A tight ship that's Taylor made

When death left Jan Taylor at the helm of the third generation Taylor Brothers, she forged an aggressively entrepreneurial path that took the ship-fitting business around Australia.

Sometimes with a family business, tragedy requires someone to step up, because… well, because it’s family, and you don’t really have a choice.

Eighteen years ago Jan Taylor had to do that, and found resources within herself that she didn’t know she had. At the age of 72, she has now retired as chief executive of the family company, having built the little Hobart slipyard into a national ship-fitting and accommodation business, and leaving a remarkable legacy for her own children.

Taylor Brothers is a third generation family-owned slipway and boat fitting business on the shores of the Derwent River in Hobart. It was started in 1936 when Athol and Norman Taylor bought the goodwill and plant of a slipyard on Marine Board property at Battery Point, and started out building and maintaining timber fishing boats.

But a year later, Athol was lost at sea and Norman was left to run the business himself, although he kept the name Taylor Brothers. Full ownership of the business passed to Norman when Athol’s widow, Mary passed away some years later.

Eventually Norman’s son Geoff moved into the business, having left school at 15 and completed a carpentry apprenticeship in town, and then in 1961 Geoff married Jan, a young stenographer working for the state government.

Norman and Geoff’s big break came on the evening of January 5, 1975, when Hobart’s Tasman Bridge was hit by the Lake Illawarra, which was carrying 10,000 tonnes of zinc concentrate up to Electrolytic Zinc’s smelter at Risdon, three kilometres up the river. Twelve people were killed and the accident disastrously cut Hobart in two.

Taylor Brothers won all of the diving work in the salvage and reconstruction, which set the company up with a steady flow of work just as Geoff was taking over from his father. As it happens, Geoff’s mother Thelma became ill at about the same time, which required Norman to step back from running the business to look after her.

The paperwork had already been creeping onto Jan’s kitchen table. It had been Norman’s Sunday job, but it was beginning to get away from him and after Thelma got sick Jan had to take it over completely.

She says she started sending out invoices to the fishermen for the work done on their boats, which was quite the wrong thing to do – everyone knew that they couldn’t pay until they got their first catch.

Thing went smoothly enough for the next 20 years, or as smoothly as they can in a family business exposed to the ebbs and flows of the fishing and transport industries. Because of that, Geoff pushed to diversify the business, moving it into building bridges and other non-marine construction.

He also moved the main slipyard away from Battery Point to a spot up the Derwent River, to get away from the restrictions around operating a 24/7 business. The company still operates a slipway at Battery Point, but only to help the government preserve the historic feel of the place as a tourist destination.

Then in 1995, tragedy struck Taylor Bros again. Geoff was killed while working on one of the boats and Jan and her two boys, Greg and Phillip, suddenly found themselves alone.

Jan, the stenographer who left school at 15, stepped up to become chief executive. She owned 60 per cent of the company and Greg and Phillip owned 20 per cent each, and still do.

If anything, Jan was more entrepreneurial and more aggressive than any of her male predecessors. She started bidding for naval work – painting and servicing US ships docking in Hobart and, eventually, Australian destroyers. Taylor Bros currently has a $25 million contract to fit out three vessels for the Australian navy in Adelaide.

The company is now servicing coastal and international ships, doing the accommodation fit-outs for new ships and also building containerised accommodation for the resources industry around Australia.

Two weeks ago, Jan told the Parliamentary Joint Committee inquiry into family business in Australia that she retired as chief executive late last year because of her "deep frustration at the amount of new legislation thrust upon a relatively small operation – changes to the Works Compensation Act, introduction of the Fair Work Act, new OH&S law, sexual harassment, redundancy, and the seeming lack of support for the employer where the employee is always right.”

Note that her retirement was not caused by the fact that she is 72 and it was time to have a rest.

She still drives the business, and has appointed a non-family general manager with the aim of continuing "our relentless pursuit into previously unexplored markets seeking development and success in new areas of activity.”

In her submission the parliamentary inquiry, Jan listed the pros and cons of running a family business, which is worth quoting at some length because I’m sure it will resonate with every family that’s in business together.

"There is no such thing as an eight-hour day – or a five-day week. There is only 24/7. If there is a need then someone must be available to take care of it. Usually 'the boss'!

"Holidays rarely coincide with family school leave, and wives are not usually able to find a job which allows them to down tools and follow the husband – how often have I spent cooking meals at a remote location where a pipeline needs repairing, or there is a fishing boat to salvage!

"Should your business carry the family name then you carry additional risk of reputation when a slight oversight provides the press with reason to carry poor reporting including your business/family name.

"Forward planning needs to take into consideration the ideals of the founder generation and the dreams of the third or fourth generation who is now apprenticed to the business. There is nothing short term in three or four generations working in the same shop.

"Consideration of staff is of prime importance. … These people have worked alongside you and provided you with loyalty and support, and have become extended members of your own family.”

Jan Taylor’s is a remarkable story of courage and endurance, as well as skill and dedication. She had to do it the hard way. As she told the inquiry during a public hearing: "We learnt through our mistakes.”

She and her sons are looking to the future of their company and are confident that it can carry on without them, although she reckons Hobart is not the easiest place in the world to do business (this probably went down well in Devonport, where the MPs on the inquiry were sitting that day).

"My husband was in his 50s when he passed away, and my eldest son has now turned 50. The second one will turn 50 at the end of this year.

"They are very conscious that they moving into the same age group that their father was at. So we have discussed this quite openly and we cannot see that the business could not move forward at this stage.

"The only thing that could perhaps take the business out of family hands is perhaps a buyout. Quite frankly, who would want to buy a business like ours, based in Hobart? I really cannot imagine. …It is too hard to do business in Hobart.”

If you are in a family business and would like to participate in a research project on succession issues conducted by Swinburne University and Pitcher Partners, click here.

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