Bruce Blackwell’s career and the continuing expansion of Boral (formerly Bitumen & Oil Refining Company Ltd) traced parallel paths over the many years. As one grew in stature, so did the other. Bruce made a significant contribution to Boral’s success and served the company in many capacities.
When Bruce joined Boral on 13 February, 1966, it was by present day standards a relatively small organisation. However, even then it was recognised that with many Australia wide outlets that formed the company, there was a need to co-ordinate and control the purchasing of goods and services on a group basis to utilise their combined buying power.
For the next four years, Bruce functioned as group purchasing officer. Following a review by McKinsey of Boral’s management structure, in January 1970, Bruce was appointed development manager of Boral Limited. During this period, Bruce and contemporaries Dr Dunn, Audrey Leddon and John Robinson served as personal assistants to the then managing director Elton Griffin (later Sir Elton). This proved to be one of the most colourful periods of Bruce’s career. The managing director who succeeded Sir Elton Griffin was Eric Neal.
In 1970, Boral through the newly formed company Albion Reid (NSW) Pty Ltd entered the Sydney pre-mixed concrete market when it commissioned a plant at Burrows Road South, St Peters. Within a brief period, Boral recognised the need for its own aggregate resources and so Bruce as development manager purchased a greenfield site at Bombo, Kiama, in the very heart of the New South Wales south coast blue metal industry. The site was next door to market rival BMI’s Dunmore Quarry and the NSW Government’s State Rail Quarry.
To further underline Boral’s arrival in the NSW quarry scene, under Bruce’s guiding hand there was a very public opening of the quarry which included bringing a host of distinguished guests from Sydney in a special train. The guests disembarked on a temporary platform constructed in the heart of the quarry. Boral had indeed entered the NSW quarry scene with a flourish.
In February 1976, Bruce’s responsibilities were expanded to the position of purchasing controller and property officer for Boral Limited. During the years as development manager and property officer, Bruce was involved in many complex property developments.
These included a proposal to build a new Boral head office at North Sydney and the subdivision of land at Helensburgh, Clarkes Point at Woolwich and Beacon Hill, Warringah. A scanning of the records shows that each of these proposals appeared to attract negative responses from each and every government instrumentality imaginable.
Again the records demonstrate that Bruce’s comprehensive negotiating skills and meticulous attention to detail brought these matters to successful conclusions.
In August 1977, there was a significant change in direction when Bruce became general manager of Boral Resources (NSW) Pty Ltd, with responsibility for all quarrying, concrete and road resurfacing operations in NSW. This experience led logically to his next appointment in December 1982 when Boral brilliantly carried out a successful takeover bid for the then equally sized company BMI.
Bruce was made general manager, Boral & BMG Quarries, and was faced with the daunting task of restructuring an ailing large operational group during the period of extreme economic downturn experienced by Australia in 1983-84.
BMI’s policy, with its many takeovers, was to make gradual changes to existing management and operational structures over many months. Boral’s assumption of control of a new addition was immediate. Considered by some peers to be ruthless, Bruce’s attitude was simple. He would lay down parameters relevant to your duties and provided you stayed within those limits, you ran your own ship.
But to step outside those limits was to attract an immediate reprimand. In many cases this led to a change in career paths as many older BMG employees were not able to accept the company’s new direction.
STAUNCH IQA SUPPORTER
Bruce was a staunch supporter of the Institute of Quarrying Australia, first joining on 15 March, 1978. His contribution to the industry was recognised by his peers in 1986 when he was elected Deputy President of the Institute’s Australian Division. He was interested in making the IQA more easily accessible to members.
I well remember a phone call in the early 1980s from Bruce, my then general manger, saying: “Prosser, I want you to start a sub-branch of the Institute in the Illawarra area.” The NSW Illawarra sub-branch was duly formed as requested and is still arguably the strongest IQA sub-branch operating today.
In February 1984, one of Bruce’s more unusual duties was to act as host to a group of Indonesian parliamentarians and other dignitaries during a visit to Sydney to study Boral’s operations, particularly in the planning and building areas. At that time, Boral had several plants in Indonesia. The tour included meetings with the then NSW Premier Neville Wran and Sydney Lord Mayor Doug Sutherland, plus a visit to Canberra and, of course, a night at the opera and lunch on Sydney Harbour on the Boral company boat the Fleetwing. Bruce was an impeccable host.
In March 1986, Bruce’s duties were again expanded as he became general manager, BMI Limited. During the preceding 20 years of Bruce’s career, Boral had gone from strength to strength with expansion, not only in all states of Australia, but also in a major way in the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries.
In September 1986, with Boral’s NSW Resources operating smoothly, Bruce was appointed chief executive, Boral Resources for its United Kingdom operations where many companies had been acquired by Boral over recent times.
Again, Bruce was faced with the herculean task of moulding a group of previously unrelated companies into a cohesive unit, particularly embracing Boral procedures for accounting and budgetary controls, etc. To many of us this was known as the “Boralising” of the UK. These things just do not happen of their own accord – they were made to happen by people like Bruce Blackwell.
During this sojourn overseas, Bruce was strongly supported by his delightful wife Barbara. The old cliché “behind every successful man, there is a good woman” may well have been written about this couple.
In 1987, the Boral MD (now Sir) Eric Neal retired. Interestingly, at that time, the company had a policy that all employees had to retire at age 62, including the managing director. Sir Eric duly retired and went on to become the Governor of South Australia.
Upon their return to Australia late in 1988 and with retirement less than a year away, there was no easy wind down for a person of Bruce’s capabilities. The company needed someone to introduce and control a management training plan for the Boral Group both in Australia and offshore. This was a complete change of direction, requiring new uses for his skills but once again Bruce was more than equal to the task.
Bruce Blackwell retired on 29 September, 1989. Contrary to what was the usual practice at that time for senior managers to accept consultancies and projects, Bruce decided to make his retirement complete and devote his time to family.
Bruce is survived by his wife Barbara, son Robert and daughter Sue. It is unlikely that our industry will see his like again.
By Doug Prosser