Great Managers of John Fairfax Ltd

Behind the scenes

The Board of John Fairfax Limited 1978
Meeting of the Board of Directors of John Fairfax Limited, 19 October, 1978. This is the first occasion the Directors were photographed together. It was also the last meeting attended by Mr Henderson. The people in this photograph represent a Who’s Who of the media world. From left to right. Sir Warwick Fairfax, Sir Vincent Fairfax, R. P. Falkingham (General Manager), N. A. Doherty (Company Secretary), A. Lissenden, Sir David Griffin, A. H. McLachlan (former General Manager). A. Henderson (former General Manager) and James Fairfax. 

The Fairfax Media Business Archive is made up of over 400 record series. The largest and arguably the most significant of these series are the files of the General Managers and Managing Directors of John Fairfax & Sons, and later, John Fairfax Ltd. Consisting of over 1300 files the records created and kept by the extraordinary individuals holding these positions provide a exceptionally multifaceted view of the operations of the Fairfax publishing empire and its related interests.

The business John Fairfax & Sons was established in 1856. As the name suggests it was a family business established by John Fairfax, assisted initially by his two sons, James Reading and Charles Fairfax.  Following the death of John Fairfax in 1877 the first General Manager of John Fairfax & Sons, Hugh George, was appointed to assist with the increased burden of managing the business. The General Manager was responsible for the full range of the Sydney Morning Herald activities including the journalism, production and advertising. For almost 138 years the name “John Fairfax” remained associated with the company during which members of the Fairfax family held strategic positions on the board of the company.   

Increasingly the General Managers and Managing Directors played a significant role in the fortunes of the company and nowhere is this more evident than in the series of records created between 1949-1965, when the Managing Director, R. A. Henderson and General Manger, A. McLachlan worked together.

Rupert Albert Geary Henderson had an almost lifelong involvement with the Fairfax company, beginning as a reporter in 1915, then manager of the London office between 1923-1926. Coincidently during this period Warwick Fairfax was attending Oxford University. Henderson continued to rise through the company holding positions of Circulation Manager and Secretary to the General Manager in 1938. From 1939-1949 he held the position of General Manager then in 1949 he became Managing Director with Mr Warwick Fairfax as Governing Director.

Angus McLachlan was also a career journalist joining the staff of the Melbourne Herald in 1928. He then moved to the Sydney Morning Herald as sub-editor in 1936. McLachlan was instrumental in putting news on the front page of the Herald and for launching the Sunday Herald which later combined with the Sunday Sun to become the Sun-Herald.

McLachlan and Henderson took the Fairfax family business to new heights. Through the 1950s and 1960s the company experienced an unprecedented period of growth and the records in this series provide plenty of evidence of the issues, decisions, and challenges that they faced as the company expanded into radio, magazines and interstate, regional and community newspapers,

Henderson was responsible for successfully negotiating controlling interest in the Associated Newspapers Group, publishers of the Sun, Sunday Sun, Woman, People and, Pix, beating Consolidated Press to the prize and in doing so taking John Fairfax and Sons into popular mass market publications. As a result the company grew dramatically requiring John Fairfax and Sons to move from its long-held location in Hunter Street to new and modern premises in Broadway, integrating the Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun.

The next phase for Henderson was the flotation of the company. In 1956 all the shares in John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd were purchased by the newly formed John Fairfax Limited and for the first time shares were taken up by public subscription. Television and radio was the next target on the company’s agenda with Henderson taking managerial control of Amalgamated Television Services Pty Ltd which ran ATN 7 and purchasing a minority interest in Macquarie Broadcasting (2GB).

Similar activity and success followed with successor General Managers including Robert Falkingham and a young Greg Gardiner who not only continued strengthening the company but took it through periods of intense media rivalry, political pressure, great technological change and industrial relation reforms.

John Fairfax Company Structure 1978
This organisation chart from the 1978 John Fairfax Limited Annual Report graphically illustrates to complex nature of the company which is reflected in the records of the General Managers

This archive series provides a fascinating view of the powerful reach of the General Managers and the number of executive positions held by them. It would be easy to mistakenly perceive the role of General Manager or Managing Director as confined to a single company. John Fairfax Ltd was a holding company with subsidiary companies and these companies also held interests in other related companies creating a complex web of relationships. A General Manager of John Fairfax Ltd also sat on the board of companies such as David Syme & Co, Federal Capital Press, Amalgamated Television Services Pty Ltd, Australian Newsprint Mills Limited, Associated Newspapers, Macquarie Broadcasting Services Pty Ltd, Reuters, Tasman Pulp and Paper company and other smaller investment companies and influential associations.

As directors of these companies they received copies of the minutes to board meetings, board reports, financial statements and correspondence related to executive functions, records that perhaps would be difficult to access elsewhere. Consequently, this series not only gives researchers access to records that travelled down through the veins of the company but also provides an avenue into the operations of other media related companies.  



Peter Arfanis, Project Lead, State Library of New South Wales, 2017