Pump industry legend John Link shares his reflections on a life spent developing businesses, inventing equipment and mentoring colleagues in this latest edition of our ‘Pump Pioneers’ series.

Early professional life

John Link.

John Link.

After a short time as a time and motion engineer, I started my first business in 1959 – a crop spraying business. I purchased a Govan Industry nylon roller pump, which led to stabilising sand dunes on the Mornington Peninsula, comparing bitumen emulsion with synthetic rubber to allow the seeds to grow through and stop the sand blowing away.

The crop spraying and weed control business specialised in irrigation, channel weed control and submerged aquatics. My most notable jobs were injecting chemicals into Albert Park Lake in Melbourne and Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra which were so clogged boats could not travel. I made my own VW and Tiger Moth powered swamp boats to inject the chemicals. However, I sold the business in 1965 after reading Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which opened my eyes to the environmental impact of spraying chemicals such as DDT. I left that industry using high pressures of 1000psi, so I could get very small droplets when spraying irrigation channels up to 100m wide of cane grass on large properties in NSW.

I then started specialising in pumps – I think I was about the first person to set up a pump company whilst never having worked for an established pump company. My four years at Caulfield Technical School (now Monash University) gave me only four hours of theory in pumps. Most of what I knew at the time was from the practical use of pumps when crop spraying.

Invention and innovation

In 1980, together with Rick Begg, I designed an underwater sand blasting system called the ‘Link Blaster’. This was a system for detecting cracks in the legs of oil rigs in the North Sea and Bass Strait. The system operated at (then) world record depths of 300 metres. A patent was taken out for this invention which had Det Norse Veritas approval and the rights were sold to an English pump firm. The ‘Link Blaster’ has since been superseded by ultra high pressure 40,000 technology.

My first big job in Australia was in 1982 when Chorley Engineering in the UK wanted help to test the North Rankin A gas pipe line in the Pilbara. This required an enormous investment at the time and my customer helped me in financing some of the equipment with an advance of $80,000. This allowed me to purchase the diesels in advance of being awarded the contract – otherwise the time constraints could not be met. We used eleven Rolls Royce Diesel Engines (for which we were the Victorian distributors). At the end of the job, I utilised the large multi-stage pumps to bury a pipeline for McDermott in a swamp in Indonesia.

In 1986 we pioneered 40,000 psi water-jet cutting and cut un-machinable materials for BHP and CSIRO, and helped to cross section the spent uranium glass encapsulation system at Lucas Heights.

In 1987 I started an offshore fire fighting company based in Singapore with a large number of 700hp transportable fire pump sets that were mounted on work boats. These were sent to Tunisia, the Horn of Africa, Bulgaria, Burma, China, Borneo, Vietnam and many other places. This business ran until the Asian oil crisis when the sets were returned to Melbourne. My wife (of 40 years now) Annie and I even went to Bulgaria to fix some unusual problems (not of our own making).

In 1994 I won a worldwide tender to supply all the pumping equipment to test very large oil storage tanks at Port McCullah in Yemen. This required a shipload of equipment and included the camp workshop and generating equipment. The work was done near the Queen of Sheeba Road and subsequently at the wellhead, where 140 new Toyota cars, with a value of $US1.3 million, were hijacked at gunpoint from the main contractor. It was fascinating to be in an area mentioned 2,000 years ago in the Bible. MIG fighter jets were at the airport covered in dust. Once we had to supply our own hydraulic fittings to get the BOAC plane back to Dubai. I was impressed with the use of ‘grey tape’ on the inside fuselage doors to seal them. Once we waited in the airport for tyres to be flown from America so we could get off the ground.

In the early 1990s we were contracted to clean up the Coode Island chemical spill and pump the residues to the main sewer via a long 12” pipeline supplied by us and to work under flameproof conditions. Brendon Hare of Gardiner Bros was very helpful at the time and reminded me to take charge and lead, when at that time, there were no organised emergency provisions in place.

Also in the early 1990s we provided the equipment, manpower and piping to bypass the main sewer in Elizabeth Street Kensington when it collapsed the roadway into a four double decker bus-sized hole, which threatened to collapse the nearby three-storey brick factories. This job took up to 35 employees and about two years to complete – working 24 hour days.

Our next big job was to make a large expensive rock fracturing system for one of the big gold mines. It took nine months to design, build and test the 10,000psi, 600Kw, 1,000 volt system with all the associated electronics to control the growth of crack in the ‘cave mining’ system, which continuously drops the roof a meter at a time from 1km underground. Later we built a second unit.

More recently we were ‘first in’ at the Yallourn Power Station when the mine was flooded. 5,000hp and 3km of 13 bar hose was installed and six months later, after operating 24 hours a day, we were second last out. Resource Equipment got the difficult job of bypassing the entire river around the mine.

As the flood developed and the water rose, there was 27km of layflat hose in use and that was just in our section of the mine. In the end it seemed as if every large transportable pump in Australia was on site. The Yallourn management did a magnificent job in coordinating this job, which was like having to pump out Port Phillip Bay with The Heads still open.

The latest big engine from Link Pumps. 2,000hp, 16V, 149T Detroit.

The latest big engine from Link Pumps. 2,000hp, 16V, 149T Detroit.

The people make the industry

Rick Begg was my first real friend in the pump business and we brought ourselves up by the bootstraps, solving differences of opinion by going to the workshop and testing our theories.

John Shanassy was my General Manager for many years and did a wonderful job. My business by then got too big for either my ability or wish to control it, so I sold the sales business to John and it became Pump Power. John’s son Michael now runs the business whilst John has retired. I found that a smaller business was more profitable than a large one and much more fun – 35 employees were a handful.

Roger Withers is another real friend and we have been doing business together for over 40 years. His company Regent Pumps is an outstanding pump company, known for fantastic service.

Alan Rowan made his mark at Link Pumps for five years with his explosive temper and extensive knowledge, gained during his Scottish days as an apprentice, where he was brought up from the factory floor to working at Ingersol Rand and Kelair amongst others.

Eric Wells was the first of my mentors and used to tell customers “you don’t need a pump – you need a boy with a bucket”. This led to a philosophy of doing root cause analysis and giving customers what they really needed and not just what they wanted. The business at this time was much smaller and we did everything from designing breast pumps to repairing embalming pumps. We provided a ‘womb to tomb’ service in pumps.

“I have always been very passionate about my customers, employees and business. Currently I have eleven employees, who I consider to be friends, and I run Link Pumps as a family business with pleasant customers who appreciate the informal friendliness
of our service.” – John Link.

Kelly & Lewis, as a company, provided a lot of advice and I used to phone them regularly for answers to my practical problems, and I absorbed the theory. And the first pump I sold was a Southern Cross, to pump edible oil to a company in South Melbourne.

Geoff Smidt went with me in the early days to our first tropical location in PNG, where we had to design and supply helicopter transportable diesel pump sets to do a 26 foot suction lift (when the river went down) and pump water deep into a sago swamp to supply a drill rig. The locals were interesting and they could screw right hand nuts onto left hand threads.

Geoff has a photographic mind and memorised the complete Melbourne tram system timetable and knew which intersection a tram could turn in all four directions. He was known for his enthusiasm for all things ‘Fybroc’ when we were the distributors.

Keith Sanders is a long time friend and has been a great asset to the Pump Industry Association, where he shook it into life and can always be relied on to be controversial and negative. He is best known for suggesting during a speech at an industry dinner that it was all a load of codswallop (which was probably true).

Ron Astall, the President of the Pump Industry Association, is one of the many pump people whose company I enjoy. He is a fun person and there is no one better to spend time with enjoying chilli crab in Singapore and absorbing his great depth of knowledge. Ron stands out as being a wonderful competitor in exhibiting at least the same depth of knowledge as myself on an extremely wide range of pumps. I like giving him a good Dorothy Dixer at his many good lectures.

Howard Mendel was my Senior Engineer for many years. We learned a lot about filtration when we worked on the Yemen job with its many problems of pumping sea water overloaded with plankton (which we weren’t expecting). This job came about indirectly through squash and having to travel the world. Howard remains a close and good friend. I helped him start his own business about five years before he retired from Link Pumps.

Sporting pursuits

Over the years I have carried my squash racquet to many jobs around the world and have made lasting friendships through being able to play squash. In June this year I came 17th in the 75-80 age bracket of the World Masters Squash Tournament.

It was through squash friends in Singapore that I started up the fire fighting company mentioned above. I also play Royal Tennis which has enabled me to make lots of friends.

My first difficult job came after a competition match in my early days in J grade, when I beat Dr Tom Penman. He mentioned two problems and I was able to supply four diesel pumps to convert carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide in the water gas reaction. These four diesel pumps ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week for ten years on hire, and I cut my teeth on running diesels and developed my love affair with them. I have a family of Fords, Cummins, Detroits and Rolls Royces.

I always under-stressed the diesels and in return achieved very long life and remarkable reliability. Nowadays, it is usual, because of current competition, to offer engines with just enough horsepower to be acceptable, but without longevity, as we move further into the throwaway age.

Squash gave me entry into working offshore in Bombay, using high pressure pumps to clean the oil rig legs; plus a branch in Sharjah, Dubai, leading to pipeline burial work in the Red Sea in South Arabia.

The pump industry today

I made a lifetime study of pumps and never passed one without finding what it was and how it worked.

In the pump industry today, I believe that there are too many suppliers and not enough projects or manufacturers. Overseas competitors are commoditising many things and what used to be custom-built pumps are now pumps in a box from Bunnings and others. As an industry, we are continuing to slide into a slump and our political leaders give no sign of understanding that small business is doing it hard.

The behaviour in Parliament is repellent and useless. To be fair, it is near impossible to turn an economy around, but it would be nice if they tried instead of concentrating on staying in power or winning the next election!

It would also be great if, as an industry, we can pull together to help each other in the difficult time ahead.

The future for Link Pumps

Since 1994 Link Pumps has been located on four acres in Williamstown, backing on to an old migrant hostel where my collection of more than 500 pumps reside and are used in the hire fleet or sold as required. Only Resource Equipment in Perth has more pumps than Link Pumps. We have a full mechanic shop and test facilities for up to 24 pumps and can generate 700Kw of power.

I have always been very passionate about my customers, employees and business. Currently I have eleven employees, who I consider to be friends, and I run Link Pumps as a family business with pleasant customers who appreciate the informal friendliness of our service.

Tom, a welder, has been with me for 35 years, Bernadette for about 25 years and many others for up to 20 years, and they all form part of a wonderful team. Carlos has been the brains on the engineering side of Link Pumps for the last ten years. Our excellent repairers Russell, Tarik and Tony head up the pump repair section.

I have prided myself on always having high ethical standards, a caring attitude and always trying to give the best I can taking an interest in others. My attitude is to help my competitors, particularly on the hire side, and we support them with the things they can’t do easily and congratulate them on the things they do well. I especially make a point of being friends with the fellow travellers in the pump business.

Making money has never been my goal and I have never had a plan nor a budget. Profit is the result of running an ethical business and has never been an objective for me. It is enough that we have risen to the opportunities as they presented themselves.

Link Pumps is called upon to solve the very difficult problems and has often been referred to as ‘the trouble shooters’ or ‘the company of last resort.’

At nearly 80, I still have the passion for pumps and people, but the business will soon need a new owner. Are there any pump enthusiasts out there who would like to have a lifestyle business near Williamstown Beach? We overlook a marine park with views of the Bay.

Enquire within!

The Link Pumps facility in Williamstown.

The Link Pumps facility in Williamstown.

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