Monday, 19 August 2013

Bob Brown Bio as written July/August 2013


I never wanted to be a Cadet Education Officer.  In my final year at St Edwards College, Gosford, thanks to  prompting by my geography teacher Joe Driscoll  to consider a career in Papua New Guinea, my original intention was to do the Cadet Patrol Officers Course at ASOPA when I was old enough. My parents were horrified and managed to persuade me to do the CEO course instead.

My memories of ASOPA are doing all the hard swot in the first year and then enjoying the second year as co-tenant with Ian Johnson of 64 Vista St, Mosman – which tended to be the party house of 1967.

Practice teaching was at Tusbab High School and I was genuinely pleased to be posted there afterwards. Madang was as good as any place to be in TPNG. I never regarded being in TPNG as 'work' – it was just a wonderful & unforgettable place. Amongst my memories are:
·      All the students I knew
·      The student strike/riot of ’68 at Tusbab
·      The earthquake of ’70 at Madang
·      Being admitted to the Hansenide Colony at Hatzfelthaven with typhoid
·      Playing rugby league all over the Territory

Teaching was never my chosen path and I was always considering alternatives. Whilst on annual leave in Sydney in 1969/70  - Ian Johnson had suggested we go to London instead - I rocked up at IBM in response to an ad for trainee computer programmers. I was offered a place the day before I was scheduled to fly back to Madang and asked them to keep the position open for me until I returned in a year's time. Not surprisingly, they declined.

Once my three years were up I returned to Sydney, not without plenty of regrets, and lived most of the time around Mosman and Kirribilli. I enrolled on a full-time Computer Programming course at the Control Data Institute in North Sydney. By the time I had finished the course I realised I didn't want to be a computer programmer – despite the terrific salaries on offer. No silicon chips in those days and everything had to be coded in 'machine language' – i.e. binary arithmetic. Punch cards were king!

Looking for jobs in the private sector I came across one at P Rowe International  who were Dupont's distributor in Australia. They were looking for somebody to implement a computerised inventory control system. My final course assignment at Control Data had been identical to what P Rowe International needed. At the interview I must have appeared like a whiz kid and my career in operations management was launched in the private sector.

Around this time I read two influential books. One was entitled 'How to Get Real Estate Rich'; the other on how to progress in business. A key feature of the latter was that you should never stay in a job any longer than when you had mastered the essentials of that job. Sell yourself to a higher bidder!. So just about every year I changed jobs. First to the Readers Digest and  then Select Distribution to launch the Readers Digest and Family Circle magazines at every supermarket checkout in the country – a hopeless task. I went six years without a holiday.

Next  came an intriguing project. Pykes Tours – the oldest tourist coach company in NSW – were having problems. Its ultimate parent company, British Electric Traction, which included P & O and Wembley Stadium amongst its portfolio – were  constantly having to inject funds into Pykes despite the business appearing healthy. The existing management of Pykes were being evasive.

I was planted in the business by the parent company as operations manager with the brief to find out what was going on. My reward if  successful was that I would get the top job at Pykes. It did not take me too long to discover a business beset by fraudulent invoicing; abysmal cash control and being dictated to by the Transport Workers Union. When I announced to head office that I could cut payroll costs by 25% without affecting the efficiency of the business and sort out the other issues   – the top job of General Manager was mine within days.

From there it was downhill. A merger with Australian Accommodation & Tours (AAT) - owned by TAA, helped prove that the business inherently was a rotten egg. It was time to move on – but where to?

I had become good friends with the company accountant John Babula – we played touch footy on Sunday mornings for the same team in the South Sydney competition. During the summer of 77/78 we had gotten into the habit of taking a two hour lunch on Fridays and going to Maroubra beach for a surf. On one such February Friday while resting on the beach we addressed the issue of where we should move. John decided he was finished with the private sector and wanted the security of the public service. He went on to become Chief Financial Controller of the NSW State Railways.

For me, I declared that I  was going to buy 10 acres of land in the South of France and grow grapes and make wine! Having never been to Europe, let alone France, nor make wine this was some statement but my broad intentions were serious aided by a general disenchantment with Australia.

I discussed this with Joan, my long-term girlfriend of five years  – a '£10 tourist' from Britain' who had fled Britain during the '3 day week'  -  and she was not all that keen. But in July 1978 off we went to investigate - bumping into Ian Johnson in the toilets at Bombay airport, as you do.

By the end of our two month visit we decided that Britain and Europe was where we wanted to be. First Joan had to complete her 4 year Librarian course and me my external Bachelor of Business (Accounting) at Mitchell College of Advanced Education and we had to sell up property.

In the meantime, after a brief stint with Mr Icee – The Coldest Treat in Town - I left the private sector and spent my final year in Australia working for the Spastics Centre at Allambie Heights. Being responsible for having to move so many handicapped children and adults great distances across Sydney, I  left Australia a humbled person.

When we arrived in Britain in April 1980 there were 3 million unemployed; interest rates were 15%; the inner cities were burning and Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. For me there was no turning back.

Job offers were few and far between but in September I was offered two good jobs on the same day. One was General Manager of  Cheshire-based Berkeley Travel who operated package tours to the south of France and Florida. They promoted their business throughout the workingmen’s clubs of Northern England on the basis that the first thing a person did when  made redundant was to spend some of their redundancy money on a holiday. And there were plenty of potential customers!

The other offer was from West Herts College, just outside London, who had initially interviewed me for a tourism lecturing position but then offered me a post lecturing in Accounting and Statistics. A return to education was not what I had planned.

In the end, Berkeley Travel were offering a better salary, a company car and lots of travel benefits. But also long, long hours. As a lecturer I would have 20 hours class contact a week and 14 weeks paid holidays a year. The road to France was clear.

Throughout that decade we prospered under the Thatcher Revolution and I did my part by canvassing for her party in General Elections. There were regular trips to France  - day, weekends and weeks - and plenty of looking at French estate agents windows and thinking “if only”.

In 1990 the opportunity arose to buy an eight acre former vineyard in the heart of the Burgundy vineyards of France in the tiny hamlet of  Noizeret. Built in the late 18th century the dry-stone property had not made wine since the mid 50's and was a bit of a wreck  The giant wine press , fermentation tanks  & cellars remained but, alas, no grape vines. For the next few years I spent the bulk of my 14 weeks' annual holidays renovating part of the property (the Farmhouse) with Joan accompanying me as often as possible. Having no children made this easier. Maroubra beach had been 12 years ago.

Changes were afoot in education with the government announcing that they were proposing to abolish the practice of teachers retiring on a full pension at 50 and then returning to work the next day as a part-time teacher. Retirement would be at 60 instead. I had no wish to go on to 60 so in 1997 jumped out of the paid workforce just in time to collect my pension.

We still had a need for additional income so we set about developing our French property as a holiday destination. First the Farmhouse was rented out successfully for short term lets when we were not there. Then we decided to do a total renovation of another detached building on the site where the wine had been made – The Winery.

We leased our house in Roman St Albans in England and moved to France. The Winery had no electricity, no water, no sewage, an outside dunny (just a hole in the ground - French style) and a huge hole in one of the floors. We had intended using the rent from our St Albans property to fund a lot of the works but our English agent cheated us and we had to move out of the Farmhouse so we could earn some rental income from it.

We lived in a single room in the Winery with a makeshift bathroom that had just a toilet; and a bathtub in which we washed ourselves, our clothes and our dishes. Our kitchen was an outside BBQ. Over 20 months the Winery was turned into a two bedroom & two bathroom character cottage forming part of the small portfolio of

Returning to live in the UK, for the past 13 years we have successfully marketed to the English and German markets while also picking up bookings from North America and Australia. From late March to early November we do the 900 kilometre commute by car from St Albans to France every four weeks or so to do a little bit of 'Spring cleaning'.

Throughout all those years – and even before my ASOPA days – I have had a lifetime involvement in rugby league. When I initially settled in the UK in Hemel Hempstead there was no local rugby league club so I started one. At 34 I thought I would be an administrator but immediately found myself playing competitively until I turned 40. The club I founded –  now called Hemel Stags – started off as a pub team playing in borrowed shirts on a hurling pitch. Today it has over 40 employees, plays in the professional ranks and I am the full time (almost), voluntary C.E.O.

A couple of websites:

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