Arvi Hillar Parbo was born on 10 February 1926 in Tallinn, Estonia. When World War II ended in Europe in May 1945, Arvi entered a Displaced Persons Camp in Lübeck, Germany. Later, he enrolled at the Clausthal Mining Academy in West Germany. After two years he decided he would immigrate to Australia because ‘it had the shortest queue’. Arvi arrived in Melbourne in November 1949 and was sent to work in a quarry near Adelaide. Later, he went to Adelaide University, where after three years of part-time and two years full-time study, he completed Mining Engineering with First Class Honours in 1955.
In April 1956, Arvi joined Western Mining Corporation (WMC) at its Great Western Consolidated gold mine at Bullfinch where he was a surveyor. He soon came under the notice of the General Superintendent, Sir Laurence Brodie-Hall, who recognised his numerous talents and appointed him Underground Manager of the Nevoria Mine in 1958. Two years later, he was transferred to Melbourne as Technical Assistant to the Managing Director, William M Morgan. He also assisted the Chairman, Sir Lindesay Clark, with the negotiations which led to the formation of Alcoa of Australia Ltd in 1961.
In 1964, Arvi was transferred to Kalgoorlie as Deputy General Superintendent. He played an important role in the development of the iron ore project at Koolanooka and the establishment of Kambalda Nickel Operations. He returned to Melbourne in 1967 and was appointed General Manager in 1968, Director in 1970, Managing Director in 1971 and Chairman and Managing Director in 1974.
Visitors to his office would have noted the absence of clutter – there were never any overflowing trays or heaps of unattended papers on Arvi’s desk. He had a nice habit of keeping everything other than the item being discussed concealed, giving the visitor the impression that his attention was fully devoted to the subject under discussion. He also possessed an incredible memory for names, facts, figures and events which, combined with his exceptional capacity to quickly arrive at the crux of an issue, no doubt contributed to his remarkable success as a business leader.
WMC grew appreciably during the period Sir Arvi was Chairman and MD – capital increased enormously, nickel production trebled, gold output increased fourteen-fold, talc operations expanded, oil and gas exploration and production commenced, the Olympic Dam copper-uranium deposit was brought into production, and Queensland phosphate operations were re-established. In 1986, after 15 years as Managing Director, Sir Arvi stepped aside in favour of Hugh Morgan, but remained Executive Chairman until December 1990 when he retired as an executive of WMC. He remained Chairman until 1999.
Outside of WMC, Sir Arvi was Chairman of Alcoa of Australia, a Director of Aluminum Company of America, Chairman of Munich Reinsurance Company of Australia Limited, Chairman of Zurich Australian Insurance Group, Hoechst Australian Investments, Chase AMP Bank and Sara Lee Corporation.
In August 1987, Sir Arvi was appointed a Director of Broken Hill Proprietary and was Chairman of BHP from 1989 to 1992. He was also Chairman of PwC’s Energy and Mining Advisory Board; and a member of the Degussa AG Supervisory Board, PA Consulting Group, Chase International Advisory Committee, Blake Dawson Waldron Advisory Board, China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) International Advisory Council, and Egon Zehnder Global Corporate Governance Advisory Board.
In 1983, the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, arranged a meeting of business, government and union leaders to an ‘Economic Summit’. Sir Arvi, who had no political affiliations, attended the summit and made such an impact with his common-sense proposals that he became a spokesman for the business community. Shortly after, he was elected inaugural President of the Business Council of Australia.
Among the many other honours awarded to Sir Arvi were the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, Knight Bachelor, Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure by His Majesty the Emperor of Japan, Australian Achiever for 1990 from the Australia Day Council, Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), the Order of the White Star from the President of the Republic of Estonia in February 2001 and the Australian Centenary Medal in August 2003.
He was also awarded Honorary Doctorates from Deakin, Monash, Curtin, Flinders, Sydney and Central Queensland universities.
As President of AusIMM in 1990, Sir Arvi visited every active branch of AusIMM throughout Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, delivering a unique address at each. His addresses were published in a 300-page book, DownUnder – Mineral Heritage in Australia.
Sir Arvi became President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1995 which involved a considerable amount of time in representing the Academy and participating in its widespread activities.
As mentioned, Sir Arvi retired from his WMC executive role in December 1990, but remained Chairman of the Board until 1999. At a retirement dinner, Sir Arvi reflected on his association with WMC:
I have been truly privileged to spend my working life with Western Mining. I have always enjoyed whatever I have been doing and the opportunity to work with people I respect and admire – true professionals in whatever their function in the company. I cannot remember a day when I was not looking forward to going to work. I have appreciated the comradeship, and the high ethical standards which have made me proud to be a part of Western Mining. These standards were set by Sir Lindesay (Clark) and have been maintained since then.
‘Sir Arvi earned the respect and trust of a great many Australians from all walks of life.’
Immediately following his retirement from the Board of WMC, Sir Arvi began writing his recollections of 25 years of chairmanship of the company. He was determined to not only record the history of the company during his term of office, but also to add a personal commentary on the events and activities which occurred along the way. This huge manuscript has been deposited in the National Library in Canberra. His passion for mining history was also evident in that he was a member of the Australasian Mining History Association and served on the Selection Committee of the Australian Miners’ Hall of Fame. He was Patron of the Melbourne Mining Club from its formation in 2001.
Sir Arvi’s views, advice and opinions have been sought on all manner of topics and he was well known for his approachability, balanced views, common-sense commentaries and straight-forward logic. He earned the respect and trust of a great many Australians from all walks of life and has been heralded as a ‘Great Australian’ – even though modesty would not allow him to acknowledge it.
Sir Arvi died peacefully at his home in Melbourne on 1 May 2019. He is survived by his wife, Saima; daughter, Ellen; sons Peeter and Martin, and six grandchildren.
In paying tribute to Sir Arvi, Andrew Mackenzie CEO of BHP said, ‘Australia has lost a man who worked hard to better himself, the companies he worked for and the people who relied on them.’
A Memorial Commemoration was held in the Melbourne Town Hall on 27 May 2019 at which former Australian Prime Minister the Hon John Howard OM AC, Professor Geoffrey Blainey AC, Lembit Marder (Hon Consul for Estonia), Dr Kiera McNiece (granddaughter), Rory McNiece (grandson) and Hugh Morgan AC paid tributes to Sir Arvi before a large audience.