Obituary Vale Sir Robert Crichton-Brown

  • Date:01 Oct 2013
  • Type:Company Director Magazine
August 1919 - July 2013

By all accounts, Sir Robert Crichton-Brown lived a full and interesting long life and his many feats have been well documented in the local and UK press since his passing in London in July, aged 93.

Born in Melbourne and educated in Sydney, Sir Robert followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Edward Lumley insurance company in 1938, only to have his career interrupted by World War II. In 1939, he joined the UK’s Royal Artillery and left for France, later serving in Iceland, India and Burma. He was promoted to the rank of major and was twice mentioned in dispatches.

After the war, he returned to Australia and his job at Lumley, becoming its managing director in 1952 and later its chairman (1974 to 1989). He remained on its board until 2003.

Sir Robert was one of Sydney’s most prominent businessmen from the 1960s to mid-1980s, chairing or sitting on the boards of several well-known companies, including Rothmans of Pall Mall (Australia) and the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney. He was also a director of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and worked with many community organisations such as the Salvation Army, Medical Foundation, Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, National Scout Association and Girl Guides Association of Australia.

Following his knighthood in 1972, Sir Robert turned his talents to politics, becoming Federal Treasurer of the Australian Liberal Party from 1973 to 1985.

He was also deeply involved with the Institute of Directors in Australia, which merged with the Company Directors Association of Australia in 1990 to become the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He became a committee member of the institute’s NSW branch at its inaugural meeting in 1961 and the national organisation’s president in 1969. In 1970, he oversaw its move from being an Australian division of the UK’s Institute of Directors to being an autonomous organisation.

In a tribute to him at the end of his presidency in 1980, his successor, Sir Peter Derham, noted that Sir Robert had written an entirely new chapter in the institute’s history and that under his guidance, it had become “an effective and reasonable voice within the business community and with state and federal governments”.

At the same time, he was described in Australian Director magazine as “an extraordinary figure, enough to extend the capabilities of a lesser person well beyond what could be reasonably expected”. “The institute has indeed been extremely fortunate that Sir Robert is the person he is. Without him, things would have been very different and it is due not only to his public actions, but also to his many private, unnoticed and unsung acts of assistance that the institute has achieved its measure of success,” the magazine noted.

In 1985, as chairman of Rothmans’ Australian subsidiary, Sir Robert was asked to take over the helm of the struggling parent company in London. He returned it to profitability and took early retirement in 1988.

Continuing to live in London, he served on several Australian and UK boards, including NAB, the Daily Mail & General Trust and Edwards Dunlop & Co Group. He was also appointed an Honorary Fellow of the University of Sydney and Honorary Life Governor of the Australian Postgraduate Federation in Medicine.

Throughout his adult life, Sir Robert had a passion for sailing. He reportedly competed in the Sydney-Hobart race on 11 occasions, winning it in 1970. Earlier, in 1967, he was a member of the Australian team that won the Admiral’s Cup in England.

Sir Robert is described by a former employee as “tough to work for, but a fun guy who taught me a lot”.

Ian Hutchinson, a company director and former chairman and senior partner of Herbert Smith Freehills, recalls: “As a solicitor, I advised a number of companies of which he was a director, usually the chairman. And, I knew him well. He was one of the pre-eminent directors of the time and one of the most astute, professional company directors I have known. He knew his corporate law, accounting and taxation and was a great acquisition for any board. He was demanding in his requirements and on one occasion he rang me from London and insisted I fly there that day. He was an absolute gentleman and it was a privilege to work with him.”

Sir Eric Neal AC FAICDLife, inaugural president of the Australian Institute of Company Directors in 1990 and former Governor of South Australia, was friends with Sir Robert for many years. He describes him as “an outstanding Australian who made a huge contribution in so many areas of activity”.

“He was an outstanding company director, made an outstanding contribution to the role of corporate governance in Australia and was an excellent manager. For him to take his boat into Sydney harbour and to race it and win was also pretty outstanding,” observes Sir Eric.