The Keech cousins leap into a 3D future

The Keeches built their fortune pouring metal into moulds. Now, while other foundries are closing left and right, they’ve transposed their business into the 21st century with 3D printing.

This afternoon in Bendigo, not far from where gold was discovered in 1851, a group of dignitaries will gather to help an 80-year-old family-owned foundry business called Keech Australia launch a 3D printing business.

The cousins Keech, Garth and David will thus leap from the oldest form of manufacturing to the newest; from the hot, ancient simplicity of pouring molten steel into mouldings, to the cool science fiction of printing objects.

They call it “additive manufacturing” and it is obviously the future of the manufacturing industry. The Keeches have sunk $1 million into four machines that work with nylon and plastic, but all sorts of things are being 3D printed these days -- including, would you believe, human tissue, as well as the guns designed to mess it up.

But there’s that kind of futuristic 3D printing, and there’s what’s actually going on now in a blossoming number of small factories around the world, which is quickly and cheaply producing parts for other manufacturers’ machines, and that is what foundry men know all about -- men like Garth and David Keech.

Their two foundries in Bendigo are still going strong -- in fact the No.2 is being upgraded at the moment -- but the cousins could see the writing on the wall for their business. Foundries have been closing with depressing regularity for decades; the industry’s motto is “Thrive and Survive”, a sort of desperate rhyming plea to the gods for mercy.

So it was time to roll the dice before the grim Chinese reaper took them as well. Today’s ceremony in Bendigo to launch the Keech 3D Advanced Manufacturing Co will be a triumph of innovation and Aussie optimism, and the Keech cousins will thereby point the way forward for Australian manufacturing.

They are the third generation of this family business and have bucked the old cliché that theirs is the generation that wastes what their parents and grandparents created.

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In fact Garth and David had to start again when in 1994 they moved their foundries from close to Sydney airport in Mascot, NSW, to the same distance from a rather smaller airport in Bendigo, Victoria.

They didn’t inherit the business from their fathers, brothers Gordon (Don) and Norman -- they bought it from them for $2.5m in 1991, which happened to be the same price that the two brothers had bought it from their siblings five years earlier.

Five Keech children inherited 20 per cent each of Keech Australia from their father Gordon Keech Snr, who started the business in 1934 at the age of 32, making iron and steel castings in a rented foundry in Mascot. In those days, Mascot was a great centre of manufacturing, as opposed to hotels as it is today.

Well, actually Garth and David just bought the equipment and the order book -- their fathers kept the land at Mascot and lent them most of the money, which was repaid over 15 years and provided the two second generation Keech men with a retirement income.

The other unusual thing about Keech Australia, apart from the fact that the third generation has built it, not blown it, is that Garth and David Keech own the business between them, 50-50, but they work in it as line managers: Garth in charge of manufacturing, and David as director of sales and marketing, based in Sydney. Both report to the non-family CEO, Herbert Hermens.

So they report to Herbert, and Herbert reports to them. It is circular governance, or what they call “tripartite consensus”, and it works. There are no other directors and the three of them run the business between them. If the cousins disagree on anything, Herbert “mentors” them into agreement.

At this stage it doesn’t look like there’ll be a fourth generation of Keeches in the business. Between them Garth and David have six children and all of them are pursuing different careers than making things out of iron and steel or, now, plastic.

So will they sell the business? “Probably, eventually,” says Garth. “But we’re in no hurry. We want to see this 3D thing though.”

And you get the feeling that old Gordon Keech Snr would be as proud of his grandsons as he would be puzzled at the idea of just printing a part instead of pouring hot metal into a moulding.