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Duncan, John Cowan (1901–1955)

by Ewan Maidment

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

John Cowan Duncan (1901-1955), company manager, was born on 8 September 1901 at Collingwood, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents Frederick Augustus Lowick Duncan, picture-framer, and his wife Louisa Maria, née Renos. Educated at Hawthorn (Manningtree Road) State School, John rowed in 'many winning Hawthorn pairs and fours'; he was to maintain his connexion with the sport as a member of the Old Oarsmen's Association and the Henley Masonic Lodge, St Kilda, which was 'composed entirely of rowing men'. He received his early training in the oil industry as a territorial representative in Victoria and Tasmania for C. C. Wakefield & Co. Ltd, and rose to the position of South Australian sales manager, based in Adelaide.

On 20 November 1929 at St John's Anglican Church, Camberwell, Melbourne, Duncan married Dorothy May Wynne. After holding an executive position under S. A. Cheney, in 1935 he was appointed Melbourne manager of the Alba Petroleum Co. of Australia Pty Ltd, an independent distributor formed in 1933. Duncan played a major role in the firm's development. By 1936-37 it had annual sales of over six million gallons of motor spirit from nine hundred outlets in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Riverina district of New South Wales.

An amalgamation between Alba and the Australian Motorists Petrol Co. Ltd (Ampol Petroleum Ltd 1948) was completed in September 1945. As the new company's general manager for Victoria—with responsibility for South Australian and Tasmanian operations as well—Duncan was an outstanding promoter of its products. In 1946 he served on the management-committee at head office whose members were authorized by (Sir) William Walkley to implement managerial and other changes stemming from the merger. From 1947 until his death Duncan was an associate-director and attended the company's board-of-management meetings. He was also president of the Ampol Social Club.

A skilled negotiator, in 1949 Duncan went via the United States of America to Europe, aiming to buy petroleum products with sterling. In October he arranged to purchase petrol from La Compagnie Française de Raffinage. Ampol gave wide publicity to his successful search for non-dollar petrol as part of the firm's campaign against the postwar rationing that restricted its share of the market. The crusade was taken up by the Liberal and Country parties, and was a significant factor in their victory at the Federal elections that year. Although the first supplies of Duncan's petrol reached Australia in early 1950, further shipments were withdrawn by the French under pressure from United States oil interests.

The knowledge Duncan had acquired abroad led to innovations in a number of Ampol's practices, including improved merchandising and marketing, and the introduction of an American scheme of regular reports on employee performance. An approachable, solidly built man, with a 'million dollar smile' and an 'easy manner most evident in times of stress', Duncan was well liked and respected for his business methods. He died suddenly of heart disease on 7 May 1955 at South Yarra and was cremated; his wife, daughter and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Simpson, Show Me a Mountain (Syd, 1961)
  • Ampol Staff News, June 1955
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 May 1955
  • Ampol (Alba) Petroleum Pty Ltd (Ampol Petroleum Victoria Pty Ltd), Board of Directors minutes, 1945-91, and Australian Motorists Petrol Co Ltd (Ampol Petroleum Ltd), Board of Directors minutes, 1939-58, and Head Office Management Committee minutes, 1946, and Associate Directors minutes, 1947-50 (all held at Ampol Head Office, Sydney)
  • Commonwealth Treasury, Importation of Petrol and Oils, A571, file 52/1891, parts 12, 13 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Ewan Maidment, 'Duncan, John Cowan (1901–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/duncan-john-cowan-10064/text17753, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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