NUTS AND BOLTS : The Story of a Family and a Firm
by Barbara Hamer, (MHPS, 2006)
Farmers no longer rush off the city train in Melbourne, Sydney or Adelaide to go and look at the pumps, lathes and tools in the McPherson’s Ltd display windows. The much-prized and well-thumbed McPherson’s catalogues of the 40s and 50s are now collector’s items, but the story of the McPherson family and their company still has resonance for us today.
At a time when “business ethics” can seem like a contradiction in terms, and manufacturing in Australia has given way to service industries and imports from abroad, this is a fascinating journey through a time when a Labor opponent could call the conservative Premier of Victoria “the best private employer in Australia,” and the son of that Premier dug up his own lawn to ensure that his employees would have fresh fruit and vegetables in their canteen during World War II.
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS:
When Thomas McPherson landed in the Bankruptcy Court in Melbourne of the 1880s, his creditors would not have expected to see a penny of the money they were owed. But having built his iron merchant business from two horses and carts the first time, McPherson rebuilt his fortune. Soon after, he invited his creditors to a dinner “where they found the sums that each was owed in gold sovereigns under the covers”.
When William Murray McPherson, as Treasurer and later Premier of the State of Victoria, found that his government did not have the funds to support technical education for girls, he donated his own private money instead to establish the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy. The money for this and other projects, such as the Jessie McPherson Hospital, came from what was by then a national company that in 1917 made every dogspike for the Trans-Continental Railway, and in the 1930s, every rivet for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
In 1938, when William Edward McPherson was concerned about how Australia would defend itself in a second world war, he travelled to Europe and America setting up contracts to enable Australians to make their own file and machine tools, so essential for constructing, among other things, weapons used in the war. On his way through a Germany full of Nazi uniforms and swastikas, he found the time to act as sponsor for the Jewish family of his young interpreter Walter Lippman, who were then able to escape to Australia.
In 1951, William David McPherson was the last family member to join the Board of what was by then the public company of McPherson’s Limited. He was without the guidance of his father who had recently died, yet he went on to become Chairman of McPherson’s Ltd, joined the board of BHP, as well as continuing the family tradition of philanthropy as a volunteer every summer for forty years at Lord Somers Camp, helping boys make their mark in the world.
McPherson’s is no longer a private company. Since the family involvement ended, the nature of the public company has changed in recent decades to one that focuses less on foundries and machine tools, and more on printing and homewares such as Wiltshire knives. A global economy means that Australia now imports, this time from Asia, much of what McPherson’s used to make locally.
Nevertheless, Barbara Hamer concludes “there are still many descendants of the original family who are out there trying to make a contribution to society. Their ideals also survive, for like nuts and bolts, they are still needed…”
156 pp ISBN 0646469886 at $25/copy plus postage