The man who made Wesfarmers

Headshot of Sean Smith
Sean SmithThe West Australian
Former Wesfarmers CEO John Benninson with his wife Joyce at home.
Camera IconFormer Wesfarmers CEO John Benninson with his wife Joyce at home. Credit: Dione Davidson/The West Australian

If Trevor Eastwood, Michael Chaney and Richard Goyder are faces of the modern Wesfarmers, John Bennison is its bridge to the past.

His contribution may have been overshadowed by his more widely recognised successors but the 89-year-old's legacy continues to stand the test of time, 30 years after he handed the chief executive's reins to Eastwood.

It was Bennison who secured Wesfarmers' future with a bold tilt at CSBP in 1977 and later overcame board resistance to put the farmers co-operative on the path to a sharemarket listing.

The World War II bomber pilot is also credited with launching what is now a renowned company art collection, fostering management talent such as Eastwood and Chaney and giving the group a modern face by moving it out of its antiquated Wellington Street offices and uptown into modern digs in the Perth CBD.

Wesfarmers director and long-time adviser James Graham has described Bennison as the group's "visionary".

"He was the man who saw how the farmers co-operative could be an extraordinarily powerful group . . . but one that needed to have many diversified business streams," Graham says.

Born in Mandalay in Burma, Bennison attended Hale and Perth Technical College before joining the RAAF aged 18. He trained as a pilot in Geraldton where he met his future 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.

In 1954, after a year, Bennison advertised in _The West Australian _looking for another job.

Interviewed by Wesfarmers, he began with the group as a budgetary control officer, despite his reservations about Wesfarmers' long-time headquarters at 569 Wellington Street.

"It was hard to get staff at Wellington Street," Bennison recalls from his family home overlooking the Swan River.

"The building was old without air-conditioning. And the kids coming along in those days had been in the services and didn't want to rough it.

"And they got tougher about work conditions as the years went by. Only the cockies liked Wellington Street."

Bennison worked his way up the co-operative's management chain in a variety of jobs at its various operations. "I got along well with people as long as they were prepared to work," he says.

However, by his own admission, his most "enjoyable run" was at Kleenheat Gas, where as manager he was instrumental in a dramatic expansion of the LPG business.

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

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

"That was a first for me," he says. "It was marvellous."

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

He was not just motivated by the investment potential of the Wesfarmers collection, he saw a means of improving staff morale.

"I couldn't see what I could do to help improve their surroundings," Bennison says.

"Now good art will do that and it's great value. It lifts the executives as well. There are some great paintings there; paintings that cost thousands are now worth millions."

Bennison succeeded Keith Edwards as Wesfarmers' general manager in January 1974 determined to position it better for the future. For all its diversified businesses, Wesfarmers was retarded by lack of cash flow and the funds it needed to grow.

As Edwards' assistant, he had "spent most of my time looking for cash flow outfits, and I kept coming back to CSBP".

The fertiliser business ticked all the boxes.

Peter Thompson in his new biography marking Wesfarmers' centenary, The People's Story, writes of CSBP: "No business was more vital to the interests of WA's farmers and no business provided greater cash flow."

"They had a crackerjack business," Bennison recounted to Thompson. "They had great cash flow and we were shrinking. That was the crux of it."

Significantly, Wesfarmers was a third the size of CSBP. But Bennison would not be deterred, even though he faced considerable scepticism from financiers and his own board.

Wesfarmers launched its $60 million cash and scrip takeover bid, Australia's biggest and ultimately, one of its most difficult, in October 1977. But it had to endure two years of protracted corporate and legal wrangling before it could claim its prize.

"The combination of CSBP and Wesfarmers was magic," Bennison says. "You had something you never had - money around the clock."

Chaney puts the takeover down to Bennison's perseverance and determination. "I think a lesser person would have given up," Chaney says.

"John stuck to his guns, resisted all the doubters and made a takeover that really made the company."

Having blazed the path to Wesfarmers' public listing, Bennison retired in June 1984, five months before the shares debuted.

"I made the future a lot easier for doing things," he says when asked about his legacy. "And that's about all you can do.

"It's a dynamic thing business, and you can make it live. That's what I did."

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