History – 1952

1952 – Go west, young man

Bob Harrison went to Western Australia in June 1952 with his eye on the rock lobster-tail trade. It was a trade he had carefully nurtured since the visit by Henry Branstetter of Wilbur-Ellis in 1949 and he intended to make sure it continued to flourish. By his own reckoning – and indeed by any other measure – he achieved his goal during his 30 years in the West. Asked after his retirement to name one of his most memorable successes there, he replied with the single ringing word: “Lobsters.” That, of course, was not to downgrade his other achievements in the West.

Harrison and his new wife Marie booked into the Esplanade Hotel in Perth after a five-day voyage on the Duntroon. That was to be the extent of their honeymoon. Harrison threw himself immediately into the task of establishing an office. Finding premises was the first major hurdle to overcome – not an easy task in Fremantle at the time. Finally, on 18 July 1952, the Western Australian branch of Craig Mostyn &. Co. Pty Ltd was set up in a small room in the Woolworths Building in Adelaide Street. Harrison reckoned the only reason CM was able to acquire the space was that a fire had burnt out the top floors of the building not long before and they were in dire need of renovation. The office had no phone for several months, but a Bank of New South Wales representative who lived three doors away from the Harrisons offered the couple a parallel line. Harrison continued to use this long after a phone was installed at the office.

Among CM staff at the time was Marie, who worked as her husband’s assistant. By January 1953 the workload was such that Glenda McGregor was taken on to help out, becoming the first new staff member to be hired in the West. Then, in February, Gavin Alvarez was transferred from Sydney to help run the office and handle shipping.

As the branch expanded, it moved to bigger offices, each move heralding yet another spurt of growth. In the middle of 1953 it relocated to two small rooms (one formerly a ladies’ toilet) in the P&O Building, at 21 Phillimore Street, Fremantle, the same building in which MacDonald Hamilton, shipping agents, had their offices.

1958 56 Go west young man_Page_21The move was rendered fast and easy by the fact that the branch owned only four pieces of furniture at the time: a desk, two chairs (one for clients) and a filing cabinet. A replacement was found for Marie Harrison when she left in the same year to give birth to son Michael. And in September that same year, Bob Anderson joined the branch from Wesfarmers, where he had been second-in­command of the Fruit Division. A good catch, in Harrison’s view.

Four years later, on 15 April 1957, the branch moved down the road into the Chamber of Commerce Building. In January 1964 it was on the move again, this time to spacious offices in a building it had bought in Essex Street, Fremantle.

A report in Alert stated:

“The offices are all situated on the first floor. After virtually sitting on each other’s knees for so long the staff hardly know themselves with so much room in which to live.

The entire street level area provides parking for all the Fremantle Office transport {including private cars driven by the plutocratic female staff) and still leaves room for about 20 visitors. It is quite a relief to be able to climb into a cool car when the work of a hot summer day is over.

There appears to be only one drawback to the present setup. Sand. Essex Street runs into the water at its western end, and the area on the foreshores is being reclaimed. It consists of straight sand and when the sou-westers {Fremantle doctor) blow, which is on most days of the year and to varying velocities, to say the least, things become a bit gritty in the office.”

The Essex Street premises included Manning House, a heritage building that CM used to accommodate its Accounts Department and for storing files. The branch remained there until 1986 when, after a brief interim period in cramped quarters in Mouat Street while waiting for new offices to become available, it transferred to the State Shipping Building (now Craig Mostyn House) in Short Street.1958 56 Go west young man_Page_2

Initially CM handled the export of rock lobster tails for the Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative and for Brown & Dureau, which processed product from the Fremantle Fishermen’s Co­ operative in rooms leased from Robbs Jetty, a major cold store and meatworks run by the State Government in Fremantle. CM shipped the rock lobster tails to the United States, where they were mostly marketed by Wilbur-Ellis.

The Geraldton Co-op, which was dealing exclusively with rock lobsters, managed the fishing in the Houtman Abrolhos and the coast north of Jurien Bay. It did not own fishing boats but provided carrier boats to bring catches from the Abrolhos to the mainland for processing at Geraldton. The Fremantle Co-op was in virtual control of operations south of Fremantle and north to Jurien Bay.

By marketing the co-ops’ products successfully abroad and advancing money before the fish were caught or before the product was shipped, CM was instrumental in building them up into major concerns. The Fremantle Co-op eventually built its own facility and sold product to CM before going its own way in the late ’60s (though, as a point of interest, in the US it traded only with Crest Inc., a company to which CM had introduced it). The Geraldton Co-op, on the other hand, was to remain CM’s supplier for more than 30 years.

One of Harrison’s early ventures in Western Australia was to finance the refitting of a fishing vessel named the North Cape as a factory ship capable of processing not only her own rock lobster catches but also those of other fishermen. The vessel had come from South Africa and was owned by a professional fisherman named Jose da Silva, who was Portuguese by birth but a resident of California, USA. As a guarantee against the loan, CM’s Western Australian branch held the insurance on the boat to the value of £80,000. In a memo to RL dated 30/7/52, Harrison put the total value of the vessel and its equipment before refitting at £25,000. The difference between this and the insurance value represented the cost of the refit and related expenses.

As Alert reported, fate seemed to frown on the company’s involvement with ships because not long after beginning operations off the Western Australian coast, the North Cape caught fire and sank off Green Islands, 160 km north of Perth. The vessel’s mast protruded from the water as she sat on the bottom and her shape could clearly be seen from the air. News of the loss reached CM on 1 April and many people assumed it was an April fool joke.

According to Harrison, CM recovered its loan through the insurance claim but Jose da Silva was upset because he believed he should have received something too. Notwithstanding this apparent setback, CM was the State’s biggest shipper of rock lobster tails for many years. In 1957-58 the branch made one of several successful investment deals that over the years were to turn it into a formidable arm of the national organisation. A rock lobster fishing and processing company that had gone under various names – Geraldton Cold Store being one – and which had been one of the first in the State to process and can rock lobsters, had been declining steadily and had eventually gone into liquidation. The Bank of New South Wales, with which Harrison had established a good relationship, stepped in and asked him if he could do something to help.

1958 56 Go west young man_Page_3At about this time a friend of Harrison’s named John Claude “Jim” Bowes, who had been reporting on the Australian fishing industry for the Commonwealth Government, was due to retire. Previously Bowes had worked on import licensing for the Commonwealth Government in Sydney, and before that had been general manager of the Commonwealth’s whaling station at Carnarvon, which closed soon after Robert Menzies became Prime Minister in 1949. Harrison talked him into a deal that resulted in CM buying Geraldton Cold Store outright and reincarnating it under the name of James, Bowes Pty Ltd. The purchase was intended as a hedge against the possible loss of the Geraldton Co-op’s business for one reason or another, the comma between the two names giving the impression that two people were involved and thus
blurring CM’s involvement.

Because of the Westerners’ extreme wariness of Eastern Australians, Harrison always considered it commercially prudent to keep the company’s name as unobtrusive as possible. “You were always made very welcome when visiting for pleasure but not so welcome when stealing their business,” Harrison said.

Setting up James, Bowes Pty Ltd was a prescient move: in the end the co-op did take its business elsewhere and by the mid-1990s James, Bowes Pty Ltd was the main source of CM’s rock lobsters in Western Australia.

Like every good trader, Harrison made a point of travelling regularly and extensively overseas. Every year his itinerary would include Singapore, Indonesia, Malaya and Penang, as well as the United States and other destinations. The early 1960s found him in South Africa, where the South African Rock Lobster Association was keen to come to some agreement with CM over marketing product in the US. “They wanted to see if we could get together on the marketing there because we had accused them of cutting prices and they had accused us of doing the same,” Harrison said later.

Quite by chance, on the very day that Harrison arrived in South Africa, a new company, Sea Harvest Corporation, had been set up by a consortium of South African, Spanish and Dutch interests to process and supply fish from the South Atlantic. No sooner had Harrison finished speaking to the rock lobster cartel than he found himself in meetings with Sea Harvest representatives who were keen to discuss the marketing of South African product in Australia. The upshot was that CM won Sea Harvest’s Australian agency. Not long after that, South Africa declared a 200-mile fishing limit and set catch quotas, eventually driving Japanese fishing boats out of its waters. Taiyo Fishery Co. Ltd, which had been supplying CM with hake fillets from the South Atlantic, moved its boats to the Chilean coast in the early ’70s, leaving the way clear for Sea Harvest to pick up the hake business.

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