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Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows

Originally prepared for publication as part of Bright Sparcs by the Australian Science Archives Project.

James Alexander Forrest 1905-1990

By D.W. Rogers

James Alexander Forrest was born at Kerang, Victoria, on 10 March 1905. He was the third of five children born to John Forrest and Mary Forrest (née Gray) both of whom were in turn born in Scotland. There were three sons and two daughters of the marriage. John Forrest was a general store manager, first in Kerang and later in Cohuna from whence he retired to Serrell Street in the Melbourne suburb of East Malvern. Forrest lived with his parents at that address until shortly before he married.

James Forrest, or 'Jim' as he was known, was educated at State schools and later at Caulfield Grammar School where he matriculated and was a school prefect. On leaving school his ambition was to study medicine but the necessary funding was not available, and presumably as a stop-gap he responded successfully to an advertisement for a filing clerk at the solicitors' firm of Hedderwick Fookes & Alston at 103 William Street in Melbourne. He commenced work there in July 1923. At the end of that year he applied for articles of clerkship and admission to the five-year articled clerks' course at the University of Melbourne. Unfortunately Mr Bruce Hedderwick, to whom he was to have been articled, went overseas early in 1924 without signing the deed of articles and subsequently died in Canada. It was by then too late to enrol at the University and it was therefore not until the following year, in 1925, that Forrest commenced the course as a five-year articled clerk, articled to Mr T.C. Alston. (This course was discontinued some years ago. It involved attendance at University lectures in the early morning and evening, and legal work in the Master's office for the balance of the day. On successful completion of examinations, the candidate did not receive a degree but was qualified to be admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor.)

Forrest was admitted to practice in 1930. His admission was moved by Mr R.G. Menzies Q.C. and Mr Wilfred Fullagar (later The Hon. Mr Justice Sir Wilfred Fullagar of the High Court of Australia). The Court was presided over by the Chief Justice, Sir William Irvine - later Governor of Victoria. He was admitted to partnership in Hedderwick Fookes & Alston in 1933 and began to consolidate his reputation as an outstanding young commercial lawyer. About this time he came to the notice of the influential Grimwade family and became a director of their family company, Felton Grimwade & Duerdin. The Grimwades were also involved in the establishment of Australian Glass Manufacturers (AGM) which acquired a great no. of glass manufacturers in the '20s and '30s. These they used as an adjunct in the supply of bottles to their drug manufacturing and pharmacy business, later to be known as Drug Houses of Australia (DHA).

When Forrest became a partner in Hedderwick Fookes & Alson, Mr T.C. (Tom) Alston was senior partner and substantial owner of the firm. Other partners were Mr Percy Coates (commonly known as 'Plonker') and Colin (later Sir Colin) Syme who although only two years Forrest's senior was already a director of BHP. The firm had at that time a very large mortgage register. It employed a large no. of chartered accountants and accounts clerks and provided legal and accounting services to a significant number of the larger grazier families in Victoria and the Riverina. The firm was also very involved in the liquor and hotel industries through such clients as 'Jimmy' Richardson, the Morell and McCracken families, and the Melbourne Co-operative Brewery, the registered office of which was at 103 William Street.

The firm gradually was weaned away by Syme and Forrest from what had been its core business and from the domination of the senior chartered accountants in the firm, until by the late 1940s it had become one of Australia's leading commercial firms. Alston died in 1950 still the substantial owner of the firm, leaving his partners with a heavy financial indebtedness to his estate. Coates had retired in the late '30s and Syme and Forrest were rejoined by S.C.G. ('Jock') Macindoe who had been a P.O.W. in Germany for four years. Macindoe became a partner in 1948 and together these three exercised a collective degree of directorial and forensic influence in the State of Victoria and the Commonwealth, the likes of which will probably never be seen again.

Jim Forrest served as a Flight Lieutenant in RAAF Intelligence during the Second World War and later in the Department of Aircraft Production.

After the war Forrest returned to practice. He had married Mary Armit in December 1939. There are three sons of the marriage - Alex, an engineer, Bill, a solicitor and later a partner in the firm, and Hugh, an agricultural scientist. Mary Armit's family were early settlers in East Gippsland and were connected to the pioneering Mitchell and Morrison families.

In the late 1930s and the 1940s, Australian Glass Manufacturers had greatly diversified under its Managing Director W.J. ('Gunboat') Smith and became Australian Consolidated Industries Ltd. (ACI). Jim Forrest was invited to join the Board in 1950 and in 1953 he became Chairman. W.J. Smith was a man of considerable intellect and strength who treated his Board with scant respect and paid little regard to its deliberations. Jim Forrest patiently set about restoring the Board's position. Smith, who was by this time beyond what is now the statutory retiring age for directors, resisted strongly. The show-down occurred in the Hedderwick Fookes & Alton office in 1956 when Forrest dismissed the man who next to Essington Lewis was the most powerful executive in the country. It was a signal victory for the board of ACI and for the corporate community. The W.J. Smith affair had a profound effect on Forrest and it was not for many years that a company of which he was Chairman had an executive on its board.

In 1945 Forrest became a director of the branch Board of the AMP Society and was Chairman from 1957 to 1977. He was a director of the Society's principal Board from 1961 to 1977 and a very significant contributor to the affairs of Australia's largest life company.

In 1950 he was elected to the Board of what was then known as the National Bank of Australasia Ltd. (NBA) and from 1959 to 1978 he was the Bank's Chairman. He also chaired the Board of the joint venture merchant bank Chase-NBA from its inception in 1969 until 1980.

During this extremely active period as a ompany director, Forrest managed to keep his legal skills right up to the mark. He had a photographic memory for law reports and statute law and was an original member of the Victoria Law Foundation.

At the request of Sir Douglas Menzies of the High Court, Jim Forrest became a foundation member of the Council of Monash University on which he served from 1961 to 1971. In 1979 the University conferred on him an Honorary LL.D. in recognition of his services to the University and to the law and commerce.

Forrest was knighted in 1967 for services to industry and the law. He remained however a most unpretentious man who shunned publicity and power. He always drove a 'Holden' motor car and maintained a modest lifestyle. He worked extremely long hours and believed that hard work would overcome any no. of shortcomings.

In 1970 Sir Lindesay Clark, then Chairman of Western Mining Corporation (WMC), persuaded Sir James to join the Board of that company and at the same time to become Chairman of Alcoa of Australia Ltd., a joint venture with Aluminium Company of America. He remained a director of WMC until 1977 and of Alcoa until the following year. He retired from all boards of listed companies on reaching the statutory retirement age but remained a director of several unlisted companies, including Alcoa of Australia, for a short period thereafter.

Life did not always proceed smoothly. When Geoff Grimwade, the Chairman and Chief Executive of DHA, died suddenly in 1959, Forrest found himself unexpectedly Chairman of DHA. The Grimwade family was still very much involved with the company, which became the subject of a take-over offer in 1966 from the Slater Walker organization of the U.K., then at the peak of its powers as an asset stripper. The take-over was hostile but eventually the DHA Board felt that the offer price was advantageous to the shareholders and recommended its acceptance, to the intense annoyance of a no. of influential shareholders. It is now a matter of historical interest only, that Slater Walker ran the company down before it collapsed itself in the crash of the early 1970s and Jim Slater, the previous chief executive officer, was prosecuted and convicted in the U.K. for offenses under the Companies Act. DHA was eventually placed in liquidation.

On the ACI side, however, the company progressed from strength to strength. Agreements were reached with overseas manufacturers for manufacture (under licence) of products such as float glass, fibre glass, plastics including plastic bottles, and a very sophisticated line of glassware and fittings. The company also coped successfully with competition in areas where it had hitherto held a virtual monopoly. There was vigorous growth in Asia, with glass plants in Singapore and Thailand, both of which were market leaders in the Asian bottled beverage market. Forrest surprised the business world in 1974 by appointing a public servant, Robert Brack, as chief executive of ACI. Brack had formerly been Collector of Customs for New South Wales and after his appointment he participated with Forrest in a no. of diversifying developments. Forrest had of course been a public servant himself during the last three years of the Second World War when he formed a high opinion of the work habits and skills of senior public servants. The company underwent a no. of merger, executive and directorial changes after his retirement in 1977 and it was eventually taken-over to form part of the BTR group of the U.K. (now known in Australia as BTR Nylex). For a no. of years Forrest had been de facto the Chief Executive of ACI and the loss of its corporate identity must have wounded him greatly.

Although in many ways an extremely private man, he was outspoken on issues of professional and corporate morality and would never shirk an issue. To dissemble in any way was not part of his nature and he usually spoke his mind in terms which were at times colourful. Many a young lawyer had reason to regret a lack of preparation or inadequate drafting skills.

He was an enthusiastic if somewhat indifferent golfer who was a member of Riversdale and later Royal Melbourne Golf Clubs. He was also a member of the leading men's clubs in Melbourne and Sydney and for a time was President of the Australian Club in Melbourne.

In addition to his demanding commercial and legal obligations, Sir James found time for membership of various charitable and educational bodies. In particular he was a member of the Federal Council of the Boy Scouts Association for 25 years, of the Scotch College Council and of the Royal Children's Hospital Research Foundation, and a Governor of the London House for Overseas Graduates. As previously mentioned, he was also a member of the Victoria Law Foundation and of the Council of Monash University.

He made the acquaintance of The Hon. R.G. Menzies Q.C. early in his legal career and maintained a friendship with him throughout his life. When Menzies retired from public life, Sir James was instrumental in raising a capital sum that assisted Sir Robert and Dame Patti to acquire the first house they had owned for many years.

Sir James was senior partner of Hedderwick Fookes & Alston after Colin Syme's retirement in 1967, until he in turn retired in 1970 to concentrate more fully on his corporate career. He remained on as a consultant until 1973, thus completing fifty years with the firm.

The firm merged with Arthur Robinson & Co. in 1984 when Jock Macindoe also retired. Although Sir James seemed outwardly relaxed about the merger, it is doubtful that he really approved. The decade since his retirement had seen great changes in the practice of the law and in communications and data processing. Medium-sized firms like the two merging practices would have had great difficulty surviving in the kind of practices they enjoyed. The merger has undoubtedly been a great success. Sir James became ill a short time before his death on 26 September 1990. Until then he remained, even in retirement, his old ebullient and at times irascible self. He took the view that his private papers were indeed private and they were destroyed. If there are any inaccuracies in this memoir, they are due to the author's inadequate recollection.

When Sir James retired as Chairman of ACI in March 1977 on his 72nd birthday, 'Chanticleer' in the Financial Review wrote a lengthy review of his career in ACI entitled 'Sir James Forrest our most successful lawyer director' Whilst some might take issue with this description, there is no doubt that he enjoyed a career of enormous influence and achievement. Those of us who were lucky enough to have been his colleagues will forever be in his debt.

On hearing of his death, the Thai Glass Company was instrumental in setting up in Thailand a fund entitled 'In memory of the late Sir James Forrest of Melbourne, Australia', the interest of which is used to provide scholarships for needy Thai children in rural areas. Both Sir James and Lady Forrest were widely known in Thailand and maintained a lasting interest in the affairs of that country. Sir James, who was elected to the Australian Academy of Science by Special Election in 1977, served on the Finance Committee of the Academy for over twenty years and was a Fellow for thirteen years. He also served on the Academy's Science and Industry Forum. The press release at the date of his appointment was as follows:

The Australian Academy of Science has elected to its Fellowship a distinguished businessman and financier, Sir James Forrest.
Sir James, who holds positions on the boards of a no. of companies and educational institutions and has served on the Finance Committee of the Academy for 10 years, joined the Fellowship by Special Election at the Academy's annual meeting.
The distinction of Special Election to the Fellowship is reserved for persons who have rendered conspicuous service to the cause of science, or whose election would be of signal benefit to the Academy and to the advancement of science.
Other Fellows by Special Election are Sir Robert Menzies, Dr H.C. Coombs, Sir Maurice Mawby and Sir Ellerton Becker.

D.W. Rogers works at Arthur Robinson & Hedderwicks, AMP Tower, 535 Bourke Street, Melbourne.

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 8, no. 4, 1991

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 1995
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
© Australian Academy of Science
Prepared by: Victoria Young
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 8 April 1998

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