On these pages
August 01, 2000
by Emily Wilson
A Heritage Ingrained
is not merely a book about the building of Co-operative Bulk Handling Ltd., but a tale of the men who formed the company out of the rough and tumble Western Australian outback.
Words like "family," "pioneering," and "innovative" are spoken often within this story of "one of the world's most successful grain handlers." Author Cyril Ayris brings 25 years of journalistic experience to this work, along with two University of Western Australia Arthur Lovekin Prizes in Journalism and the distinction of being voted four times Journalist of the Year. He imparts CBH's history "in a nut shell," then utilizes interviews with 18 company workers to tell not only the company's history but the employees' history as well.
The book primarily covers the company's history from 1933, when two existing co-operatives – the Wheat Pool of Western Australia and Westralian Farmers Co-operative Ltd. (also known as Wesfarmers) – established a new company, Co-operative Bulk Handling Ltd., to the present. The book also pays homage to the company's origins, which are traced back as early as 1844, when a group of unemployed weavers formed a co-operative.
According to Eric Ripp, who started as a weighbridge officer and eventually assisted in running the Pest Control Section, the history of CBH can be broken down into four periods: the establishment and struggle to survive, the provision of service, the rationalization of the receival points, and the subsequent expansion into a leadership role on the worldwide market.
Three men, who shared a drive to see a bulk handling system in Western Australia replace the costly and time-consuming system of bagging wheat, and their three inventions enabled the creation of Co-operative Bulk Handling. John Thomson, general manager of Wes-farmers; H.E. Braine, wheat department manager; and Steve Wood, chief wheat inspector, conducted experiments that helped lead to the creation of several devices that enabled bulk handling to become an economically viable option.
INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS. The author tells engaging stories of three problems to overcome and the necessary solutions. The first invention was a simple structure, made from PVC sheeting, designed to hold a large amount of grain. The men experimented to see how many sheets was the minimum necessary to sustain the storage of 10,000 bushels of wheat. Once that number was determined, all that was needed was a cover to keep the wheat dry.
The second problem was finding an efficient method of loading the grain into storage. One day Mr. Thomson observed a road gang loading sand into a truck when an idea came to him: The bucket elevators being used to load sand could be altered for grain. This is how "one of the most recognizable pieces of agricultural machinery ever manufactured in Australia, the country elevator, was created," Mr. Ayris wrote. The third invention – a machine that anyone who worked in the loading areas of CBH would know and have a story for – was the Clarke Shovel. Adapted from a similar device used in the mining industry, the shovel worked in the following manner: The operator pushed a wide scoop into a pile of grain, then an engine pulled the load to a bin where the operator dumped the grain.
The first few experiences working the Clarke Shovel were the most difficult. Bill Katins, a Latvian immigrant to Australia, said of his first time with the shovel: "I was certain the mission was impossible… I could only handle about seven trips at my first try before I collapsed with sheer exhaustion."
The key to working the Clarke Shovel, after some time and a lot of blood, sweat, and pain, was to let the shovel do the work and not fight it.
CONQUERING ADVERSITY. The stories of the early days of CBH and the trials the men were put through are remarkable accounts of man's will to succeed and conquer through adversity. Norm Robson was one of thousands who braved the harsh Western Australian environment in search of money, but came away with much more. "Legions of young men spent their summer holidays ‘working on the bins' to make enough money to pay their way through university or perhaps buy a car or an engagement ring," Mr. Ayris wrote.
Mr. Robson, who is a dental surgeon today, was 17 when his parents dropped him off at the CBH receival point in Jerramungup. He tells of how his mother cried when they said their good-byes. He soon learned it was going to be a tough summer. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner was a pot of meat boiled Sunday that lasted the whole week. Other forms of sustenance were beer and cigarettes.
Mr. Robson worked for four years weighing trucks and outloading with the Clarke Shovel. It was, he said, "the making of him."
Despite the inventions that made bulk handling more efficient, CBH still faced serious opposition. A great deal of political opposition came from those who felt CBH constituted a monopoly, especially large grain merchants, who feared the destruction of their own businesses.
A Royal Commission was formed to investigate the company's business practices and its efficiency. Ninety farmers, who gave their unanimous support to the bulk handling system, testified that CBH had saved them money. As a result, the Australian government recommended an expansion of CBH's business, and on Feb. 1, 1936, the Bulk Handling Act was passed, enabling CBH to operate with the sanction of Parliament.
EXPANSION PERIOD. The company then began a period of expansion, building new receival points for grain all over Western Australia. Still, the men of CBH were expected to make do with what they had available. Ray Delmenico, a man who rose from assistant bin attendant to general manager of CBH, said the company expected its employees to provide their own cooking utensils, bed and bedding, and food. Mr. Delmenico and the other workers slept in tents or under tarpaulins.
According to Wally Bycroft, another CBH employee who started in the bins and eventually became superintendent of the planning department, having adequate water supplies was a constant problem, for which some had to rely upon farmers or the local storekeeper. Mr. Bycroft said the company did not even provide its workers tools. The men had to rely upon their own ingenuity to repair a piece of broken machinery.
Despite the adversity, there was an ever-present sense of family. George Kalinauskas, a Lithuanian and one of millions of people displaced by World War II, was in a refugee camp he heard that the Australian government was offering work to people willing to emigrate. He took advantage of this offer and moved to Western Australia, where he started working for CBH in the town of Corrigin.
When he first arrived, Mr. Kalinauskas had no idea where he was or what CBH was, and on top of this he was terrified by the great nothingness of the bush, or "outback," a term for the back country or remote settlements of Australia. Mr. Kalinauskas started out by working the Clarke Shovel and eventually worked his way up to the position of senior clerk in the company's head office. "CBH was my father and mother when I came here…they fostered me," he said.
The story of the construction of CBH's grain terminal at Kwinana details one of the most daring and expensive ventures undertaken by the company.
There was little economic support for the project. In fact, opposition in the Australian government was so strong that in order to get approval to build the Kwinana terminal, two of CBH's board members, Tom Hart and Mick Gayfer, ran for political office and won. Although CBH board members were supposed to be apolitical, and other members wanted them to step down, the two men remained on the board and put their case to the Australian parliament. Eventually, permission was granted for CBH to build at Kwinana.
CBH was forced to undergo a series of backroom negotiations with foreign banks in order to raise enough capital for the construction. Once completed, Kwinana immediately far-surpassed CBH's other grain terminals by loading ships at 5,000 tons an hour.
LOOKING AHEAD. CBH has always been at the forefront of new technology, incorporating any new device or method in the industry into its operations. The men of CBH continually used their ingenuity to solve or overcome any problem.
Mr. Ayris cites a 1986 paper by Imre Mencshelyi, which details some of the innovations that CBH brought to the industry. These innovations include: pest control systems that utilized chemicals and controlled atmosphere systems (utilizing phosphine, carbon dioxide and nitrogen); the design and manufacture of spray systems for conventional grain elevators, which incorporated a unique visual monitoring gauge; and the design and construction of modern handling and shipping facilities at all port terminals.
Len Gleeson, a CBH director, said, "One of the traditional characteristics of CBH is that when something new appears on the horizon, we try it."
Co-operative Bulk Handling, based in West Perth, currently handles more than one-third of Australia's average grain production, and around 95% of Western Australia's crop is exported each year. Today, the company receives, handles, stores and outloads bulk grain at 196 receival points throughout the grain belt of Western Australia and operates four bulk export shipping terminals, at Kwinana, Albany, Geraldton and Esperance. The total storage capacity of the system is in excess of 15 million tonnes.
Currently, CBH is in the midst of a corporate restructure to convert from a co-operative to a grower-controlled public company.
A Heritage Ingrained is an accumulation of history of Co-operative Bulk Handling Ltd. The book provides the reader not only a wealth of knowledge about the creation of a modern day grain handling giant, but also a good story about the people who helped to establish something more than a company.
Meyer J. Sosland is a student at Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.; he recently completed a summer internship at Sosland Publishing Co.