1961 – C. Piesse & Co. Shipping business
In the ’50s and ’60s Australia’s leather industry was still taking large quantities of wattle bark. CM went out of its way not only to satisfy this market but also to buy additional tonnage for export to countries such as India. Later, when it had added tallow to its lines, CM Tasmania used this and wattle bark to entice ships to Hobart when they might not have otherwise gone there. A good base cargo of a few hundred tons of bagged wattle bark and a few hundred more of drummed tallow was a good inducement for most ships and often resulted in the company gaining extra space – always at a premium -for its fruit exports.
The wattle bark business was highly competitive. In Tasmania two rivals – Neale Edwards and a smaller buyer in Sorell, one of them operating for Joshua Pitt in Melbourne – kept CM on its toes. Mostyn and Fretwell were constantly canvassing, driving around the countryside looking for signs of activity in the bush that might reveal the presence of bark strippers. Once bark is removed from a wattle tree, the brilliant white trunk can be seen from a long way off for a while before it gradually turns brown. While up in a Tiger Moth one day, Mostyn noticed areas of stripped wattle. From then on he and Fretwell would regularly take off on weekend flying patrols over the Tasmanian countryside, Fretwell quickly drawing location maps on a scribble pad on his lap when ever they flew over something of interest. Come sun-up on the following Monday, Fretwell would be on the spot talking to the strippers, who were always curious to know how he had learnt of their presence. Neither he nor his senior colleague ever let on that they did it through aerial reconnaissance. They found a lot of wattle bark through that ruse.
Mostyn’s love of flying also proved useful during the fruit packing season. On weekends or at Easter, a peak time in the season, growers often ran out of fruit-case labels, and this was particularly irksome for the more distant growers. Having told a desperate grower only that an emergency delivery of labels could be expected, Mostyn would take off in a chartered high-wing Auster with Fretwell in the passenger seat cradling a heavy, well-wrapped parcel of labels in his lap. Imagine the surprise of the unsuspecting grower and his packers when, in due course, the Auster appeared over the property and proceeded to fly straight towards the packing shed door. Only at the last moment would the aircraft bank steeply away as the parcel was jettisoned.
Growers nearly always appreciated this emergency service and the packers enjoyed the entertainment break. However, one grower was not amused: when an airdropped parcel burst open on hitting the ground at the shed door, it spewed labels from one end of the premises to the other. The grower gave CM a raspberry for the time taken to gather, sort and stack the labels for use.
With Bill Walker’s resignation from the CM board in June 1954, Bob Harrison and Harry Nicholas were appointed directors, closely followed by Bob Mostyn in July. In 1956, with the Tasmanian branch rapidly expanding its business, a new office was built on the mill premises and a store was added for the equipment it was by then selling to orchardists – imported paper for wrapping fruit, wire for strapping boxes, nails and small quantities of spray. In September Mostyn travelled to Singapore and Rangoon to check on the fruit trade.
The growth in trade called for additional permanent staff. In particular, it was important to have one person holding the fort while the others were out on the road contacting growers. That person was George Kosikas, who joined the branch in January 1958. In September that year Bob Mostyn and Bob Harrison went to the USA, after which Mostyn toured the UK and continental Europe and on the way home stopped off in Rangoon to meet up with Russ Fretwell, then on his first overseas trip.
On 27 December 1958 Mostyn married Joan Maloney at the Presbyterian Church in Hunters Hill, Sydney. The couple had met in Hobart at Maloney’s Hotel in 1951 and had had an on-and-off relationship since then. After the wedding they lived in Hobart, but with Mostyn travelling overseas more and more often on general CM business and increasingly leaving the running of the Hobart branch to Fretwell, it was inevitable that before long the growing Mostyn family should relocate to Sydney.
The 1950s and ’60s were the Tasmanian branch’s years of greatest growth. By then it had added dried fruit to its lines and was also building a lucrative rock lobster trade. Seeing that the branch was able to get orders but could not always be sure of securing the necessary space on ships, Mostyn and Fretwell felt that a stake in the shipping agency business would not only safeguard the movement of goods but would also be a good investment. CM’s main competitors, Jones & Co. (of IXL fame) and WD. Peacock & Co. (both part of the same group, although they tried to downplay this connection), were already in the agency business. In fact, with four other exporters – Port Huon Fruit Growers, Tasmanian Orchardists and Producers, Clements & Marshall and the respected family shipping firm C. Piesse & Co. – they made up the Tasmanian Fruit Shipping Agents Committee (TFSAC), a tight-knit organisation that was an arm of the Sydney-based Australian Fruit Export Planning Committee. The TFSAC was responsible for underwriting Tasmania’s share of chartering up to 40 vessels in a season and paid dividends on the share of cargo supplied by each member.
Mostyn and Fretwell had long dreamed of joining this exclusive club. For Mostyn, ships and shipping held the same fascination that aircraft and airlines had always done. He put this down to his early training in the Shipping Department at Dalgety’s. He had found the business fascinating and had often gone down to the docks early to watch the ships come in, savouring the experience of going aboard and seeing how the cargo was stowed in the holds.
At about this time Piesse & Co. was floundering. The company had a history going back to the days of sail. It was formed in 1880 and owned the sailing vessel Lufra, which supplied the colony with sugar from Mauritius. The company’s fruit export division – with its distinctive logo, a flag with horizontal red, white and blue stripes and the initials C.P. &. Co. overlaid on the middle stripe – had a group of loyal growers in Tasmania and a good reputation in Europe. The company had the agency for the Alfred Holt Blue Funnel Line, of Liverpool, which would bring in a couple of ships a year for the fruit season. But the steam had gone out of Piesse & Co. Some of its best staff were getting on in years and were not in the best of health, and the feeling both inside and outside the firm was that it was living on its reputation rather than on its effort. Furthermore, the owner, Les Piesse, wanted out.
It was a golden opportunity. CM bought the company outright in 1961. With the purchase came not only Piesse &. Co.’s fruit export business, its export agencies and membership of TFSAC, but also a shareholding in Hobart Stevedoring Co., which became a good money-spinner for CM. Until much later, CM ran Piesse & Co. as a separate entity, with its own staff and group of growers. Before buying the firm, CM had set up a second subsidiary in Hobart, the Tasman Packing & Shipping Co. This, too, was kept entirely separate from the parent company and for a long time its ownership remained a carefully guarded secret. In their best year, 1972, the three companies shipped 750,000 bushel-boxes (equivalent to today’s 20 kg cartons) of apples and pears.
Les Piesse, who was by then in his 80s, stayed with Piesse & Co. after the takeover. He would come to the office every day and sign documents as he had done for the previous 60 years. The office was on the comer of Davey and Elizabeth Streets; he would always come in through the main entrance in Davey Street and leave by the door in Elizabeth Street.
Another who stayed on after the takeover was manager Ken Whale. His successor was Jim Grover, who suggested, in the light of the impending shift to containerisation, that CM form a company with two other firms, Clements &. Marshall and a trucking company named Frank Hammond. Initially he recommended that CM hold a 51 per cent stake in the new company which was named Tasmanian Cargo Services Pty Ltd; the other partners agreed, though this was later changed to 40 per cent. When containerisation became a reality in 1969, Tasmanian Cargo Services secured agencies with Seabridge and the Columbus Line, a situation that would not otherwise have been possible because of a conflict of interest through CM’s association with Hapag Lloyd, which also had connections with Seabridge. Today CM and Clements & Marshall each hold 50 per cent of Tasmanian Cargo Services.
Much of Piesse & Co.’s early success was due directly to Blue Funnel. It had two ships, the Orestes and the Idomeneus, which travelled regularly between Australia and Singapore but which were having trouble filling their holds on the east coast. At a suggestion from Mostyn that they call in at Burnie or Devonport, the company nominated 300 tonnes of cargo to make the calls worthwhile. Only 172 tonnes could be mustered for the first call; even so the business developed dramatically from then on. The ships came for a whole range of cargo, from Ovaltine to tin, and although they were not exclusively at CM’s service, the company always made sure it secured plenty of space ahead of the competition, a tactic that earned it some criticism.
In September 1962 RL organised an informal lunch in the elegant surroundings of The Chalet restaurant in Lower Pitt Street, Sydney. Among the guests was Dr Geoff Kesteven, assistant chief of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) Division of Fisheries and Oceanography. It was a pivotal meeting, not only for CM, but also for Bob Mostyn, who very shortly afterwards found himself heading for Australia’s north, having left Russ Fretwell in charge of the thriving Tasmanian operation.