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Abeles, Sir Peter (1924–1999)

by Attila Urmenyhazi

Sir Emil Herbert Peter Abeles (Péter Ábel), was born in Vienna in 1924 into a Hungarian-Jewish family. His father was an affluent metals dealer. When Peter was a little boy his family moved to Hungary to avoid the onslaught on Jewry by rampant fascism. He completed his secondary education in Budapest. With the Nazi Germany invasion of Hungary in 1944, he was sent to a death camp whilst his family managed to flee to Romania. They all survived and were reunited but the regime change and gradual communist takeover in postwar Hungary again forced the family to flee. In 1949, aged 25, Peter, who had enriched himself with the business acumen of his father, landed in Sydney as a refugee.

Abeles started his career as a door-to-door salesman selling encyclopedias and clothing. In his second year, with George Rockey, a fellow Hungarian, Abeles founded Alltrans, a trucking company. With two second hand lorries the budding entrepreneurs chased transport contracts, the first one obtained from the mining town, Broken Hill. Abeles organisational and business genius was guided by his belief that in a country where distance is a high cost tyranny, there was great opportunity for transport to flourish. By 1967, Alltrans was operating about 500 lorries across Australia and had merged with Thomas National Transport (TNT); in 1968 Abeles was appointed managing director of the company. Through the 1970s TNT expanded beyond Australia to the United States, Canada, Britain, Brazil and New Zealand with takeovers of, and mergers with, other transport and shipping companies.

In 1979 Abeles forged a strategic alliance with media mogul, Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, to take over Ansett Transport Industries one of the two big airlines in Australia. Both Abeles and Murdoch jointly controlled the airline as Ansett’s joint managing directors until 1992. By the mid-1980s TNT became the second biggest transport empire in the world, operating by road, rail, sea and air.

Abeles, a major force in Australian industry, influenced the careers of important business and political figures such as Kerry Packer (owner of Australian Consolidated Press and Australia’s richest man at that time), and Bob Hawke (Prime Minister of Australia ,1983-1991). Abeles supported Hawke's Prices and Incomes Accord and participated in his 1983 National Economic Summit. He formed strong links with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in respect to the two-airlines agreement of the 1980s. Hawke’s recommendation saw his friend appointed as a director of the Reserve Bank by the then Treasurer Paul Keating in 1984.

Abeles position as a close confidant of Hawke aroused suspicion, particularly during the 1989 airline strike when prime minister Hawke's action in taking on the pilots' union enabled both major airlines to enter the deregulated market in a far more competitive position. At the time Australia’s domestic airline pilots through their union, demanded an immediate 30% salary increase which was rejected by the government. It was a prolonged, bitter dispute which the pilots lost as the air force and pilots from overseas were called in to keep the airlines operating.

Abeles and Hawke's friendship had started in the 1970s when Hawke was president of the ACTU. According to Blanche D’Alpuget, Hawke’s biographer and later his second wife, Hawke looked upon Abeles as a "father figure"; he found the older man "subtle, sophisticated cosmopolitan, immensely fascinating".

In 1992 TNT was suffering from debt-ridden investments in Europe and Abeles retired as its managing director but was later re-elected to its Board. He chaired the Trade Advisory Council, and the Australian Opera Foundation. In 1987 he was named "Australian of the Year" by The Australian. The NSW Askin’s government recommended his knighthood and in 1991 he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in recognition for services to business and the arts. Under his dynamic leadership, his transport business empire at its height spread over more than 60 countries with about 55,000 employees.

As a corporate mogul, Abeles faced his share of unsubstantiated attacks and allegations about unscrupulous business tactics, ruthlessness against minority shareholders, buying his knighthood, etc. He also had his supporters. Rival transport magnate, Melbourne businessman Lindsay Fox, said Sir Peter was an "outstanding individual. His scope and vision was way ahead of anyone else in the industry. Peter was very tough but his vision for what he did was nothing more than incredible". Former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty said "Sir Peter was a decent and humane person", with a vision for Australia that "few people matched".

He respected those who worked with him, negotiated countless agreements with unions and the ACTU, and not once broke his word. Away from business his passion was cards: either intense bridge games or very high-stakes poker. For many years the then NSW premier, Sir Robert Askin was a regular at Sir Peter’s table entourage. He was seen as a warm, generous, erudite and humorous gentleman by those who knew him, who built up and cultivated a network of friends that covered all sides of the political spectrum.

Seeking to explain his enormous network of influence, he once remarked: "I can’t help if my friends have been successful in their fields". He was generous with his time and money in charitable and community causes. He established and chaired the Australian Cancer Research Foundation, which raised and distributed millions of dollars for research into the disease that, unexpectedly, was to claim his life. According to Bob Hawke, he was truly a man of the world, fluent in half a dozen languages and had a profound interest in international affairs. When delivering the eulogy of Sir Peter Abeles, the former prime minister went on to say that: "Of the 5.5 million immigrants and more than half a million refugees who have made Australia their home since World War II, none can match the breadth and magnitude of Sir Peter Abeles’ business achievement".

Original publication

  • unpublished, 2011

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Attila Urmenyhazi, 'Abeles, Sir Peter (1924–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/abeles-sir-peter-14141/text25152, accessed 23 June 2017.

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