A head and a heart for business

17 July 2018

Successful business woman, Mary Henderson, knows opportunity doesn't come to everyone. Mature-age study at the University of Sydney confirmed that idea, as she worked to advance causes important to her.

Mary Henderson

Mary Henderson used her business skills to advance causes important to her.

Talking to Mary Henderson (BEc ’85), the first thing you notice is her great personal warmth, then an active and wide-ranging intellect. There is also the clarity of a woman who started a successful business at a time when there were real obstacles to women having careers at all.

Henderson’s career journey started in post-Second World War Perth, working at what was then the city’s one decent hotel, the Adelphi. She counted artists and classical musicians among her friends, people who piqued her interest in the wider world so much that she set sail for Sydney in 1948, just shy of her 19th birthday.

“Six months of this working holiday set the template for my future,” she says. She worked as a receptionist in a hotel at the foot of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, meeting the maître d’, Bernie Gerstle, who would become her husband and the father of her three children.

Later work at the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which collected sales figures for newspapers and magazines, saw her entrepreneurial streak emerge.

“An outside service typed and duplicated documents,” she remembers. “I decided I could do that, so I hired equipment and did them at night.”

Mary Henderson

The photo of Mary Henderson used in the ad for her business in 1949.

With the help of flyers, Henderson, just 19 years old, built a client base for her office services business, All Purpose Duplicators.

She rented a real estate agent’s office under the famed Coca-Cola sign in King’s Cross where she worked most nights, grabbing a few hours’ sleep before heading to her day job. Her sister came from Perth and worked for her until the business grew enough for Henderson to give up paid employment. Before long, the business expanded into printing and publishing technical publications.

Over the same period, her husband Bernie went from an entry-level role at an international pharmaceutical company to becoming its managing director. But misfortune loomed as he began having heart attacks. Henderson let her business run down so she could support him. A few years after his early death, she closed the business she’d spent 33 years building.

“I think I was depressed,” she says. “I’d totally lost interest in everything.”

Still, her determination and energy shone through, even during these trying times. At 50 she sat the mature students’ exam at the University of Sydney and, despite only having completed three years of high school, gained entry. “I think going to university after being in the workforce and living a life made me more able to focus on why I came to study,” she says. “It also gave me the answers to many questions.” Certainly she was well remembered by lecturers as one of the feistier, more engaged students in their classes.

Mary Henderson

When Mary Henderson started her first business, she couldn't have imagined that in 1985 she would graduate from the University.

Henderson’s degree in political economy and economic history reinforced home truths she had learned in early childhood. She’d watched her father struggle to feed four children in Depression-struck Western Australia. When he had to leave his role managing a farm in the state’s wheat belt, he turned his hand to rabbiting, labouring and anything else available. “My father was doing all he was able to do and yet things were desolate,” she says.

“I realised that poverty causes considerable suffering, as most people are unable to change their circumstances, and I determined that it would not happen to me.”

After graduating, Henderson established another business, Responsible Investment Advising, to help people overcome adversity. For more than 21 years she advised disadvantaged people how to best use what they had, and wealthier people to see their money as a resource that could improve lives.

Henderson herself donates to human rights and conservation causes and has established four University scholarships: three in Political Economy and another in Economic History. She has also established bequests for several more, all intended for those who might otherwise have difficulty affording university study.

“I want my scholarships to help people think critically about social issues, especially the inequalities that impact lives,” she says. “I want them to make Australia a fairer place for all.”

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Written by Jocelyn Prasad
Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim and provided by Mary Henderson

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