With his old Scotch College blazer, an Essendon football club jumper and the sound of bagpipes, the friends and family of Sir James Balderstone farewelled the legendary businessman in Melbourne on Friday.
Some of Australia’s leading business, political and sports figures gathered between the white pillars of St Mark’s Church in Camberwell, for a service to honour the man who left BHP Billiton with two of its most important modern-day pillars.
Born in May 1921, Sir James served in the Australian Navy on HMAS Kanimbla during World War Two before leaving the ranks of Sub Lieutenant to pursue a career in pastoralism, finance and eventually, resources.
To a large audience including NAB chairman Michael Chaney AO, former Western Mining boss Hugh Morgan AC and former federal ministers Rod Kemp and Peter Nixon, his son Jim Balderstone revealed Sir James had been anchored in Sydney Harbour with HMAS Kanimbla on the day Japanese submarines entered the harbour.
“The captain sent him to the bow armed with a 303 rifle,” he said.
A career in business beckoned after the war, with Sir James sitting on many of corporate Australia’s most prestigious boards including Westpac, Woodside Petroleum, ICI and AMP, yet he is perhaps best known for his 18 years on the board of BHP.
He was knighted in 1983 for his services to primary industry and commerce.
His five years as chairman of BHP between 1984 and 1989 included the period when Robert Holmes a Court unsuccessfully tried to take over the mining giant, a period that Jim Balderstone described as one of the bigger challenges his father faced during his working life.
“The last thing he wanted was for Australia’s greatest company to be taken over and broken up,” he said.
Sir James also oversaw BHP’s acquisition of the Utah group of companies, which delivered to the company arguably the world’s best copper mine, Chile’s Escondida, and the coking coal mines of Queensland.
Both assets are still treasured by the company as two of the four “pillars” upon which it is built.
“Sir James worked tirelessly to strengthen the company’s relationship with its shareholders, employees and customers. He left a significant legacy in the enduring history of the company and the board benefited greatly from his wise counsel and leadership,” BHP said in a statement.
Jim Balderstone said the final 13 years of what had been a wonderful life were among the hardest, with a stroke in 2001 hampering Sir James’ speech. “In many ways Dad left us 13 years ago,” he said.
Sir James passed away at home on October 15.
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