A teenage English immigrant, a farm worker, a mechanic, a lecturer and a businessman, George Alexander was, in many ways, a lifelong student and teacher. In the words of his biographer Dr Peter Yule, George Alexander was 'a self-made man whose life experiences inspired a wish to help others.' His story provides inspiration for anyone who believes that determination and perseverance can overcome adversity.
Born in London in 1910, George was raised by his grandparents in Hampshire. He was a bright student with an ambition to become a motor mechanic, but his family could not afford the cost of an apprenticeship. He left school at age 13 to work in a bicycle shop.
In 1926 at the age of fifteen, George Alexander migrated alone to Australia under the Big Brother Movement, an organisation that brought young British men to Australia to work on the land.
He spent 18 months working on a dairy farm at Willatook in Western Victoria and then went to try wheat farming near Marnoo, 50 km from St Arnaud. After the harvest, he was sent by the Big Brother Movement to work at Liparoo in the semi-desert Mallee country. Sadly the crops he helped plant failed - it only rained once in the time George was there.
Times were tough during the Depression years, and in 1930 he was out of work for several months in Melbourne. He returned to Willatook for a short time and then moved to nearby Koroit, near Geelong, where he worked in a local garage. At first, this was unpaid, but after a while, he made himself indispensable and began to be paid for some of his work. Two large jobs helped him turn his work at the garage into a full-time job. George recalled that the garage was a wonderful place to gain skills and experience.
His education had only just begun, and he enrolled in evening classes in mechanics and management at the Gordon Institute of Technology in Geelong, where he finally realised his dream of becoming an A-grade mechanic. After qualifying, George was asked to teach aspiring motor mechanics in evening classes at the Gordon.
During the Second World War, he became a production engineer and then manager of a munitions factory and, being classified as an essential worker, was not allowed to enlist in the armed forces.
From 1943 to 1945, George studied Industrial Management and Executive Training at RMIT and was awarded the John Storey Award from the Department of Industrial Management. He was asked to teach at RMIT as soon as he had finished his course, which he did for three or four years.
The Big Brother Movement was set up in 1924 on the initiative of an Australian businessman, Richard Linton.
The aim was to sponsor boys to emigrate to Australia by providing each boy with a ‘Big Brother’ in Australia, who ‘would act in every way as a foster father to him until he can place him out to suitable employment that will offer him a career in life.’ The Big Brother was then to keep a paternal eye on the boy ‘until he reaches manhood’.
The ‘Little Brothers’ too had obligations. Each one had to sign an agreement ‘binding him to accept the instructions of his Big Brother and not to leave any employment without his permission. He was to work hard, not drink or gamble, avoid bad company, write to his parents once a month and … open a bank account and try to save a regular sum each week.’
- Extract from The Life of George Alexander, 'the little brother' by Peter Yule.
George Alexander combined his knowledge of mechanics and engineering with a creative mind and invented some highly successful products during his business career. After the war finished, he used his savings to set up a factory to manufacture one of his inventions, a system of brass hose fittings. He called his hose fittings business "Neta". The Neta business flourished and became widely known in the 1960s thanks to its well-known "Happy Pappy" advertising campaign.
The business expanded through the acquisition of smaller companies and was highly successful. With the intention of retiring, George sold the business in 1976 and moved to Queensland.
Rather than retiring, George simply shifted gears and developed extensive interests in property development. He also became more cognisant of environmental issues and continued to work on inventions.
George Alexander created the Foundation in order to use his wealth in a constructive way. Pragmatic and straightforward, George figured that you couldn't take your wealth with you, so it was better to give while you live. He was particularly aware of the obstacles he had faced as a child and his own lack of education, so he was inspired to help talented young people make the most of their potential.
His years working on farms, together with Neta's involvement in water supply, had given him an awareness of the environmental problems of rural Australia, and he believed that much can and should be done to repair the damage that has been done to the environment since European settlement. Even at the age of 97, he was taking steps to promote the future development of his property along environmentally sustainable development principles.
George Alexander remained active and alert and maintained his interest in the work of the Foundation until his death in February 2008.
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The scholars and fellows supported through the GAF-funded programs are committed to their studies, to giving back to the community and to becoming future leaders in their fields.