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Jim Playsted: The Master of Ceremonies

It has been said that Tasmanians feel they are a little different to other Australians. Indeed they feel sorry for Mainlanders because they do not live in their island state, with all its beauty and natural attractions. Jim Playsted is such a Tasmanian and although he has spent time and worked around Australia and overseas, he is inevitably drawn back to his homeland. Born in Launceston in 1953, Jim’s education was gained in state schools and he did not join his two brothers at Scotch College. Looking back, Jim believes that for him, this was fortuitous, as he was given a couple of opportunities in the public system which helped him in later life. At the time, being appointed as head prefect was a surprise, but it gave him confidence in the knowledge that others considered him able to handle increased responsibilities. These were very much formative years, as from age 14 to 18, Jim earned pocket money proof reading at his grandfather’s printing business. It was also during that period that Jim gained a grounding in the English language and a love of text and verse.

Jim’s favourite sport was rowing and he dreamed of one day representing Tasmania in the King’s Cup, this sport’s Olympics. At one stage, this dream was well on target, when he won a place in the under 22 years Tasmanian Colts crew, which is like an apprenticeship for the King’s Cup. However, just as Jim’s King’s Cup prospects seemed set, fate, in the person of Keith Benson, stepped into the picture. Keith, a “pretty robust” character, who would become a friend and mentor to the young Jim, invited him to join the construction equipment industry with the Industrial Sales and Service Company (ISAS), part of the International Harvester Group, on the west coast of Tasmania.

Despite the fact that it would mean the end of his rowing dream, a very ambitious Jim accepted the posting. In 1975, at age 22, Jim moved to Burnie, where he joined the Burnie Surf Club and became a life saver. Not unexpectedly, he soon rowed for the club, although he still admits that this was not as satisfying as realising his ambition for the “six minutes of fame” rowing over 2000 metres in a light weight scull. He did, however, return to the sport and compete in the World Masters Games in 1992.

Although he hadn’t grown up with machinery, being interested in mechanics and motor cycling provided Jim with some grounding for the job. Life in a dealership taught him the basic business processes of stock control and logistics and in due course, parts management and most importantly, customer relationships.

“The introduction to the world of mining, west coast Tasmanian style, in difficult wet terrain was a challenge, and yet the fellowship amongst the men and the endeavours and character of that coast made an indelible mark on me,” he recalls. “We thought nothing of a 3.00am call when a contractor, over two hours away at Queenstown over a frequently wet but always a difficult twisty goat track of a highway, required a part to get the plant back on stream by 7.00am.”

It was here that Jim really learned the value and importance of customer relationships. The other big Tasmanian industry was forestry but the same principles applied and he found that once service and trust were established with a client, customer satisfaction was the main game “even if we didn’t always have the best equipment back in that era”.

In 1979, Jim was moved back to Hobart as the ISAS branch manager, where he was to marry Carolyn, his first wife, and in due course they had two children. “They were good years as Tasmania is such a lovely place to live if you like catching fish, climbing mountains, rowing, motor cycling or whatever.”

For Jim, living interstate was never an option. But once again fate had a card to play when Jim was offered a major promotion to Melbourne with International Harvester as a territory manager. “Moving to Melbourne was a big decision for us but I was ambitious, whereas my lovely wife Carolyn wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about moving to the big city,” he explains.

This inevitably led to pressures on their marriage and finally after 15 years, an amiable separation. Jim admits there were a lot of things he didn’t get right, but is pleased to relate they parted friends and remain so.

The five years Jim spent in Melbourne were inspiring development years for him as he was exposed to the mining industry on a national scale and to the guidance of two more key mentors in Geoff Oakley and Gerry Lorenz during his time with International Harvester wholesale. His confidence developed with his first overseas travel plus the chance to really use his public speaking and organisational talents on a larger scale. When the International Harvester Group failed globally, Jim worked with the receivers of IH Australia for the next two years before returning in 1984 to Tasmania to manage the emerging Komatsu dealership Forcepower. Over the previous decade, the Hydroelectric Commission was perhaps Tasmania’s largest customer for heavy equipment, business for which Komatsu and Caterpillar were rivals.

Frank Dawson was Jim’s CEO and again was one who taught Jim more about retail business life — despite their often different views, which created some friction. Jim admits at that time he was “probably brash and impulsive”. These are characteristics that IQA members of the last couple of decades would not normally attribute to Jim with his quiet urbane presence.

Jim tells of one day over lunch when “Frank looked across the table and said in his gravelly voice, ‘You know what I like about you Jim?’ I didn’t think there was much at all he liked about me! He said, ‘You remind me of me.’ I thought that it was a curious backhanded compliment, particularly when he went on to say, ‘You’re too (expletive) nice and that’s something we need to fix.’”

Another of Jim’s mentors was Dale Elphinstone, who in 1989 convinced him to join the William Adams Caterpillar dealership. Jim admits that he, in his heart of hearts, had never really had a Cat vision but in contradiction he went on to spend the next 11 years with the Caterpillar organisation in a variety of roles and looks back on that time as a career highlight. After having worked in much smaller businesses, Jim was accustomed to a fuss being made whenever a sale was made — a celebration of the many people within the company, who had contributed in some way to the success. This was lacking at William Adams and with Dale’s support, he purchased 16 ship’s bells — one for each of the dealership’s branches. The bell was located on the receptionist’s desk and when a sale was made, the PA system was turned on and the bell given a work out before an announcement was made about what just happened. Simple, inexpensive — but great for morale to share the good news among all contributing staff.

Another milestone which Jim looks back on in his time with Cat was working on the Tasmanian IQA organising committee for the 1990 Hobart national conference. A serious gap in the budget was causing concern and looked insoluble until Jim approached the National Council to allow, for the first time, a supplier company to sponsor a major evening event. William Adams and Cat stepped forward and so the Friday night Cat formal dinner was conceived. Despite the concern of some IQA members, Jim recalls that Caterpillar performed a dignified and respectful sponsor role. Jim has much to thank William Adams for, as it was through its Tasmanian manager Roger French that he met and married his second wife Margaret in 1995 and found he had “four more great friends and supporters” in Margaret’s children, as their larger tribe of three sons and three daughters between them extended the hand of friendship to each other.

One can never be sure when fate will intervene or opportunity might knock, particularly on the dance floor at the 1999 Adelaide conference, when in passing, Ian Olivieri, the then Australian Komatsu managing director, calmly said, “Jim, we need to talk.”

Their talk led to Jim being appointed in 1999 as General Manager, Marketing and Sales for Komatsu Australia and New Zealand. Jim recalls he did not enjoy breaking the news to Dale Elphinstone that he was leaving William Adams after 11 years.

“It was a sad parting – Dale was the best person I have had the privilege to work for but we shook hands and off I went to Sydney – and there unfolded the most incredible five years of achievement which let me use all the learning and experience which I suppose any career can give as you move through life from one role to the next,” he says. The new role encompassed regular travel to Japan, Germany and Italy, plus dealing with the media, deciding teams and strategy and “working with some terrific people”. But after six years of that pace during which the business grew from 560 deliveries in 2000 to over 1000 by 2006, Jim said that he felt at times he wasn’t going to be an old man, the job became so big, particularly since new wife Margaret had elected to remain in Hobart while Jim travelled constantly.

For instance, the New Zealanders would be at work two hours before the sun came up in Eastern Australia and the Western Australians were still going late at night. Komatsu Australia prospered to become the largest single Komatsu dealership in the world at that time.

During his term, Jim segmented the small end Utility group as well as birthing mining as a separate entity from construction as the business grew and prospered, also leading the company corporate social responsibility effort into supporting the Beacon Foundation national expansion.

The matter was eventually taken out of his hands when Margaret was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer and her outlook was grim. So it was back to home base in Tasmania where he resumed the position of State Manager for Komatsu to see what the future would bring. Fortunately, after a year of treatment, Margaret’s health responded and she remains well to this day.

So in 2007, Jim decided it was time to take more control of his life, left the majors and with Margaret formed his own company – J & M Consulting. There has been no shortage of clients for their company – they have been particularly busy among other projects with advising the purchase and organisation of Austimber, the largest Australian forest industry trade show and industry event held every four years.

During this period Jim was also invited to contribute as the Group General Manager, Corporate Development for the Alex Fraser Group (AFG) in Melbourne, Australia’s largest recycler of concrete and steel resource materials from demolition. Jim was active defining the carbon score of recycled aggregates for the company while working closely with RMIT University, then turning the results into a marketing campaign while also developing the AFG data base into a stronger business tool among other projects.

As if an exhaustive business life plus challenges at home were not enough, Jim was also deeply involved for 13 years as a board member for the Beacon Foundation, building business networks and helping young people to avoid the dole while in transition from school to work.
Beacon today is involved with more than 130 schools in every state and territory of Australia. This is a story in itself, including the tale of the Pro Hart painted excavator, but Jim looks upon his efforts as reflecting the wish his parents expressed that “we always are doing something to lead by example in the service of others and helping to strengthen our society”.

In 2010, at the age of 56, dismayed by the steady decline of Tasmanian industry, Jim stood as an endorsed Liberal Party candidate for the five-member seat of Lyons in the Tasmanian state election. Despite a full year of electioneering throughout the sprawling 40,000 square kilometres of Lyons, Jim did not win a seat in the House of Assembly in the Tasmanian Parliament, falling short by just 800 votes at his first attempt.

J & M Consulting has been kept busy mostly interstate, which eventually led to Jim’s resignation from IQA membership, after 23 years of very active service with the Institute. Jim felt he could no longer contribute to the IQA plus keep up with his other interests and a continuing heavy travel commitment.

Jim first joined the IQA on 29 May, 1985 and served in many capacities, including chairman of the Tasmanian branch, a National Council member and a member of numerous conference committees. Perhaps he will be best remembered for the six or seven times he was the consummate Master of Ceremonies for the IQA annual conference, commencing in Hobart in 1990 and culminating as MC for the combined CCAA/IQA Construction Materials Industry Conference in 2006 in Melbourne at Crown Towers. His apparent ease and confidence in this role was no accident as he recounts endless preparation for each step, including research, handwritten notes to himself, composed at times minutes before the announcement, to ensure that he always had such items as names and titles correct.

When I asked Jim what the next decade holds for him, he said he and Margaret had a little house on the beautiful Tasmanian east coast where they keep a boat and his much loved BMW motor bike. He added, “We have children from London to Hong Kong to Perth and Melbourne which will keep us active and travelling.“

His final remark could well represent the hopes and wishes of us all. “While my health’s good, our marriage is strong and our children are progressing and having their own families, we don’t lack for an agenda!”

By Doug Prosser

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