The gold mine at the bottom of a coal field

A family-owned tourist attraction in the Blue Mountains is answering the question of how to ease Australia's economy from a heavy mining focus to tourism.

Harry Hammon was filling his ute up with loose coal next to the disused mine below the Blue Mountains’ Katoomba when he came up with the idea to turn it into a tourist attraction. It was a pretty normal Tuesday in 1945 for him; he was collecting the coal for the power station that fuelled his transport business when three American soldiers drove up in a Jeep.

“Can we ride that big steep train back up to town?” they asked.

Harry told them it was only open to the public on weekends and they turned back, coal chips flying in their wake.

His grandson, David Hammon, joint managing director of Scenic World, says this was the light-bulb moment that spawned the family business, which now receives twice as many visitors each year as Uluru.

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Harry leased the land, along with the industrial train that clings to the side of the mountain, from the estate of the former mine owner. He started running it every day as the Katoomba Scenic Skyway. People came from far and wide to see the Blue Mountains in all its glory as, until then, only miners had.

After 12 years, another car came to visit while Harry was working on a new ride called the Skyway. This time it was a black Cadillac with a well-dressed man behind the wheel.

“Do you know who owns this land?” he asked Harry.

“Yeah,” Harry said. “The estate of John Britty North – he used to run the coal mine here.”

“How would you like to buy it?” asked the stranger, who turned out to represent the estate.

Harry signed the contract on the Cadillac’s bonnet then and there and went from leasing the steep rail to owning it and the surrounding 13 hectares.

Over the next 60 years the business grew into a world-famous Australian gem. More than 800,000 people come through each year, spending an average of $33.30 each, which drives around $25 million in annual revenue. And the Hammons are confident they can get visitor numbers back above 1 million per year, where they were before the GFC.

Six decades ago, Harry hit upon something that Australia’s top economic brains are working on now – how to ease our economy from one heavily reliant on mining to one more focused on tourism.

Some of Australia’s biggest mines in the Pilbara (where temperatures touch 50 degrees in January) are unlikely to pull the Scenic World crowd. But the Blue Mountains is just an hour outside Sydney and particularly appealing to international visitors. That’s important when your biggest growth market is the rapidly expanding Chinese middle class.

The business and Harry’s son, Philip, are both about to turn 70. After a long career as CEO, Phil now sits on the board. Following a three-year succession, he handed over the reins to two of his five kids, David and Anthea, in 2011.

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David and Anthea Hammon

But as is often the case, it was Phil – the second generation – who presided over expansion.

“Phil’s a nerd,” David says. “He’s always been very embracing of technology – even a long time ago – and that’s helped us a lot.”

Specifically, Phil invested in two revolutionary pieces of technology. The first was a programmable logic controller, which he taught to drive the train up and down the hill on its own. And the second was a statistics program that measures business activity in great detail – giving information on exactly how much each visitor spent, on what, when and what influenced that number.

“You always have a gut feeling about how your business is doing,” David says. “Once you can get your business down to a couple of distinct numbers, it makes it much easier to understand what’s going on, and when you pull different levers how those numbers are effected.”

It seems these metrics represent another two of Phil’s investments: David and Anthea. David, who’s 36 and studied accounting, looks after the numbers as CFO; Anthea, three years younger, is a mechanical engineer and manages all the heavy machinery.

Only 12 per cent of family businesses are run by a brother and sister duo, but these two are happily a package deal.

David says the reason there aren’t more brother-and-sister joint managing directors is the baggage that comes along with growing up together.

“You have to be adults. We’ve done a lot of personal growth stuff. You have to forget about all the wrong, silly things you did to each other as children by discuss it all and apologising for the things you did wrong 20 years ago. Once you can let all of that go, you can get on with it.”

David has three young kids and would love to see them come into the business one day. But for now they’re happy growing up where their parents did, in Australia’s most visited family-owned tourist attraction." 

As for selling? There's never been a serious offer – not for the business or the land and machinery belonging to the family. It could be worth anything. But what if?

“No, no, " says David. "You keep these ones.”

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