1923 – Craig Mostyn & Co is founded by Mr George Craig and Mr Robert Long Mostyn
In keeping with the euphoria that spread around the globe in 1918 after the end of World War I, Robert Long Mostyn, then aged 22, returned to his homeland from the battle¬fields of Europe determined to help build a prosperous Australia and improve the lives of his compatriots. What else, after all, had nearly 60,000 of his fellow Australians suffered for?
It was a noble – and entirely understandable – reaction to his experience of the most destructive war the world had ever known. And it was a determination that RL, as he later became known among his friends and colleagues, was to carry with him through the rest of his days. It shaped not only the course of his own life but also the lives and destinies of many others with whom he came into contact. It was one of the great motivating forces of his life and without doubt dictated the direction taken by the trading firm he bravely launched in 1923.
Born on 2 April 1896 in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra, RL was one of eight children. His father, Robert Porter Mostyn, was a sports journalist and later sports editor of the Daily Telegraph. Whether the father’s writing abilities rubbed off on the son is a moot point, but whatever its origins, RL’s own talent for the written word enabled him to tum out well-crafted letters, both for business and personal communication, throughout his life.
RL grew up in Woollahra, Mosman and Longueville. He was educated at Fort Street High, then sited on Observatory Hill, a school that has turned out some of Australia’s most prominent men. One of his strongest subjects was French, in which he was fluent. Life wasn’t easy for a large family in early 20th-century Sydney, and RL, shouldering his responsibilities as the eldest son, left school early to find a job and thus help his father in raising money. He was employed by James Hardie & Co., a prosperous trading company that was to teach him many of the basic skills he would later use to good effect in his own enterprise.
All this was taking place against a background of ferment both at home and abroad. As a new nation, Australia was preoccupied not only with its future but also its perceived vulnerability. Political and military leaders believed that, with about 4.5 million citizens, the country was dangerously underpopulated in a traditionally densely peopled region. Liberal Prime Minister Alfred Deakin considered the need to increase the population a “problem of national life or national death”, and his view only served to sharpen the nation’s feelings of insecurity and isolation.
Outside Australia, the European powers were scrambling for overseas territory with which to boost economies at home and their trading edge over their rivals. By 1914, the various constituents of the British Empire amounted to a unique political combination unlike anything seen before, held together at first by efficient maritime communication and later by fast land and air transport. Japan, having emerged from 200 years of feudal isolation, had westernised with remarkable speed and by the turn of the century was on a par with most advanced European nations.
Naval, colonial and, to some extent, commercial rivalry between Britain and Germany combined with a system of dangerous alliances in Europe and the spread of nationalism in the Balkans to ignite a conflagration in 1914. Australia rose to aid the Mother Country, and among the 331,000 Australians to join the 1st Australian Imperial Force was RL.
He enlisted in February 1917 and sailed for Europe three months later, but on the way he spent three weeks in a government hospital in Egypt recovering from measles. In France he saw service as a gunner in the 36th Heavy Artillery Group. The French he had learnt at school stood him in good stead among the young women he met, whose company he much enjoyed- for he was very much a ladies’ man even then. He maintained after the war that the silk underwear his mother and sisters sent him helped keep him free of lice in the trenches, silk apparently having some kind of insect-repellent quality.
Although slightly wounded in action in July 1918 – four months before the end of the war -he remained on duty. He never talked about his injury in later years, and undoubtedly it combined with the horrors and the heroism he had seen on the battlefield to contribute to the total impact that the war had on the young man’s mind. He had been close to death, had known comradeship and had made friends from all walks of life. He particularly cherished his friendships with men from the outback, and for the rest of his life he maintained contact with many of those with whom he had served. ANZAC meant much to him, and he would march every year on 25 April.
Accompanying the profound relief that followed the end of the killing in November 1918 was the conviction that such a thing must never be allowed to happen again. American President Woodrow
Wilson, in his once-famous “14 points”, stressed the importance of absolute freedom of communication by sea and universal free trade as far as possible.
The early 1920s saw radio being widely used, sea transport becoming faster and the motor vehicle taking over from the horse. Even air transport was becoming common. This was the world of spreading communication and shrinking distances in which the young Robert Long Mostyn was beginning to carve out a career. It was a time for rebuilding, for looking to the future. The optimism was infectious, and for the rest of his life RL would retain the positive outlook that he absorbed during this time.
RL returned to James Hardie &. Co. but, probably like many men who had been through the same experiences, found it hard to settle down. Despite this, he rose to the position of sales manager with responsibility for servicing the leather tanning industry. His general manager was George Craig, a tall, handsome, dark-haired man who was later voted one of the 10 best-dressed men in Sydney. Craig smoked heavily, reputedly using a single match at the start of each day and then lighting the next cigarette from the previous one, a practice that may well have contributed to his early death. Whether it was his Scottish origins or whether it was just a thrifty attitude encouraged by the shortages of the immediate post-war era, Craig later acquired a reputation for meanness that did not endear him to everyone he met. Nor, it seems, was he universally liked at James Hardie& Co.
Nevertheless, he and RL struck up a relationship, and at some point before or during the early ’20s they hatched a plan to leave Hardie’s and set up a firm of their own, taking with them not only the skills and knowledge they had acquired but also some of the company’s agencies. A third colleague, Charles Hall, appears to have been involved in the plan and was mentioned frequently in private letters that Craig wrote to RL in 1922-23 from New Zealand, where he had apparently been posted by Hardie’s . Also mentioned in the letters (a fragmentary and rather random collection) was Jean McKenzie, RL’s future wife, who was working in Sydney for Hardie’s at the time.
Craig’s letters -nearly all handwritten, mostly in ink but some times in pencil – are an odd mixture of company business and confidential matters relating to their plan. Preparations for leaving Hardie’s were a dominant theme, and naturally enough Craig was extremely worried that his superiors would discover the plot prematurely. In a postscript to a letter dated 27 August 1922, he wrote:
“You destroy all letters, I take it. Some of us may be suspected shortly; don’t take any chances.
Advise Charles not to address anything care office … I make a point of dealing with all our correspondence at home. Don’t even trust anyone else to post your letters.”
Another thread running strongly through the letters concerned Craig’s financial predicament. He appears to have been in debt to his employer and was worried that his lack of capital would hinder the formation of a rival company. After saying in one letter that he planned to ask to be posted back to Sydney, he wrote:
I would prefer to remain with JH & Co. for some little time in Sydney as otherwise I will experience difficulty in meeting my full financial obligations with JH & Co. I have been hoping each week would bring me nearer the stage where I could save some money, but unfortunately fate has not dealt too kindly with me in regard to money matters, but in Sydney where my expenses would be smaller I could no doubt save something towards my debit with JH & Co. which is the reason for remaining with JH & Co. a little longer (in Sydney).
Craig determined that the only way he could solve his problem was to sell Chesney, a cottage he owned and on which he had a mortgage of £1,200. He asked RL to organise the sale for him. The matter was urgent because, far from Chesney gaining value, it was going to become increasingly difficult to sell. In the 27 August 1922 letter, Craig wrote:
“Naturally I am a bit anxious about “Chesney” because I’ve got to get the cash and realise that as time goes on it is going to be more difficult to get anything like a decent price, but I fully appreciate what you are doing, Bob, and know quite well conditions are against you, also that you are working in my interests as if they were your own, so we must just hope for the best.”
Then, in a brief reference to his employers, he hinted that they might deliberately be keeping him in New Zealand to have him out of the way. And he added: “Candidly, I don’t consider the prospects of JH &. Co. doing anything are very bright. They have me here now and what do they care?”
From a letter Craig wrote on 21 April 1923 it is evident that RL had at last decided to resign and team up with Charles Hall. However, Craig cautioned RL not to quit too hastily and suggested he wait at least a week. Craig himself was itching to leave by this time but was hampered by his financial problems. A further complication was the possibility that, with RL resigning, the company might suspect collusion between the two of them and give Craig the push. “I would not hesitate to resign if my financial position was more satisfactory” he wrote. “I much prefer to see you with Chas first and myself with JH & Co. in Sydney, but as the situation I have created may necessitate me resigning we must be careful to work concertedly.”
On 3 May Craig wrote that he had heard through the company grapevine that RL had resigned and he asked RL whether anyone in the company suspected him (Craig) of being connected with the move. He also wanted to be kept fully informed in case the company did suspect and started asking pointed questions. In such an eventuality, Craig said, he would probably have to resign too, though it would be best if he could hang on as long as possible. This same letter also indicated that all was not well between RL and Hall:
“Apparently you have reached an impasse with Charles. I hope the friction is not too great to allow of an agreement being reached. You know if we could only work with him for a while, if we find him impossible we have the balance of power and could no doubt raise the cash to buy his interest … I was thinking that if you joined Charles, to have your name added to title of firm, say Hall, Mostyn & Co. You would of course do most of correspondence, would sign overseas letters. Then if a break took place with Charles it would be an easy matter to retain existing agencies.”
Money problems were still dogging Craig. Exasperatedly he wrote in the same letter: “By heavens I wish we could lay our hands on some cash. The time is most opportune to get into the African bark business. ”
In the light of this, it was not surprising that the sale of Chesney was still an obsession. However, things were moving on this front too: RL had arranged for the cottage to be auctioned, and though Craig was pleased about this, he was worried it would not fetch a high enough price. He wanted RL to get a dummy bidder to push the price up. “You could have someone sending it along,” he wrote, “and if by mischance it fell to the dummy, you could then negotiate with the next highest bidder, pleading lack of capital on part of the highest bidder.” Craig named a suitable dummy but then left the conduct of the auction entirely a matter for RL’s own judgment.
By 10 May it was clear the differences between RL and Charles Hall were irreconcilable and that the latter was intending to go out on his own. Craig commented acidly that any business that Hall ran would develop into a second-hand shop with three balls hanging outside. On 15 May RL sent Craig a cable saying that £1,500 had been offered for Chesney. Craig sent a return cable saying he felt
£1,600 was the lowest he could go, but left the final sum up to RL. On 24 May Craig wrote that he was pleased he had at last thrown off the Chesney millstone (he still had not heard the final price but presumed it would be £1,500). This would leave him free to sell a block of land in Epping that had been held as security on the Chesney mortgage. The Epping sale would raise about £400 and this, together with the net proceeds from the Chesney sale, would presumably provide his capital for the business.
RL’s new enterprise began trading under the name of Robert Mostyn & Co. in 1923. Undoubtedly RL plunged into his business the moment he walked out of James Hardie & Co.; he would not have had the money to do otherwise. The following year Craig joined him at his office at 25-27 Clarence Street, Sydney, in a partnership they christened Craig, Mostyn & Co., a name that eventually appeared minus the comma and was often abbreviated to CM & Co., and then simply to CM. Their first employees were Jean Mostyn (nee McKenzie- they had married in 1922) and two secretaries who had also defected from Hardie’s.