Chapter 25 - Working in Brisbane
At the time I took over the management of Queensland Office it was still operating on a relatively independent basis. Marketing was all done through the office with only major tenders prepared in Head Office. Air travel was comparatively little used in those days except for very compelling reasons. Head Office staff seldom went interstate, although the Branch Manager was expected to go to Head Office regularly. Almost all business was carried out by letter. Trunk line telephone calls were occasionally used but had the disadvantage that they were very costly and every call had to be booked and sometimes took several hours to come through. It was to be nine or ten years before direct STD dialling was introduced.
Construction work, or as it was then called, “erection” was wholly organised from the branch office. This meant a fairly large staff of engineers, clerks and typists. At the beginning of 1963 there were eleven on the staff. I realised quickly that this arrangement caused a lot of duplication. For example shipping specifications were checked at Head Office by the Contract Engineer and were then again checked, analysed and corrected where necessary by the engineering clerk in Brisbane. Similarly, accounts were received and paid in Brisbane but checked in detail in Head Office. Salaries and wages were prepared in Brisbane and, like almost everything we did, checked by Head Office. Occasionally we received a query from Head Office, but very seldom if ever, were our actions countermanded or our decisions over-ruled.
The result of this realisation was that after a while I arranged for most of these functions to be carried out at Head Office, in a manner similar to that adopted for New South Wales operations and for the agents in South and Western Australia. As staff became redundant they were allowed to retire and were not replaced. In several cases other positions were found for redundant staff. The switchgirl was given a typewriter and was expected to use it. The storeman who, incredibly, could not drive, was given a training course at the Company's expense and from thenceforth made local deliveries instead of engaging outside carriers. By these means the staff was reduced to six or seven without reducing efficiency but certainly reducing costs and resulting in less cramped accommodation.
At the time we were busy erecting boilers at Tennyson and Bulimba Power Stations. The teams of tradesmen and unskilled workers there were a useful pool to carry out maintenance work and so we took that on in a more organised way than before, actually having men “on the road” looking for that sort of work instead of just waiting for people in trouble to ring us up. When the Power station jobs were finished I arranged to retain the workshops and offices at both sites and we used them for years at no expense to the Company as headquarters for our erecting personnel. The advantage to the Electricity Authority was that we had an operational team actually on site together with a wonderful array of tools of trade, mobile cranes and supervisors. Of course, when we had contracts in the North, such as Sugar Mill boilers and plant for Mount Isa Mines, etc much of the equipment and a good proportion of the men were sent away from Brisbane. But we always had a nucleus of men who stayed in Brisbane because, for one reason or another, they couldn't or wouldn't travel or leave their homes.
The time came when transport arrangements, telephone service and better and cheaper air freight all became available that we decided to close down our store in Brisbane which had carried a wide range of spare parts and an incredible supply of “junk” such as faulty or duplicated parts, items that were unidentified and bits and pieces that had served their purpose and yet were too good to throw away, plus all sorts of things that “might come in handy” sometime. This meant that our storeman/delivery driver was redundant. So we transferred him to the Brisbane maintenance team and he served out the rest of his working life as a very useful, if at first reluctant, ironworker.
I mentioned earlier that I had wonderful co-operation from all the staff. This applied especially to the two “Jims”, Jim McKinnon who was the Senior Clerk and was, in effect, the office “Manager”, and Jim Nicol who looked after spare parts, supervised accounts and was prepared to tackle anything he was asked to do. An invaluable assistant, too, was the Confidential Secretary I had inherited from my predecessor, Beulah Zillman. Because her initials were BZ she was invariably called “Buzz”. She had a very responsible position, counter-signing at the Bank with Jim McKinnon when I was unavailable and preparing office pays and salaries, dealing with confidential and sensitive correspondence when I was “up country” or overseas. But, I must say she was never quite my secretary, as she was still in spirit Eric Hardy's secretary. I think that in her eyes I never quite measured up to the autocratic authoritarian management style that he adopted. At the same time I was able to make life a bit easier for her by re-arranging the office space to give her a small but private office, reducing some of the out-of-date practices that had previously been adopted and not burdening her with some of the personal work that she had been undertaking-quite willingly I am sure-for my predecessor. For example, she even had authority to sign his personal cheques and regularly attended to paying his household accounts and private commitments on his behalf. I have always preferred to handle my own cheque book.
However, when she left to take up a position in New Zealand (as she had a lot of family problems and was trying to get away from them for a while) I was faced with the task of replacing her. In fact this wasn't too difficult because one of the girls who answered the advertisement in the “Courier Mail” was an attractive young lady from Goomeri named Elaine Kerr. She had been working for a while at the Brisbane University but wanted to get away from there and find a responsible job in industry. She was only nineteen or twenty at the time and pretty enough to have been encouraged to enter the Miss Australia Quest, in which she got as far as “Miss Brisbane”. Although for some reason Jim McKinnon (my Office Manager and therefore having a say in the appointment of staff members,) didn't like her very much she was appointed to the job and proved to be a very good Secretary. She was a very intelligent, industrious and well-mannered girl besides being highly proficient at both shorthand and typing. However, after a couple of years she grew restless and became a bit of a prima donna, encouraged, I think, by her good-for-nothing but charismatic boy friend who, it seemed, made his living by playing cards and other forms of gambling-or that was his story. I suspect he was pretty crooked and I was pleased when I heard some time later that Elaine had given him up. Elaine's work was adversely affected and relationships became strained, so it was a bit of a relief all round when she was offered a job by Utah Constructions and joined them as Secretary to one of their senior executives. It was, as I recall, a very nice job with a better salary than we could hope to pay and in which she frequently travelled to the United States as part of her duties.
This left me in the position of having to seek another secretary. This time it proved to be much harder, but eventually I decided on a middle-aged lady with good references, an active member of the Methodist Church, very interested in the Girls Comrades movement and with experience as Secretary to the Chairman of the Queensland Agricultural Society which ran the Annual Exhibition at the Brisbane Showgrounds. She was also Secretary of the Brisbane Society of Secretaries, which should have been a recommendation. But after a few weeks it became apparent that although she was a competent typist she was very set in her ways and slow to adapt her shorthand skills, such as they were, to the altogether different needs of the engineering industry, in spite of all she knew-and it was considerable-about the grazing industry. Her lack of efficiency, of course, affected my work and also others for whom she worked so we decided to look for someone else.
Now it so happened that just at that time Janet and Heather Bishop were on their way back from a working holiday in England. Before they left, Janet, who had been with Groom Sanderson all her working life, had told me that she thought she would look elsewhere for a position when she returned. So, nothing ventured nothing gained, I wrote to her care of an address in Perth that her Mother gave me and offered her the job. But I had left my run too late, because-as she explained in a prompt reply-she had just agreed to return to Groom Sanderson after an impassioned plea for her to do so from Mr Brian Sanderson himself. (Or was it Sir Reginald Groom himself? I can't remember.) She made an excellent suggestion, however, to the effect that Heather would be interested, as she, too, had been having second thoughts about returning to Groom Sanderson, largely because of an over-bearing Female Supervisor in their office. And that is how I struck gold! Heather joined our staff and immediately endeared herself to all she had dealings with-including Jim McKinnon who was pretty hard to please where female staff members were concerned. Heather assumed more and more responsibility and during a couple of periods when I was overseas and Jim McKinnon had gone over to the Construction Division, she literally ran the office herself. In retrospect I find myself being very grateful that I have had some wonderful people to work with. Very important to the efficiency of my work have been my Secretaries and two of them stand out from the rest, Shirley Hollander and Heather Bishop. Heather, while working with me, was to marry Richard Whitson and I am pleased to count them-and Shirley Hollander, too-amongst my best friends.
When I was in charge of Brisbane Office I used to frequently sit at the same lunch table at The Brisbane Club as Brian Sanderson and he never forgave me for “stealing” Heather from his staff. If he had ever known that I had first tried to steal Heather's older sister, I think he would have done something rather nasty to me. Janet still works for the same firm of Accountants, although their name has changed to Peat Marwick. Brian Sanderson is now retired, but like me, he still calls in to his old office frequently and still considers Janet to be “his” Secretary!
Having mentioned my Secretarial Staff in Brisbane, perhaps I should mention some of the others, too. Jim McKinnon I have already mentioned. He joined the Company straight from school and, although without any qualifications either technical or commercial, became an invaluable staff all-rounder in both Engineering and Accounting matters. He was also responsible for Industrial Relations and was very expert in this field. Although he had no official title, he acted as Office Manager responsible for the conduct of Brisbane Office and the supervision of the staff. He deputised for me when I was away. He was a very faithful, helpful and pleasant man to have in the office. Jim was transferred to the Construction Division when it was set up at Tingalpa under Ron Todkill (one of our Erectors) as Manager. It was Jim, however, who really had the management skills and was a great help to Todkill who is still in charge there and doing very well. Jim retired early a few years ago and there was some difficulty over the terms of his retirement. It seems that he had developed a heart condition which he considered was because of his work, but which was not sustained when he made application for a special retirement benefit. This rather embittered him and he has not kept in touch with the firm, which is a great pity. I believe he now works at the Princess Alexandra Hospital at South Brisbane.
The other man in the office that I have already mentioned was Jim Nicol. In many respects he has the same qualities as Jim McKinnon whose position he took after the latter retired. He is now the Senior man in the Babcock Brisbane Construction operation under the Manager. Besides the two Jims, Brisbane Office, when I arrived, had several male clerks, two engineers and four female staff. When one of the Clerks, Fred Badcock, retired I arranged for his position to be filled by Dennis Holmes who had migrated to Australia from England. In fact, I had a lot to do with his migration as it was arranged by the Chermside Methodist Men's Brotherhood of which I was Chairman of the Migration Committee. We had arranged for a couple of families to migrate but the most successful were Dennis, his wife Margaret, his three daughters, Susan, Roberta and Adele, and his Mother-in-law and Father-in-law. We arranged not only a job for Dennis, but a house for them to live in and gave them temporary accommodation until it was ready. They fitted in very well and their efforts to get themselves fully integrated into our society were really quite marvellous. Before long they had a house of their own under construction and Jean and I have kept in touch with them ever since. We look on them as being an extension of our family and have a great affection for them. When they came to Australia they were nominal Christians, but all the family have had real spiritual experiences and they are now fully committed and radiantly witnessing followers of our Lord. Dennis, after living in the Brisbane suburbs for some years decided he wanted to get out into the country. They are now living at Nanango in a small house they have largely built themselves. Dennis has a job at the Power Station construction site. Two of the girls are married to very nice fellows and have children, and the youngest daughter is planning to marry later this year to another young man we have met and thoroughly approve of.
The two engineers in the office, George Wilson and John McIver, became redundant during my time there and both of them obtained positions, good ones too, with the Southern Electric Authority of Queensland. They took with them a great deal of experience and John McIver ended up in a very responsible position of trust in connection with site inspection work.
Until the last year or two of my time there, Brisbane Office also had several typists and a receptionist. There was a fairly fast turnover in female staff and I am afraid I don't remember the names of most of them. One girl came to us from Queensland Airlines where she had been a hostess but preferred more regular hours. She left to get married. Another was a lass who had experienced a nervous breakdown (although we didn't know that when we employed her) while working at Queensland University as a stenographer. Her name was Joyce Hooper, and she came to us as a receptionist as she had lost confidence in her ability to do shorthand. She was a pleasant and very attractive girl but always seemed insecure. She left to move to Sydney where, to my surprise I met her one evening at a symphony concert in the Town Hall! She didn't seem to have changed much except, perhaps in her tastes for music! One girl I remember well, although not her name, came to us as a graduate of the training college run by the Department of Aboriginal and Island Affairs. She was a very shy little Aboriginal girl whose salary was subsidised and appeared to be happy enough with us, but failed to appear one morning. On making enquiries from the Department and the lady with whom she was lodging it seems that she had just disappeared. We tried several times to contact her but never heard of her again. I suppose there would have been six or seven other girls working in the office during my time and although I saw them each day I had little direct work contact with them and unfortunately remember very little about them.
The Babcock Brisbane Office was on the third floor of Estates Chambers in Creek Street next door to the Gresham Hotel. This was the “watering hole” of the Trades Union people whose office was a bit up the hill and who spent a lot of time in the Industrial Court just across the road. As a result, Jim McKinnon who looked after our industrial relations had only to occasionally pop in there at about 4 o'clock of an afternoon to find out what was going on in the industrial scene. As far as I can remember, he never did claim the cost of the round of drinks that he had to shout! Perhaps he thought he got more than his money's-worth.
In the same building we had the office of The Sugar Producers' Association, a useful group of people to know as we had so much business in Sugar Mills. One of our main clients, Australian Estates, owned the building, but most of their purchasing was done from their head office in Melbourne. Within two blocks were the offices of Mount Isa Mines Ltd (although most of their contracts were actually negotiated at Mount Isa where I became a frequent visitor) and The Southern Electric Authority of Queensland. As time went on the Ampol Refinery was built at the mouth of the Brisbane River and the Amoco Refinery on the opposite bank. Then natural gas was piped to Brisbane and the large fertilizer works were built on Gibson Island near the River mouth. General Motors built their large assembly plant at Acacia Ridge and there were several smaller projects such as hospitals, sawmills and breweries all offering business. Add to this the remarkable expansion of the State of Queensland in the aluminium and alumina industries, copper refining, nickel refining, textile and dairy industries, the regional abattoirs and coal mining for the export trade and it can be seen that the office had a busy staff.
To add to the task a little and to the interest a great deal, I was entrusted with the South East Asian business opportunities about which I have already had something to say.
If there was one great disappointment in the twelve years I was in Brisbane Office it was that, other than the boiler plant for the Mica Creek Power Station at Mount Isa, we failed to win a single contract for boilers for any of the new Power Stations that were built in the period. In spite of this, I kept a very close and pleasant relationship with the executives and a wide spectrum of the staff of the Electricity Authorities and the State Electricity Commissioner and his Staff. A good deal of business came our way as a result, including power station upgrading work, but none of the “plum” Power Station contracts.
While all this was going on Philip and Ann left school and started working. I attempted to help them both by arranging a job at the National Bank for Philip and at the Southern Electric Authority for Ann. However, neither of them liked these jobs much and, to their credit (although I had doubts at the time) found themselves other jobs more to their liking. Philip moved into radio by getting a job as an announcer at the Nambour radio station. This was followed by a similar job in Cairns, one in Toowoomba and, finally one in Brisbane. While all this was going on he married, studied part-time at Queensland University and got a B.A. degree, then left radio for his present career with World Vision, first in public relations, then setting up the World Vision office in Hong Kong and now back in Australia in an administrative capacity. While in Hong Kong he finished his M.B.A. degree.
Ann, in the meantime, sat for a Commonwealth Public Service Examination and got a job with the Customs Department in Brisbane. After a while she and a couple of friends applied for a transfer to the Department's Head Office in Canberra where they lived in a Commonwealth Hostel and seemed to enjoy the change, at least for a while. After another spell back in Brisbane Ann was transferred to Mackay in the Customs Department where, again, she appeared to enjoy the change of scene and met many new friends. When the Department wanted her to return to Brisbane, it was, I believe, because of one of these friends that she resigned her position and, instead, went to work for the Mackay branch of David Jones. Eventually, however she returned to Brisbane and rejoined the Commonwealth Public Service. When we came to live in Sydney in late 1974 she came with us and was employed in the Commonwealth Employment Service Office in Chifley Square, Sydney. It was there she met Renzo Benedet who is now her husband.
Judith, after being married to Don Carter, continued to work as a Secretary at Allens Sweets at South Brisbane while Don worked at the Main Roads Dept. They rented a small flat at Chermside while Don finished his Bachelor of Engineering degree course. Then, to our great delight, Jean and I were told to expect to become Grandparents in about July 1970. This duly happened on the 4th, when Jane arrived. Not long afterwards Judith and Don bought a house at Aspley and, about the same time, Philip and Judy bought one at Ferny Hills. Judith and Don were not to live there very long, however, as Don had an urge to return to the Sydney scene. His Father had retired from the railway and, with Don's Mother had moved to their retirement home at Blaxland. Don's Mother, who very tragically was not to live very long, had greatly missed her family since Don had gone to Queensland to live and his two sisters had left home about the same time to marry. So Don applied for and got a transfer back to the NSW Dept of Main Roads and in early 1974 he and Judith moved from Queensland to Blaxland from whence Don commuted to the City each day to work.
It was a couple of years later that Philip obtained the position in World Vision that meant that he and Judy with their little family moved to Melbourne where, after renting for a while, bought a home at Boronia.
Early in the year 1972, the Overseas Management of Babcocks decided on a somewhat new direction for the Australian operation. They retired Marshall Wilson, the Managing Director and appointed Hugh Weir to take his place. Several times during my term in Brisbane the need to continue the office there had been looked at. Each time it was decided to continue, although Melbourne Office had been closed down when the Manager there, Bill Monks, reached retiring age. Of course, communications, with STD phone dialling, quick and hourly airline schedules and greater involvement of Head Office personnel in contract administration had radically changed the Branch Office role since I had first taken over the job. I found I was travelling more, especially into South East Asia, and with much more frequency to Head Office for briefings and regular Sales and Management meetings.
At the same time, Head Office had little involvement in administering the Queensland construction work until, in 1973, a separate Australia-wide Construction Division was formed and our Brisbane Office was split into two separate groups, Jim McKinnon and one of our Erectors, Ron Todkill, forming the newly established Queensland Construction Division with a separate office and small workshop at Tingalpa as already mentioned. At about the same time we were given notice to quit our office in Creek Street as the building had been sold and was soon to be demolished. We quickly rearranged things and in January 1974 we moved into a lovely new office in the Commonwealth Bank Building in King George Square.
In the meantime, Doug Brazier who had come out from England to take over as Sales Director on Spen Shirtley's retirement, was finding the going rather heavy and put some pressure on me to return to Sydney to administer the Sales Department under him. In all honesty, I really had little choice, because I think the decision had already been made to close down the Brisbane Office and have me continue to look after the marketing aspects of the Queensland business from Sydney, together with the similar needs of the other States. At that time I was 53 years old and the only man in the Company with experience in Branch Office Administration. At the same time, I had extensive experience in Sales Administration from the Brook House and Rex House days. So I agreed, and at the end of August 1974, Jean, Ann and I, having arranged to lease our Aspley home and, in turn, lease a home unit at Drummoyne, returned to Sydney, I to work in the Babcock Head Office at Regents Park and Ann in the Commonwealth Offices in Town.
So, after enjoying a very satisfying working life, pleasant social life and making many wonderful friends, the John Hunt family had to cut its ties with Queensland. With, perhaps, one exception. Several times Jean and I had spent short holidays at Bribie Island and had got to like the place. In due course there was a Local Government Department auction of blocks of land on Bribie, which is about fifty kilometres north of Brisbane and is a true island, although connected to the mainland by a sturdy concrete bridge. I bid for, and was successful in obtaining two blocks of land at a total cost of $2000, payable on 10% deposit and interest at 5%. One block was on the ocean side and the other on the passage side of the island, although both were several streets back from the waterfront. After having had these for a while and wondering what to do with them, we happened to be talking to an Estate Agent on the Island, Chas Drew, whose daughter had flatted with Ann in Mackay, and he told us of a very fine two-storey brick house with a self-contained flat fronting the road that runs along the waterfront on the Pumicestone Passage side of the island. We went, had a look, and fell in love with it. $50,000 was the price. “The land,” the agent said, “was worth $30,000 alone! Besides, it was a good letting proposition, and would pay for itself.”
We had just finished paying off our home at Aspley and so we approached the bank manager who got someone to look at it and said he would lend us $30,000 if we could raise the balance. Jean had a few shares and other investments which would raise $5000 but what to do about the other $15,000? Well, I said to the agent, we'll buy it if the vendor (who happened to be an estate agent himself and was rather pressed for cash at the time) will take our two blocks of land off our hands at $15,000. These were the blocks I had paid $2000 for less than two years before and were still not fully paid for! Rather to our surprise, the vendor agreed, as land values had greatly increased on Bribie Island since the bridge had been put across. He took the blocks as deposit, we cashed Jean's few investments, borrowed the balance from the bank and “Illawong” at 109 Welsby Parade was ours. And still is. We have, with rare exceptions had two holidays there each year since. A lot of the time there is spent on maintenance and improvements, but we always enjoy ourselves. There is a peace that comes into my soul when, in the late afternoon I sit at the front and watch the sun setting behind the mountains beyond the placid waters of Pumicestone Passage. Then, every two or three days, we run down to Brisbane, or up to Caloundra to spend time with friends, attend our old Church at Chermside or have friends visit us. It is indeed a very tangible link with Queensland.