John and Betty Laidlaw (philanthropists)

May 19, 2017

Philanthropists are the backbone of organisations such as The Salvation Army, and John and Betty Laidlaw are fine role models, writes Julie Houghton.



Success in business can lead a person to great wealth and the desire to amass more and more, or it can turn them into wonderful philanthropists who want to share their wealth to make the world a better place.

In this week of The Salvation Army’s major yearly fundraiser, the Red Shield Appeal, Warcry recognises two of our most generous philanthropists, former Yakka clothing company head, John Laidlaw and his wife Betty.

The famous Yakka work clothing company was founded in 1928 by John’s parents, and young John joined the family business in 1948, following his schooling at Christian Brothers College in North Melbourne.

He may have been the boss’s son, but John started as a humble trainee in the administrative department, while studying accountancy part-time.

So what’s behind Yakka being the name of a business that made tough work clothing?

John and his father did some brainstorming and decided that the Indigenous word for hard work, ‘yakka’, was the perfect description for their product and business.

Over the years, hard work and good management turned Yakka into a thriving business, but it was never just about the bottom line for John. He cared about his workforce, and was regarded as a man of his word, fair and a hard worker. He was known for the way he treated people with compassion and respect, and received great loyalty from his staff, who loved the ‘family feel’ to the business that John engendered.

John is quite clear about the way he wanted to run things.

“In managing the business, I made sure I had trusted and reliable managers, particularly in sales, credit and stock management,” he tells Warcry.

For the past 17 years, John and Betty have been major donors to the work of The Salvation Army. Earlier this year, John became an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for distinguished service to the community.

Along with his dedicated contribution to The Salvation Army, John is also a life member of AFL club Collingwood, where he has also been a major financial supporter.

In 2010, John and Betty received one of The Salvation Army’s most prestigious gestures of recognition, the ‘Others’ award, which honours those who exemplify an extraordinary spirit of service to others.

While John has been an incredibly successful businessman, he has had his own personal challenges, with his beloved wife Betty diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1984. For 22 years, John has cared for Betty and managed her condition, and for the past decade they have had full-time carers at home to help Betty.

Supporting the Salvos started when John and Betty felt they wanted to help others, as they had built up a reasonable amount of funds and their four children were established in their own lives.

“In 2000, we decided initially to provide funds via the Salvos to pay the rent for six Broadmeadows families for three years. I always had confidence that the Salvos was the best organisation to assist the disadvantaged,” says John. 

“We have had great satisfaction in seeing our donations put to good use in things such as the Red Shield Appeal, and contributed our support to get the Crisis Centre built in St Kilda.”

Being the first major sponsor for 10 years from 1977 to 1986 was a great result and experience for both the Salvos and Yakka, John recalls.

John and Betty hold strong family values, treating all people equally and with compassion.

When he retired from Yakka, John decided to give all his staff a $100 bonus for each year they worked for him. Such was the long service and loyalty given to him by staff that one of his cleaners received $3,600.

It’s always interesting to ask people how they would like to be remembered, and, like the man himself, John’s answer was humble and heart-warming.

“As a loving and devoted husband, a good boss and a generous giver to charitable causes.”


Tags: Salvation Army Australia

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