A remarkable man and a very good friend

One of the blog’s best friends died just over a year ago. Don’s family kindly agreed to the blog writing an obituary, with their assistance, which was published in The Age year. As a commemoration the blog republishes both the obituary and the eulogy the blog was honoured to be able to deliver at Don’s funeral service.

Donald Bruce Macfarlane 25 July 1939- 11 June 2016

Don Macfarlane aspired to be a professional drummer. Instead he became CEO of Amcor, a major Australian company; played a role in developing young leaders across all sections of society; was a generous supporter of the community; and, an accomplished painter and a passionate lover of art history and art.

At his memorial service speakers from family, work, friends and the community spoke about his exceptional intellect, his capacity for friendship, his artistic insightfulness, his visionary community involvement and how so unlike the stereotypical establishment business leader he was.

Don’s early life was spent in East Bentleigh. His father, Gordon Henry Macfarlane was overseas for the full duration of World War II in the Middle East, Greece and in a German prisoner of war camp. Don was educated at Melbourne High School and the University of Melbourne where he studied science, majoring in chemistry. His father died when Don was 20 leaving his mother, Lilias Eva Macfarlane, with three dependent children to bring up on a widow’s pension.

While at university he developed an interest in modern jazz progressing from Dave Brubeck to the Modern Jazz Quartet, Oscar Petersen, Gerry Mulligan then Miles Davis and on to Thelonious Monk. He also began to play the drums practising, in deference to the others in the house, by hitting on a rubber mat and keeping his drum kit elsewhere.

As the eldest child he had to help his mother bring up his younger brother and sisters – Ian, Helen and Elizabeth – all born after the war. Ian recalls Don performing paternal duties at a Melbourne High School ‘father and son’ night: “a 22 year old Don had to join all the 45 year old fathers at a school he had only left a few years ago to listen to a member of the clergy explain the facts of life in the most obscure and coy language imaginable. But Don did his duty, and even clarified some of the clergyman’s explanation later in somewhat blunter language.”

Don met his wife, Helen O’Sullivan, at the Jazz Centre in St Kilda, and they were married in 1962. He started at Australian Paper Manufacturers (APM) Technical Lab in 1957 while still pursuing his dream of a jazz drumming career. His then boss, Oertel Naudebaum, in 1962 encouraged him to take a sabbatical in the UK and the US to learn more about paper and paper making suggesting that this would give him time to consider whether the pulp and paper or the music industry was to be his future. Indeed, it might have been music because on the ship over he played for the passengers as part of the Richard Harding Trio.

His sabbatical included London where he did significant technical research on paper production at the London Institute of Printing while Helen worked with Christine Keeler’s Legal Theatrical Agent; and in New York during the 1964 Presidential campaign when Helen was active in the Johnson campaign and emerging civil rights movement.

He returned to Australia to rejoin APM and went to the Petrie Mill in Queensland working in a technical role and from there was posted to APM Central Tech working on the developing corrugated materials market. The company recognised him as a rising star and sent him to roles at Botany Mill; a Mill manager at Broadford where he honed some of his enlightened ideas of staff and community engagement; and then to APM’s flagship operation, Maryvale Mill in Traralgon, where he was renowned for his enthusiasm, vision, inclusion and team leadership by staff and the wider community. Symbolic of his approach was when he organised buses to take Australian Paper Vietnam Veterans to the 1987 Sydney Welcome Home March. Throughout these postings he was always supported by Helen’s deep local community involvement.

When APM became Amcor he was appointed Australian Paper Managing Director where he oversaw the successful restructure of the company’s pulp and paper operations, the APPM acquisition and the expansion of Maryvale. His successful engagement strategies were demonstrated when Amcor took over APPM soon after APPM had been hit by endemic industrial relations problems and a lock out. Don didn’t try to tell APPM staff why Amcor was different. Instead he flew the entire APPM Tasmanian workforce to Maryvale and let them talk freely with any of the Maryvale staff about the company, its culture and its practices.

At the same time he was instrumental in driving Amcor’s offshore push with the acquisition of Sunclipse and the establishment of European corrugating operations.

Significantly, as his friend and colleague Garry Ringwood said, Don was an unusual Melbourne-based CEO who refused to be part of the establishment and resisted blandishments to “join one of the gentlemen’s clubs in the city from the moment he came to town from the bush. Despite these apparent shortcomings Don made it to the very top of the corporate world and yet, as most know, Don Macfarlane the CEO was exactly the same person as Don Macfarlane walking around the mills in white overalls.”

In retirement Don, like many ex-CEOs, could have collected non-executive directorships. Instead he continued to be an outstanding example of the modern Renaissance Man – devoting his time to music, art, love of all things Italian, and community support.

Always systematic, while simultaneously empathetic, he investigated possible community groups to support by taking a tour organised by the Australian Community Foundation to various organisations. One of them was the Sacred Heart Mission for which, over 14 years, he became a generous, major supporter. Another resulted in him outfitting an entire young Vietnamese soccer team in Springvale.

He also had a lasting impact as Chair of Leadership Victoria – the Williamson Community Leadership Program – which trains emerging leaders. The program has produced CEOs, MPs, senior public servants and successful professionals but to Don the fundamental program purpose was to give emerging leaders knowledge of how diverse the world in which they had to operate was, and to encourage them to live reflective, productive and rewarding lives.

In the final years of his life he devoted more and more time to his painting and sculpture. He was extraordinarily insightful about art and could talk knowledgeably about everything from the Italian masters, Rubens, Raeburn and Sargent to less famous artists such as Lovis Corinth and the Scottish colourists.

He is survived by his wife, Helen; daughters Melissa and Georgina; brother Ian;sisters Helen and Elizabeth; and son-in-law Frank. The family has announced it plans to establish a trust to honour Donald Bruce Macfarlane’s legacy particularly through support for visual artists.