Our interview with Bill Smith (Pump Industry May 2014) only covers part of the Kelair story. Here, in his own words, Bill goes into the history and growth of the company. 

I have always been convinced that you do not make your company bigger, your clients do. A perfect example is when the Permutit Company wanted to buy $750K of high nickel alloy pumps we had offered for Bayswater Power Station but was concerned the small pump manufacturer, Applied Pumps could not finance the deal. They suggested we absorb AP into the business. Hugh Rowney, the owner of AP, agreed and the deal was done. We had just bedded down AP when I was approached by Alan Sadler, the owner of Day Pumps, an old family pump manufacturer, to consider buying them out. Alan’s health was failing and he felt we would best look after his clients. Kelair were at the time Day’s biggest reseller.

I visited them with our financial controller. Alan would not release his financials to us, saying “Just ask me questions and I’ll give an honest reply”. On a piece of paper the size of an envelope my controller wrote the answers and turned to me and said, “We must buy this, it is a very good deal”.

We went to the bank and within 24 hrs the money was in place, three months later we were a genuine manufacturer with our own bronze foundry. We inherited years of experience with the manufacturing team which was to greatly assist us with our range from AP. Hugh Rowney was in his element.

These acquisitions could not have occurred without the profits flowing from our Wilden sales. It is important to state this growth caused us severe cash flow and the bank became our partner, of sorts.

It was prepared to bankroll us as long as they had security. This security was in the form of a mortgage over the houses of Tony, Alan and mine. Rest assured our wives were singularly unimpressed. This clearly illustrated our commitment to “our cause”.

We decided to open an office in Melbourne and push for a share of a market almost as large as that in Sydney. We met stiff resistance from the beginning and it took the efforts of men like Alan Rowan and Malcolm Ayres to finally establish us as an acceptable alternative to the others in the eyes of the clients.

It is timely to mention our whole approach to what we were about. We knew to hurt the big boys we needed to be different. We needed an edge. When products are of similar quality and price how do you differentiate? Why would a customer buy from us when the larger established companies were knocking on their door? We decided it was all about people. Drawing on our experience at I-R we developed a policy of recruiting only quality sales engineers/managers from the opposition or alternatively hiring graduate engineers and training them in the Kelair way.

We set up training programs for the selling of technical products. For this we engaged outside personnel and eventually we did this ourselves once we felt we knew as much as the trainers.

Product training became the norm, both for our own pumps and the oppositions.

This training was scheduled for each month and we endeavoured to do it whatever the prevailing circumstances.

Something was working because there were Kelair personnel in management positions throughout the country.

We knew the market was taking notice when two high profile pump men spoke to me at a Melbourne exhibition. John Link said, talking in cricket parlance “With the manufacturers as the first eleven, Kelair is the leader of the second eleven”. Bob Pullen said that when someone takes the time to write the history of the pump industry Kelair would have a chapter on its own. It was related to us by several ex-Kelair sales engineers that whenever their new company had a sales meeting, Kelair generally got a mention.

Here’s a story which may give you an indication of the spirit in the company. We were holding a weekend sales/product training seminar in Sydney with all branch sales staff participating. The Melbourne team were at the airport on the Friday evening and there was a strike. Not a problem. They got into a car and drove all night, arrived in Sydney, had breakfast and then worked all weekend. They drove home and fronted to work on Monday, a bit jaded no doubt. I was never prouder of my team. I could cite many examples of staff going the extra yard on their own volition.

In the mid-90s we took on the ABS range which opened up a new market for us within which we had limited knowledge. ABS had previously been represented by Mono Pumps. Our thinking was we would be seen a major player and it would give us credibility. We immediately received aggressive attention from Flygt. Their pricing policy made it very difficult to get a toehold in the market. We did land a significant order for Prospect Dam for ABS, Bornemann and Warman pumps for $2.3M. However it was too hard to compete, tying up too much money and personnel for a questionable return. We eventually parted company and ABS now has a local office. The lesson there was know your strengths and play to them.

However having the ABS product opened a few more doors. The sales of their small sewage submersibles in the market raised awareness of Kelair and we were approached to buy out a struggling company who made fibreglass tanks. We did, and in no time an Irish manufacturer contacted us and invited us to discuss making complete fibreglass sewage treatment plants.

We were relatively successful with the local manufacture of the Blivet range, with sales to China, Pakistan and Indonesia and in many country municipalities. The product is now made for Kelair in China.

Whilst this was happening, we bought out our Tasmanian distributor Douglas and Fraser with offices in Hobart and Launceston. We closed Hobart very soon after and Alan Rowan was transferred to manage the organisation.

In 1990 we established our Brisbane office after vigorous representation from Bob Exon. This was a wise move. Bob made tremendous inroads to this market in a short time. Bob left us to become the Manager of KSB Sydney and now manages KSB NZ.

Again another door opened because of our move into fibreglass .A building services pump company was struggling and three of their senior people who were planning to leave approached us to form a new division. This we duly did and for some time after we thought this was a grave mistake. What a cultural shock to deal with people with a different mindset from the disciplined personnel of and Shell, ICI or BHP. We had never had any bad debts of any consequence in the previous 20 odd years. Now we had companies folding who owed us $50-60K and opening up under another name the very next week. It took a lot of culling of this client base and training of personnel and clients as to how we were prepared to do business. This section of Kelair business has thrived and expanded in recent years.

The West beckoned in 1994 so we sent over Lindsay Smith from our Sydney office to establish a base. Lindsay had been one of our most successful salesmen in NSW. This was a good move although it took a lot of patience and hard work to get us accepted in this market. This office is now a significant contributor with a much broader range of products. Lindsay has since moved on to be the business manager of the Oil and Gas division of Atlas Copco.

Click here to return to our interview with Bill Smith.

Find Manufacturing Related Companies In The Pump Industry Capability Guide

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