ENTERPRISING POCKETS OF SOUTH AUSTRALIAN HOME-GROWN BUSINESS kept shining through in the 20th Century, despite the state’s economy taking some major blows.
The big hits were, firstly, the loss of a major car makers Chrysler/Mitsubishi and General Motors Holden’s, part of a general vulnerability of the protected industries brought into the state under premier Tom Playord’s era.
The other big blows were the loss of established 19th Century companies, the Bank of Adelaide, Elders Smith and Adelaide Steamship, through the 1980s corporate excess that would also deal the biggest catastrophe: the State Bank’s collapse.
Iconic state companies and brands such as South Australian Brewery, Jacob’s Creek and Farmer Union Iced Coffee were lost to overseas and interstate in a continuing theme that reflects South Australia’s inability to compete with bigger outside resources.
And yet the 20th Century South Australian business is a ongoing story of inventive enterprise, flowing on from the 19th Century, despite the state’s limited size. That enterprise produced its range of big department stores; the Holden family and J.D. Richards as major car builders; and Simpson and Pope as dominant whitegoods brands.
Rossi Boots, R. W. Williams, Steriline, Ennio International, Seeley International, Hills, Caroma, Argo, Sam Remo, Hickinbotham, Codan and the internet companies Adam and Internode represented a formidable litany of exceptional examples of business produced during the 20th Century.
A theme among the home-grown companies is the philanthropic commitment to the state by their founders.
Another theme is that the state government has to nurture and protect strategic local companies such as Santos and SeaLink from the sometimes-destructive effect of bigger outside forces.
TRADITION OF MIDDLE-CLASS FAMILY ENTERPRISES STILL ALIVE IN THE 20th CENTURY
Vivian Lewis and the Elliot brothers created businesses that made the most of South Australia’s cycling boom’s peak continuing into the 20th Century. Lewis started with Ormonde Bicycle Depot in Freeman Street (later Gawler Place), Adelaide, in 1896 to make and import cycles. Beyond the success of his roadster cycles, Lewis experimented with building a six horsepower two-cylinder three-speed Lewis Motor Car. At the 1913 Spring Show (later the Royal Show), his 3.5 horsepower water-cooled three-speed gear hub motor cycle was popular and, by 1914, his motor cycles won every event except one and, in an Australasian first, set a 24-hour ride world record. Super Elliot was founded by Bertrand and Laurie Elliot in 1902 making cycles in a small Payneham shop where Laurie finished first in the SA League 25-mile road race. After extending to Norwood, Elliot Brothers also added imported motor cycles to the bicycles offering. From 1908, the Elliott Bros were hosting their own one-mile scratch race at Payneham where they displayed and sold their range. This included a special cycle for road champion Charlie Baulderstone. In the 1920s, Vic Elliot joined brother Bertrand to continue the business as Elliott Bros with a store in Pirie Street, Adelaide, and later in a factory in Gawler Place. Vic Elliott, who oversaw company growth and buit the Super Elliots brand, also recruited factory expertise to the factory, including Jack Wise and Frank Duckett who were top grade speedway motorcyclists. Super Elliotts Cycles at 200 Rundle Street, is still one of Adelaide's leading bike stores.
The 1885-1910 turn-of-the-century era saw W. Menz and Co. making more leaps of growth. The Menz biscuit story had started in 1850 with a small Wakefield Street, Adelaide, grocery shop/bakery run by John Menz and his wife Magdalena who arrived in Adelaide from Hamburg on the Steinwaerder the year before.
When John, a qualified architect, died in 1856, Magdalena ran the store until one of her two sons, William, became one of Adelaide’s first biscuit makers and, in 1867, took control of the small company. In 1885, W. Menz and Co. built a plant to increase biscuit production and, in 1893, expanded into confectionary. During 1910, it grew again to produce more chocolate under the name Menzona. Over the next 30 years, it increased production and introduced new products, including the honey-flavoured Yo-Yo biscuits, in 1932. As a public company in 1951, the company kept expanding in a bigger Marleston factory with its Yo-Yos, Crown Mints (1892) and FruChocs (1948), now South Australian icons. By the mid-1960s, after takeovers and mergers, W. Menz & Co amalgamated to form Arnott-Motteram-Menz. Arnott’s took over biscuit and confectionery production and was eventually sold in 1992 to the Sims family’s South Australian dried and confectionary Robern Dried Fruits, later to become Robern Menz of Glynde. The former Menz products still are being produced but Arnotts removed Yo-Yos from their family assorted packets in 1997 because they weren't popular enough Australia wide. Menz FruChocs was declared a South Australian icon by the National Trust in 2005.
Welshman William Lewis set up kilns at Brighton, in 1880, using limestone from Precambrian formations at Marino, Reynella and Hallett Cove. Brighton Cement Works began in 1882 with a large kiln to replace the 8,000 tons of Portland cement imported each year. But it closed in 1883, with the local product considered expensive and inferior. In 1892, Lewis and others founded South Australian Portland Cement Company with a plant at Marino. In 1896, its quality was good enough to construct Happy Valley Reservoir. By 1900, the company was selling more than 3,500 tons a year but a fire in 1909 destroyed the Marino works. The revived South Australian Portland Cement Company, in 1911, upgraded Marino, including the first electrified cement mill. In 1913, the company had 74 horses cart cement to the city and return via Brompton with coke. Horse-drawn trolleys carted stone from Reynella quarries to the railway station, to be freighted to Marino. The Reynella horses were replaced eventually by the “flying fox” labour-saving ropeway that became a tourist attraction. A.W.G. Pitt, in 1913, founded rival Adelaide Cement Company at Birkenhead. It used Yorke Peninsula limestone and black mud from Port River. With a lack of stone reserves, South Australian Portland Cement Company moved from Marino to Angaston in the 1950s. After failed attempts back to 1927, Adelaide Cement Company and South Australian Portland Cement Company merged in 1970 as Adelaide Brighton Cement. Today, the company makes and distributes cement products nationally.
Joseph Florey, the father of Howard Florey – one of Adelaide’s four Nobel Prize winners – was manager of the Standard Shoe and Leather Company, a manufacturing and importing business with factories in Adelaide and Melbourne entering the 20th Century. Standard Shoe and Leather was part of the largest boot manufacturing operation in the southern hemisphere with 1,000 staff nationally. The Adelaide factory had nearly 300 staff and produced 1,000 pairs of footwear a day.
HOLDEN'S AND T.J. RICHARDS MAKE HUGE LEAP
Several large successful carriage and coach factories were set up in Adelaide by the 1870s, surrounded by smaller horse-transport enterprise such as wheelwrights, livery stables, blacksmiths, saddlers and horse auctioneers. The industry had developed the skills to replace American and English materials imports except for patent leather coach trimming and special woods. With the advent of the motor vehicle in the early 20th Century, the skills were ready to build car bodies for the importers.
ADELAIDE MANUFACTURERS READY FOR 20th CENTURY WAR WORK AND WHITEGOODS REVOLUTION
South Australia’s remarkable Simpson dynasty began with Alfred Simpson, apprenticed in London in 1820 as a tin-plate worker who also studied science and chemistry. Admitted to the Worshipful Company of Tinplate Workers, in 1829, he became a Freeman of the City of London. After joining his brother in a tailoring firm, he set up as a hatter. Fire and depression hit the business and Simpson and his family had to migrate. They sailed for Melbourne but got off at Port Adelaide in 1849. After unsuccessful business ventures and twice going to the Victorian goldfields while wife Sarah gave piano lessons, in 1853, Simpson turned to tin smithing, making pots and pans, and cans for Glen Ewin jam factory. In 1862, he leased premises in Gawler Place, Adelaide. His son Alfred Muller Simpson, apprenticed in 1857 and as partner in 1864, took the firm's range from jam tins to snuff scoops. The younger Simpson, one of the first members of South Australian Chamber of Manufactures, introduced products such as fire-proof safes, bedsteads, japanned ware, colonial ovens and gas stoves. The fire- and thief-resistant Simpson safes became an early speciality, used in offices and banks throughout South Australia and interstate. The business expanded in 1871 to the former Congregational Chapel in Freeman Street, Adelaide. In 1878, Simpson visited Paris Universal Exhibition, prompting him to mechanise his factory. He brought an American double-action press back to Adelaide along with ideas for new products and refining existing ones.
Alfred Muller Simpson brought back ideas from the Paris Exhibition 1878 for labour-saving machinery and for new products and refining existing products from A. Simpson and Son – the company originating in 1864 when he became partner in the Adelaide business started by his father. In 1885, Alfred Muller Simpson became the first maker of munitions, including submarine mines, in South Australia. This was in response to Australia’s fears of a Russian invasion. A new Simpson plant in Wakefield Street, Adelaide, in 1894, included electroplating and furnaces for hollowware and porcelain enamelling – a first for Australia. Enamelled street and advertising signs from Simpson’s soon appeared in most Australian capitals, making the firm’s name known throughout the country. Besides creating the largest metal manufacturer in the country, with three factories and 500 employees, Alfred Muller Simpson was also prominent in public life including being elected in 1887 to the Legislative Council, representing the Protectionist Party. With World War I, Simpson’s returned to making munitions but also enamelled water bottles, harness fittings and mess tins for the Australian forces, and boilers and enamel ware for hospitals. With the next Simpson generation, Allen (Alfred) and Frederick, as directors, the company expanded further in the 1920s. A new factory was opened at Dudley Park in the 1940s and the company began making whitegoods.
LOSS OF AN ARRAY OF HOME-GROWN MAJOR SHOPS
STATE'S TRADITION OF CREATIVITY CONTINUES
Besides inventing the world’s first disposable plastic hypodermic syringe in Adelaide in the late 1940s, Charles Rothauser, a pioneer of the injection-moulding of plastics, also developed the first all-plastic toilet cistern. Hungarian-born Rothauser, educated as an architect in Vienna, had begun making dolls with his wife Christine in Adelaide in 1939 as the Quality Toy Company. Finding a niche in the nascent plastics field enabled Rothauser to invent the plastic hypodermic syringe – a medical breakthrough that benefited millions of people. Starting with a factory in Norwood in 1941, his Caroma company became Australia’s leading manufacturers of bathroom products, including the world-first dual flush toilets system in 1982. He developed the Caroma Deluxe, the world’s first all-plastic one-piece moulded toilet cistern to combat Adelaide water’s corrosive effect on brass fittings. He built on the Caroma innovations with the first two-button dual flush and smartflush technology. Caroma was the first company to achieve the Australian water efficiency labelling and standard (WELS) five-star rating. Rothauser won a swag of export and design awards for his Caroma products out of the factories in Wetherill Park, Sydney (closed in 2014) and Norwood (closed in 2017).
Caroma products continue but are now all made overseas, with the Norwood plant shutting in 2017. The Caroma Dorf group of companies continues to offer bathroom, kitchen and laundry products from brands such as Fowler, Dorf, Clark, Epure, Radiant and Irwell. But its products are now made in Malaysia, China and Europe.
STILL MAKING AN IMPACT GLOBALLY
The world’s most prestigious thoroughbred racing clubs rely on Mount Barker-based Steriline Racing’s race-track infrastructure for perfect starts and finishes. The Mount Barker-based South Australian company designs, manufactures, installs and services everything from starting gates and running rails to finishing posts and presentation podiums. Steriline Racing began in the 1950s when it built the first movable starting gates in Australia and has grown into a global powerhouse exporting to more than 50 countries. Already holding 100% of the British market (including Royal Ascot), Steriline Racing’s racetrack equipment is now used at virtually every racetrack across Australia and it has most of the South East Asian market. Many major horse racing organisations including the Hong Kong Jockey Club (Happy Valley and Sha Tin Racecourses), Singapore Turf Club (Kranji Racecourse), Victoria Racing Club (Flemington Racecourse), Australian Turf Club (Royal Randwick Racecourse), Meydan in Dubai, and Riyadh Equestrian Club in Saudi Arabia use Steriline equipment. Starting gates involved sophisticated engineering but it also has to consider the psychology of horse and rider. This involves understanding the dynamic of the horses and also the thought processes of the jockey Safety is a key consideration. This pressure is on to load horses quicker so they are not standing in the gates for such a long time, because that reduces the risk. In 2015, the company was given the South Australian Regional Exporter Award and was a national finalist in the 53rd Australian Export Awards.
Ennio International of Holden Hill has built up a global market for its seamless smallgoods netting. This is a triumph in innovating for a company that started life as fashion business. Husband and wife Gervasio and Giovanna Mercuri brought their design experience to Australia from Italy in 1957 and founded Mercuri Knitwear in Adelaide. They built their business with quality garments winning numerous Australian awards. But the dropping of tarrifs on imported textiles in the 1980s forced the Mercuris to diversify. They realised they could use their machines to make netting for meats and smallgoods. Forming Ennio Pty Ltd in 1983, they soon added several new purpose-built knitting machines. The Mercuris were among the first in the world to make seamless smallgoods netting. Ennio International went global in the late 1980s with an improved design of elastic netting launched as String Cling. It now exports to Europe, China, the USA and Canada, as well as dominating the Australian and New Zealand markets. It won a $2 million federal government manufacturing grant to buy high-tech textile equipment for meat packaging. The Mercuris have launched more patented netting and casing products to fill gaps in the Australian and international market with quality packaging solutions for the meat, poultry and smallgoods worldwide. Ennio International was inducted into the Family Business Australia hall of fame in 2016 and won its distinguished family business of year award in 2017.
NEW SOUTH AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL BUSINESS REPLACING THOSE LOST
SeaLink Travel Group has become a boom national tourism company on the back of the Kangaroo Island ferry service that staff members, island residents and other investors took over the from Malaysian owners in 1994. Among its ventures since, SeaLink has taken over New Zealand's Subritzky Ferries (2004), the Captain Cook Cruises on Sydney Harbour and Perth; ferries between Townsville, Magnetic Island and Palm island in Queensland; South Australian Murray River cruises on Murray Princess; and holiday packages throughout Australia. In South Australia, it owns Adelaide Sightseeing that does Barossa Valley tours. SeaLink's ferries SeaLion 2000 and Spirit of Kangaroo Island cross Backstairs Passage from Cape Jervis to Penneshaw in about 45 minutes up to 10 times daily. SeaLink bought the previous ferry service founded by Peter March. Its first vessel was Philanderer 3, the first of March’s vessels to carry vehicles. The later Island Navigator (1990), also taking cars, carried freight and fuel. Other competitors, including Western Australia’ Boat Torque (1994-97) and Kangaroo Island Ferries (2004-05) failed to break SeaLink’s monopoly, mainly due to its lease from the state government that, until 2024, stops other operators using Cape Jervis berth for one hour before and one hour after any SeaLink service. Family-owned Kangaroo Island Connect had plans to cut ticket prices with a Penneshaw-to-Cape Jervis service for up to 95 passengers in 2018. Meanwhile, SeaLink pushed its own growth. Listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 2013, it had 1600 staff nationally in 2019.
RESPONDING TO 20th CENTURY CHALLENGES
Luigi Crotti founded what became the San Remo pasta brand company when he arrived with his wife in Adelaide from the Lombardy region in 1936 – when there were about 2000 Italians in the state. San Remo is still a family company, based at Windsor Gardens, but now the No.1 dry pasta producer in Australia and exporting to 35 countries from its 750 products. Luigi Crotti’s son Aldo was founding partner in his family business that survived the days when pasta was still a niche product in Australia. When pasta was more common in the 1960s, the Crottis’ San Remo brand was competing with nine others. The San Remo Marcaroni Company turned to a high-quality product at low cost through economies of scale. It was the first manufacturer to foster distribution to supermarket model developing in Australia. San Remo is Australia’s No.1 pasta brands, with a 50% market share, and one of its largest manufacturers. Since the 1990s, San Remo has worked with farmers and Adelaide University’s Waite Agricultural Research Institute at Roseworthy developing a better-quality durum wheat. San Remo’s special durum wheat mill is one of the largest and most sophisticated mills in the Australian and South-East Asia. San Remo semolina mill at Windsor Gardens is also the largest in Australasia. The company had been inducted into the Family Business Australia Hall of Fame. In 2008, San Remo bought another iconic South Australian food business: Balfour's, maker of pies, parties, sausage rolls and famous green frog cake.
Greg Hicks (Adam Internet) and Simon Hackett (Internode) put Adelaide at the early internet cutting edge with their service providing companies. Hicks’ venture started as a hobby from his home in Flagstaff Hill in 1986 and formed Adam in 1991 – the same year as Hackett’s Internode was introduced. Both companies grew rapidly with their pace-setting ventures and were taken over in 2011-13 in multi-million deals by Western Australian provider iiNet but have retained their own identities. Greg Hicks began in 1986 by creating bulletin boards that preceded the internet with users dialling into a computer. Adam Internet became a leading South Australian internet service provider and data warehouse supplier from 1991. Between 1996 and 2012, its market value from $100,000 to $70 million and, at its peak, employed more than 200. Hicks and Adam won entrepreneur and second generation family business of the year awards. Simon Hackett’s Internode pushed the boundaries in internet service. Among its strings of innovations were: • The Coorong (2001) and Yorke Peninsula (2001) communications networks offering low-cost voice and data services to regional customers. • The largest gaming network in Australia (in daily player count. • Internode’s infrastructure company Agile installed its own equipment in the Telstra exchange at Meningie in 2003: the first in regional Australia where ADSL was available from a non-Telstra DSLAM (digital subscriber line access multiplexer). • In 2008, Internode launched a national Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), the first in Australia.