Former Wesfarmers visionary dies aged 92

Headshot of Sean Smith
Sean SmithThe West Australian
John Bennison in 2014 at the company’s 100 years book launch. Photographer: Evan Collis.
Camera IconJohn Bennison in 2014 at the company’s 100 years book launch. Photographer: Evan Collis. Credit: supplied by Wesfarmers

John Bennison, the Wesfarmers chief who paved the way for the stockmarket listing of the one-time farmers’ co-operative, has died aged 92.

A bomber pilot during the World War II, Mr Bennison ran Wesfarmers as its fourth chief executive for 10 years from 1974.

Wesfarmers’ current chief, Richard Goyder, today described Mr Bennison as a visionary leader who established the commercial foundations for the modern-day group.

“John’s commercial skills, outstanding leadership and tenacity underpinned the transformation of Wesfarmers from a co-operative to a more broadly-based company with the financial and management capacity to grow,” Mr Goyder said.

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“He was widely regarded as being way ahead of the business environment of his time and has appropriately been credited as the architect of today’s Wesfarmers.”

It was Mr Bennison who secured Wesfarmers’ future with a bold tilt at fertiliser and chemical maker CSBP in 1976, later overcoming board resistance to put the farmers co-operative on the path to the sharemarket listing that was achieved in 1984 under his successor, Trevor Eastwood.

He was also credited with launching what is now a renowned company art collection, fostering management talent such as Mr Eastwood and Michael Chaney and moving the company out of its antiquated Wellington Street offices and into modern digs in the Perth CBD.

Born in Mandalay in Burma, Mr Bennison attended Hale School and Perth Technical College before joining the RAAF aged 18.

He trained as a pilot in Geraldton where he met wife Joyce, the daughter of his commanding officer, WA aviation pioneer Norman Brearley.

Demobbed after flying Lancasters from England with the RAF’s 622 Squadron, he headed to NSW with his new bride, studying at university in Armidale and working on a farm at Bundera.

A job with chewing gum maker Wrigleys in Melbourne followed before he returned to Perth as WA head of Kraft.

He joined Wesfarmers in 1954 as a Wesfarmers as a budgetary control officer, later heading Kleenheat and the industrials division.

It was while he was in Paris negotiating a partnership between Kleenheat and Air Liquide that Mr Bennison developed his enduring love for art.

Looking for something to bide his time during a break in talks, he was directed to a gallery displaying French impressionists.

“That was a first for me,” he recalled in an interview with The West Australian three years ago.

“It was marvellous.”

But it was to be a decade before Mr Bennison, by then chief of Wesfarmers, was able to convince the board to launch a buying program for Australian art.

Mr Bennison’s tenure included the prolonged battle to acquire CSBPs, then three times Wesfarmers’ size and the biggest corporate takeover in Australian history.

Wesfarmers launched its $60 million cash and scrip takeover bid in October 1977, but it had to endure two years of protracted corporate and legal wrangling before claiming its prize.

“The combination of CSBP and Wesfarmers was magic,” Mr Bennison later recalled.

“You had something you never had — money around the clock.”

Mr Bennison is survived by his four children Jane, Sally, Simon and Kate. Joyce, his wife of 68 years, died in 2014.

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