Fred Van Ross

It is with sadness we announce the passing of Fred Van Ross, a friend of the PIA and a pump industry expert with extensive experience in the field. Close friend and colleague Keith Sanders reflects on their time together in the industry.

My friend Fred – the ultimate ‘pump man’ by Keith Sanders

Fred told me he started in the pump industry with Haywood Tyler, a specialist manufacturer of engineered pumping equipment based in Luton, Bedfordshire. Shortly after completing his training, he got married and emigrated to Australia with his wife, Christine, in 1968. Fred immediately joined the McPhersons Pump Division under the banner of Ajax Pumps. Ajax was to go on to successfully develop the IS range of end suction pumps, which proved very popular in the early 1970’s, particularly in the Building Services markets.

I first came across Fred when I arrived in Australia in 1981 with Kelly & Lewis Pumps. Fred was still with Ajax Pumps at that time. Our first encounter was as adversaries, when both companies tendered for the Jetty fire pumps in Adelaide. Ajax won the job, in no small part to the role that Fred and his close friend David Johnstone played in the negotiations with the client. Fred was very competitive and that was clear from day one.

A corporate merger of Ajax Pumps with Davey Pumps had occurred in the late 1970’s and the reorganisation had left Ajax as the junior partner, with Graeme Denton giving priority to the Davey brand.

Fred was the only Ajax man who was given a state manager role in the Ajax Davey structure. His colleagues, David Johnstone and Bob Womersley, left the company to form R&D Pumps. Thus, a powerful team of pump men was broken up and Ajax Pumps slipped slowly into oblivion. The fit of the two brands had turned into a disaster. Fred was very frustrated by this but continued to grow the Victorian Branch.

Our next meeting was when I joined Ajax Davey in 1985. Fred was still Victorian Branch Manager for them. I had been recruited by Graeme Denton to do a specific job of separating the Ajax industrial pump range from the Davey domestic pump range, with the view of selling the Ajax business as a going concern.

However, I wasn’t allowed to make this evident to the staff in the two sales teams. As a result, within weeks of arriving, Fred left the company and joined R&D, reuniting with David Johnstone and Bob Womersley. This team became a significant force in the fire pump market, with Fred taking responsibility for manufacturing and service.

I managed to create a new purpose for Ajax Pumps, and the change of strategy resulted in a return to profitability and the business became attractive enough for it to be acquired by Southern Cross Corporation. The Ajax identity was retained and Southern Cross invested in the Tottenham plant to make it more productive and lower costs.

Fred didn’t escape me that easily and a few years later, R&D was acquired by Ajax Pumps. Fred and David were re-integrated into the industrial pump business in senior roles, while Bob went his own way. We all worked together under the General Manager at the time, Rob Campbell; the business grew rapidly by harnessing the talents of the staff who were dedicated to the business and developing a strategic approach to the planning process.

When I became General Manager in 1990, Fred worked closely with me to manage the business and make it more streamlined but without losing our customer focus. He did a great job and was respected by all the staff during this change process. Fred also got involved in export sales and was popular with all the Ajax distributors in South East Asia. The level of service they received was an important part of the export drive the company engaged in to increase sales. Fred and I undertook some overseas trips together and enjoyed a few adventures – however, what happens on tour stays on tour!

In 1991, Ajax merged with German company KSB and this took the company in a different direction. The company relocated to another part of Tottenham and the business was again restructured with Fred playing a vital role. The relocation did affect company growth for a year, but the organisation was in good shape with a very efficient work-flow through the new factory layout. I remember exposing all the senior staff to the Myer Briggs psychological evaluation and Fred was assessed as a Thruster-Organiser. These two words really summed Fred up. If you wanted a job done properly – give it to Fred.

Fred continued in key roles while I transferred to KSB in Hong Kong in 1994, but we stayed in touch. I don’t think the German management style really suited Fred. He eventually left to provide his experience to a new entity, BKB Pumps, run by Bala and Jeya Thuraisingham. They were a competitor to KSB-Ajax in the fire pump sector and were making inroads into the KSB market share. However, it was a long trip from Tullamarine.

Fred had left the active pump business world by the time we got together again. Two motivated and under-utilised talents could hardly allow themselves to ride off into the sunset without creating a little more havoc – so, we began a cooperation to develop a practical training program. It was designed for delivery to pump people who hadn’t been exposed to the level of technology that was essential to succeed in the industrial sector. No Rodgers and Hammerstein, but Fred provided the pictures and I provided the words. We tried hard to avoid exposing our trainees to ‘death by PowerPoint’ and kept things interactive.

We had many successful years, with our first course run at Link Pumps in Williamstown in 2000. We also enjoyed several interstate trips together, including a week in Tasmania for the Hobart Water Authority and a road trip to Sydney and Brisbane in which Christine accompanied him to make sure we didn’t get into too much mischief. Sadly, Fred’s ability to travel began to limit his involvement in training, but he was able to help Alan Rowan and PIA develop an Installation and Commissioning Training course, first delivered at Link Pumps a few years ago. The program is still being offered by PIA to support people in the industry.

It was clear that things were getting tough for Fred as Parkinsons took hold, but I will always admire the bravery of the man – he was determined not to let it beat him. However, more serious health problems became evident and that was sad to see.

Two Pommie pump men who met in Australia 40 years ago were great mates and enjoyed some terrific times together. Not quite the Two Ronnies, but we worked well as a team. So, it’s goodbye from me and it’s goodbye from him. I will miss you Fred – rest in peace.

Keith Sanders

Life Member – Pump Industry Australia

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