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Michael Lempriere (1936–2008)

by Michael D. De B. Collins Persse

Michael Lempriere, who in recent years was the Australian wool industry's most influential leader internationally, has died in a road accident in New Zealand, aged 71.

Lempriere continued a family involvement in the wool industry that spanned 150 years, from the formation of Lempriere Bros, later Lempriere Pty Ltd, in Melbourne. In 1977, he became, as his father William and uncle Peter had been, chairman of the Australian Council of Wool Buyers.

The fact that the marketing of the fibre has been freed from restrictions imposed by bureaucracy and misguided legislation owes much to his diplomacy.

As president of the Brussels-based International Wool Textile Organisation from 2005, Lempriere followed the principle shared by his colleague and immediate predecessor, Juan Casanovas, that sound marketing of wool needs to "work from the shop back to the sheep". He spearheaded a return to a personal style of collaboration with partners along the whole chain of supply.

His involvement in the industry spanned a half-century, in which time wool declined from its primacy among Australian exports in the 1950s. His own preference for the natural over the artificial, which was reflected in his life as a whole, served wool well.

Born in Melbourne, he was one of two siblings (with an older sister, Rozel) born to William Henry Lempriere and his English wife, Kathleen. His full name reflected a long ancestry: the first two are traditional in the Lempriere family, the second reflecting descent from Rollo, a Viking chief who became first Duke of Normandy; the surname is a derivative of L'Empereur, with imperial associations.

His ancestors lived from about 1270 in Jersey, which for centuries carried the highest concentration of Norman genes, and where the Lemprieres, seigneurs of Rozel, have for more than 20 generations been among the prominent families. A tradition of unostentatious public service was in his blood.

Lempriere's great-great-grandfather, Thomas, who arrived in Hobart in 1822, was an army officer, magistrate, naturalist, painter, diarist and author of The Penal Settlements of Van Diemen's Land. His son William George established in Melbourne a family of 12 children, of whom the youngest, Audley Raoul, known as Ben, was Australian amateur golf champion in 1913.

Ben, who was prominent as a wool-buying broker, married Adelaide Greene (aunt of Dame Elisabeth Murdoch) and was Michael's grandfather. Their eldest son, Geoffrey, whose character influenced his nephew Michael, was a prisoner-of-war whose diplomacy with his Japanese captors ameliorated the lot of other prisoners. He became Tasmanian president of the Liberal Party, and national president of the Council for the Arts.

Lempriere grew up in Melbourne and at Sorrento, where a love of sailing was born, and after short periods at Melbourne Grammar School and Selbright, a preparatory school in England, he was at Geelong Grammar School from 1947-53. The family business and social life normal to young men of his background soon claimed him, although respect always meant more to him than popularity. Sure of his values, he was naturally kind, elegant in an understated way, and unselfconscious, with a great sense of fun. Others were happy in his company.

In 1962, he married Diana Dougall, daughter of a Melbourne stockbroker, and they had two sons; Ben is an architect and artist, and William followed family tradition in the wool industry.

In 1975, Lempriere acquired the historic Fairbairn property Banongil, near Skipton, where he and Diana had 31 happy years, making improvements and developing one of Victoria's great gardens.

His work frequently took him overseas, often with Diana, and he established branches and representatives of the firm in Argentina, the United States, South Africa, Italy, France, the Czech Republic and New Zealand, where in the early 1990s several properties were acquired in the high country of the South Island, notably Otamatapaio, near Omarama in North Otago. There some of the world's finest wool was grown.

From his base as managing director of Lempriere (Australia) Pty Ltd, and of Banongil Pastoral Company, Lempriere's standing and influence in the wool industry led to his presidency of the Australian Council of Wool Exporters and chairmanship of the Federation of Australian Wool Organisations.

As more than one associate has said, his charm, affability, quiet enthusiasm and intelligence "made things happen". In the wool business he is generally held to have had no peer on the international stage.

Lempriere is survived by his wife Diana, sons Ben and William, daughters-in-law Lisa and Kristine, and five grandchildren.

Original publication

Citation details

Michael D. De B. Collins Persse, 'Lempriere, Michael (1936–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

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