Victoria’s secondlargest city is losing its manufacturing heartland. But that’s yesterday’s news to its toughtalking, mohawkwearing mayor, who believes Geelong’s future is hightech and shiny smart, writes Ben Potter.
Darryn Lyons – mayor of Geelong, pub owner, exwar photographer and “Mr Paparazzi” – has been chatting to the AFR Magazine for about 37 minutes when he sets his multi coloured mohawk bobbing with this impromptu speech. The words tumble out of the stocky entrepreneur’s mouth in response to a remark that workers at the doomed Geelong Ford plant want the company not only to pay for their retraining but allow them to do it on company time. Ford wants them to make cars on its clock.
Lyons’s words echo the organising principle of a man whose party – the Liberals – only reluctantly embraced him. At another level his words describe his approach to his next project: steering Geelong and its citizens through choppy waters to the rosy future that will be theirs if they just stop whingeing and get off their bloody arses – in a smart, modern way of course.
“You either rise from the ashes or you don’t,” Lyons says.
The people of Geelong, a busy city of 220,000, located 75 kilometres southwest of Melbourne on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, turned to Lyons last November when the incumbent, Christian teetotaller Keith Fagg, retired because of ill health. The city’s business establishment had thrown its weight behind Lyons’s opponent, Ken Jarvis. But Lyons’s relentless social media campaign – he had more than 900,000 Twitter followers – got under their guard. Lyons has changed the tone in City Hall. Now he’s on a crusade to change the city.
Geelong is a city in transition, stranded between its history and its future. Its postWorld War II legacy as a stronghold of heavy industry – led by Ford, Alcoa and Shell – is fading fast. A glittering, postindustrial “smart city” future beckons, one long envisaged by city leaders and promoted with renewed vigour by Lyons. It embraces a rapidly expanding Deakin University, a growing healthcare and insurance sector, a housing boom, wine and surf tourism, hightech firms and – maybe – a large carbon fibre manufacturing plant.
Lyons’s frustration with outsiders who call Geelong a “troubled manufacturing city” is palpable. He’s fed up with conversations about Ford and Alcoa. He accentuates the positives: CSIRO’s “world class” Animal Health Laboratory; expanding retailers such as Cotton On; government insurance businesses moving to the city; a tantalising carbon fibre future. “Everyone keeps going on about these old iconic names, but actually the industrial revolution is over,” he guffaws.
Corio Bay sparkles on a typical summer’s day. Tattooed men
fish for trevally from Cunningham Pier. Restored woolstores rise majestically in the background. Traffic cruises along The Esplanade. Beneath the surface, however, the battle for Geelong’s identity rages. As the city strives for its high-tech future, its industrial history keeps reaching out from the shores of the bay to reclaim it. To the north lie Ford’s engine works and stamping plant, the Shell refinery with its tall chimney, carpet-maker Godfrey Hirst, OneSteel (now called Arrium), Incitec Pivot and others. To the south lie Alcoa’s Point Henry smelter, Boral Asphalt and the former Cheetham Salt works.
Ford is closing its Geelong manufacturing works, ending 300 jobs by June and the remaining 210 by 2016. Alcoa will announce the fate of the ageing aluminium smelter at Point Henry in March, imperilling 500 jobs. Shell has its refinery, which employs about 400, up for sale. None are globally competitive. Last year Qantas axed just under 300 maintenance jobs at the nearby Avalon Airport. Target sacked 260 from its Geelong head office.
That seems a lot of jobs vanishing over several years. Yet despite industry shedding thousands of jobs over decades, Geelong’s unemployment rate hovers only about three- quarters of a percentage point above the Victorian average. Hard data tells the story of a city that is not so much losing jobs as shifting them from one sector to others. Manufacturing accounted for 36 per cent of Geelong’s workforce in 1971 but by 2011 its share had fallen to 11 per cent; the raw number of manufacturing jobs halved to just over 10,000.
Healthcare, social assistance and retail have overtaken it, while construction is catching up. Budget fashion retailer Cotton On has added nearly 500 jobs in the past 18 months, with plans for hundreds more. “Not many people seem to talk about that,” a miffed Lyons says.
The city’s new mayor has succeeded at many things in his life, appalling and entertaining people along the way, driven by epic self-belief. He attributes his ferocious work ethic to his father, an architect and choirmaster who gave a third of his income to the Baptist church and worked at his practice in South Melbourne until he was 82. But Lyons’s full-throttle approach to life seems to come from within. He attended East Geelong Tech, split bricks with a chisel to build the new family home at Leopold, rebelled against the church as a teenager and topped his leaving year. By 19 or 20 he was working four jobs – as a cadet at the Geelong News, a DJ four nights a week, as a night filler and trolley boy at Coles – to buy his first camera.
He was the first kid on his block to buy a car, he hit Fleet Street in his early 20s and had a breakdown a few years later. Working as a photographer for the Daily Mail, he covered the fall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and two tours of the Bosnian war, where he says he witnessed gang rapes, lost two mates, was kidnapped, shot at and forced to play Russian roulette. “My life went [by] in an old black and white movie, in front of my eyes,” he says. “It was an incredible time and I had no fear. If you asked me to go back and do it again, I don’t think you’d get much interest.”
In 1992 he set up Big Pictures, which became the world’s biggest paparazzi business, getting on the map through scoops on Princess Di and the affairs of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, soccer star David Beckham and his personal assistant Rebecca Loos. Headquartered in London, the agency earned Lyons the sobriquet Mr Paparazzi, a tag that served for his autobiography and a four-part BBC documentary on him. By 2004 he had amassed an estimated fortune of $58 million and scored an entry in BRW’s Young Rich list.
All was not as glorious as it seemed. When Lyons’s marriage broke down in the late 1990s he turned to his showbiz subjects for company, developed a cocaine habit and at one point feared for his life. He later put the business in the hands of managers to pursue a career in television, making a documentary about Prince William and Kate Middleton and interviewing the likes of Barbara Walters and Simon Cowell.
The paparazzi game had “lost its magic” he says, succumbing to the global financial crisis, mounting distaste for intrusive tactics and the woes of old media. Big Pictures collapsed in 2012 owing photographers and agencies more than £82,000 ($125,000). “To be honest, I was over it,” Lyons reflects now. “I think I had the strength of willpower to say ‘I have had enough of this life, really’.” As the business was disintegrating, Lyons returned to his home town, where he’d bought a handful of pubs and nightclubs when the going was good.
He doesn’t regret any of it, pointing out that it taught him “incredibly good lessons” denied most politicians, ones he believes he can put to good use in his new career. He ran for mayor because he felt Geelong had for too long suffered poor leaders who were “nervous” about selling the city and ineffectual in cutting through its bureaucratic red tape.
“Leaving a legacy of change in this city is something I’ve started to think about,” he says, adding that he wants “several” four-year terms, just to make sure. “We have to become a 21st-century smart city.”
Then he’d like to try federal politics.
New companies such as Carbon Revolution, which is
spearheading global innovation in carbon-fibre car wheels, are emblematic of the future envisioned by Lyons. At $15,000 a set, its wheels are made for prestige cars such as Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini and BMW and sold direct to car owners rather than the manufacturers. Lighter and just as strong as their alloy predecessors, the gleaming, herringbone-patterned composite wheels enhance driving performance.
Carbon fibres, which are thinner than a human hair, have long been used in motor sports and bikes but not in open-road cars. Their commercial prospects excited Carbon Revolution’s founders, a group of engineering students and their PhD mentors, who worked at Ford and elsewhere in the industry. They designed a set of wheels for an international race car design contest in 2004. A few years later, they set up in business.
The company still operates from Deakin’s Waurn Ponds campus, but has aggressive expansion plans. A big car-maker (which it won’t name) has agreed to fit Carbon Revolution’s wheels as standard equipment on some of its models. Production is poised to expand to 4000 sets of wheels a year and, with a capital injection of about $20 million from Ronal of Switzerland, should reach 50,000 sets in a couple of years.
Ronal upended the steel wheels market in the 1970s and, as the world’s largest alloy vehicle wheel-maker, its imprimatur means something. Thanks to this, Carbon Revolution’s staff numbers will grow from 40 to about 120. Full capacity of 250,000 wheel sets and nearly 300 staff is expected to be reached in about five years.
Multinationals such as Germany’s ThyssenKrupp are snapping at Carbon Revolution’s heels but the Australian company is still the world’s sole commercial supplier of carbon-fibre wheels. Chief executive Jake Dingle, whose brother Matt was among the original founders, hopes to secure a grant from the Geelong Region Innovation and Investment Fund to help it expand to meet demand. “The opportunity here is to grow new industry,” he says.
The wheels are stunning. More to the point, they’re a high- value product that Australia can make competitively. Carbon Revolution has already employed nearly a dozen workers from Ford and Qantas. Dingle says that, once trained, “they make fantastic process workers”.
As the business begins selling directly to car manufacturers, which have more exacting standards than individual consumers, its proximity to Deakin’s extensive Geelong Technology Precinct at Waurn Ponds will become even more valuable. The precinct has nearly 300 PhD students, and hosts the fibres research division of the CSIRO. “That gives us outstanding R&D right on our doorstep,” says Ashley Denmead, Carbon Revolution’s design director and leader of the original student team.
Its most important neighbour is Carbon Nexus, Deakin’s $34 million carbon fibre research facility, which has its own freshly minted 20 to 50 tonne a year carbon fibre production line. City leaders from the mayor to Deakin vice-chancellor Jane den Hollander are aggressively courting global carbon fibre makers to build a 1000 tonne-plus a year plant; if it gets up, it would be a game changer for the city.
DowAksa, a joint venture between American multinational Dow Chemical and Aksa Akrilik Kimya Sanayii of Turkey, is a leading candidate. The plant would cost more than $200 million to build and create 250 permanent jobs beyond construction. Its proponents are seeking about $50 million from the federal and state governments. Everyone wants it to happen. “I am very confident; I think we’re close to serious talks with investors out of Europe,” Lyons says.
Bronwyn Fox, research director at Carbon Nexus, is keen to ensure the local economy benefits from developments. Sydney- based Quickstep, another carbon fibre success story, has used Deakin research; Melbourne-based Diver Consolidated Industries, one of Australia’s few “tier one” automotive suppliers that sell direct to car-makers, is interested in using it. “It’s really cool,” says Fox. “We are doing research for multinational companies, but we want to be sure there are dividends for Australia.”
Carbon fibre is not the only high-tech product Geelong is counting on to help offset its manufacturing decline. Deakin is nurturing research on new materials that can withstand Arctic permafrost, and monitor sports performance and nutrition. Geelong-based companies already make products ranging from fireproof power poles to military ordnance to radio frequency identification software for libraries. Melbourne patents firm Davies Collison Cave has opened a Waurn Ponds office to better service researchers at Deakin and high-tech companies in the city.
In December, Fremantle-based Little Creatures opened the doors on a $60 million brewery in Geelong, and Sky Software is building a customer support centre there to supply its student management software to a British education firm that operates in 16 countries. The software company will double its staff of 36 in two or three years, says chairman Clive Mayhew. Organisations such as Sky won’t employ the thousands laid off by big manufacturers, “but we could get to 100”, Mayhew says.
To promote its tech firms, Geelong is counting on the Abbott government to honour Labor’s commitment to prioritise the city in the NBN fibre optic network roll-out. “We have got to be in the fibre game, or we’ll be where we were in the 1950s and ’60s,” says councillor Rod Macdonald.
Deakin is more than just an engineering hothouse; it’s a rapidly growing, full-service university. It has about 10,000 students in Geelong, divided between the refurbished Dennys Lascelles woolstores on the waterfront and the original Waurn Ponds campus. (It also has campuses in Warrnambool and the Melbourne suburb of Burwood). Den Hollander wants to dramatically increase the student body on the waterfront. The goal is to “make sure Geelong and the region [are] smart and educated” through its teaching and research, she says. She cites the potential for lightweight carbon fibre to save energy.
“For the community, evolving to a new way of creating wealth is what we are trying to do,” den Hollander says. “We have got a really tough couple of years in front of us. But we have a plan to evolve to a new future.”
She is right to sound a word of caution about the short term; the city still faces some daunting challenges. Geelong’s educational attainment lags the rest of Victoria at every level from year 12 completion through to post-graduate qualifications, although it has a higher rate of people with vocational job qualifications than the state average.
Regional output barely grew from 2010 to 2013 and isn’t likely to accelerate in the next few years. Housing developer Rory Costelloe says the local economy will miss Alcoa’s high wages. Manufacturing still makes an outsized contribution to Geelong’s measured output, accounting for $10.7 billion, or 43 per cent, of the total. However it is not the only source of highwage jobs; Cotton On’s 900 head office staff earn an average wage of $80,000. Bouncing over the brown earth and straw grass of Villawood
Properties’ 2200lot Armstrong Creek development, by the Torquay Road south of Geelong, Rory Costelloe proudly ticks off the reasons to buy a home here rather than in outer Melbourne. Just one traffic light from the freeway to Melbourne. A new train station. The best choice of schools, from ultrarich Geelong Grammar through midrange independent and Catholic to public. Proximity to river, bay and surf, which Costelloe himself enjoys on a paddleski. NBNcompliant fibre. A masterplanned community with activity centre, gym, indoor pool, gettoknowtheneighbours events and even an intranet, where tips on builders and contractors can be exchanged. Three metrehigh weathered steel sculptures of a handbag, stiletto heels and birds. A model aeroplane, painted orange, as a nod to the site’s origins as an airport. And an average houseandland entry price of about $360,000, compared with a median price of $410,000 in Geelong and $643,000 in Melbourne.
Greater Geelong’s population is predicted to swell to 300,000 by 2031 as it absorbs some of Melbourne’s growth. The aim is to have people living and working in the area, says Costelloe, but a proportion will be commuters responding to the economic and lifestyle advantages. They will add to the 12,000 who already commute from Geelong to Melbourne for work each day.
Sales for Armstrong Creek began in 2010, and about 1250 lots have been sold to date, just over 240 by Villawood, where Costelloe is executive director. The company is one of numerous developers who see potential in an area expected to eventually house 50,000 to 60,000 people, which would make it half the size of Ballarat. That could take 20 years, but peak building of 1200 to 1800 lots a year should be reached in the coming decade. That’s at least 3000 construction jobs and thousands of permanent jobs when facilities and neighbouring industrial parks are up and running. “It’ll soak up a lot of the pain from Ford and Shell,” Costelloe says.
In December, a week after Holden called time on its Australian carmaking operations, politicians swarmed over the region, where four seats are up for grabs in November’s
Victorian election. The marginal federal seat of Corangamite, won for the Liberals by Sarah Henderson in September, is also there. Henderson accompanied Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Victorian Transport Minister Terry Mulder to spruik a $50 million upgrade of the Great Ocean Road, the jewel in the region’s multibilliondollar tourism industry. Next day Victoria’s Deputy Premier Peter Ryan and a posse of Victorian government members joined Lyons to flip the first sod on a futuristic $45 million redevelopment of Geelong’s library. “Look at this spade, it’s incredible,” exclaimed Lyons, spraying a photographer with soil from the polished implement.
Politicians ignore Geelong at their peril. Victoria moved the Transport Accident Commission, a government bureaucracy that processes $1 billion in annual claims and employs 710 people, there in 2009. WorkSafe will follow after the November election with another 550 jobs. The head office for the new federal disability care insurance scheme will create 450 jobs as it ramps up over the next five years. With Barwon Health, Deakin Medical School and the Geelong Football Club, the city is a “potential centre for insurance, rehabilitation and healthrelated activities,” TAC chief executive Janet Dore says.
Healthcare is another area where Geelong has unsung prospects. The 400bed Geelong Hospital is adding three new wards and 120 beds over the next 21?2 years to cope with population growth, says the deputy chief executive of Barwon Health, Paul Cohen. Epworth HealthCare and Deakin will soon start work on a new $447 million teaching hospital, and St John of God Health Care is undergoing a $67 million upgrade. Health data is one focus of research; Cohen claims Barwon Health has the best information systems in Australia.
Lyons isn’t shy about putting the bite on state politicians ahead of November’s election. He’s annoyed by Victorian Premier Denis Napthine’s decision to spend $338 million on the Melbourne Park tennis centre, which is used “for a couple of weeks a year”. The money would have been better spent on the rail service between Melbourne and Geelong, or a new convention centre, he argues. “Mate, I don’t get it.”
Lyon plans to “fight tooth and nail” to see that Geelong is treated in a manner that befits Victoria’s second city. “Both opposition and incumbent need to understand that this is a vital area for them to be elected,” Lyons says. “My million Twitter followers will get the message pretty quickly.”
Community leaders have learned to swallow any reservations they might have had about their unconventional mayor. “I like the new mayor,” Deakin’s den Hollander says. “He is a businessman, an entrepreneur; he certainly has a great sense of urgency and I think coming from business to local government he will make us sit up and pay attention.”
Geelong has most of the ingredients for a smart city future, but it has yet to get the cake to rise. Lyons’s confidence that it will do so shows no sign of waning: “Already, things are happening. Since we’ve started this positive campaigning globally . . . we’ve had several inquiries from Sydney businesses wanting to move down here. I am personally using my marketability to attract businesses from around the world. We are an open for business and cando city.”
BEHIND THE HYPE
The ambitions of Geelong mayor Darryn Lyons are small consolation to Damian Young, (pictured), a 39yearold father of two who works for Alcoa at Point Henry. Young’s daughters, aged two and four, have grown up in the shadow of the review of Point Henry’s future. A decision is expected in March.
Young sees Geelong’s picturesque waterfront as a “facade”. Look deeper into the city and the cracks appear: vacant shops, grungy pubs. People from the suburbs with neat
shopping strips, such as Newtown and Highton, “don’t like coming into town any more”, Young says, while in less salubrious suburbs such as Corio, Norlane and Whittington there are pockets of deprivation that rival those of any big city.
With a forklift licence and a background in sheet metal, Young earns about $80,000 a year after 13 years with the company. He looked at retraining two years ago, when the fate of the plant was first on the line. But a $44 million lifeline from the Gillard government gave him breathing space. “Like other people around here I thought, ‘We’ll be right’.” Now he’s thinking of starting a landscaping
business, or seeking work in Melbourne’s industrial west, or even staying at home while his wife goes out to work. “You take whatever opportunities are out there,” he says.
The harsh reality is that many Alcoa workers, some of whom have been there for 30 years or more, will struggle to match their current incomes if Point Henry closes. Recently married workers ask Young if they should take out a mortgage.
Asa delegate for the Australian Workers’ Union, he feels pressure to stress the positive, but the skills his colleagues have picked up in the ageing, low tech plant are
not readily transferable. They’re “trapped in a way”, he says.
Tony Anderson’s story is not dissimilar. He has worked across Corio Bay at Ford’s Geelong foundry, which casts engine blocks and crankshafts, for more than 30 years. For
the past 22 years he’s been a fulltime union delegate, paid by the company. Some of his coworkers want to upgrade their skills for new industries like carbon fibre; others are
looking outside the industry, for instance in real estate.
“A lot of people are still trying to get their heads around it,” he says.
Anderson fears Australia is losing “the ability for technical innovation” and manufacturing with the decline of the car sector. He wants governments to help Geelong hang onto that legacy for as long as possible.