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Sir Charles Gullan (Dave) McGrath (1910–1984)

by Robert Murray

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Charles McGrath, n.d.

Charles McGrath, n.d.

Sir Charles Gullan McGrath (1910-1984), company manager and director, was born on 22 November 1910 at Sebastopol, Victoria, fourth child of Victorian-born parents David Charles McGrath, member of the Legislative Assembly (and later of the House of Representatives), and his wife Elizabeth Johnstone, née Gullan. Educated at Ballarat High School, Charles worked locally until moving to Melbourne in 1928 and joining as a messenger, Replacement Parts Pty Ltd (from 1930 Repco), then a fledgling distributor of largely imported motor vehicle spare parts. Known as ‘Dave’ within the company (so christened by Bill Ryan, founder of Repco’s merchandising arm, on the basis that ‘there are too many Charlies here already’), McGrath demonstrated a quick, accurate memory, and a close understanding of the plethora of components required for the many vehicles on the roads. On 24 March 1934 at Brunswick Presbyterian Church he married Madge Louise Maclaren, an office clerk.

Becoming Ryan’s protégé, McGrath showed a flair for leadership. Shrewd and ambitious, he had a grasp of wider business issues that led to rapid promotion in a growing company. In 1935 he was appointed manager of a Repco subsidiary at Launceston, where he resolved a difficult position with a partner company. During World War II his responsibilities in Tasmania expanded into the production and repair of military vehicle components. Back in Melbourne as Repco’s general manager (1946-53), he built on this experience in both the merchandising and factory arms. Sponsored by the chairman, Sir John Storey, he became managing director in 1953 and succeeded Storey as chairman in 1957.

Repco’s progress was enormous in the quarter century after 1945. Publicly listed and expanding nationally, it became the leading distributor and manufacturer of spare parts and new vehicle components at a time of rapid increase in the number of cars in use and of public support for the Australian manufacture of them—especially for the Holden, a major consumer of Repco-made parts. McGrath became a leading spokesman for the industry, arguing for the maintenance of the licensing restrictions that substantially protected local producers from overseas competition. A versatile advocate, in 1960 he met the lifting of import restrictions with a proposal to allow duty-free access to imported components for producers who retained a 95 per cent local parts content in vehicles manufactured in large numbers. This plan was largely adopted in 1965, and maintained until major industry reforms were implemented through the 1970s.

While gaining publicity for protection through bodies such as the Australian Industries Development Association (president, 1958-60) and the Export Development Council (chairman, 1966-69), McGrath also built personal relationships with the politicians and public servants involved in maintaining this policy. Both he and Repco donated healthily to the major political parties, especially the Liberal and Country (later National) parties. Enjoying friendship with (Sir) John McEwen, who as minister for commerce then trade and industry (1949-71) upheld protection for the vehicle and parts industry, he was also a background supporter of the anti-communist Industrial Groups within the Australian Labor Party, and then for the Democratic Labor Party. He served as federal treasurer of the Liberal Party of Australia (1968-74), a role understood as involving ‘twisting arms’ in business for donations.

In 1967 McGrath stepped down as managing director of Repco. Having been appointed OBE in 1964, he was knighted in 1968. Sir Charles remained part-time chairman until 1980 and a director until 1981. During this period Repco was challenged by difficulties with succession and authority, declining political support for protection, and massive changes in the car industry associated with longer-lasting components, Japanese competition, increasing automation and skill requirements, and more ‘globalised’ approaches to manufacturing. Nominated by the Herald in 1978 as one of Australia’s ‘top ten businessmen’, McGrath remained strenuously opposed to market liberalisation. By 1971 a director of many public companies including Capel Court Corporation (1969-80), he was chairman of Nylex Corporation (1971-84) and Petersville Australia Ltd (1971-82). He served on the Victorian Pipelines Commission (1967-71) and the Defence Industrial Committee (deputy chairman, 1969-77), and joined an expert panel (1978-82) to advise the Victorian premier, (Sir) Rupert Hamer, on economic policy. He was appointed AC in 1981.

By temperament a merchant rather than technician, Sir Charles possessed a warmth, vision and friendly ebullience that made him a leading figure in the era of Australian economic nationalism. He valued moderate unionism and often called for participatory incentives to achieve industrial harmony. In 1976 an annual award for significant achievement was established by the Australian Marketing Institute in his name. A member of the Melbourne, Australian, Athenaeum, and Commonwealth (Canberra) clubs, he relaxed on a modest cattle farm on Phillip Island and was a devoted supporter of the Carlton Football Club. Survived by his wife, their four daughters and son, Sir Charles McGrath died on 12 May 1984 at Cowes, Phillip Island, and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $1,166,438.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Capling and B. Galligan, Beyond the Protective State (1992)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 19 Jan 1973, p 13, 1 Feb 1978, p 20
  • Canberra Times, 14 May 1984, p 7
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Murray, 'McGrath, Sir Charles Gullan (Dave) (1910–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 July 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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