Harvard University at the University of Hawaii.  On his return he set up a case-based management training program for Ampol employees, located from 1961 in its own conference centre at Wahroonga, Sydney.

Leonard was committed to the work of Legacy through the Sydney branch (vice-president 1966-69; president 1969-70); he credited his supervision of five Legacy families as the reason he was named Australian Father of the Year (1969).  In 1976 he was deputy-chairman of the committee of businessmen for Sydney Legacy’s million-dollar Torch Appeal.

A keen sportsman, Mac Leonard swam at Manly on many summer mornings; he took up lawn bowls in middle age.  Ampol, keenly involved in many sports, funded lifesaving and surfing championships.  With Qantas Empire Airways Ltd, Ampol sponsored the first international men’s bowls championships, at Sydney in 1966.  Sixteen nations vied for the W. M. Leonard Trophy, which was to be contested every four years.  Having seen the popularity of ten-pin bowling in the United States, Leonard enlisted Sir Frank Packer’s publications to promote the pastime.  Bowling Centres (Holdings) Ltd was incorporated in 1960 with Leonard and Packer as two of the directors and Leslie James Thompson , Ampol’s chairman, presiding.  Leonard was chairman from 1972, but resigned in 1976 when the company was sold.

Soon after Sir Roderick Miller died in 1971, Ampol acquired a stake of 29 per cent in R. W. Miller (Holdings) Ltd, owner of coalmines, ships and hotels.  Leonard took the chair (1978-79) until Ampol sold out.  He was also a director (1977-83) of the mining conglomerate Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA) Ltd.  Appropriately for a former navigator, he was a founding director of Interscan Australia Pty Ltd, a public-private partnership formed in 1978 to market the Australian-developed microwave approach and landing system for aircraft.

In 1969 the minister for defence, (Sir) Allen Fairhall, appointed Leonard to the Defence Business Board.  A member (1969-77) of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, he also served from its inception in 1971 to 1983 on the Australian Industry Development Corporation, a Commonwealth owned investment bank that borrowed money abroad for Australian enterprises.  He worked closely with the AIDC’s executive chairman, the former public servant Sir Alan Westerman.

Leonard resigned as chief executive officer of Ampol in 1976; his successor was A. E. (Ted) Harris.  By 1981 Sir Tristan Antico of Pioneer Concrete Services Ltd had accumulated sufficient shares and allies to remove Leonard, who was still chairman, from the boards of Ampol and Ampol Exploration.  Leonard had been knighted in 1977.  Five feet 8 ins (173 cm) tall, he had blue eyes and, earlier in his life, brown hair.  Sir Walter died of motor neurone disease on 17 January 1985 in his home at Clontarf and was cremated.  His wife and their two daughters and two sons, and the daughter of his first marriage, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Simpson, Show Me a Mountain, 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 August 1969, pp 4 and 12
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 September 1970, p 8
  • National Times, 22 November 1971, p 28
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October 1976, p 34
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January 1985, p 9
  • A9300, item Leonard W M (National Archives of Australia)
  • Leonard papers (State Library of New South Wales)

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Barrie Dyster, 'Leonard, Sir Walter McEllister (Mac) (1915–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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