1965 – HJ &F Simper story
At the time of Harrison’s arrival in Fremantle, there was a thriving export business in Granny Smith apples and grapes. In fact, Western Australia exported more grapes than the rest of Australia put together. Barrett-Lennard Bros were CM’s biggest suppliers of export premium table grapes, and from 1953 onwards CM shipped about 60 per cent of the State’s grapes, mainly to Ceylon, Singapore, Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong, and to entrep6t traders in Singapore for French Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies (as they were then known).
Backed by the experience in fruit packing that CM had gained through its shed at Leeton, in southern New South Wales, the Western Australian branch moved to capitalise on the thriving fruit trade in its State by buying a complex at Donnybrook , about 35 km south-east of Bunbury. It was greatly helped in its move by Ron Kitney, a prominent apple orchardist in the area who introduced Harrison to the local growers.
The Donnybrook complex had been built by the Commonwealth during the war to process fruit and vegetables for the armed services and included juicing, canning and drying facilities. After the war it was handed over to the State Government, which in turn sold it through the Rural Industries Bank to the Donnybrook Canning and Cider Company, a group consisting mainly of apple and pear growers. When the group ran into difficulties, the bank began to search for a buyer.
The complex included a shed, an office, a cold store capable of holding 2,000 bushels of apples, a timber mill for making wooden boxes, concrete vats for storing cider, canning and juicing equipment and a workers’ hostel. The contract for the purchase of the property was signed on 16 April 1956 and Sidney Saddleton, Arthur Taylor and Arthur Carter started work there on 1 July, preparing for the following year’s fruit season. Maurice Over, who had been with Ceylon Cold Stores in Colombo till then, joined the staff in 1957 to superintend the refrigeration plant. The complex’s facilities superfluous to CM’s needs were sold in January 1958 “lock, stock and furniture” (Alert), leaving only the shed and cold stores.
On 9 November 1959, Ross Easdown, who had been with the Melbourne branch almost continuously since it was established in 1935, was transferred to Fremantle to boost development of the Donnybrook shed’s business. He became the Western Australian branch’s fruit buyer and the personal contact between CM and the growers in the Donnybrook, Bridgetown and Manjimup areas. The following year the branch was granted the agency for Berri fruit juices. Victor Pike came with the agency and was kept on.
In 1960, having acquired some good agencies for tractors and machinery for orchards and fruit packing, the branch moved to set up a facility, managed by Noel Wheeler, in Manjimup, where it also built a packing shed on railway property later the same year. Another shed was leased at Newlands, 10 km south of Donnybrook on the South Western Highway. In 1964, Harry Morgan, general manager of Paterson &. Co. Ltd, the State’s biggest shipper of apples and pears and the branch’s main competitor, crossed the floor and joined CM as fruit coordinator. His expertise, energy and contacts in the industry were to a large extent instrumental in building CM’s thriving fruit business in the West.
In the fruit industry, as in agriculture generally, there are good seasons and there are bad ones. One of the worst in Western Australia was in 1964 when an infestation at blossom time, followed by floods in the Collie, Bunbury and Nannup areas, hit the apple and pear crops badly, though grapes, peaches, plums and potatoes were still shipped in good quantities, CM’s grape exports amounting to more than half the State’s total. Two years later the Donnybrook packing shed had to be extended to cope with a bumper crop of Granny Smiths.
H.J. &. F. Simper Pty Ltd, which eventually took over the running of the Donnybrook shed, became part of the CM group after 1965 in a deal that Harry Morgan stitched up. Simper operated in the Perth metropolitan fruit and vegetable markets on a commission basis, obtaining product direct from growers. It was also in the export business when CM took it over but the export licence was allowed to lapse for tactical reasons.
In the early 1960s CM was becoming involved in a major new enterprise that would keep much of the company’s energy focused on the Gulf of Carpentaria for more than 10 years. Based at Karumba, the prawning venture that CM had initiated with the CSIRO in 1962 was still in its infancy, but in due course it grew to become a large and busy segment of the company’s structure. Harrison, who had been a director of CM since 1954, made a point of leaving the running of the Karumba operation to RL and Bob Mostyn. When RL retired in 1975, Harrison became Chief Executive – but only on condition that he could stay in Perth, where he had always enjoyed working with the minimum of interference from head office. From then on the day-to-day supervision of the Western Australian branch was left to Jim Webster, who stepped in as state manager.
A top job in the CM hierarchy had never been on Harrison’s mind; however, once in the Chief Executive’s chair, he moved quickly to cure what he saw as some of the company’s worst ills. He brought in outside accountants to carry out a thorough investigation of the company’s structure and modus operandi. Every branch was investigated and recommendations made to the board as to what should go and what should be kept.
In 1982, exactly 30 years after arriving in Fremantle from Adelaide, Harrison moved back to Sydney, leaving behind a formidable empire in the West, a fitting monument to a man with a keen eye for a profitable deal.