Norman G Clark Centenary Bulletin 1 – Beginnings
June 6, 2018
Norman G Clark (A/Asia) Pty Ltd is now in its one hundredth year, and I thought it appropriate to send regular bulletins over the next 12 months to give some idea of how the business evolved and developed.
I thought it best to start with Norman Grey Clark, my grandfather, who was born on 11th June 1874 and died on 25th June 1951 at the age of 77. While I only remember him as a very old man, he obviously had a very active and successful life. He was a business man, an entrepreneur, a traveller and a great supporter of the arts. He had a very wide range of interests, and was a prominent Melbourne identity.
I have used exerts from my father, John Clark’s writings about Norman G, and while I recognise that this only touches on parts of his life, it does give some insights into a very interesting man.
Norman Grey Clark was born in Australia, of Scottish parents in 1874. His father, also John Clark, was a Scottish immigrant, who came to Australia as the designated Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. The Rev. John Clark and his wife settled in Williamstown and raised a family.
Young Norman went to school in East Melbourne, and after leaving school started a partnership selling dyes and chemicals to the leather and textile industries. He spent a very large part of his time travelling extensively in the remote areas of Australia and New Zealand.
Following that, Norman was employed by James Hardie before and during World War I, as a dyestuff and chemical sales representative. He was precluded from military service on the grounds that he was a member of a protected industry. He had the job description of ‘DYE EXPERT’ and, at that time, was also lecturing and becoming involved in textile production.
He was undoubtedly a very good salesman, and held that reputation in the textile industry. His dyestuff knowledge was more related to the rather primitive colour products which were produced by his principal, J.C. Bottomley & Emerson, of Manchester, England, than the much more sophisticated products that were being promoted in Australia and other developing markets after World War I.
In 1919, Norman decided to open his own business offering dyestuffs and chemical materials to the textile and tanning industries of Australia and New Zealand.
Initially, there was no Australian source of the products being supplied, and it is almost unbelievable that anyone could set up a business without a warehouse full of product, or at least a pipeline of supplies arriving from overseas on a regular basis. When he started business, neither of the above requirements existed, and the incredible situation was that he was somehow able to sell a product to someone, and then, either purchased the equivalent from a competitor, or borrowed items from somewhere, to be replaced on arrival of stock from overseas. Somehow he survived the establishment phase and soon became a respected trader in his field.
Norman was the salesman in his business, and his textile and tanning customers were spread all over Australia and New Zealand. To communicate with them, he had to regularly visit their operations, and that alone must have presented some spectacular logistical problems. He travelled around Australia by train and pony trap, and every customer visit must have been a nightmare by modern travel standards.
While selling in Australia would have been difficult, New Zealand must have presented even more challenges. It was, however, a major market, and Norman was always happy to talk about his 49 business trips there. He travelled by train and steamer and, when everything went smoothly, a NZ business trip took two months. If there were any delays, the time-frame would be three months or more.
Regardless of whether product was being sold in Ballarat, or some obscure part of New Zealand, at that time communication was almost impossible. Having sold something, the real problem was to buy it from somebody and have it delivered to the purchaser, who would presumably then pay for the goods. In those days, there must have been significant trust between buyers and sellers, as any single transaction would drift along for at least six months, and there must have been some awful delays at times.
By today’s standards, communications were excruciatingly slow. Norman said on many occasions that, after each trip, he would return to Melbourne and have to write letters (in longhand) to his suppliers in the UK, or Europe, and ask them to quote price and delivery. This enquiry was despatched to the supplier by Sea Mail. The quotation eventually arrived, and the manufacturer would then reply and confirm that he had the product. Another letter then said ‘thank you, please ship 112 lbs to XYZ to Otago, New Zealand’. Months after the order was placed, and the product was about to be delivered, someone would just have to wonder if the customer would still want the goods, and also remember that an order had been placed. Following delivery, the final stage was arrival of an invoice for the goods, which the customer seemed to pay without question – transaction completed. What happened if the dyestuff was red instead of blue was never asked, but maybe suppliers were more careful.
Norman obviously made money. He survived the Great Depression years, and his business prospered. He still travelled extensively, but by 1935 had added to his business an ‘In House Manager’ named Fred Stuart. Fred relieved him of all the routine ordering and delivery formalities. Fred remained a loyal employee for 35 years – retiring in 1970.
A most significant move came after involvement with Julius Hulsen & Co. They were a UK company, based in Newcastle On Tyne, a particularly English trading company, and classified as Mercantile Brokers. Once again, Norman had found a reliable supplier of chemicals and dyes, which were particularly suited to the tanning industry.
So what was he selling? No stock, no franchised product and only some knowledge of what the prospective customer made and he might need. Ridiculous as it seems now, Norman received orders from most customers he visited, It must be assumed that they did not expect to receive the goods for some months – but this was probably standard for the period. By then, however, Australia was no longer isolated. There was cable communication with the UK and Europe, and the purchasing and selling routine now moved with ‘great speed’. Certainly, the product still travelled by sea, which was initially acceptable, but competition and customer demand eventually resulted in the local agent being forced to deliver from local inventory – which must have come as a big shock.
By this stage, Norman had an established business and was stocking his product lines. New premises had been occupied at 100 King Street, Melbourne (now a site covered by the Melbourne Stock Exchange building) and he was doing very well as an accepted supplier to Australian and New Zealand industry. Julius Hulsen & Co. was his major supplier, but he had also continuing arrangement with J.C. Bottomley, and Emerson Colours with their aniline dyestuffs, which were also being stocked in Australia.
There had been some efforts to obtain other agency lines, and some major association had been arranged with W.A. Scholten Chemische Fabrieken NV, a Dutch company manufacturing modified potato starches. A continuing relationship exists today through the successor company to Scholtens, ie. Avebe BA.
Also Fabrique Zurichoise de Gaze A. Bluter SA (ZBF), a Swiss company producing hand woven silk fabrics for filtration applications and screen printing of textile fabrics. Initially, not much was done with either of these products, as the onset ofWorld War II curtailed a lot of business development.
After World War II, both these suppliers became significant contributors to the success of the company in the post war years.
On a personal note, in March 1918, Norman married Dorothy Jean Anderson. He was 44 years old and she was 22.
By the time he got married, Norman G. had made sufficient money to accumulate a very significant fine art collection, plus a very impressive house in Alma Road, Eat St Kilda. In 1921, he needed more cash to fund the business, so he arranged a very large sale of his fine art articles – and followed that with the sale of the house. He did, however, maintain a solid nucleus of some of his favourite art pieces, and vowed that this was the ‘end of the line’, and satisfied his interest in art with what remained. After Alma Road, he and Dorothy moved to Avoca Avenue, St Kilda.
Norman G. never did things by halves, and in the late 1920’s, he got the urge to acquire caged birds. This started with a sulphur crested cockatoo, and within a year, the collection had risen to over 200. The rear garden was literally coated with cages, aviaries, etc., and the collection included almost everything in the exotic bird line. There was even a man who spent five days a week cleaning and feeding the flock. This task was taken over on the weekends by his sons, and no doubt, that’s where they developed a hearty dislike for caged birds. They were noisy, smelly and a lot of work. After about 12 months, Norman’s enthusiasm for the birds declined, and the whole lot disappeared – almost overnight. Thankfully for the boys, this was the end of an era.
Following that, there was a major relocation from Avoca Avenue, St Kilda, to Wattletree Road, East Malvern. Norman had purchased a large old-style property, which he considered ideal for housing his ‘reduced’ art collection. This reduced collection still included over 300 paintings, and covered the walls of the house from floor to ceiling. It was just like a museum. Some of these paintings still hang in the West Heidelberg office today.
Norman G . was also a generous financial contributor to the arts, and became a well known and active supporter of struggling artists, eg. he sponsored Carlyle Jackson, a prolific producer of oil and water colours, and Wally Ricketts, a young sculptor who, in later years, became famous for his Aboriginal cultural works.
Norman Grey Clark passed away on 25th June 1951, at 77 years of age.