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Sir Ian Munro McLennan (1909–1998)

by Claire E. F. Wright

This article was published online in 2022

Sir Ian Munro McLennan (1909–1998), engineer and company executive, was born on 30 November 1909 at Stawell, Victoria, eldest of three children of Reuben Beaton McLennan, bank manager, and his wife Claudia Octavia, née Thomas, both Victorian born. Neither of his younger siblings survived to adulthood. Ian was raised in a ‘hard-working, country, Scottish Presbyterian family’ (Richards 2004, 251) in Mooroopna and worked in his father’s flour-milling business throughout his childhood. Having attended Mooroopna Primary and Shepparton High schools, he boarded for three years at Scotch College, Melbourne, where he was equal dux in 1927. He was then awarded a resident scholarship at Ormond College, studying electrical engineering at the University of Melbourne (BEE, 1932). After being turned down by Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd (BHP) for a cadetship because of the Depression, he completed an additional year of study in commerce.

Joining BHP as a cadet in January 1933, McLennan worked for two years at the firm’s steel works at Whyalla, South Australia, followed by six months each at its gold mine at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, and its limestone quarries in Tasmania. He later recalled that he had done everything ‘a cadet does, a bit of labouring, a bit of surveying. … What I didn't know then, I already had my foot on the ladder’ (Dunstan 1986, 31). In 1936 he moved to head office in Melbourne as assistant to the superintendent of mines and quarries. There he met Dora Haase Robertson, a secretary for the company, whom he married on 3 August 1937 at Scots Church, Melbourne. In the late 1930s he worked at BHP’s Newcastle and Port Kembla steelworks, and in 1941 he became production supervisor at Newcastle.

McLennan ascended rapidly through the management ranks of BHP, with space in the chain of command left by the movement of his mentor, the general manager Essington Lewis, to government service during World War II. From 1947 he split his time between the steelworks and the Melbourne head office as assistant general manager. In 1950, when Lewis became chairman and Norman Jones managing director, he was promoted to general manager. He was appointed a director in 1953 and managing director in 1967, and finished his career as chairman and director of administration (1971–77).

When McLennan became general manager of BHP, steel was the company’s primary product. In the postwar years, these operations, particularly at Port Kembla, expanded considerably, placing pressure on the market for skilled and unskilled workers. He was heavily involved in coordinating large-scale, company-sponsored immigration from Britain and Europe; for his service as a member of the Commonwealth Immigration Planning Council, he was appointed CBE in 1956. As general manager, he also expanded BHP’s research and development capacity, and was influential in developing the company’s iron ore mining in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

From the second half of the 1950s, McLennan sought to diversify into oil extraction. He encouraged the firm’s surveys of the Sydney Basin in 1959, hiring Lewis Weeks, a prominent American petroleum-geology consultant. Weeks concluded that the Sydney Basin had very little prospect of oil, but McLennan then engaged him to advise on other potential sites. The huge outlay involved in the resulting Bass Strait operation, which prompted cooperation between BHP and Weeks’s former employer, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (Esso), was a bold move for McLennan. The gamble paid off, with the consortium striking gas in 1965, and oil in 1967. He reflected in 1986: ‘there are three great days in the history of BHP, the day we started at Broken Hill, the day we decided to go into steel back in 1911 and the third was finding oil’ (Dunstan 1986, 32).

Resigning from BHP in 1977, McLennan began an equally busy career as a non-executive director of major Australian enterprises within a variety of industries. He was a director (1976–79) of the chemical company ICI Australia Ltd, chairman (1977–82) of the ANZ Banking Group, and chairman (1978–84) of the aviation company Interscan Australia Pty Ltd. He became involved in the Australian corporate monolith Elders-IXL Ltd through a longstanding professional relationship with the corporate raider John Elliott. As a management consultant with McKinsey and Company, Elliot had recommended the merger of the McLennan family flour mill with other prominent family mills to create Kimpton, Minifie and McLennan Ltd. In 1978 KMM merged with the maltsters Barrett Burston (Australia) Ltd, which in 1980 merged with the food manufacturer Henry Jones IXL Ltd, with McLennan as chairman. Further mergers with the Adelaide pastoral company Elder Smith Goldsbrough Mort Ltd (1981) and Carlton and United Breweries Ltd (1983) formed a large, diversified business group that was very profitable for most of the 1980s. McLennan was non-executive chairman (1981–85) of Elders-IXL while Elliott was chief executive officer, and they had an abiding regard for one another.

McLennan was knighted in 1963 and appointed KCMG in 1979. He had a lifelong passion for the integration of science and industry and chaired an influential 1964 meeting of scientists and industry leaders in association with the Australian Academy of Science (fellow 1980). He was the foundation president (1975–83) of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and was active in other organisations such as the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (president 1951, 1957, and 1972) and the Institute of Production Engineers, Australia (president 1962). A fellow or member of the American, Australian, British, and Swedish institutes of engineering, he was awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Melbourne (1968), Newcastle (1968), and Wollongong (1978), and Deakin University (1988).

Described as ‘smallish … with glowering, tufted eyebrows and a rather abrupt, to-the-point manner’ (Robinson 1981, 35), McLennan had an extraordinary work ethic, ‘an innate talent for leadership and the capacity to act as a catalyst for decisions’ (Maiden 1985, 79), though he did not easily suffer fools. A ‘body linguist’s dream,’ he was often found ‘leading with his chest,’ and ‘his favourite stance [was] arms akimbo, hands on hips—the aggressive man of action in repose’ (McGuinness 1979, 7). His bombastic manner reportedly masked innate shyness. He enjoyed tennis, golf, and gardening, and was a member of the Melbourne, Athenaeum, Australian, and Royal Melbourne Golf clubs. In retirement, Sir Ian and Lady McLennan purchased the homestead and Hereford stud ‘Oatlands’ at Narre Warren.

Predeceased by his wife (d. 1995) and one daughter (d. 1980), and survived by two sons and a daughter, McLennan died on 25 October 1998 at South Yarra and was cremated. In 1996 he had endowed the chair of design and technology at Scotch College. The Sir Ian McLennan award (1985) of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Ian McLennan House (1987), the Melbourne home of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, were named in his honour.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Dunstan, Keith. ‘Sir Ian McLennan: The Man Who Made BHP the Big Australian.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 8 February 1986, Good Weekend 30–32
  • Hewat, Tim. The Elders Explosion: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Progress from Elder to Elliott. Sydney: Bay Books, 1988
  • McGuinness, Jan. ‘Crusty–But Not Rusty: Sir Ian’s Still Feeling on Top of the World.’ Herald (Melbourne), 25 May 1979, 7
  • Maiden, Malcolm. ‘A Career for the Books: Sir Ian McLennan.’ Australian Financial Review, 24 April 1985, 79
  • Richards, P. N. ‘Ian Munro McLennan 1909–1998.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 15, no. 2 (2004): 251–68
  • Robinson, Peter. ‘McLennan—The Recycled Executive.’ Australian Financial Review, 8 May 1981, 35
  • Trengove, Alan. What’s Good for Australia..? The Story of BHP. Sydney: Cassell, 1975

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Claire E. F. Wright, 'McLennan, Sir Ian Munro (1909–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 24 June 2024.

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