For a guy who is more interested in the future than the past, I can’t understand how I keep being asked to delve into the past. I made this speech at the Kalgoorlie-Regional Industrial Centre-Conference in 1993. It starts by visiting the early 1950s, when Kalgoorlie was struggling to maintain any viability, and gives an example of how the region became the success story it is today.
The defining point of the early 1950s for me was when my father had an unexpected heart attack. He was running the family business, WG Manners & CO, at the time. This brought “young Ron” out from the back shed where I was acidifying Oldham miners’ cap-lamp batteries and unpacking crates of Timken roller bearings. I was then confronted with this new responsibility of running the family business.
Our main business principals at that time were Noyes Brothers, the Australian subsidiary of Crompton Parkinson. Their state manager Syd Webster conferred with my father on his sick-bed and passed judgement on me in words something like:
“Young Ron is not much use to anyone at the moment but if you can find someone to run the business for a year we will take Ron away to Perth, Sydney and Melbourne to try and knock some sense into him. We’ll deliver him back to you as a useful individual.”
Training in those days was totally unstructured and consisted of doing everyone’s job in an organization while they were away on their annual two-week vacation. It’s not a bad way to learn, to be thrust into the firing line to take calls and make visits in the field. I had the opportunity of becoming an instant expert on things like electric motors and switch gear, electrifying steam driven mine-winders, to marketing non-ferrous metals, materials handling equipment and Lockwood master key systems.
All was going smoothly until I was called into Mr Webster’s office. He announced he was sending me on a diplomatic mission for the company. I needed to present myself positively and overcome my natural tendency to be shy. So I would look the part, he suggested I take a trip into the city to get a hat.
Getting a hat
At age 18 I had never been a “hat person”, but feeling that a great deal was expected of me I made the purchase and received instructions from the “gentlemen’s outfitters” on just how to wear a hat and when to take it off, and the important part it plays in making a statement that you are, in fact, on a very important mission. (Of course this convention of dressing the part is really a load of rubbish. One of my favourite philosophers, Henry David Thoreau asked the interesting question: “How far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes”. He even distrusted any enterprise that required new clothes. But as long as it remains a convention, we are stuck with it.)
But I digress. With hat in hand I presented myself back at Mr Webster’s office, where he briefed me on this new challenge. He said that the firm had been fortunate in being appointed State Distributors for a new product made by Lee-Acme, and that there was a great need for this item in every one of Perth’s important buildings. This was to bring me in contact with every big company on St. George’s Terrace. He explained that, in years to come, I would remember how I played a major part in solving their problems.
I could see that he had a technical file that he was about to present to me, and he certainly had a wonderful way of preparing my appetite for the challenge. He then outlined the plan of attack. I was to go to the Head Office of each of the companies that he had listed and ask to see the head girl. For the first time I “smelt a rat”. “What is the product we are selling”, I asked. He replied, “They are Lee-Acme Sanitary Incinerators”. (Later I found out that in the “trade” they were given a far more colourful name, which in this present company must remain unmentioned).
Now, please bear in mind that this was in the days before disposal plastic bags and that, without proper disposal facilities, ladies were prone to dispose of their unmentionables by flushing them down the toilet, which in turn created huge plumbing problems, huge plumbing bills and general pandemonium.
On receiving this news, I just about shrank through the floor, but I did have the presence of mind to ask him: “Why the hat?”. He explained that if I got too embarrassed, I could just pull the hat down over my face. Well, the best bit of advice that I could give anyone who is shy, with a tendency to stutter and totally lacking in self-confidence would be to get a job selling Lee-Acme Sanitary Incinerators. I ended up in more ladies toilets in Perth than I care to remember.
I measured up for, and supervised the installation of, more of these units than they ever thought possible. There was a huge requirement for them and most of them managed to pay for themselves, through reduced plumbing costs, within the first week. I learned later that the firm had been sitting on this agency for three years and that no-one would get involved with it. In that sense I was being set up, albeit in a rather good-natured way.
Strangely enough, Syd Webster and I remained very good friends, and some 35 years later he visited Kalgoorlie for several of our Croesus Mining Annual General Meetings, as a shareholder of Croesus Mining. So in a way he was still my employer. Again, another lasting friendship.
13 years later
Skip ahead 13 years to early 1967, just after Western Mining Corporation had discovered Kambalda. This brought other exploration companies to the Goldfields for the first time in my memory.
Although most of us were very proud of Kalgoorlie’s position as a regional service centre at that time, we had been in survival mode — in an era where we would do anything to survive.
Local engineering works took on all sorts of challenges, including the successful Keogh Road Sweeper made by Con Keogh (Sr). So successful, in fact, that they were then exported to South America. Other ventures were less successful, like the Bert Rogers Boat Building Enterprise. Unfortunately it didn’t quite master the art of building boats that floated.
The Goldfield’s attitude was then, as it is now, that no job was too difficult. When the nickel boom came, slowly at first, we were presented with new challenges. I was on the doorstep of International Nickel when I heard they had sent a geologist, Barry Krause, from Sudbury in Canada to establish an exploration office in Kalgoorlie.
I asked what WG Manners & Co could do to assist. He had two requests:
- How can I get some air-conditioning in this place?
His office was in Hannan Street next to the Town Hall. His was a serious enquiry about air-conditioning, as at that time there were only a few Aquacool evaporative air coolers around Kalgoorlie. They were large and expensive, with a roller drum covered with rubberized horse-hair rotating in a bath of water. What he wanted was reverse-cycle air-conditioning, and until that time, Kalgoorlie had 40 cycle electricity which had precluded the use of conventional refrigerated air-conditioners, without extensive modification. That was an easy request and was quickly organized.
- The second request was a little more challenging. He wanted a drilling contractor as he wished to place a contract for several thousand feet of deep percussion drilling, and he wanted it done in a hurry. I clicked my heels and promised to report back with a drilling contractor.
The drilling contractor
It took me about a day to find out what a drilling contractor was. Western Mining Corporation did all their own drilling and that was the extent of exploration around here. But I did manage to locate one. Harry Davies was a local pastoralist who had an old mud-puncher he used for water well drilling.
Harry nearly freaked out when I told him the scope of the contract. He calculated it would take him six years to complete the contract with his rig, if he could get down at all. I could see Harry was not in a winning mode so remembering my earlier experience, I gave him this bit of advice
“Harry, get a hat”.
Harry and his new hat fronted up at International Nickel’s office the next day. Anytime the discussion got a bit technical I would step in and say we had that point under control. The chief was so impressed that he signed Harry up on the spot and drilling was set to commence the following week.
As we left the office, Harry said to me “Where do I get a drill rig?”. Don’t laugh — Kalgoorlie didn’t even have television in those days, and there were certainly no suitable drill rigs available in WA. Back we went to my office and spent the rest of the day phoning around Australia in search of a rig.
We found one in Queensland — a Schramm 42 but it was track-mounted. We didn’t know it at the time but it had been sitting in Evans Deakin’s yard for three years. It had been imported from the US for a test which it had failed. Nevertheless, in about 10 seconds WG Manners & Co became the WA Schramm drilling rig agent and Harry was duly signed up as our first client.
Harry made a few calls and located a second-hand International truck with delivery instructions for it to be sent to Evans Deakin Engineering Works in Sylvania, south of Sydney. The truck was too short so the chassis had to be lengthened. Their estimated time for the job was one week. This meant we at least had a chance of meeting our promised deadline.
The next day Harry put a proposition to me. As I had got him into this the least I could do was go to Sydney with him and help drive the rig from Sydney to Kalgoorlie. Everything sounds simple when reasonable people are dealing with each other so off we went to Sydney, expecting work to be completed and the rig ready to go.
No such luck. By the time we got there the rig was still on the tracks. It had been in the weather so long that the bolts all had to be cut off, one by one. The truck was there, but the wiring was not of a standard that would allow licensing in Sydney.
There we were, Harry and I. We pitched in and got to work alongside the Evans Deakin team, Harry helping with the drill change-over and I confined my activity to rewiring the truck.
We stayed at the nearby Sylvania Hotel and after three nights, we ran out of money. A bit embarrassing but it was not much use asking for money to be sent over — nobody had any money in those days. So we asked the hotel owner if he needed any work done. He didn’t have a truck that needed to be rewired but he did need two musicians to accompany his popular piano player and singer, Charles. If we performed nightly he would allow us to stay in the staff quarters.
It was a great three weeks. Harry played the gourd and I played the maracas. I was so proud of being able to hold down a serious job like that, that I asked the manager for a reference. I still have it.
Work continued on modifying the rig and about the only communication we received from the west was the daily telex from Barry threatening to cancel the contract if we were not on the job the next day. We telexed regular replied but nothing sounded believable, apart from our new careers as professional musicians.
Success! Well, almost….
Eventually we did drive away from Sydney in that newly painted bright red drilling rig, looking very much like an overgrown fire engine. We left amidst the cheers of the Evans Deakin team as we had made sure that the job received top priority. Licensing that rig became a nightmare as the authorities insisted on including the value of the drill rig in the value of the truck, and there was no way we could raise that kind of money. We decided to take the risk and drove it west on a temporary NSW-only permit.
Out on the open road we purchased a map. I hadn’t been to Mittagong so we went that way. Harry hadn’t been to Canberra so we also went that way. We saw a lot of the country and caused a lot of traffic jams as we backed our monster out of one-way streets. We also avoided the main trucking routes to minimize contact with traffic checkpoints.
We finally hit the long dirt track and crossed the Nullabor. And that’s when we had our first real set-back. One night while boiling the billy, we looked up at the large pine box strapped to the back of the rig. In it was all the Mission brand down-hole-hammers and drill bits. We noticed the bottom of the crate had burst and the crate was empty. Perhaps $50,000 of vital components had been lost. We had no insurance and no cash to purchase replacements. There probably were no replacements in WA anyway.
Two very serious characters conferred around the campfire as we discussed options — either driving back to the west with a useless rig or re-tracing our tracks and looking for the missing bits and pieces. We chose the latter and two days later we picked up the last of the missing pieces. They had leaked out of the crate one by one, each no covered in dust and looking completely useless to the passing traffic. But each item we picked up and checked off the invoice lifted our spirits.
We got back on the road for home and crossed the Nullabor for the fourth time. Harry’s contract ended up being a success — so much of a success that he was awarded more contracts and he bought many more Schramm rigs.
Harry accepted the challenge of providing a service. He risked his money and reputation but out of that first Schramm drill rig he developed Davies Drilling (later Grimwood Davies), a firm that became the largest percussion drilling contractor in the southern hemisphere.
I know there are many success stories to come out of Kalgoorlie, not just this simple first-hand one. But if it encourages us to take those first steps with confidence — and those first steps are always the hardest — then the Kalgoorlie tradition of accepting the challenge will continue.
Perhaps the Davies Drilling success story all came from Harry Davies getting that hat.