History in Australia
Swire’s connections in Australia date to 1855, when young Liverpool merchant John Samuel Swire (1825-1898) established Swire Bros. in Melbourne. By this time in Australia’s history, about 405,000 convicts and settlers had arrived in the country, with the population doubling or trebling in each of the preceding three decades. While the convict settlement programme had run its course, Victoria was the centre of the Gold Rush of the 1850s, and it was there that John Samuel Swire established a modest import-export business on the strength of the growing trade between Australia and the UK. Over the next two decades, profits from this operation financed Swire’s expansion into the far Eastern trades and into shipping. The China Navigation Company was established by John Swire and operated a regular liner service between Australia and Asia from the 1880s until 1912. Today, CNCo continues to hold Swire’s global shipping interests, operates shipping agencies in Australia and the Pacific region, and services over 130 ports across the world.
Soon after World War II, the company reestablished shipping connections with Australia, and in April 1952, John Swire and Sons Pty Ltd was established in Sydney to act as an agent for Swire’s interests in the region – CNCo and a new subsidiary in PNG, the New Guinea Australia Line Pty Ltd (NGAL). In the post war environment, the growth of trades with New Guinea and the Pacific Islands fostered the development of a network of Swire Shipping Agencies, which to this day provide management of trades servicing Australia from Asia, Indonesia, PNG, the South Pacific Islands, and the US.
The important shipping connection with Papua New Guinea encouraged John Swire & Sons to invest in PNG during the 1970s, at a time when many companies were hesitant to invest in the newly formed nation. While NGAL was launched in 1952, in 1970 it was registered in Port Moresby as a subsidiary of John Swire & Sons Pty Ltd, but with a local board of directors. Swire investment in the historic Port Moresby Group, Steamships Trading Company began with the first procurement of shares in 1977. Investment slowly increased over time through incremental share purchases, and indirectly via investment in the Highlands trading Group Collins & Leahy, who held 33% of Steamships. Swire did not gain a majority shareholding until 1996. Swire controls the historic publicly listed company today, with interests ranging from manufacturing, transportation, shipping, properties, hotels and telecommunications.
During the post war era, John Swire & Sons Pty Ltd expanded its interests in Australia beyond shipping. In 1956, a tentative investment in a company in Brisbane led to the purchase of a management stake in a freezer trucking company called Frigmobile Pty Ltd. Frigmobile became a wholly owned subsidiary in 1967 and became one of Australia’s best known cold storage and transport providers. Today, it remains a brand within our refrigeration and logistics operations.
Over time, Swire built up its cold storage interests with the acquisition of Woodmasons Cold Storage in Victoria, South Australian Cold Stores Pty Ltd and assets from P. Cleland Enterprises Pty Ltd. Such an extensive assets base paved the way for the creation of a new national entity in January 2004 – Swire Cold Storage Pty Ltd. In 2017 Swire Cold Storage was sold to Emergent Cold.
In the 1970s John Swire & Sons Pty Ltd acquired a major shareholding in road transport specialist Transwest Haulage. Transwest originated as a small operator in Geelong in the 1950s, but grew extensively to become a sizable public company with operations in most states. The main areas of expertise were bulk cartage, waste management, materials handling and scrap metal processing. The scrap metal processing services developed and operated by Transwest, led to a close relationship with BHP Steel – a relationship that still exists today, through Swire Industrial Services.
The transport services of Transwest were well matched by the services provided by Kalari – another well known Victorian operator, based in Portland. It was acquired by Swire in 1994. Kalari, with their unmissable fleet of bright yellow and orange trucks, reputation for innovation and efficient operation, and network of haulage services, was a welcome and logical addition to the Swire fold. By 2006, the balance of Transwest’s transport operations were incorporated into the Kalari brand. Today, Kalari is one of Australia’s most innovative and prominent specialist bulk logistics providers to the mining and resources sector and other selected industries.
In the early 1980s, through its association with Scottish tea company James Finlay, John Swire & Sons Pty Ltd acquired a stake in a cotton farming business in Bourke, New South Wales. Clyde Agriculture became a 100% subsidiary in 1989. Swire continued to invest and expand its agricultural interests, with grazing properties in Western New South Wales. By 2007 Clyde owned over 1.85 million acres of rural properties, becoming the largest wool grower in the world. The sale of these properties began in 2010 and was concluded in May 2014.
Following on from the Transwest materials handling experience, Swire sought to further invest in this industry sector, and the construction and demolition recycler Alex Fraser was seen as a great opportunity to do so. Both companies’ similar heritage, entrepreneurial culture and values made the acquisition of a majority shareholding by Swire in 2006 seem like a natural fit. From humble beginnings in the metals trading business in 1879, Alex Fraser has grown to become Australia’s largest construction and demolition waste materials recycler, operating six recycling centres across Melbourne and Brisbane. In 2018, Alex Fraser was sold to Hanson Cement Group.
In more recent years, Swire identified the Australian resources sector as a key industry sector for future growth. In 2013 Swire acquired HSE, a mid-sized mining services and large equipment rental business with offices in Perth and Brisbane.
All business activities in Australia and PNG are still coordinated by, or on behalf of, John Swire and Sons Ltd in London. Some 150 years since John Samuel Swire established Swire Bros. in Melbourne in 1855, the Swire family continues to support and invest in the development and expansion of Swire interests in Australia.