Ken Kugler began on the shop floor with Ajax and enjoyed a career that took him through production planning and scheduling, technical sales, marketing and eventually managing an engineering department. He officially retired in 2007, but remains heavily involved with the PIA, currently serving as the PIA’s Executive Officer for Standards as well being a life member. Recently, with the PIA he has been instrumental in the review of the Fire Pump standard AS2941, which encompasses not only pumps but their electric, diesel drivers, controls and testing and is expected to be finalised soon.  We caught up with Ken and asked him where it all began.

Due to the fact that both my parents had passed away before I completed secondary school I had taken on a McPherson’s engineering cadetship that consisted of a Fitting & Machining apprenticeship and, as was the norm back then, one day a week schooling,  another half day and as much night school as one could cope with to study Engineering.  If I kept my nose to the wheel I could complete it all in nine years!  McPhersons offered me a choice to work in one of three factories manufacturing either machine tools, bolts or pumps.  I chose to work at Ajax Pumps Works simply because it was closest to my home.

It was Monday 22nd January 1962 when I first entered the pump factory at Tottenham.  Fresh from High School I had never been in a machine shop let alone had seen a machine tool.  The foreman’s language was pretty colourful and the leading hand took me to a lathe, showed me how it worked and left me to part off pieces of steel tube.  At lunch time on that first day I asked Johnny how long he had worked at Ajax.  He replied “nine years” and I thought “He’s pretty stupid, how could anybody work at the same place for nine years!”

The first three years were spent entirely on the machine and assembly shop floors.  The tool handling skills I learnt during those years are something I truly appreciate.  In fact it enabled me to keep my first car on the road – an MG-TC.  “Foreigners” such as machining kingpin bushes was pretty regular.  I treasure my apprenticeship papers as much as my eventual membership of the Institute of Engineers.

During late 1964 I became aware that Swinburne was running a “sandwich course” in Production Engineering.  Not strictly the field of engineering that particularly interested me but it consisted of six months full time study on half pay followed by six months work on full pay.  A diploma was now in sight! My life really changed direction – new friends and a little cash to enjoy life!  It was during these years that I could afford to take up Gliding, something I had dreamt of doing since a child.  Unfortunately at that time my stepmother also was diagnosed with cancer and died during my first year at Swinburne.  Work and study then took a very much back seat as I spent the rest of the sixties flying, snorkelling, shooting, skiing, bushwalking, a bit of sailing and forever fixing the VW or later the MGA.  Frankly, although I worked in a pump factory I only thought of a pump as just something assembled from the parts we manufactured.

In 1969, I met and married my “current” wife and without realising it my working life had some meaning.  Getting married and having a family within a short period meant I needed to work for more than just my indulgences.  Because I had commenced my engineering cadetship with Ajax Pumps McPherson’s insisted that I return to the pump works.  (I’d spent some time at the McPherson’s Research department that was attached to their Machine Tools Factory manufacturing “Macson” lathes.)

In those days in the Production Engineering department we scheduled and planned the manufacture of thousands of pumps and parts.  Scheduling and planning was all manual, and calculations were performed by a woman operating the comptometer – we did not even have a calculator in those days.  As Ajax had their own foundry in Kyneton we had to endeavour to control our production in line with a foundry only interested in casting tons of metal rather than that necessary part.

After about a year I accepted a role with the “Sales” Department.  (Now that slide rule I had used at college had a very simple commercial use.  It’s still the quickest instrument to resolve affinity law calculations.)  The Sales department of the Ajax Pump Works sold their pumps to the McPherson’s Ltd retail sales departments in all States.  The “Works” sold only bare shaft pumps, mainly cast iron centrifugal, piston and gear pumps.  The factory had little understanding of what product the McPherson’s sales outlet’s actually sold.  The McPherson’s sales outlet was a combination of an irrigation specialist and industrial pump and accessories sales outlet.  Within a year or so, a structural change within McPherson’s brought all the pump operations, that is foundry, manufacturing and sales under the one division.

This was also about the time I became technically involved with other pump types beginning with vertical turbine pumps ex Peerless.  Then came electric motors imported from East Germany, multistage pumps and helical rotor from West Germany and finally Archimedean screw pumps ex Germany, a pump which still today intrigues me.

I stayed with the same company for my working life, however, the company has changed many times and the MD’s under which I worked are quite numerous.  In fact at least thirteen and with each one there came a change in direction and philosophy.  From my point of view, some were good and some very bad for the company.

The greatest variation from industrial pumps occurred for me personally in the early eighties when McPherson’s merged Ajax Pumps together with Davey Pumps into an organisation known as Ajax Davey Pumps P/L.  McPherson’s had purchased Davey Pumps and the domestic pump business was extremely successful.  Management of the company was at South Melbourne and the Ajax and Davey plants remained at Tottenham and Huntingdale.  I learnt that the difference between the product management of an industrial pump to a domestic pump is huge.

Grundfos and Lowara all stainless steel pumps were entering the market.  Davey were very interested in manufacturing a stainless steel pump but had no knowhow.  Kelly and Lewis, the Lowara agent at the time relinquished the agency and Ajax Davey picked it up.  This gave Davey an immediate product to compete directly with Grundfos.  I was offered and took on the role of Lowara Product Manager.  It was in this role with Davey that I became familiar with the marketing of pumps and market segments.

What do you like about the pump industry?

Pumps come in all configurations and sizes from our beating hearts to giant mega powered water supply pumps.  In one way or another I’ve managed to be involved in pump products with drivers from fractional to mega kilowatts.

Our customers, especially the consulting engineers often believe they know much more about pumps and systems than the pump vendors –but they rarely do and it’s nice to put them on the right track.

The industry has also allowed me to experience a large business from many points of view.  Through my working life I’ve worked on the shop floor machining and fitting pump parts, production planning and scheduling, technical sales, marketing, managing an engineering department and product management of numerous pump types.

However, it is the variations of fire protection pumps together with their hydraulic systems, electric and diesel drivers and control systems that has keep my interest these last twenty odd years.

How has the industry changed during your time in it?

In my time in the industry it has changed from being a manufacturing industry to just another import/sales industry with minimum local manufactured product.  I also have been complicit in this change as for many years I was product managing pump products from Europe, Japan, the US and had involvement with pumps from China.

In the sixties and seventies the Chinese onslaught had not begun.  Ajax designed and manufactured the first back pull out range of centrifugal pumps in Australia.  The design was to the draft DIN pump standard and unfortunately the final published DIN standard had changes to the bearing and shaft dimensions.  I’ve witnessed the slow strangulation of the locally owned Ajax Pumps with the ability to provide hydraulic design and manufacture into what is now an overseas owned importer of pumps.  Substantial local pump engineering expertise has virtually disappeared with the majority of pump outlets now at the mercy of their offshore providers.  The large companies with numerous overseas agencies have shrunk and smaller flexible organisations have taken up these products.

What is your most memorable moment from your career?

In 1979 KSB in Germany were looking for a new Australian agent.  Ajax was importing an excellent range of German multistage and helical rotor pumps but needed a horizontal split case range to compete against local manufacturers.  A proposal was agreed by the Ajax and KSB management at the time and I travelled to the KSB German factories for four weeks of training.  On arriving back in Melbourne I reported that whilst most KSB prices and products were excellent we should not become their Australian agent.  We already had competitive products from other offshore suppliers and, at the time, the very long KSB production lead times ex works plus shipping to Australia was far from competitive against the Aussie manufacturers such as Thompsons and Kelly and Lewis.

Ajax Management agreed with me and we believe we were the first company ever to refuse an agency agreement with the mighty KSB organisation and they were quite stunned.

KSB eventually had their revenge when in the early nineties they purchased 100% of Ajax Pumps and I spent my final working year for KSB Australia P/L who had by then dropped the Ajax from their Australian named company.

Did you have a mentor at any time in the industry?

A Bulgarian by the name of Bob Bobeff was my mentor.  (I realise now in writing this that he was probably my life coach in my early working life.  I have him to thank for pushing me to complete a tertiary education.)

Others I admired and learnt from were;

• Doug Holt – Ajax Pump Works General Manager and one of the original APMA founders;

• Graham Denton, Davey Pumps for high-lighting that a production run of pumps was by the many thousands – not the twenty or fifty that I previously had considered a good batch quantity;

• Ian Beynon – the importance of the marketing products – “Find me a product that we can market easily and we’ll find any number of manufacturers willing make it”.

• Rob Campbell and Keith Sanders have also given me wisdom and insight in various ways.

Tell me about some of the other personalities in the industry that you have worked with?

I consider I have worked with the greatest pump Salesman of his era – an Indian named David Johnstone.  David had friends – not customers – and he worked day and night for their business.  He fought management to ensure Ajax would meet the spec and that his clients received their products on time.  Being a salesman, management was always advising his quoted price was too high.

To understand who David was I need to relate this brief experience.  When KSB brought into Ajax Pumps, the new organization of KSB Ajax P/L hired a marketing research company to carry out some research.  The report came back indicating that only a handful of respondents knew of KSB yet almost one hundred percent named David Johnstone as a pump sales engineer who they would contact to help them if they needed a pump.

What are the most significant developments you have witnessed in the industry?

When I started on the machine shop floor we were manufacturing and exporting pumps up to 150 discharge to Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong and most other Asian countries.  Today of course this is a rare event.

In my perspective the industry today comprises a large number of small companies selling product manufactured outside Australia.  Very few pumps are now manufactured entirely in Australia.  Even large European and American companies now source componentry for their pumps from places like China and India.

The large international companies year by year become larger as they swallow up their competitors and in doing so force market changes that I sometimes think are detrimental.

Whilst many purchasers of pumps buy for the long term there is still a market for the cheapest possible product at the expense of long term viability – I find this disappointing.

What does the future hold for pumps?

We will always need pumps, simply because no liquid will move uphill without one.

Pumps tend to be low cost items and efficiency gains over the recent years are now only marginal.  Packaging of the pump with its driver and control system to provide optimum overall performance is now a common goal.

But no matter how they are packaged, manufactured or sold I cannot visualize a world without pumps.  Australia has already suffered the major loss of pump manufacturers and I believe the industry will remain similar in the future as it is today.

What advice would you give young people in the pump industry?

A pump system from the outside appears to many people as a simple mechanical/hydraulic piece of equipment without challenges.  This is rarely true and the current overall engineering expertise in pumps is poor.  We have all met the consulting engineer who believes he knows better than the pump supplier involved in the business for many years.

The industry still offers young people opportunities in all business aspects and in my view it is a people business.  Whilst some pump products may sell via the internet this is only the lower end of the market.  Face to face in some manner is still as necessary today as it was many years ago.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

An interesting question!  What is spare time to a retiree?  I’m not sure I have any.

Apart from the PIA and other pump company projects, I work as required as the handyman/engineering inspector at a Primary school where my daughter is the Assistant Principal.

Travelling wise, we have a caravan, not new because even after a few years we are still unsure whether we really like caravanning.  But we do like travelling throughout Australia, meeting the interesting people from all walks of life on the track and I’m sure we will continue.  A couple of overseas trips are planned for the next couple of years but selfishly after quite of few international trips in my working life I’m not all that keen.

We also have “Free Spirit” our Sonata 26 trailer-sailer in which we endeavour to spend a couple of weeks each year on the Gippsland Lakes.  When time allows I race with the GTYC on Corio Bay.  And, being a handyman I can spend hours fixing something on the yacht! ■

Related articles

©2024 Pump Industry. All rights reserved


We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.


Log in with your credentials


Forgot your details?

Create Account