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Murdoch Stanley McLeod

Murdoch Stanley McLeod (1893-1981)

Businessman and philanthropist, was born on 18 October 1893 at Carrieton, South Australia, eldest of six children of South Australian-born parents John McLeod, farmer, and his wife Harriet Caroline Ann, née Symonds. Raised in a staunch Scottish Presbyterian family, Murdoch was educated locally and at 14 went to work in the general store at Spalding. Two years later he became a station hand and joined the Australian Workers’ Union. Fascinated by motorcycles, he bought one when he was 20 and rode it to Adelaide, where he found work in a motorcycle shop and studied mechanical trade skills at the South Australian School of Mines and Industry. In 1915 David Woolston employed him in his bicycle and motorcycle shop at Jamestown. Woolston retired the following year and offered McLeod the business, to be paid off over two years. At first a repairer of bicycle tyres, M. S. McLeod’s Cycles became an agent for Goodyear tyres, later adding Ford motor parts, and began re-treading motor vehicle tyres. On 22 March 1920 at Prospect, Adelaide, he married with Presbyterian forms Katherine Hunter, a tailoress.

In 1930 McLeod bought a second shop at Peterborough, next year opened a third office in Currie Street, Adelaide, and in 1932 bought a bankrupt competitor, the Adelaide Tyre Co. He built up a distribution network supplying tyres, batteries and parts to motor garages throughout the region. Despite the risks of expanding operations in the Depression, he had calculated shrewdly. Concentrating on efficient re-treading of tyres for commercial fleet owners, a niche market that survived the economic downturn, the business remained so profitable that McLeod opened two more branches, at Port Pirie in 1934 and at Mount Gambier in 1935. He consolidated the Adelaide operations in new premises in 1938.

During World War II the company was affected by labour and material shortages, and some country branches were closed. After the war McLeod diversified his business, expanding into home wares, mail-order sales within South Australia, and the manufacturing of prefabricated Galeprufe sheds. The company M. S. McLeod Pty Ltd was registered in 1946, and floated as a public company in 1954, with McLeod as chief executive officer and chairman. In the 1950s the company extended its core business of tyres, batteries and motor accessories, opening branch offices in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. It benefited from the upsurge in demand as car registrations in Australia quadrupled in the twenty years after 1945. In the 1960s, however, it faced a campaign by international tyre manufacturers to squeeze local retailers out of the Australian market; this eventually stopped when the Trade Practices Act was passed in 1974. By the mid-1970s McLeod had added rural finance and motor vehicle and farm machinery franchises to the company’s business lines, was operating more than seventy sales and service centres nationally, and was the largest independent tyre distributor in Australia, paying annual dividends of between 10 and 16 per cent.

McLeod had consolidated his business empire slowly and conservatively. Although a brisk, no-nonsense manager, he instituted generous employment policies, probably influenced by his own rise from poverty and perhaps from his experience as a member of a union. The firm provided superannuation, and life and incapacity insurance schemes for employees, decades before such benefits were mandatory; it also rewarded long service and loyalty with cash bonuses, and, after becoming a public company, with share allocations. As a result, it maintained a stable workforce and a number of its senior figures had risen from the workshop to executive offices. McLeod retired in 1978 but he remained a director until his death.

Unassuming and frugal, McLeod travelled little and entertained rarely. He did not practise his religion in later life, but retained its discipline and, by all accounts, was a man of integrity. To compensate for his lack of an early education, he had attended Workers’ Educational Association classes on a wide range of topics, from 1931 until well into middle age, and read voraciously. He encouraged his employees to improve their knowledge, establishing a company lending library and distributing lists of recommended books. In later years he was a member of three bowling clubs.

During the 1970s McLeod financed medical research and teaching at the University of Adelaide; the Australian Postgraduate Federation in Medicine made him an honorary life governor in 1977. Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, he died on 24 April 1981 in Adelaide and was cremated. His estate was valued at about $10 million. In his will he provided funding for the Adelaide (Women’s and) Children’s Hospital; a research fund and medals for excellence in research were named after him. M. S. McLeod Ltd was delisted in 1985 and acquired by Swissair Associated Companies Ltd in 1995.

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