1930 — 2014
Colin James Harper was a leading investment banker in the industry’s early development in Australia.
From 1976, he served 23 years as a non-executive director and chairman of major Australian public companies and Australian subsidiaries of international corporations.
This was a turbulent period in Australian corporate history and Harper brought to it values of fairness, independence, modesty and dispassion to achieve outcomes that allowed all shareholders equally to share the risks and rewards of ownership.
Born in England in 1930, the son of Sir Kenneth Harper, and his mother, Anne (née Haggart), from Adelaide, Harper spent his early years in Myanmar where his father served as general manager for the East at Burmah Oil.
The family returned to England in 1937 where Harper attended Winchester College. He served two years national service with the British Army on the Rhine and worked for 15 months in the Consolidated Zinc Corporation office at Broken Hill in 1952, a “gap year” which he said had enduring significance for his life and career.
On his return to England, he trained at accounting firm Brown, Fleming & Murray in London and became a chartered accountant in 1955, a move that would launch his “city” career. He also joined the Honourable Artillery Company and became a young liveryman of the guild of Merchant Taylors.
His exposure to, and observation of, the roles required of investment bankers such as Denzil Marris of Lazard Bros, seeded new career possibilities for an ambitious young man with wide horizons.
An indelible impression of Australia, reinforced by his mother and Australian wife Barbara, saw Harper make the decision to leave his city career and in 1958, he left London for Sydney with his young family.
In Sydney, he joined Anglo-Australian Corporation, one of the country’s first merchant banks. In 1963, the company entered into an agreement with the partners of Ian Potter & Co to form Australian United Corporation (AUC) and bring corporate capital to develop the markets for new capital issues and underwriting. As part of that merger, Harper and his family moved to Melbourne to take up his appointment as head of the corporate advice department of AUC and in 1968, he was promoted to general manager and chief executive.
Harper became chairman of the Issuing Houses Association in 1974 and in 1976 retired from AUC and embarked on a career as a non-executive director where he saw the opportunity to ensure that the general body of shareholders had full and proper protection against the frequently contrary interests of management and substantial minority shareholders.
During the 1970s and 1980s, he was appointed to the boards of Associated Pulp and Paper Mills, EZ Industries, North Broken Hill, Dalgety, Herald and Weekly Times and Carlton & United Breweries. He was also chairman of Humes Industries and the Australian subsidiaries of Legal & General and Vickers Industries, as well as a member of the advisory boards of both IBM and Dulux Australia.
At Humes, he is remembered for organising a vigorous and successful defence of its independence on behalf of all shareholders from an all-stock bid by a significant minority shareholder, Unity-APA.
However, it was his enduring contribution to the Australian and New Zealand (ANZ) Banking Group and Commonwealth Serum Laboratories that occupied him most until retirement.
After the domestication and Australian listing of ANZ Bank in 1976, in which he had a prominent advisory role, he joined its board and served on it for 23 years. He also served as chairman of the credit committee for 11 years.
He was chairman of Commonwealth Serum Laboratories from 1988 until 1999 and oversaw its privatisation in 1994 as CSL Limited and its development from a struggling government entity to a world-leading biopharmaceutical company.
In 1986, Harper became president of the Institute of Directors in Australasia until its merger in 1991 to form the Australian Institute of Company Directors, where he served as its inaugural national vice president.
He also served as a trustee of the RE Ross Trust for 23 years, as a director of the National Theatre in St Kilda for 10 years and on the boards of Opera Australia and the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. Between 1971 and 1988 he served on the council of Melbourne Grammar School.
Outside his working life, Harper was a private person who loved history, the music of classical composer Elgar, and a good mystery novel. In later years, he studied German and read Harry Potter in Italian. Following the death of his wife Barbara in 1977, he married Margot in 1979.
Harper is survived by Margot, his sons Adam and Alex, stepdaughter Catherine and six grandchildren.
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