Delta Hydraulic’s white knight

Fighting the tyranny of distance, head butting governments and advocating hard for the manufacturing industry would be a full-time job for most, but one Australian combines this with his creation of leading edge hydraulics.

It sounds so matter-of-fact when John White talks about his globally unique ceramic densified hard chrome coating for hydraulic lifts. In his seemingly laconic way, he describes how it improves the corrosive resistance from 200 hours to 10,000. But, for those who have a keen eye for what this means for the heavy transport industry, short of personally picking White’s brains, they will find his groundbreaking innovations hard to copy. “I don’t patent anything,” he says. “As soon as you do that, you are releasing it to the world.”

The 61 year old founder and Managing Director of Delta Hydraulics not only knows a thing or two about turning industry-changing ideas into successful products, but also about the critical nature of keeping Australian manufacturing competitive on the world market. And to that end, White is not shy when it comes to hammering the national government if he believes they are employing policies that stand in the way of business initiative or competitiveness. As a crucial and sustainable employer in a small geographic pond, but whose products turn heads and save client businesses big dollars, White comes out publicly swinging when he sees what he perceives as political injustice. Whether you agree with him or not, he is going to say it anyway. To put his own money where his mouth is, White still works 80 hours a week and will personally take the client calls if someone believes they have a problem.

White’s approach to running a successful enterprise is unlikely to be found in the business school models. This is a man whose transforming hydraulic products come about “because it is needed, I dream it up and hand it onto the guys, get it into a form where it can be done and then I tweak it, tweak it, tweak it.” White’s tweakings have led to a $30 million a year specialised hydraulics company that now exports to South East Asia, North Asia and New Zealand and is eyeing off the American and South American markets. He has also initiated groundbreaking hydraulics for mainland mining operations and stamped his expertise on the hydraulics to be found in the mechanisms and weaponry used in the Royal Australian Navy’s Collins Class submarines.

But, it is his unswerving belief in his own instincts that have guided the company from a repair business – set up in 1975 using A$500 borrowed against his first house and a A$500 loan from his mother-in-law – to a multi-million dollar   expert in telescopic hoists, truck hoists and both single and double action telescopic cylinders used in the waste collection industry and bulk materials transport, not to mention the mining and defence sectors. His Del Hoist comes in 50 to 60 configurations.

White’s business drive and uncompromising approach to the perfecting of his product range stems from an Australian upbringing that is steeped in the need for innovation and a “can do” attitude, with a large dose of individualism. Tell him there isn’t a market for something he believes in and he’ll not only tell you that you are wrong, but prove it. Hit him with over-regulation or blockages to his enterprises and the staff he employs and he will bat off opposition and stand up to be counted. And, all of this is fired from Australia’s island state of Tasmania. Small and picturesque, this most southern state has had to fight hard to retain its industries and stop the exodus of its brightest to the mainland.

White’s Delta is located in the small city of Devnonport, in the centre of the north coast of Tasmania. People here rely on a small, but modern airport or a regular, overnight, often rough water car ferry trip to connect them with the mainland capital cities. None of that has stopped White from causing the scratching of many ahead as to how he does it.

He will tell you there’s an underpinning of old school values. He grew up on a dairy farm outside another small Tasmanian town, Burnie with a father who had been a prisoner of war. He describes his father as “a very patriotic Australian” who believed in people taking responsibility for themselves and not relying on government handouts or others. Farming in such a location also fostered innovation. If you saw a need for something, you made it. If something broke down, you fixed it. By the age of 12, White’s entrepreneurial side saw him on a tractor from 4am to midnight, contracting his services to harvesting peas in the picking season. The rest of the time, he helped milk the cows. “Farming is a hard game. You’ve got to learn to live with nature. It requires resilience and a never give up attitude,” he says.  At 16 he started a fitting and turning apprenticeship at a paper mill before being called up for national service. During his service time, he was in charge of an army base workshop and fate connected an unstoppable duo – White and hydraulics.

Post-army he worked for an engineering company at a tin mine on Tasmania’s rugged west coast. It was another location where it was quicker to come up with on-the-ground solutions than wait for imports. Hydraulics remained in his head. With a subsequent employer, he set up a hydraulics repair business “because nobody knew anything about them.” Just knowing wasn’t enough. White designed a telescopic cylinder for waste dump trucks that was radical for its time, but his suggestions for the company to expand and produce it was met with the response that there wasn’t a market.  “I said I’d prove them wrong,” he says with one of his matter-of-fact one-liners. His time at the tin mine had provided the funds to buy a house. White pulled the, now seemingly paltry, loans and with two partners started Delta. Two years later he’d bought out the partners.

But, every year since he has stuck to his own business philosophy. “You’ve got to reinvent yourself every year – even the amount of knowledge you have needs constant upgrading. Search for knowledge all the time. This is what keeps you as a sunrise rather than a sunset industry.” It’s what White refers to as “plenty of mind activity.” That and always personally taking responsibility for anything that happens. “It’s about how you approach any challenge. You take the responsibility instead of blaming others and you will always come out on top. You only have control of you – you don’t have control of anybody else,” he says.

The 107 staff at Delta are well aware of where the ideas come from. Part of his people management approach is to keep his skilled workers interested and to challenge them to come up with a better way. He places great importance on retaining skilled personnel, but is totally sanguine about those who may choose to head for high dollars in the mainland mining sectors. “If they want to go, then I say they can move on.” He can also inadvertently throw out what appears to be arrogance, but is simply his inherent honesty. Ask him where he sees the company in 10 or 20 years and he tells you the company is racing ahead in leaps and bounds, “but we’re years ahead of everybody else anyway.” Which brings us back to that patenting issue and the question of others seeking to replicate his unique products. “I don’t patent anything,” he responds.

When White isn’t overseeing the Delta operation, he likes fast car rally events – he’s a Targa Tasmania rally winner – boats and fishing and taking on issues and politicians he disagrees with. He has also renovated a tourist resort – White Sands on Tasmania’s popular east coast – having bought it because it had its own boat ramp and a 110 hectare vineyard that will become one of the largest privately owned vineyards in Tasmania. His actions at the White Sands resort are another insight into the man. Tendering out the work would have cost him an estimated A$5 million, with a specialised tool to cut the architectural stone priced at an extra A$200,000.  White took charge of the project and built it for A$1.5 million and created the stone cutter for A$20,000. 

In between, he continues to participate as a long-serving board member of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He readily airs his two major grievances – Australia’s introduction of a controversial tax on carbon and changes to workplace laws. He sees the tax as part of a range “of devices designed to kill off manufacturing.” “It is our responsibility to fight that tooth and nail,” he says, particularly where processes with high emissions are being transferred to other countries with little or no carbon emission controls. “Long- term, it will make manufacturing in Australia uncompetitive because nobody else in the world is doing what Australia is doing.” He says that he and other like-minded manufacturers will do “whatever it takes because this is equal to the most destructive effort ever made by any government in Australia and clear thinking people just can’t allow this sort of thing to happen.” White’s view is that Australia should be a larger carbon emitter because it has greater capacity to sequester those outputs. “It all comes back to balance and net emissions,” he says.

Additional costs added to wages are another pet peeve. White says his resort project has suffered greatly because of high staff costs, with him forced to close it during the winter months. It all makes business extremely difficult, he says. But, if anyone thinks that White is going to slow down any time soon, they should think again. Just because he sees his manufacturing business as already being ahead of the pack, he has no intention of quitting any of that “mind activity.” It would pay to check in again soon to see what is being “tweaked” in the Delta workshops.

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