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Utz, John Walter (1928–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

John Utz, who served in the Royal Australian Navy in World War II as a teenager and had his ship sunk by the Japanese at Colombo, had the brilliance to rise to the very top of the business world, where he chaired Wormald International, AMP General Insurance and Rothmans.

He dealt successfully with such contentious issues as the redevelopment of The Rocks. When the Australian Bicentennial Authority lost its chief executive Dr David Armstrong and first chairman, John Reid, in controversial circumstances, he was summonsed to become acting chairman. He did so, and the authority carried on without further ado.

A confidant of four successive prime ministers, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard, Utz encountered much rough water but no ''ship'' he sailed in ever sank again.

John Walter Utz was born on July 9, 1928, in Sydney, the son of John Frederick Utz and Doris (nee Lee). He went to Bondi Public School but the family was dysfunctional and at a young age he had to take on responsibility for his mother and his sister, Faye. He did not have much formal eduction and was direct and rough-spoken through life.

When war broke out, he did a naval midshipman's course and found himself in action while still a teenager. Serving on a captured Italian vessel, Remo, he was badly wounded by the Japanese. ''They thought I'd never walk again and to this day, I'm deaf in the left ear,'' he said years later.

Utz was repatriated and recuperated by surfing at Bondi. Years later, he would become patron of the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club.

Utz set up as a commercial traveller, importing drapery and textiles, and hawking them around New South Wales. In 1951, he joined Wormald Industries, a corporation specialising in fire protection and home security. He also married June Wawn, a union which was to produce three daughters and a son but would ultimately end in divorce.

In the meantime, he quickly moved through the Wormald ranks and in 1968 became managing director and the company flourished. It ventured overseas in 1976 and took over the British-based Mather and Platt. It changed its name to Wormald International and Utz was appointed executive chairman.

Utz began his relationship with the highest levels of federal government. In 1979, he served as chairman of the Sydney Legacy Torch Appeal, was awarded an Order of Australia, became president of the Australian Guarantee Corporation and was also appointed president of the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia.

In May 1981, the federal government appointed him chairman of the Defence Review Committee. Utz created a stir when he reported in 1982 that the nation's defence organisation was not geared for a national emergency or armed conflict.

Utz had a natural affinity with Hawke, who was responsible for the implementation of the defence review report. Utz shared his capacity for bluntness. One of Utz's quotable remarks was: ''I've always said you can make a mistake once. If you make the same mistake twice, you're a fool and three times, you're out.''

A foundation member of the Business Council of Australia, Utz said publicly that Australia had one of the worst discomfort indexes – the combined measures of inflation and unemployment rates – in the developed world. He was also, like Hawke, a ''people'' person. He became governor of the Work Skills Foundation Australia, took on a directorship of Qantas and became chairman of AMP General Insurance, holding the latter position for 16 years.

In his economic development role, Utz said the rate of improvement in Australia's productivity was unsatisfactory. There was need to double productivity from 2 per cent to 4 per cent a year if Australia's serious economic situation were to improve. He said Australia had yet to address the ''tough issues''.

Appointed chairman of the Olympic Games Funding Committee, he was not necessarily subservient to government. Following statements by Howard which might have been taken to signal a return to the White Australia policy, he joined a group of eminent Australians to praise the benefits of immigration.

Utz was awarded an AC in 1989. He also joined the board of Woolworths and in 1990 he was appointed chairman of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority. He became chairman of Rothmans Holdings and was thrust into the corporate preoccupations of competition, overseas expansion, government regulation and taxes, and the health debate.

When Wormalds was taken over by the US group Tyco Laboratories, in 1990, he stepped down from a full-time position but remained a consultant.

In 1992, he was appointed a director of British Petroleum Australia. In 1993, he was appointed to the board of the Westpac Banking Corporation. His other directorships included Alcatel Australia, Standard Telephones and Cables, Crown Casino and GIO, all adding to a comment by the Business Review Weekly in 1994 that he was one of Australia's ''super directors''.

He is survived by four children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 August 2011

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Utz, John Walter (1928–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/utz-john-walter-16718/text28614, accessed 18 October 2019.

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