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Sir James Charles McNeill (1916–1987)

by Robin Stewardson

This article was published:

Sir James Charles McNeill (1916–1987), businessman, was born on 29 July 1916 at Hamilton, New South Wales, second surviving child of Charles Arthur Henry McNeill, assurance superintendent, and his wife Una Beatrice, née Gould, both born in New South Wales. Matriculating from Newcastle Boys’ High School, he joined the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd in 1933 as an office boy in the manager’s office of its Newcastle steelworks. Over the next ten years he held appointments as clerk, secretary and accountant in several departments while undertaking accountancy and secretarial studies. He was admitted to the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants in 1939 and next year was awarded the gold medal of the Institute of Incorporated Secretaries. On 31 January 1942 at St Peter’s Church of England, Hamilton, he married Audrey Evelyn Mathieson, a shop assistant.

Already demonstrating a detailed interest in the technical operations of the steelworks, McNeill was appointed chief clerk of the accounts department in 1944. As a member of BHP’s first group of commercial trainees he travelled to all the company’s operations, gaining experience that would assist in unifying accounting and costing procedures. In 1947 he transferred to head office in Melbourne as company accountant, rising to assistant secretary (1954), assistant general manager commercial (1956) and general manager commercial (1959).

In 1964 McNeill played a major role in negotiating the agreement with Esso Standard Oil (Aust.) Ltd, by which BHP initiated the exploration and development of Bass Strait oil and gas reserves, and in 1966 he played an equally important role in securing contracts to develop the Mount Newman iron-ore mine that took the company into the export of minerals on a large scale. Appointed executive general manager finance (1967), he became managing director in 1971—the first in BHP’s history to gain that position without an engineering background.

‘Reserved and precise’ (so judged the Australian), McNeill became chairman, and director of administration in 1977, only the third officer to have risen to that position through the ranks of what was then Australia’s largest company. He was closely involved in the two-stage takeover of John Lysaght (Australia) Ltd that led, by 1979, to BHP’s substantial expansion in the manufacture of steel. The acquisition of Utah International Inc. in 1984 achieved a further significant diversification of the company’s interests and a major step in operating overseas. Proud of these initiatives, and of achieving broad co-operation in a recovery plan for an ailing steel industry in the 1980s, McNeill displayed an ability to take a broad view of where BHP should be heading while remaining in command of detailed negotiations.

Although a devoted and quintessential company man, McNeill still found time to contribute to other organisations. He was a director (1983-86) of the ANZ Banking Group and chairman (1983-86) of Tubemakers Australia Ltd and a director of many mining companies. He served (1969-87) on the council of Monash University, where his contribution to the reform of the university’s senior management structure was particularly valued. In 1978-85 he was a member of the Walter and Eliza Hall finance committee. President (1974-78) of the Australian Mining Industry Council, he was also a member of the Australian Manufacturing Council, the International Iron and Steel Institute, the international council of Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. of New York, and the Australian Japan Business Co-operation Committee.

A keen sportsman, McNeill played tennis, cricket and golf, fished, and later took up bowls. He also enjoyed gardening and weekend farming at his property at Glenburn. With a passionate interest in music, he studied the organ; he was an active Anglican. He was appointed CBE in 1972, KBE in 1978 and AC in 1986. The University of Newcastle conferred on him an honorary D.Sc. (1981) and Monash University an honorary LLD (1986).

Despite his success, achieved through ability and hard work, Sir James McNeill remained a modest man. Retiring in 1984, he died of myocardial infarction on 12 March 1987 at Canterbury, Melbourne, and was cremated. His wife and their son survived him. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, by the government of Japan for his promotion of trade and economic exchange. A postgraduate scholarship was established in his name at Monash University and a portrait by Sir William Dargie is held by the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Trengove, “What’s Good for Australia ...!” (1975)
  • Journal of Industry, vol 39, no 5, 1971, p 13
  • Australian, 3 June 1970, p 15, 13 Mar 1987, p 10
  • Australian Financial Review, 5 May 1971, p 14
  • Sun (Sydney), 12 Jan 1978, p 29
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 July 1984, p 19
  • BHP Billiton Archives, Melbourne.

Citation details

Robin Stewardson, 'McNeill, Sir James Charles (1916–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 10 December 2023.

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

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]


29 July, 1916
Hamilton, New South Wales, Australia


12 March, 1987 (aged 70)
Canterbury, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.