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Sir John Robert (Bert) Walton (1904–1998)

by Michael Lech

This article was published online in 2023

Robert Walton, 1940s

Robert Walton, 1940s

courtesy of Walton family

Sir John Robert Walton (1904–1998), retail businessman, was born on 7 February 1904 at Charters Towers, Queensland, eldest of three children of English-born John Thomas Bates Walton, clerk and later sharebroker and businessman, and his Queensland-born wife Dorothea Josephina Amelia, née Frischkorn. In Bert’s youth, the family moved for a time to a sugar-cane farm near Ayr on the Burdekin River. He was initially schooled at Charters Towers, then transferred to other schools before completing his Intermediate certificate at Scots College, Sydney, in 1920.

Later Walton would claim he performed poorly at school and considered his ten years to 1930 to be a ‘failure’ (Walton [1971]). He often changed jobs and lived a professed dissolute lifestyle: drinking, smoking, surfing, and only concerned with having a good time. His transformation began at the age of twenty-six when he became a salesman with the National Cash Register Company (NCR), a multinational business based in the United States of America, with branches in Sydney and Melbourne. Upon hearing a motivational speech at an NCR sales conference in Sydney, he convinced himself that he could turn his life around. He would tell his conversion story many years later in a 1971 booklet, How to Have More Success in Business.

Initially, NCR posted Walton to his old home territory of North Queensland. Despite extreme distances and strict monthly sales targets, he succeeded well enough to win promotion to New South Wales sales manager by 1934. Soon he was proselytising about success through self-belief, giving a talk to new NCR sales staff in May 1935 on the theme that ‘you can do anything if you are prepared to pay the price of success,’ and the following year delivering a public lecture on ‘Mental Attitude in Business.’ In 1946 he became the managing director of NCR’s Australian and Pacific operations.

Walton’s philosophy on realising business success through self-assured determination made him receptive to the ideas of Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the bestselling author of The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). He later recalled that hearing Peale preaching during a trip to New York was another ‘turning point’ (Scott 1975, 90) in his career. Although the philosophy appealed to Walton, he did not join Peale’s congregation and rarely attended church. Nevertheless, he maintained a long-lasting friendship with Peale, who retold Walton’s success story through positive thinking in several of his later books.

During a trip to the United States aboard the SS Monterey in December 1935, Walton had met Peggy Everley Gamble, whom he married in a Church of England service on 21 June 1938 at St Michael’s Chapel, St Kilda, Victoria. Gamble had recently won the Miss Victoria beauty contest, and the cruise was a prize. Bert and Peggy would be married for almost sixty years: working together, travelling often, and enjoying his favourite non-work activity, gardening. From around 1947 they owned and operated Gamble’s, the North Shore Nursery at Pymble. The nursery was sold in June 1952 when Walton’s business commitments increased. Although the area was subsequently subdivided for housing, one street still bears the name ‘Walton Close.’ The couple continued gardening after moving to their new Darling Point home around 1953, where they had a small greenhouse. A new hibiscus variety, lavender purple with bright red eye, was named the Peggy Walton.

On 30 June 1951 Walton succeeded his father as managing director of Cash Orders (Amalgamated) Ltd. The company provided customers a type of credit for their purchase of household goods, and operated furniture stores in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria. He agreed to take on the role only if the company changed focus to general retailing. His first move was to acquire Murdoch’s department store in July 1951, which included a twelve-storey landmark store in George Street, Sydney. In November 1953 the company relaunched its sixteen-store portfolio under the brand name ‘Waltons,’ though its official name changed to Waltons Ltd one year later.

In 1955 Walton returned from a business trip to the United States with a coup: a deal to merge Waltons with the world’s largest merchandiser, Sears Roebuck and Co. of Chicago, the first such large-scale union of an Australian and American merchant. Although the formal merger agreement lasted only until November 1959, during which period the company name became Waltons-Sears Ltd, he never gave up his controlling interest and the relationship reaped benefits for decades afterwards. Sears’s ability to bulk-buy internationally at low cost was passed on to Waltons, while the latest ideas in store layouts and fixtures from Sears were employed by Waltons, under the guidance of Peggy, who managed Waltons’ store planning department.

Significant changes in Australia’s retail environment occurred during the late 1950s as car ownership increased, capital city populations pushed further into the suburbs, and the construction of purpose-built shopping centres resulted in the closure of many large established stores in central business districts and inner suburbs. Yet Waltons posted record profits almost every year during the 1950s and 1960s. The company expanded into fresh territories and reached new customers in two ways. First, it built modern stores such as one of Australia’s first drive-in shopping centres at Bankstown, Sydney, in 1961, and a new flagship store in central Melbourne in 1964. Second, it continually acquired struggling retailers, small and large, sold off some branches and rebranded others as Waltons. Notable takeovers included Overells Ltd in Brisbane (1956), Treadways Ltd in Melbourne (1960), and Marcus Clark & Co. Ltd (1966) and Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd in Sydney (1970).

Walton, who became chairman of Waltons Ltd in 1961, mined American business knowledge for the best strategies for the company. A staff profit-sharing scheme (1956), almost a copy of one operating at Sears, fostered staff loyalty and contributed to the company’s success. Waltons also became the first retailer in the country to enter the field of general insurance (1966), and he convinced First National City Bank of New York to become part-owners in the company’s customer credit scheme, then renamed FNCB-Waltons Corporation Ltd (1967). He almost became an American in some eyes, once described as looking ‘the prototype of the successful American businessman,’ with ‘sandy hair … neatly clipped,’ ‘conservative Fifth Avenue’ suits, and ‘expensive cordovan shoes’ with a ‘mirror shine’ (McC. 1955, 28). Standing just five feet eight inches (173 cm) tall with a slim build, he was not an imposing figure, but a retail innovator, modest despite his achievements, and a salesman able to convince many businessmen in Australia and the United States to back his ideas.

Knighted in 1971, a year later Walton stepped down as managing director and chairman, replaced as chairman by his son John Stuart Walton; Sir John remained on the board of directors until 1975. During his tenure, Waltons had risen from a small firm to one of Australia’s top retailers, with assets of around $170 million. It boasted ninety stores, some full department stores and others home furnishing outlets, across four States: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. In retirement, Walton initially enjoyed free time to play golf and garden. But in 1976, he and his wife were assaulted during a robbery in their Darling Point home, and he would never fully recover. In 1981 the entrepreneur Alan Bond gained control of Waltons, which became Waltons Bond Ltd, and the following year John Stuart resigned as chairman; the Waltons name ceased to be used for stores after Bond sold the chain in 1987. Walton died on 15 January 1998 at Elizabeth Bay, survived by his wife and their son and daughter, the art gallery owner Roslyn Oxley; he was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Kingston, Beverley. Basket, Bag and Trolley: A History of Shopping in Australia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994
  • McC., M. ‘Man in the Public Eye: The American Way.’ Sun-Herald, 28 August 1955, 28
  • McNicoll, D. D. ‘Businessman Traded Surf for a Retail Store Empire.’ Australian, 27 January 1998, 20
  • Pollon, Frances. Shopkeepers and Shoppers: A Social History of Retailing in New South Wales from 1788. Sydney: Retail Traders’ Association of New South Wales, 1989
  • Scott, Phil. ‘Lucky Mustard Seed Helped Build a $170m Empire.’ Sun-Herald, 18 May 1975, 90
  • Walton, John R. How to Have More Success in Business. Sydney: Waltons Limited, [1971]
  • Waltons Ltd. Annual Report. Sydney: The Company, 1951–76
  • Waltons Ltd. Waltons News. Sydney: The Company, 1964–76

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael Lech, 'Walton, Sir John Robert (Bert) (1904–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walton-sir-john-robert-bert-33239/text41473, published online 2023, accessed online 5 March 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert Walton, 1940s

Robert Walton, 1940s

courtesy of Walton family

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

7 February, 1904
Charters Towers, Queensland, Australia

Death

15 January, 1998 (aged 93)
Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

dementia

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