Bill Smith is best known as the man behind Kelair. In this interview we talk to him about the history of the company, and also what drove him throughout his career.

I met Bill at Kelair’s office in Arndell Park, near Blacktown, in Sydney’s industrial west. Bill related with a visible sense of pride and satisfaction the way the company continued to thrive after he left, reflecting that it had never been a one-man-band.

“Once Tony Sgro and Alan Veasey joined we all played a major part in the area of the company that our expertise lay.  I took the risks and at times I used to frighten the hell out of them, I would be driving the change – one thing would hardly be bedded down and we were onto another one.  Because we’d see an opportunity, or I would see an opportunity and I just didn’t want to let it go – a bit like a kid in a candy shop – don’t let it go, it might not come back!”

Bill was born in Scotland, but a desire to travel brought him to Australia in 1963.

“I worked for Weir in Scotland so Weir Drysdale gave me a job. I had two jobs to come to actually – I was apprentice of the year for Babcock Wilcox and they offered me a job when I came to Australia.  So I came with two job offers and I settled for the sales one with Weir.

In 1965 I had the good fortune to join Ingersoll Rand (I-R) as a sales engineer handling clients in the chemical and petrochemical industries, both end users and major contractors. This was an exciting time to be in the industry with major projects.

Developing in several refineries, the fertiliser plants were mushrooming and we were on the ground floor with Philips Imperial Chemicals’ green field plant at Kurnell. That job alone had about 80 process pumps, three large compressors and several portable compressors. I was successful in landing this job and my career took off. This was an exhilarating time and I was on another steep learning curve.

I-R’s technical training was very good. The technical information was second to none and the personnel were of a high calibre. The I-R recruitment standards were stringent so I had the opportunity to work and learn from some talented and dedicated people.

In 1969 I was transferred to Newcastle as resident engineer working out of the then agent for I-R, Bestobell. I was exposed to all of the I-R range of products which included drill rigs, pneumatic tools and a different group of customers in the steel and mining industries. I had a level of success which resulted in me being transferred 2 years later to Sydney office as the NSW Divisional Manager for the construction industry.

Within 6 months I was sent to Hobart as the Tasmanian Branch Manager. This branch ensured I was again dealing with a diverse group of industries (eg. mining, pulp and paper, power generation and mineral processing). It was a fancy title but I was also the Senior Sales Engineer along with my other responsibilities.

It was about this time I started to think of working for myself. I handled several I-R distributors and from what I saw I firmly believed I could do likewise.

In 1975 I returned to Sydney as the Engineering products Manager for NSW with a small team of sales engineers. Within a few months I decided to take the plunge and left to form Kelair and act as a distributor for the I-R range of compressors and tools. The I-R pump range of mainly API standard process pumps did not have enough margin to allow for distribution at the time.”

Business commenced on the horses’ birthday, the 1st of August, in 1975. With $2,000 In the bank I operated from a second-hand desk in my small family room. My wife Faye did my typing, book keeping and answered the phone whilst also looking after two small children, Lindsay and Lesley Anne.”

What sort of personality do you think it takes to take a step like that?

“Obsessed.  I think from a fairly early age I always wanted to work for myself. Looking at some of the other companies I’d seen I said, if they can do that then sure as hell I can do that.  But working for yourself it’s 24/7. My son Lindsay was asked once in an internal survey here, ‘How long have you been working for Kelair?’  He said ‘since I was 12 years old’, he reckoned every dinner was a board meeting.”

What goals did you set yourself when you first started the business?

“When I first started the goal was to be in business the following month.  We had some fun in the beginning; I would help to spray paint the pumps, then I’d load the truck – with help of course – at seven o’clock at night and I’d drive the truck to my house.  Then I’d wake up at five in the morning and deliver the pumps to say, ICI at Botany – or wherever the pumps were going.   I’d get there at half past six, seven o’clock in the morning, unload the truck, go straight back to the office and then I’d work all day.  Then at night time I’d do whatever had to be done.  That was just the way it was.

But it worked to our advantage as we could be flexible, where larger companies might not be able to deliver a part for a few days, we’d find a way to get it with the minimum of delay. There’s always a way.

In the first 3 months I sold a total of $20,000 which ensured the doors would remain open for a few more months. Very early on my pump knowledge came to the fore. I discussed pump problems with clients and offered solutions. They invited me to get involved and requested I supply the suggested pump. I now had to introduce Kelair to Ajax, Kelly and Lewis and Harland Pumps. Armed with their literature and price lists, my focus changed almost immediately. We were now seriously in the pump business.

Several clients expressed dissatisfaction with a number of major pump companies’ level of expertise of their salesmen and reliability of supply. I saw this as an opportunity to exploit this apparent weakness.

We moved to our first office into the local shopping centre and employed our first pump man, Harry Lawson, who had been the Manager for Blackwoods. Harry was a top pump man and his arrival released me to be out full time, thus accelerating our growth. Within 18 months we moved to our first factory unit and started mounting our own pumps and motors. About this time I convinced Tony Sgro and Alan Veasey to leave their secure jobs and join the fast track. Both these men were associates from my I-R days and I was confident they would take Kelair to another level. I offered them a shareholding of 15{87a03eb4327cd2ba79570dbcca4066c6d479b8f7279bafdb318e7183d82771cf} each based on 3{87a03eb4327cd2ba79570dbcca4066c6d479b8f7279bafdb318e7183d82771cf} per annum for 5 years. However if they left under 5 years they forfeited the lot. I wanted a foundation for the company from which to grow and they provided it.

I began corresponding with overseas suppliers with international reputations for quality, that were also direct competitors to that already being imported by the majors. My rationale was that the bigger companies would not notice a small loss of business. I could nibble away undetected.

I made my first visit to an international pump exhibition in 1977 seeking new products, an action which was to continue for the next 25 years.

In that year we were appointed the agents for HMD seal-less pumps and Howard hygienic lobe pumps, both manufactured in Eastbourne UK.

HMD advised they had been in the early stage of appointing an agent however felt my background was more suitable to sell this pump successfully in the chemical industry.

With these pumps we were developing an identity of our own. We were beginning the differentiation I wanted. We would no longer be seen as a “me too” reseller of standard products.

The HMD magnetic drive pumps were of a unique design specifically developed as a solution to prevent the leaking of aggressive and dangerous liquids into the atmosphere. Within months we landed a 15 plus pump order from Powell Duffryn for a tank farm at Botany. Orders flowed in from Shell, ICI and others. With persistent cajoling by Kelair and in conjunction with Shell, Geelong, we influenced HMD to design for the API market. Their first significant order was for Shell, Geelong and this lead to major orders for some 200 pumps for Russia.

The Howard pumps allowed us to compete head to head with Mono with the SSP equivalent (a breakaway from Howard). This was to be a great seller for many years in the food and chemical industry.

Over the next 2 years we added Rotan gear pumps, Anema hygienic pumps, Bornemann (bought from K&L), Sero (bought from Ajax), and Lewa metering pumps.

The major game changer came in 1982 when we secured the Wilden pump agency. The acquisition of the world leader in air operated pumps was to accelerate our growth beyond our wildest forecasts. It also gave us access to the best pump distributors in the country. This was an exciting time, sales went ballistic, 150, 300, 500 units per annum until in we sold 2000 in 1998.

The Wilden diaphragm pump had been poorly represented in Australia with sale less than 100 per annum. This included pumps we bought from the local agent. I flew to California and met with the Wilden team which included the great man himself, Jim Wilden. Within 2 days I had convinced them to give us dual distribution. In our first year we sold more than 150. The following year we were granted sole distribution.

Our biggest single contract was from Mt Isa mines where I landed an order in 1983 which ended up being for more than 200 pumps.

Our main competitor was Sandpiper. They were handled by Clyde Industries and well established. In 1985 our Wilden sales surpassed Sandpiper. The Clyde sale manager had boasted to me they had just turned over $1 million for the first time, loose lips…we were now the number 1 for diaphragm pumps in Australia. Eventually we became one of Wilden’s major global distributors and featured in some of their promotional presentations around the world.”

The story of Kelair was one of continued growth from here, making acquisitions and expanding into further territories throughout Australia. The full story of this chapter, in Bill’s own words, is available here

“In 1999 we opened up Kelair’s current premises near Blacktown with 3000sqm of factory and office. With first rate testing facilities comprising 80Kw installed power, a 50000 litre tank and two 5 tonne cranes. This facility has allowed Kelair to establish itself as a manufacturer and packager of container housed fire protection pumps sets, swimming pool sized sewage treatment plants and detailed metering pump packages.

This was not on my horizon when I started out and I am certain it was not on Tony’s or Alan’s radar either.

We were settling in nicely when we were given a massive shock. Wilden had decided to appoint a South African company as a second distributor in Australia. Behind the scenes we were undermined by a senior member of our sales team who had been seduced by a South African distributor to join them and compete with Kelair.

This had been supported at Wilden by a newly appointed manager in his first international role. This was a blow to us of mammoth significance after 20 years of association at a close personal level with the Wilden family. A bloody price war ensued with no real winners. Our unit sales increased but margins on pumps and parts plummeted. I received a call from the international business manager of Warren Rupp, the manufacturer of the Sandpiper pump and the major worldwide competitor to Wilden.  The product was handled by Clyde Industries and both parties wanted out. They asked us to meet with them and see if there was a way we could work together. Warren Rupp is a company in the Idex group which also had Viking , Pulsafeeder and Corken pumps in their stable. I flew to meet them in Cedar Falls Iowa and actually addressed the presidents for all companies mentioned. Short version is that we agreed to take over the Sandpiper immediately with the other pumps to follow. We had $200,000 of pumps flown out and we moved all parts from Clyde Industries under cover. The next weekend we had our sales team fly in from all over. They had no idea what they were about to hear. With Wilden these guys bled orange, the colour of the Wilden pump. They were about to become blue bloods.

Sandpiper personnel addressed our shell shocked troops for all of Saturday and into Sunday. By the end we had discovered the Sandpiper had a feature Wilden people would have died for, it did not stall.

We attacked the market from Monday and within the first year we sold 1500 units at good margins. We aggressively promoted the range with the slogan “Quit stalling”, a not too subtle reference to the weakness we had discovered in the Wilden pumps. This catch cry has since been adopted by Sandpiper and is in all their worldwide literature. Within a year the South African company folded.

Kelair now has the sole distributorship for the Viking range which is the world leader in gear pumps and it is doing very well for them.”

Was there a point where you realised you’d arrived and you’d achieved the success you wanted, or once you got to a certain level did you always want to move up to the next level?

“I was never satisfied.  I exasperated Tony and Alan. I was always saying we could have done better.  That was the whole approach – if we could do that, we could do better than that.  I would talk to anybody who I thought could give me advice to give me the edge.”

What do you think your staff and the people who worked with you over the years would say about you?

“That probably depends on who you ask!  I think I’m very loyal, sometimes I was too soft – you’ll maybe not think it’s possible, but I was too soft. I found it extremely difficult to fire anyone. I delegated that to others. We had a great culture, where everyone’s birthday was remembered, successes were celebrated, I’d regularly take the staff out for dinner as a group. We always had a Christmas party and latterly we started having them on boats out in the harbour.

But I could be tough as well.  I was demanding.  I wanted – I wouldn’t say my pound of flesh, that’s not it – I wanted a guy to represent the company in the manner that I wanted it represented.  I didn’t want his interpretation or a  “She’ll be right approach” to things.  We trained and trained and trained and these guys, having worked for other companies, knew it was different here.  It was demanding – not doubt about it.  It wasn’t a case of come here and rest on your laurels, it was come here and learn.”

Do you think you got your work-life balance right?

“I would imagine if you spoke to my family they’d say no.  By the way, my daughter worked in the company as our full time marketing person for about six or seven years and she’s got a business degree majoring in marketing.  She did some brilliant work here, as did my son Lindsay. He’s an engineer and he’s also got a business degree majoring in finance and marketing. He did all the marketing after she left to have children. So we had dedicated professional marketing people much earlier than a lot of companies of our size.”

How did your time at Kelair end?

“We had become a major client of Brown Bros. and formed a close working relationship with the MD, John Inkster. John has been the driver of the growth of Brown Bros for many years and had mentioned to me on several occasions he coveted Kelair. Well John finally convinced us to sell to his company. This was not a decision taken lightly but in the end it was time to move on. The Kelair board knew we were handing our staff and clients to a company which would look after their best interests. This was completed in March 2004. Time has shown that our trust was well founded. Kelair under the stewardship on Tony Sgro has continued to develop and grow in the manner set out over many years.

I was reminded by Tony that when he once asked me what drove me, I replied “the fear of failure”. I wonder what my psychologist friends would make of that response? “

Did you find you didn’t know what to do with your time when you first retired?

“It was a cultural shock.  I went from the rooster to the feather duster. I sat in the office here where I was always handing out advice all around the country, then suddenly nobody wanted to talk to me.  The new owners wanted me to stay on for six months but I left in six weeks because it was no longer my company – I just felt that I was not making the contribution I thought I’d make.  That’s fine – I moved on.  Tony knew everything about the business so it stood to reason that he took over and I moved myself to the other end of the building. Sort of out of the way, which was a complete change.  But after six weeks I decided to seek other challenges. I did some consulting work for a small manufacturer for a while.

Now I am happy to play golf and involve myself with fund raising for my Rotary club.”

Any regrets?

“Not really. It was a great journey.

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