30 Years Of Willie Creek Pearls - An Interview with Robert Banfield

30 Years Of Willie Creek Pearls - An Interview with Robert Banfield

2019 marks 30 years of excellence in the tourism, retail and hospitality industries for the Western Australian Banfield Family. After moving to Broome, the Banfield family made their first foray into tourism when they entered into business with Lord McAlpine in 1989, forming Broome Buslines.

Willie Creek Pearls' Chairman, Robert Banfield, gave us an insight into the last three decades. He shares how the family business navigated many highs and lows over the years to end up where it is today.

"Our journey began by providing a coach service from Broome to Willie Creek Pearls through Broome Buslines in 1989. After originally being wheat and sheep farmers from Tincurrin, we found the process of pearling (an industry we knew little about), extremely interesting, and thought if that's the case for us - then our customers would as well.

Banfield Family 1994

The Banfield Family

This proved to be correct and our thinking extended in 1994, when we approached the previous operators of Willie Creek Pearls with an offer to take over the running of the pearl farm tours. After our offer was accepted, we had the ability to look after our guests experience from door to door. We knuckled down and invested much of our time and resources to make this the best, and at the time, only pearling tourism experience available to the public.

In 2005 we successfully acquired the land lease for Willie Creek Pearl Farm and 2 units of shell quota (2000 pearl shell to use for tourism purposes). At this time, we again invested significant resources into our pearling tourism product. This included new boats and a café, extending our service for the comfort and benefit of our guests. However, we only held a relatively short land lease (10 years), and were without a pearling licence and a shell quota that would allow us to grow pearls commercially and meet the growing demand of our tour guests, who all wanted to take home a pearl!

Obtaining additional local pearls was a difficult process, as most - if not all, were sent directly to overseas markets where they would fetch very high prices. So, at the time, we bought as many local pearls as we could whilst supplementing our jewellery offerings with overseas freshwater pearls. This enabled us to provide a varied range of pearl jewellery items at different price-points (freshwater pearls are much more affordable than Australian Pearls) for our now blossoming retail business.

Like the pilot strike of 1989 (which occurred 3 weeks after we purchased Broome Buslines) the GFC allowed us a new opportunity, to invest further towards our ultimate goal; growing our own pearls on a commercial scale. This occurred when we were able to purchase a 15-unit shell quota while simultaneously gaining a commercial pearling licence, which as simple as it sounds, was far from it. We are forever grateful that with the assistance of the pearling industry of Western Australia, including its farmers and the Department of Fisheries, we found a way through the difficult process. This move ensured that we had a secure supply of pearls, and allowed us to complete the unique story of a pearl for our guests, from shell to showroom.

Over the last 30 years, many people have contributed significantly to what we do, and we are enormously grateful for their efforts. We wouldn't have a business without them. The talent that we have been able to attract and the expertise they have provided us with has been invaluable, appreciated and ultimately the reason for our success. We highly value our ‘family values' and hope that we have provided an interesting, stimulating and rewarding working environment through the many challenges that we have faced. Yes, there’s been a few rogues along the way, and it's not easy being an employer of people in a small family business, but the quality of people, the rewards and the positive outcomes far out-number the difficulties over the journey."

Willie Creek Pearl Farm 1990s

Can you share your fondest memory from the last 30-years?

"The journey from being solely a tourism operator and progressing to a position to not only grow some of the finest pearls in the world on a commercial scale, but to also be able to talk about them, and provide them to our customers worldwide is hugely rewarding.

Last week when a Chinese customer purchased a 19.7 mm pearl, I was reminded of the fact that our business was able to firstly grow this magnificent pearl, then educate the customer on why it was highly valued through our tourism experience. This ultimately led to them having enough confidence in our people and brand to make the decision to purchase. It’s a fond memory to me as this is the outcome that the hard work and sacrifice has been about."

There must have been some characters from all walks of life come through the doors over the years? Both staff and customers…

"Our customers are a diverse bunch from kids to their grandparents. They include family and friends and some even become family and friends!

I'll never forget a Singaporean customer asking our longest serving team member, Des (29 years), if they could see a koala bear. He told the customer that they are in the esky underneath the coach! While the customer had a horrified look on her face, he proceeded to stop the coach and innocently retrieve a "cola-beer" from the esky."

And after all this time, what do you find most exciting about Willie Creek Pearls' operations?

"Definitely harvest time at the farm, not knowing what the next oyster will reveal. The process that includes talented entertainers revealing the secrets of the industry to the customer, who might then take home an Australian South Sea Pearl and become a part of the Willie Creek Pearls family for life."

Pinctada Maxima Oysters

You lived and worked in Broome for many years, what do you most love about the place?

"It was the perfect place to have a growing family and business as the opportunities for both proved very good. The onset of the dry indicated by the dragonflies not only bought about a cool change but indicated a new visitor season. The summer season also provided some magical lightning and thunderstorms that were stunning. I still get up there as often as I can."

After reflecting on the last 30 years of business, what are the things that you feel have most contributed to your success?

"We've had many thousands of people contributed to our success. These not only include our hundreds of influential staff members, but also customers and loyal supporters along the way. The family, including our extended family, also needs to be thanked for the sacrifices they have made for the greater good and future of the business. It's actually very rare for a family to be in business as long as we have, and to still be enjoying the process and the challenges that come our way.

I would also like to acknowledge the original founders of the Willie Creek Pearl Farm concept. The initial concept was developed by Dave Rae with some help from his partners. As Broome Buslines we first took tourists to meet Dave in an old tin shed in 1989. But it was Mark and Sue Walsh and Larry and Tracey House who first envisaged the tourism concept that you see as part of our operations today. 

Today we're grateful for not having to play such a big part in the day to day activities. By having a talented management team in place, it's enabled the family to work on the business rather than in the business. This has allowed some different thinking operationally as well as strategically which has only enhanced what we are currently achieving. I'm looking forward to seeing what the next 30 years brings for Willie Creek Pearls."

Willie Creek Pearl Farm

Reading next

Media Release - Willie Creek Pearls recognized nationally for their newest pearl experience.
Media Release - Willie Creek Pearls celebrates 30 years of business


Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Loved reading your story it was very inspirational . We have been lucky enough to visit Broome twice and do the Willie Creek Pearl Farm tour on both occasions. Your tour guides are excellent and very informative and value for money. Your shop staff are also excellent and very helpful and obliging when I purchased my beautiful pair of drop earrings.

Margaret Gee

Margaret Gee

l loved reading your story .Have never been to Broome unfortunately, but have had a love affair with pearls from an early age . I have many purchases of your beautiful pearls from you boutiques here in Perth….Hillary’s Marina & Subiaco .Lovely stores & lovely staff .


Margaret Gee

Dawn Harrow

Dawn Harrow

Greetings from Raleigh, N. Carolina!
I was interested to read your story & I enjoyed hearing about Broome. My great grandfather, Hugh Davis Norman, started the town of Broome & was the first Mayor. He owned a pearl diving company in the early 1900s. I wish you success & hope one day to visit your Willie Creek Pearl Farm.

glenis spark

glenis spark

we visited your pearl farm a long time ago,sometime in the late nineties when Jo was up there. The visit was truely amazing and very educational.I purchased a beautiful pearl and wear it often and peoplealways coment on it,I gladly tell them you have to go to Willi Creek in Broome to get one of these. Best wishes to your family.What a fantastic bussiness you have, and have worked so hard to achieve.

Veronica Curness

Veronica Curness

What a great story. We first visited Willie Creek Pearl Farm back in 2010, & so our love affair with Australian South Sea Pearls & Broome began.
We have returned 3 times since & always leave amazed, & with a Willie Creek Pearl of course.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.