For those working in the pump industry, John Inkster has been a familiar face and has been involved in the industry for 38 years, including a stint as the President of the Pump Industry Association. Pump Industry Magazine caught up with Mr Inkster ahead of his retirement to reflect on some of the highlights and changes he has experienced throughout his career, and find out what’s next for him post-retirement.

Following the announcement of his retirement at the end of April, the last few months have been a whirlwind of activity for Mr Inkster. As is important when things come to an end, Mr Inkster took some time out of his busy schedule to reflect on his 38-year career in the industry.

The path to pumps

When asked to think back to the steps he took in his career, Mr Inkster said there was a very clear path that led him to the pump industry.

Prior to joining Brown Brothers Engineers in February 1986, Mr Inkster worked for a firm of engineering consultants in New Zealand called Royds Sutherland and McLeay – now known
globally as Stantec.

“When I was working for that firm of engineering consultants, I was doing design and project management of rural water supply schemes in New Zealand, both on the north and south islands. In the later years there, I was more involved in pre-feasibility and feasibility studies for irrigation that were afforded by large hydro schemes.”

It was during this time that Mr Inkster spent two years in Western Samoa as part of New Zealand’s Bilateral Aid Program with the Government of Samoa, where he was involved in building small, village-based water supply schemes primarily throughout the island of Upolu and Savaii.

It was through this engineering background and working with consultants and consultancy that Mr Inkster had an early introduction to pumps.

John Inkster at the Lowara Factory, Poland, April 2019.

“I wanted to get away from project management and into a management role. An opportunity came up in Christchurch, New Zealand, for General Manager – Pumps Division at Brown Brothers Engineers. I applied for the role and was successful in getting it and, 38 years later, here we are.”

With his background in engineering consultancy and prior work with local authorities, Mr Inkster said it was a natural progression for him to go and work for Brown Brothers since he had a bit of a head start when entering the industry.

“I was often dealing with the same people; I was still liaising with the local county clerks and county engineers, so it was a bit of a logical, natural progression.

“I grew to enjoy the industry and the rest is history. That’s the connection – that’s where it all came from.”

Turn and face the change

As with many industries, the pump industry has undergone significant changes in recent decades and Mr Inkster pinpoints the introduction of variable speed drives (VSDs) in the 90s as one critical turning point for the industry, as well as the evolution that the increase in smart pump technology has triggered.

“These pumps nowadays are very smart – they’ve all got engineering degrees or they’re very IT-literate. Pumps and pump controllers themselves are very intelligent, offering significant efficiency improvements with energy costs and so forth, and that applies to motors as well. We’re all very energy conscious and that reflects in our industry.”

Mr Inkster said that when he first entered the sector 38 years ago, he could never have predicted where the industry would be today, almost four decades later.

“It’s not just our industry – technology has taken off everywhere. With smart pump technology and the intelligence of pumps, they can talk to each other.

“I’ll often say when we go to hotels now, there’s no reason why the pressure in the shower or the flow in the shower should be poor. That’s a bygone era that should no longer apply. The technology is there now to make sure that it doesn’t matter whether we’re on the third floor or the 80th floor, we should enjoy good pressure and flow at all times because of the technology we’ve got now.”

Having witnessed so much innovation and transformation across the industry throughout his career, it’s hard for Mr Inkster to single out the biggest change.

“In life, nothing stays the same and the same applies to business. It’s constantly evolving, and probably what I’m seeing more of nowadays is a consolidation of companies and industry.

“We’re seeing a lot more activity in the mergers and acquisitions sector now. We’ve been part of that ourselves, with acquisitions and being acquired ourselves.”

An industry not without challenges

As with most industries, significant change is not without its challenges, a factor that Mr Inkster himself has observed, highlighting that enticing young people to the industry continues to be the biggest obstacle.

“It’s not a sexy industry; it’s just the pumps are there and they’re inside a shed or they’re under the ground – you don’t see them – so getting young people to come into the industry and then retaining those people is a challenge.

“Everybody’s having problems in employing people at the present time; there seems to be a shortage of skilled people in every sector. In the industry, there’s a lot of older people now nearing retirement like myself, and I just don’t see that there’s younger people coming in to replace them.”

Mr Inkster also flagged that training is a big challenge for the industry, with significant changes in the way companies are training nowadays compared to when he first entered the industry.

“Many years ago, probably decades ago, a lot of the companies would do a lot of training for several weeks, but that doesn’t really happen now. Some of the larger pump companies in Australia probably do their own internal pump training, but you have to be a large organisation to do that, with the capacity and resources to do it. A lot of businesses don’t have those resources.

“Attracting people to the industry, retaining them and having training protocols in place for them are the biggest challenges facing the industry.”

Looking back on the highlights

Reflecting on his time in the industry, Mr Inkster said that although he doesn’t have a favourite project he’s worked on, he’s always enjoyed the acquisition aspect of the industry.

“I mark highlights by virtue of stepping stones that the company’s made as opposed to winning this project or that project.”

In keeping with this theme, one of the clear highlights for Mr Inkster was the decision to move across the pond and “dip a toe in the water in Australia” with Brown Brothers Engineers.

Mr Inkster said they were invited to make the move by Goulds Pumps Inc who owned Lowara at that time.

“They asked us if we would like to do something in New South Wales and being a young guy, I said, ‘Yep, let’s do it.’”

Mr Inkster said that establishing a branch and establishing Brown Brothers Engineers Australia in Sydney in late 1994 was a key highlight for his career. The establishment of a Melbourne office followed in 1996 once again, at the request for a Goulds Pumps Inc; at the same time Brown Brothers Engineers picked up Tasmania – giving them access to most of the eastern seaboard.

In May 2004, the company acquired an industrial company called Kelair Pumps Australia, and then in 2007, it acquired Lowara Pumps Queensland (LPQ), making Brown Brothers Engineers the distributor for Lowara on the eastern seaboard of Australia as well as New Zealand where it had been selling Lowara since 1990.

“Those movements would be the highlights. The next highlight for me later in my term was the acquisition of Brown Brothers and Kelair by AxFlow – a Swedish company – at the end of September 2018.”

“What has been hugely successful about the move is the fact that we did it and we maintained it and now we’re a significant entity within the industry in Australia. It doesn’t happen very often, but that was a huge achievement.

“One of the takeaways from everything is that up until now it’s always been a Kiwi who has been Manager, General Manager or a CEO of Brown Brothers and for the first time in the history of the company, we now have an Aussie.

“This is how things don’t stay the same, they change.”

Looking to an industry role model

Throughout his career, Mr Inkster developed strong working relationships and friendships with a lot of people across the industry – some of which he described as “real characters”. Of these people, one who had a significant impact on Mr Inkster was his boss, Ted Mace.

“Ted was a big influence on my career, and he and I had a very close relationship; there was a lot of trust between us. He had a huge impact on my life.”

Mr Inkster said that Mr Mace supported what the Brown Brothers team was trying to do by establishing itself in Australia and then in Victoria, and that he understood what was required to achieve it.
Looking back, Mr Inkster said it’s easy for him to pinpoint what his biggest takeaway from his career in the industry has been: the opportunity to work closely with a great bunch of people, forming lasting relationships – relationships that Mr Inkster knows will go beyond his retirement from the industry.

“When you’ve been in a position like I have for such a long time, it’s the people you meet on the journey that make the job so enjoyable. And I enjoy the company of other people.

“Pumps don’t talk back to you, but you can have a conversation with a person.

“The big takeaway from my time is just the opportunity to have worked with a great bunch of people and to know them very well. We’ve been very blessed within our organisation with a stable workforce and we’re a very family-orientated company, we’re not openly corporate.”

During his career, Mr Inkster spent four years as the President of the Pump Industry Association (PIA).

“When I came across to Australia in January 2000, nobody knew who I was and I didn’t know who anybody else was. There’s a lot of people in the industry and Brown Brothers, at that stage, was still in its infancy.

“We’d been there for five-plus years, so I joined the PIA so I could actually get to meet other people, other industry colleagues, and it worked very, very well for me. Then people got to know who John Inkster was and who Brown Brothers Engineers were because it was a New Zealand company.”

Looking ahead

Mr Inkster is optimistic for the future, and hopes that there will be more young men and women attracted to the industry, fully trained and leading to better opportunities of retaining them.

“I hope we can teach them somehow that it is a good industry to be in. It’s an essential industry, I think we’re going to see a lot more innovation in time. I would suggest that in years to come, maybe five plus years, we’ll be seeing products on the market that are not available now. The pumps will still be there, but how they work and the technology associated with them – they’re going to get smarter and smarter.”

Life after retirement

Despite his plans to retire at the end of April, Mr Inkster’s departure from the industry appears to be more gradual; he will be attending the next Managing Directors meeting in Stockholm in June for a more formal handover process.

Travel – both for work and for personal reasons – is at the top of Mr Inkster’s retirement agenda.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked what I’m going to do in retirement, but millions of people do it around the world every day, every week, every month, so I’ll do the same. My wife
and I want to do a bit of travel, and this time she can have some travel where I don’t say, ‘We’ve got a flight tomorrow morning,’ and we’re only there for a day and a half. Now we can go and we
can actually relax, without me having to be somewhere else at a certain time.

“It used to annoy her a lot, but it just went with the territory. Now we can travel at our leisure and we do have a big trip to Europe planned in September.”

Family will also firmly take front seat in Mr Inkster’s retirement, with plans to investigate his family tree and visit family down in Melbourne. Even with all these things to keep him busy post-retirement, Mr Inkster has no intention of becoming a stranger to the people he met throughout his career.

“When I retire, most of all, I will have fond memories of the people I worked with. There’s some great people and we had some great laughs and great times – visiting factories overseas in Europe and the US – and the enjoyment of meeting all those other people. I have many, many great memories.”

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