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STEVE BUTLER’S BUSH LEGEND: Robert Banfield

January 13, 2021

STEVE BUTLER’S BUSH LEGEND: Robert Banfield

The West Australian  -  Steve Butler  -  09/01/21

PAIN AND PEARLS IN WA'S PARADISE - 

How an English lord unwittingly helped a famous local family tough it out to create a jewel of a business for our State.

STEVE BUTLER'S BUSH LEGENDS

How a chance meeting between a Tincurrin farmer and a British aristocrat led to a life of pearling lustre is a compelling legend of the WA bush.

Don Banfield — the late grandfather of Fremantle Docker, Bailey — had to walk away from his Wheatbelt sheep farm in the mid-1980s because of a financial downturn. He had then taken to limousine driving with his sons Robert and Darren when he happened upon notable British politician Lord Alistair McAlpine as a client during the America’s Cup defence of 1987.

It led to a strong friendship and business relationship via a Kimberley bus company that ultimately spun off into a pearling business on the protected tidal estuary at Willie Creek, a 38km drive from Broome. Sadly, it did not come without tragedy.

Lord McAlpine, who was said to have spent $500 million to enhance Broome with projects including the famed Cable Beach Club Resort, died peacefully aged 71 in 2014 at his Italian home. But the sudden heart attack death of Mr Banfield in 1991, while driving a bus load of Aboriginal children and nuns 40km west from Fitzroy Crossing, stopped his family in their tracks.

There had been no prior health warnings and he was just 51. It was only 10 years ago that one of the nuns from the bus that day emerged to tell the family the story of what actually happened.

“It was just such a shock and we’d never followed it up much because no one really wanted to talk about it,” Robert Banfield said. “Apparently, he had started feeling pains while he was changing a tyre. But he continued driving while the heart attack continued, then he pulled over and laid down in the middle of the bus.”

The family had only just bought out Mr McAlpine’s silent 50 per cent share of the bus business and were suddenly cast into expanding a growing business at a time of acute grief and high interest rates.

But the Banfields had already learnt a bit about business resilience when a 1989 pilot strike threatened to bury them just three weeks after starting their bus association with Lord McAlpine.

“I was in way over my head, mate,” Mr Banfield, who was just 22 at the time, said. “I muddled through it as best I could, but I came this close to breaking. When the pilot strike came, I literally sat down and said, ‘Thank f... for that’ because everything just stopped.

“I was cooked and in the end, we took a breath and the pilot strike was probably the making of our business.”

As had been, in many ways, the relationship between his father and the eccentric Lord McAlpine.

“They struck up a friendship and every time the lord came in, dad would be the one who would pick him up from the airport,” he said. “They were obviously poles apart, but it was probably what attracted them to each other. Dad was fascinated by the English lord and the money he had and the lord was fascinated by an Aussie bush character, a true-blue Australian farmer.

“Dad called a spade a spade and I doubt McAlpine would have heard that many times. It was a meeting in the middle for two ends and if McAlpine wanted something, dad would make it happen.”

Robert Banfield was born in Narrogin, but grew up on the family’s Tincurrin wheat and sheep farm nearly 60km to the east. He said it was there in a true farming community that he learnt important lessons for life and the value of family.

“Idyllic, I guess, would be a word you could use and since we didn’t know anything else, it was ideal to us,” he said. “But it was hard work with jobs to do and we were expected to do them. From the time we could reach the pedals on the tractors, we were expected to drive them.”

That ethic now rings through the Willie Creek Pearls operation the family acquired in 1994 after taking tours out to the spectacular location for the previous owners for several years. But Mr Banfield admitted he wondered whether it would be enough when the coronavirus hit last March.

The business had to close its seven stores for several months, its 2019 crop was not selling in a marketplace that had effectively shut down and 30,000 oysters at the farm still required care.

So his mother Valda, the daughter of late WA speedway star Wally Higgs and once voted Floreat Surf Life Saving Club’s “Miss Gidget”, jumped into work with Mr Banfield’s siblings Darren and Melissa as he relocated from Perth to Broome for a more hands-on role.

Robert’s son Bailey offered his life savings into the financial mix and engaged in media promotions, his brother Harrison took charge of the family’s city home base and sister McKenzie cancelled her gap year from university to work with the marketing team. Nephews Darcy and Hayden and niece Lili also joined to help.

The timely sale of a stunning $90,000 pearl string in June, soon after WA’s regional borders reopened in June, then rekindled hope. And it was clear the support offered by Robert’s wife Debbie was as uncompromising as it was timely.

When he had suggested they sell their family home to pay off mounting bills, she instead also headed to the Kimberley operation to get to work.

“She rolled her sleeves up, just fantastic,” he said, tears welling from memories of the pressure. “We all jumped in and got the job done.”

He also said he would never forget the support of WA tourists who wandered out yonder to support local businesses in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Some even returned to the creek to sprinkle the ashes of late loved ones who had cherished the surrounds in past visits.

“As soon as the borders opened, they came — voraciously, in good numbers and in good cheer,” he said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here because we literally got down to pretty close to the last dollar. I call them our West Australian cousins because that’s what they felt like.”

Modern pearling in Broome has a vastly different nature compared with the dark old days of blackbirding, secrecy and slavery. Robert revealed Willie Creek Pearls was even exploring the viability of an edible oysters branch to the business. He also believed rival pearling companies could benefit from a more united front for their industry while maintaining competitiveness.

“Every day in pearling is an adventure . . . it’s not for the faint-hearted,” he said.

“Mother Nature dictates the terms and you live around what she produces. No two days are the same and when the magic happens during harvest, it’s an amazing industry to be involved in.”


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