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Bob Basham an industry gem

Bob Basham, regarded as one of the most likeable identities in the boating industry, was honoured with Life Membership of the Boating Industry Association (BIA) in 2004.

The award was announced at the then renowned annual industry breakfast event during the 2004 Sydney International Boat Show.

The presentation of the plaque to Bob was made by the then President of the BIA, another of our industry legends, now passed, Ian McAndrew, or ‘Macca’ as he was referred to by his friends.

It was a special time with the industry in complete harmony over Bob’s selection to hold such recognition. Comments heard around the breakfast tables centred on “couldn’t have gone to a more deserving bloke!”

To describe the popularity of the man; Life Membership, at that time had only been issued to five other industry stalwarts in the Association’s 34 year history. Bob joined legends Robert Greaves, Malcolm Smith, Peter Hunt, Bill Aldritt and Hugh Shanks in being bestowed such an honour.

Life Membership was the highest honour an Association would bestow on a member. It was reserved for those who had rendered outstanding service to the association and the industry. It served to recognise commitment, dedication, enthusiasm, leadership, involvement and the willingness to assist in a broad range of challenging issues.

“In other words, it is reserved for fellows like Bob Basham,” Ian McAndrew declared.

Past President and Life Member the late Ian McAndrew with Shirley and Bob Basham

“The BIA Board of Directors was unanimous in adding a sixth member to this most exclusive club to honour a man who has made an extremely valuable contribution to the association and to the industry over a very long period of time.

“For me personally it is a very great honour to welcome Bob Basham as our sixth Life Member, a man who is an example of a very fine person, has consistently given of his time and effort to the association and to the boating industry and has never sought nor expected anything in return other than success for his fellow members.”

Robert William (Bob) Basham began his working life at the then-renowned chandlery W.Kopsen and Co. in the heart of Sydney. This included working as a rep at the Big Bear as well as a junior at the Royal Easter Show.

It was to be the start of a ‘Bradman-like’ innings in the boating industry, at that time in 2004, rated at 61 (years) not out!

Kayen Kerosene Lamp available at W. Kopsen & Co

Bob’s first job was assembling Kayen Pressure Lamps lamps and carrying out other odd jobs for the princely sum of 28-shillings ($2.80) per week. The name Kayen was a joint Venture between Nettlefold Screw Works and Kopsens.

He progressed into retail sales and eventually became a wholesale representative, but, being a junior was not provided with a motor vehicle and did his calls to boat sheds and yards all over Sydney by tram and bus.

W.Kopsen and Co may not have known at the time, but this ‘junior rep’ was destined to become the company’s managing director!

In 1968, after 25-years of service, Bob and Kopsen parted company and he formed his own marine wholesale business, RW Basham Shipchandler.

He worked from his home on Sydney’s northern beaches, gradually sourcing quality products from around the world.

To those who know Bob Basham it will come as no surprise to learn that the business flourished, eventually becoming one of the largest marine wholesalers in Australia.

Bob married his life-long partner, Shirley, and in the mid-1980’s their sons, Martin and Craig, joined the family firm, as did Jack, Martin’s son and Bob’s grandson.

This allowed Bob, while still taking an active role in the business, to set about giving something back to the industry.

At the time of being bestowed his Life membership, then General Manager of the Boating Industry Association of NSW, Roy Privett, said that in more than 36-years since forming RW Basham Shipchandlers, the company (and the man) had never missed a Sydney Boat Show.

Roy recalled that RW Basham Shipchandlers was there when Sydney shows were held in conjunction with the Royal Easter Show. Roy continued to explain that they were there when the show was held at the Big Bear Supermarket at Neutral Bay. It was there when the shows stood alone on their merit at the showgrounds, then Pyrmont and finally at Darling Harbour.

He brought to the board his passion for sailing and his knowledge of the sailing industry, and at a time when sailing was suffering a decline, it was Bob Basham whose persistence led to the themed promotion, ‘Try Sailing.’

In 1997 Bob gathered a like-minded group together and was instrumental in the formation of the Sailing Industry Association.

One-year later, again at Bob’s insistence, the industry backed what was an annual event, the ‘Try Sailing Day’, with sailing and yachting clubs throughout NSW cooperating and introducing newcomers to the sport.  Try Sailing Day was to be later handed over to Yachting Australia who repackaged it to be their national Discover Sailing program.

Bob was also keen to ensure all be people had the opportunity to sail and was involved with Sailability, an organisation providing sailing opportunities to the handicapped, who was spearheaded by Jackie Kay, an excellent sailor who was also bound to a wheelchair.

It is typical of Bob Basham to go out of his way to contribute to the wider community in such a way.

‘The Sailing Industry Association established via Bob Basham’s leadership is a classic example of an industry sub-group reshaping the association and giving it a broader focus,” Ian McAndrew explained.

Bobs introduction to boating came at an early age, with one memorable experience at the age of 16. While at Kopsen’s, he built 20-foot canvas canoe and paddled out to Wedding Cake Island. Bob thinks this was the only time that he was ever frightened, saying “It was very long way”.

Bob reminisced about his life and career. This is his story in his words. He said:

“I was born 18th September 1928 and we lived in the Eastern Sydney suburb of Coogee.

My Dad worked for the Port Jackson Manly Steam Ship Company in Manly. He would travel by ferry to Manly, being the best transport from Circular Quay. Two nights a week he would have to sleep over to tie up the last ferry into Manly at around midnight. This was never a problem, it was taken for granted.

My Mum sadly passed away in St Vincent’s Hospital’s 1942. My Sister and Brother were both working which left me at home after school. On nights that Dad was not home I would prepare dinner and have it ready when they arrived home. My sister Shirley would give me a big hug.

Our next door neighbour who worked for Burns Philip and Co in Bridge St, told my dad that they had a position vacancy for a junior office boy. So I went off in a hand me down, beautiful grey suit arriving at the office in Bridge St, only to be told that the position had been filled that morning.

Mr Allen spoke up and said how sorry he was and said “I think I have a position for you – it’s a good walk – lets go”.

They were looking for a junior. We arrived at this place with the name outside which said W.Kopsen & Co Pty Ltd Ship Chandlers.

I learnt my trade in the Wholesale Retail chandlery division. I had a good boss. When he found out I could splice rope, which I had learnt from my Dad, he said you do the splicing and I will help you learn about the stock items. His name was Bill Russell with the same surname as the General Manager.

When the war had ended, my boss, Mr Russell, returned home to Darwin. He had been badly hurt on his leg and arm in the Japanese air raids. So, with this I became the show room chandlery manager. But, this was not to last for long, with new men being employed as returned sailors, so I became the junior once more. But, a much smarter one.

Soon after, Kopsen’s decided to open a new division ‘Wholesale and retail Fishing tackle’. Once the stock arrived, I was transferred to become the showroom manager. I would have just turned 18. A representative was employed, but no car was provided. He travelled by public transport to areas where fishing tackle & sports stores could be found. He was a returned soldier. However, he became very sick and had to retire.

At 18 years of age I was appointed the new Representative. I traveled by bus, train, tram and ferry.

When the company Secretary took out the sales figures, he looked at the month by month and year by year, that he saw that I was ahead on every month. The other rep had big Ford car.

Mr Russell said to the Kopsen management “buy him a car”. Within a week, I had a brand-new Ford Prefect.

My sales continued to increase. I became the national Sales Manager. We had a lot of agencies that had never been offered interstate. The GM and I went through all of our agency products they were priced up, so that a discount of $40 could be offered off the list price. This was working very well, so it was agreed that we should now do it on a national basis. I have to say that I met a lot of wonderful people. I covered every state in Australia.

As Sales Manager at Kopsen’s I was sent overseas to obtain contracts for the providoring division, visiting England, Scotland, Sweden and Norway. In my first visit, I got 60 contracts renewed and over 80 on the second.

Kopsens were also the Australian Agents for Hugin Cash Registers where we had eight different models. When I was Appointed MD, the manager of this division left disappointed thinking that he should have been appointed to the position.

The 2 directors said “Robert pack your bag, learn all about the products. We had five agents in each state of Australia”. Conversion to decimal currency was on the way. We had a contract with the government to convert all machines. So again, off I go again leaving my dear Shirley on her own with 3 young boys. Hugin were very appreciated of my visit and the time spent to learn how to convert each machine. They reimbursed the air fares and paid my hotel bill.

Mr Russell made the decision to retire and I was appointed as the New GM. I held this position for just on 3 years.

One night, I received a phone call at home at about 9 pm asking if I could please go to Mr Kopsen’s home in Cronulla. I was disappointed as on my arrival I was met by Mr Bell, one of the directors, who told me that Mr Kopsen was dying, and that he wanted me to take on the position of Managing Director. Mr Kopsen died that night and sadly none of the family were with him at that time.

The young Mr Bill Kopsen was not happy with the decision. I said, let’s work together and when we get over this, I will be happy to step down and return to the position of GM. He was working against me with another person ready to step in as the GM.

I was not happy, I had a family with three boys at home, so I told Bill and the staff that I would be leaving within three weeks, but I left in two.

I applied for a number of positions, but I was not what they were looking for. A number of retail organisations said they would like to hire me but would not be able to afford me. It was at this time that said to myself: Why not try to do something on my own?

That’s when I said to my dear wife, I am going to start my own business. She looked in shock, and in response, I said you will be my private secretary, full stop.

We printed a marine catalogue, called on all of the clients who were associated with clients in the Pacific Islands. Within the first month I had turned over 5000 pounds. The business was growing we had moved to 29A King St in Sydney.

My son Martin came to work with me but within one month he had applied for a position with Peter Green Ship Chandlers at Mona Vale. Peter called me and said, “are you aware that your son Martin applied for a position with me”. I said no. I responded by asking “but are you going to employ him?”. He said, “yes, as long as it does not affect our friendship”.

Martin became Peter’s top man. He rejoined our business a much smarter person, saying to Peter that you cannot hand out discounts and still hope to make a profit.

When Martin returned, we had gained a number of good agency products such as Rule Pumps and float switches. We needed to move, so Shirley, Martin and I attended an auction for a building known as 146-152 Cope St Waterloo. I asked Martin “are you going to have a bid?”. Yes was the answer.

Two others were bidding against one another. One pulled out, the other thought he had it. Martin put up his hand, and the next thing we did was to go to our friendly ANZ manager who approved the loan. Our other son Craig was also part of the business at that time and we told him about our purchase whilst he was overseas having a well earned holiday.

Martin said to me one day “I guess you will be coming to work every day until you are 80”. I think at that time I was about 68. I said, “do you believe you can run the business?”. He said yes. So, I said give me a couple days and I will move out. My feeling being if that if he needed me around, I would be around. But he never did. We grew and subsequently bought the block of land next to 146 Cope St.

Some years had passed, and Craig made the move, hired builders, had the plans approved and built a beautiful building attached to the 146 new office, complete with a sun deck, barbecue, the works.

Many years passed and sadly Craig received a phone call from a government spokesperson. The conversation was blunt and lacked empathy. “We are giving you 2 weeks to move out – we are taking over your buildings for new Government rail extensions”.

The whole block was involved. At this time, I had retired so the boys decided to obtain special advice, and they came to learn that it was a done deal. We had no choice but to leave what was the RW Basham Head Quarters for years. It took over forty containers to move the stock and many trips by our own truck.

To move to the new location, Martin operated the business from Waterloo and, Craig set about building the new warehouse. It was about the size of two football fields, modern, inclusive of shelving, packing benches, a special receiving area for overseas containers and everything else we needed. The excellent office space was already in place on the second floor and included two private offices for the Accountant and Sales Manager.

About 6 years later, it was decided by Martin and Craig to put it on the market. It was sold within a short period. Both Craig and Martin retired, and my grandson son Jack who also worked in the business, was not interested in taking it on”.

I try and call Bob a couple of times a year to see how he is, and I spoke to him only recently.  Bob is now 94 (95 in September) and still lives on the northern beaches of Sydney with his beloved wife Shirley. His family has grown considerably and includes eleven great grandchildren.

Whilst the RM Basham business was sold a number of years ago, the influence and legacy he has given the sport of sailing, and the boating industry, will live on forever.

It can’t be denied that Bob Basham an industry gem.

Life Members Roy Privett, with Bob Basham with the late Peter Hunt

By Domenic Genua – Publisher – Marine Business News