My family’s road to Broome started long before Willie Creek Pearls.
The story starts with my grandparents, Valda and Don Banfield (Mimi and Tiger Pop) on a Tincurrin wheat and sheep farm with four children and now Willie Creek Pearls is a retail, tourism, hospitality and commercial pearling operation in Broome and Perth. What has remained constant on the journey there, is the strength of my family.
Mimi and Tiger Pop left Perth in 1964 as a young couple to buy a farm in the shire of Wickepin, a small community near Narrogin in the WA Wheatbelt. With little to no farming experience, it was an adventure. My Dad, his brother and two sisters were all born on the farm over the next 10 years.
The farm was a time of ups and downs and significant financial hardship. After years of fluctuating wheat and sheep prices and marginal land, the family leased the farm out from 1985 and sold it five years later. Tiger Pop then settled in Perth driving for a limousine company, Astra, with Dad and my Uncle Darren. One passenger stands out, and that was what set the family on their path to Broome. Tiger Pop forged a connection with Lord Alistair McAlpine that led to a working relationship in the late ’80s. Tiger Pop always loved driving and fixing up buses, and in 1989 he saw an opportunity in Broome for a new challenge. The town needed a reliable bus service for the rapidly expanding tourism industry. The family farm hadn’t sold yet, which meant that they didn’t have enough capital to buy the business outright. So Mimi urged Tiger Pop to make a business proposition to Lord McAlpine; to purchase Broome Bus Lines together, with Lord McAlpine as a silent partner. He agreed but at the lord’s request, Tiger Pop continued to work for him in Perth, leaving Dad and Uncle Darren to run the business at 23 and 21 years of age.
This meant some significant changes for the family. Dad had to move to Broome on just 24 hours notice, and Uncle Darren followed not long after. Three weeks into the new business, they met their first hurdle - Australia’s infamous pilot strike. The strike cut off tourists from Broome for six weeks, essentially crippling the town during that time. What could’ve been a disaster for a young business, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The sudden drop in workload allowed them to set up the business permanently, rather than just battling to keep up with the demanding workload stipulated by their silent partner. This put the family in the position to buy out Lord McAlpine a year later. Tiger Pop then moved to Broome permanently to share the workload with his sons.
In 1991, just as they were beginning to establish the business, Tiger Pop had an unexpected and fatal heart attack whilst driving one of the buses to Fitzroy Crossing. He was aged 51, leaving Mimi a widow with four children.
Uncle Darren said that “there wasn’t much time to grieve”. The business was nonstop and to stay afloat their only option was to work even harder. Having won a contract for Lord McAlpine’s Cable Beach Club Resort, they were required to meet every plane that flew in, and do hourly staff runs to the Resort for 18 hours of the day. As Dad and Uncle Darren were usually the only ones driving, they both worked 14-hour overlapping shifts to cover a 24 hour period, never saying no to any work that presented itself. While still grieving, to say that they were busy was an understatement. Running the business without Tiger Pop was a massive undertaking, so they enlisted some help from the family. Dad’s youngest sibling, Aunty Melissa, deferred her university studies to move to Broome with Mimi to help out for a year. Aunty Donna, the eldest sibling, and her husband, Uncle Geoff also took three months of long service leave to come up and help. They came together as a family in grief, to survive.
Having endured this difficult time and come out the other side, the decision was made to expand. After years of delivering tourists to the Pearl Farm, in 1994 they approached the previous owners to lease the Willie Creek Pearl Farm site. They agreed – making the rapid progression from sheep farmers to pearl farmers in just a few years.
This began years of quiet expansion, with Willie Creek Pearls as the center of the tourism, retail, and pearl farming operations. Over the years there was also involvement with the Zoo Café, taxis, hire cars and bus operations throughout the Kimberley. Willie Creek Pearls' presence in Broome was established, with showrooms opening in Chinatown, Cable Beach, and to expand the Willie Creek Pearls experience beyond the farm - Perth. This time of increased business stability coincided with the growth of our family. In Broome, the three siblings: Dad, Uncle Darren, and Aunty Melissa, all got married and between them gave Mimi seven much-loved grandchildren, to add to Aunty Donna and Uncle Geoff’s two children. Privileging me with 2 siblings and 7 cousins.
To this day, Willie Creek Pearls is still a family-owned and operated business. The day-to-day operations are run by Dad, Uncle Darren, and Aunty Melissa, while Mimi has taken more of a matriarchal role in recent years. The skills of other family members are constantly utilized, ensuring Banfield involvement at all levels, from bookkeeping to filming advertisements to day-to-day staffing of the showrooms.
I remember taking trips out to the Pearl Farm when I was younger. Just getting out there was an adventure - it was always exciting taking the 'bumpy road' out and a couple of times when the tide was up, driving on the tidal flats was awesome! Being one of three siblings, and pretty close in age, we used to fight a lot, particularly my brother and I. At the farm though, Dad always had a ready-made threat to get us to behave...the resident croc, Nigel. We'd go out on the boat, definitely looking for the croc but not sure if we wanted to find it or not, and not sure if Dad would actually follow through on the threat and throw us in. The other thing I loved about the farm was the tides. I couldn't believe how the whole jetty and a couple of flights of stairs could just disappear and reappear in a matter of hours.
The theme of family is evident throughout the business and one of its great strengths is, as Mimi likes to say: “no one tells the truth like family”. This bond is now a part of the business DNA and is more important than ever in this unprecedented pandemic. For the first time in Willie Creek Pearls' history, all 7 of our showrooms have been closed temporarily. However, our online store remains open 24/7 so there is still a chance for customers to find their perfect pearl. It’s going to be the biggest challenge we have faced, and to get to the other side some difficult decisions will need to be made. Family is important in times like this and so is our broader family – the community. Willie Creek Pearls has always supported the Broome and Perth communities at every opportunity and it’s now more than ever that we need to come together. Now we have to lean on them to survive with a business that is not only intact but can continue to provide jobs and thrive into the next chapter.
We’ll come through this, together.
(Top photo (c) @baileybanfield)