George Lewin, the ’99 – ’15 years – the whole enchilada
George was quite inspired by the feedback from his first installment, so has gone the whole hog and finished off the story, at least so far! There is more to the story as you’ll see in the PS at the end, and I’d encourage the feedback because these stories would also be very interesting to read.
I’ve repeated the initial installment here so this is the complete text, so for those who have read that portion, you can skip ahead. From my perspective, there is definitely a book in this story – the whole Triton story from inception, to the heights of the Triton years, and the current story – both where Triton is, and the direction George has gone.
Greetings fellow Triton-lovers (and anyone else who happens to read this)
This is being written from Phuket Island, on the south-west coast of Thailand, where I’ve been living for almost two years.
Stuart kindly invited me to write a sort of blog to bring you up to date on what’s happened in my life in the sixteen years (Cripes! Is it that long????) since I sold Triton. So here goes….
Up until the mid-90’s, the thought of selling Triton had never entered my mind. Triton had been my life’s work, my magnum opus.
It had been nurtured from an idea that took root in my head one fine day when I was a 25 year-old TV journalist for ABC-TV News, struggling build a dining table. With incredible twists and turns and with the help of some wonderful people, that idea grew into a multi-award winning business that ended up employing hundreds of people, and which sold about $300 million worth of products around the world over the ensuing 25 years.
A common utterance was that selling Triton would be like cutting off my right arm. It was my “baby” and arguably my obsession, and I loved it. People used to call me Mr. Triton. They said I was married to the company, and shared my bed with a saw bench. (Not true.)
However on flying back to Oz in early 1995 after marathon negotiations over the previous 18 months with Black & Decker (Europe), a pensive mood kicked in.
In London, we had just signed the Heads of Agreement of a huge deal. B&D wanted to take Triton Superjaws as an Elu product, and they also wanted the Workcentre range to market throughout Europe.
Elu was considered the “Rolls-Royce” of power tools at the time, and B&D wanted to lift their brand image in Europe, so had bought them out. (Shades of GMC/Triton, but more on that later.)
This was the biggest deal I was ever likely to make…$35m worth of product to be supplied over the first five years of the contracts, possible global manufacture under license after five years, and all with the imprimatur of one of the world’s best power tool brands.
So why wasn’t I jumping out of my skin with excitement? The answer soon dawned on me. There was not much to aspire to any more. The monicker people had given me – Mr. Triton – had become my reality and George Lewin had sort of disappeared through the cracks. Fame and fortune tasted fine, but they still didn’t fill the void inside.
(True Confessions time. Despite several fine relationships over the years, I’ve always yearned to meet the real Love of my Life…the sort of woman who can give her total love and receive mine…truly, madly and deeply. And, so the fantasy goes. When we finally meet we’l both know it. Neither of us will blow it, and we’ll live together happily ever after. The End. Sigh.)
By the time we were landing at Tulla, the conviction had gelled that I’d invented enough machines – it was time to re-invent myself, and make room for Her.
GETTING READY TO SELL
The first step was to tackle my chronic workaholism. A wonderful mentor by the name of John Cameron, former CEO of Ajax Nettlefolds, offered to help me re-structure some of the systems and the the key managerial roles in Triton, which at that stage directly employed about 120 people, plus many part-timers such as in-store demonstrators, sales agents and merchandisers.
There were six line managers, all very good hand-picked people, but I had largely been disempowering them – unconsciously and unwittingly – with my ‘uber-hands-on’ style. No-one ever did a final draft or version of anything, knowing the boss would pick it to pieces trying to improve it.
With John’s help, the managers started becoming much more independent and effective, and I was able to start extricating myself from the day-to-day running of the business. All departments heard less and less from me, apart from R&D which was always my first love.
Hating Melbourne’s winters, it was time to plan a geographic move…and it had to be far enough away from the factories so that there wouldn’t be a temptation to ride in on my white charger at every sign of trouble – as had been the case for so long.
Bought a lovely house at Montecollum, near Byron Bay in northern New South Wales in 1995, and started creating a new life for myself. Having been so intimately involved in every detail of the business for so long, the transition was best done gradually, both for my sake and for the company.
It took all of five years to complete that process, commuting between Tulla and the Gold Coast every couple of weeks initially and gradually increasing the frequency and duration of my trips north.
By the late 90’s, my managers were managing beautifully, ambitious targets were being met, the Series 2000 Workcentre had been bedded down and was selling well, and our first few container-loads of power saws and routers had arrived from Taiwan. They were being snapped up in the stores, and getting rave reviews from delighted customers.
We were heading for our first $20m sales year, and I was finally emotionally and professionally ready to sell.
The decision to actually put Triton on the market was prompted by an approach from (you won’t believe this) GMC, the humbly named Global Machinery Corporation. But after a couple of meeting with the two principals, who offered me ludicrously large amounts of money, I concluded that my “baby” was not for sale to them.
In my view, their values sucked. They were just box movers, with no passion for woodwork, just for money. They wanted to improve their brand image by buying a much-loved and respected brand. Nope! Not for sale to GMC, at any price.
But their approach prompted me to search out a business broker, and he got to work on a short-list of possible candidates. Hills Industries from South Australia – who had supplied Triton with millions of dollars worth of steel tubing over the previous 15 years – were up near the top of the list.
The broker went to Adelaide and started doing his elaborate routine of describing the company to them in very broad terms, without naming it, to see if they were interested in signing non-disclosure agreements to find out more. They asked “It’s not Triton, is it?” As it turned out, Hills were on a pretty ambitious expansion-by-acquisition program, and fortuitously, Triton was up near the top of their list!
Before long, I’d had meetings with all their top executives, and the fit seemed good. Both were successful Aussie companies, both were founded on backyard innovations, both had similar technological capabilities, we espoused similar values, and most of all, Hills at the time had an MD who read me like a book.
David Simmonds said at our second or third meeting. “George, I think I know what’s troubling you about this prospective sale. Let me assure you that Hills have acquired 26 companies over the last few decades. Some were dogs, and still are. Others were dogs and we’ve turned them around. Others were good companies and we brought them down. Some were good, and now are even better. What we’ve learnt from all of this is that ‘If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it.'”
“I can assure you, that if this sale goes ahead, we won’t turn up on a Monday morning and start firing your people and telling you how to run the company. We’ll take our size 14 boots off at the door, and respectfully ask you to show us how you do things so well.”
I could have kissed him. (Erk!) But he had nailed the main issue that was troubling me. After a lot of tough negotiations, mostly handled expertly by my co-Director Peter Szanto (also my best friend since schooldays, my life-long lawyer and minority Triton shareholder) we finally signed about a thousand documents in September 1999, and our baby was sold – lock, stock and barrel.
To help keep them honest, the contract of sale prevented Hills from firing any of the staff for at least 12 months, and committed them to long-term leases on the two factories in Moorabbin and Cheltenham.
While it was important to retain ‘the team’ – who were sort of like my family – and to keep the manufacturing in Australia, I didn’t want to retain any share ownership of the business – knowing that we would probably disagree on almost everything. I also didn’t want a general consultancy role, but agreed to an ongoing role in R&D, which was never really taken up.
Sadly, despite Hills’ many efforts, the business went downhill pretty much from the time they bought it, and an ex-employee told me that only about 70 of the former excellent staff were left after about two years. The best ones were probably the first to leave.
And my baby was hardly thriving…in fact, it had started losing money and market share, a process that continued until Hills finally decided to offload it to GMC around 2007, who were still trying to improve their reputation by buying Triton. Sheesh!
The direction Triton was heading after the sale was deeply troubling, but I was too busy with the Triton Foundation to pay all that much attention.
Editor’s note: It is now history, but even GMC didn’t survive, and almost took Triton down with it. I was demonstrating Triton the night that GMC folded, which was a bitter-sweet experience.
THE TRITON FOUNDATION
The Triton Foundation was something I dreamed up and researched during the five year period of commuting between the factory and my new home in Montecollum, as we weaned ourselves off each other.
There was plenty of time to contemplate life beyond Triton on my daily walks through the beautiful hills around my home. When the sale went through, I’d have a lot of cash, and would still only be 50 and in great health. Hmmm. What to do?
Slowly a picture built of what could be done to help other inventors overcome and survive the many hurdles and roadblocks I encountered, especially in the first 10 years or so. The concept of the Triton Foundation was born.
The Foundation was to be a national not-for-profit organisation that would recruit, screen and mentor selected inventors, and get them ready with patent protection, prototypes, testing and approvals, capital raising and business structures. When they were deemed ready, their inventions would be presented, in depth, on a national TV show.
The TV show – The Clever Country- was to be highly interactive, and have means via SMS, telephone polling, and website forms for viewers to pass on their comments, preferences and suggestions. And to register their contact details to obtain the featured product when it becomes available. There would also be options for investors, manufacturers, or fellow-inventors to make contact.
The judges were to be highly intelligent, experienced people from the inventions field, and they would have had the product on test before the show, and so could make meaningful comments to the inventors. The program would be like a brainier version of the original ‘The Inventors’ which ran between 1970 and 1982 on ABC-TV.
The Clever Country TV series would be watched avidly by many Australians, who would learn, through the judges’ insightful comments, a lot about the issues that needed to be addressed in bringing a good idea successfully to market. The inventions themselves would have the best possible chance of success, due to the mentoring of the Foundation and due to the publicity it generated.
[It was the original ‘The Inventors’ that propelled Triton into the market place in July 1976 while I was still working as a journalist.
For those who don’t know that story, I’d been unable to interest any companies in the hardware or power tool field in buying my patent, and started making that first trial batch of 100 workbenches on my lounge room carpet, more in hope and desperation than with any real confidence. The all-important question of how, or indeed whether, I could sell them hadn’t been seriously addressed.
But that five minutes of national TV exposure changed everything. It catapulted Triton into existence. My phone suddenly began ringing its head off, and I had over 1,000 machines on order the day after the show. Retailers and end-users nationwide were clamouring for them.
Cheques poured in from hundreds of consumers who sent in the amount I had mooted on the TV show.
Appearing on the Grand Final ‘Invention of the Year’ in November 1976, was the icing on the cake. The order book was full for the first five years!
My only problem was how to make them well enough, and quickly enough. I quit journalism that day, and because I still didn’t have the confidence to rent a factory, decided to keep working from home. Over the next 9 months or so Triton parts, manufacturing jigs and equipment completely took over every room of my suburban house, garage, back shed and even the huge rumpus room I urgently had built onto the back of the house. The constant noise (often going all night) and semi-trailers squeezing down our narrow dead-end street caused great chagrin to my neighbours. They breathed great sighs of relief when I finally moved the business into a proper factory.
If you’re interested in the amazing twists and turns of that period, please respond to the PS at the end of this blog.]
The Triton Foundation was launched at the National Innovation Summit in February 2000, in front of 600 of Australia’s innovation “cream”. Even though – with lots of hard lobbying – I’d only managed to get a 3 minute speaking berth at one of the ‘break-out’ sessions later in the summit, I cheekily grabbed the microphone at the end of question time in the opening plenary session.
Explaining that I didn’t have a question as such, but rather a proposal to put to the Summit, I managed to deliver an 8 or 9 minute pitch to a hushed audience, who rose to their feet at the end of it, wildly applauding. They especially loved that I was the only program proponent there who was not asking for Government money, but was prepared to fund it all himself.
The concept grabbed lots of headlines and TV and radio appearances. The Minister for Industry, Science and Resources hastily had his lunch-time speech re-written to accommodate my vision, and every break over the three days of the Summit saw dozens of delegates queuing up to talk to me. I ended up with a stack of business cards a mile high from highly-credentialed people who wanted to be on the Board.
I could write a book about what happened next, and perhaps will one day, but suffice it to say, it almost killed me.
After two years as Chairman (and default CEO for most of that time). a good friend – who was also my GP at the time – decided I looked crook and needed a check-up. He almost dropped his stethoscope when checking my blood pressure: it was a catastrophic 235/120.
He said I was a stroke waiting to happen, a ‘dead man walking’, and threatened to call an ambulance to take me to hospital immediately if I didn’t pick up his phone right then and there, resign from the Foundation, and then go away for a long, long medical convalescence.
Dealing with politicians, bureaucrats, academics and worst of all, television network executives, had done my head in. Thousands of inventors had registered with us after the huge post-Summit publicity, and were all clamouring for help, so the pressure was on.
The thirteen very prominent people who joined me on the inaugural Board were mostly fine people, but extremely busy with their various careers and projects, so almost all of the work fell to me. As well as dealing with the TV networks, I did all the front of house as well, and delivered 51 speeches during 2000, criss-crossing the country every few day. It also fell to me to design all the systems for inventor registration, assessment and assistance. My workaholism was back, with a vengeance!
I could possibly have withstood it, but for the TV executives who drove me mad. They were so obsessed with the so called ‘reality TV’ shows like, Survivor, Big Brother, The Weakest Link etc that they couldn’t get their heads around a real reality TV show. They constantly looked for ways to turn it into a a ‘Game Show’, with winners and losers and the humiliation of the losers.
After more than two years of dealing with these wretched creatures, the best I could salvage was the concept of ‘The New Inventors’ which came onto the ABC in 2003, with the help of the Triton Foundation. It survived on air until 2008. It was a pale copy of the original ‘The Inventors’ but at least gave hundreds of Aussie inventors some precious airtime,
It was about this time (2008) that the Triton Foundation also came to an end, after the Victorian and Queensland Government funding that we’d organised ran out. My personal funding of it had come to an end years earlier, after my doctor’s ultimatum to quit and go away for a long break.
And while it didn’t make Australia ‘The Clever Country’ per se it did register and assist more than four thousand inventors and helped many with commercialising their ideas.
LIMPING BACK TO HAPPINESS
But back to 2003…The convalescence overseas lasted about five months. Returned to Australia early that year, feeling pretty broken and alone. Not surprisingly, I was missing my baby, which had created most of my self-esteem during that incredible 25 years of ownership.
It was also depressing me that the Triton Foundation was going pear-shaped under its visionless new management. Every time The New Inventors came on, I forced myself to watch it, but almost puked at the inanity of it all.
My GP friend prescribed anti-depressants, and luckily they worked and ended up being discontinued in less than six months.
Slowly, slowly, my joie d’ vivre began returning. Still having far too much money for my own good, I set up the George Lewin Foundation to act as a philanthropic vehicle.
I didn’t want to burn out again with another worthwhile project of my own, and preferred to give money to worthwhile organisations of my choosing. To this day, the GLF supports up to sixty different charities and causes in Australia and overseas.
Also in 2004, I was lucky enough to land a spot in the famous woodworking masterclasses conducted by Geoff Hannah, a Living National Treasure who lives in nearby Lismore and who teaches advanced woodwork three days a week. What a pleasure to sit at the feet of a Master, and learn. And there was a lot to learn. My woodworking skills were sadly deficient, considering I’d made my fortune inventing and then manufacturing and marketing woodwork machines.
[For those who don’t know the full story, I started mucking around with the idea of a saw bench in 1975 while struggling to build a dining room table. It was my first-ever woodwork project since school days. The next-door neighbour, who’d promised me the use of his big old cast iron saw bench and his radial arm saw, had abruptly moved out, leaving me without any machinery to do the job properly.
In developing my first prototype saw bench to harness the 9 1/4″ power saw I’d bought, my attention drifted from the dining table to the saw bench. And stayed there. And grew into my obsession. In the ensuing 25 years, I hardly built anything significant, beyond making thousands of sample cuts and joints while demonstrating the machines in hardware stores everywhere.]
Now, at last, I had the time, money and opportunity to develop some real woodworking skills, and under Geoff’s tutelage, built some (ahem) very impressive pieces over the next 9 years. Geoff taught me marquetry as well. He’s a legend in that art – arguably the best in Australia. (Google Geoff Hannah, and check out The Hannah Cabinet….an amazing item which he started in 2002, and which I watched being built between 2004 and completion in 2008.)
In 2007, I dodged a huge bullet. About one third of my wealth was tied up in the stock market, and I had had huge butterflies in my gut for some months about the way the market kept going up and up…knowing it would someday reverse direction.
Watching TV one night, Four Corners devoted the program to the impending US sub-prime mortgage crisis, and I watched intently. Next morning, I rang the stockbroker and said “Sell everything”. He was dumbfounded and argued with me saying “Ahhhh. That’s only gonna affect America. It won’t happen here. Do you realise how much money you’re making?”
“I don’t care”, I replied. “Sell everything.”
And so he did, emailing me three days later that I no longer owned any shares. The ASX index was around 6,700. Three days later, the market dropped precipitously, and kept dropping as the GFC hit, ending up around 4,200. Everyone thought I was a financial genius to get out when I did. (Nah. Just an avid TV watcher. I still can’t read a Balance Sheet properly.)
Editor’s note – here is the Sydney Morning Herald article on George Lewin, and his GFC dodging insight.
Also in 2007 the travel bug got me again, and so went travelling. While in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, I met a lovely woman and we ended up having almost six very happy years together, living in Chiang Mai and at my home in Australia, and travelling quite a bit as well to New Zealand, India, Cambodia and Europe. Sadly, the relationship reached a logical conclusion in 2012, and we ended it, but have remained friends for life.
2013 was a fairly bleak year personally, with several friends deeply disappointing me in different ways. And then in September of that year, Toady Rabid became the Prime Minister, and as a dyed-in-the-wool Leftie, I was appalled at the landslide victory Australians gave him.
Deciding to bugger off again, headed back to Thailand because that was the last country in which I’d experienced happiness, and it was the foreign country I knew better than any other, having visited here many times. And I much prefer Asian women and Asian food to our home-grown variety.
STARTING AGAIN IN THAILAND
Not wanting to get under the feet of my ex in Chiang Mai, I headed for the South of the country, and ended up in Phuket, famous for its superb beaches. Big mistake. While the beaches are indeed lovely, Phuket is a shallow, highly materialistic and relatively very corrupt part of Thailand.
A lot of the Buddhistic values that originally attracted me to this country have been eroded over the years, doubtless because of the corrupting influence of lots of us foreigners flooding here in search of cheap, and not so cheap, thrills.
But being a new kid in town, I didn’t realise these problems until later. In the meantime, under the influence of my first friend here – a young tyro of a real estate agent from South Africa – I signed up to buy a villa, off the plan, in Kamala Beach. So effective was he as an agent, that he persuaded me to order two villas in the same project, to get a even better deal, saying “You’ll be able to sell the investment villa for a nice profit even before it’s built.”
Wrong. The market began nose-diving as soon as my signatures were on the contracts, and has continued heading south ever since, worsening now as thousands of new villas come onto the market. My villas took 21 months to complete. They were supposed to be finished in 6 months. The construction was a nightmarish exercise, with constant acrimony between myself and the Developer, and to a lesser extent with the contractors.
The only redeeming facet of this ill-fated real estate misadventure is that I have a lovely 8m x 6m sound-proofed workshop in the villa that I’m living in with my Thai girlfriend, and spend much of my time designing and building one-off pieces of furniture.
The main material I use here is delightful Teak, some of it re-cycled. It’s a wonderful, weather-proof, termite-proof, highly stable material that polishes to a beautiful lustre…but unfortunately all the mature trees in Thailand and Burma have been logged. Teak is now an incredibly controlled resource and huge penalties exist for selling and even transporting it.
For some bewildering reason, known only to the bewildering Thai authorities, they allow limited sale of thin and narrow profiles – even if they come from mature trees.
So I have to buy my teak as 2.5m lengths of 100×12 or 100x8mm (4″x 1/2″ and 4″x 5/16″) and have become quite adept at using it to build furniture that has a strength core of marine ply (or AA quality regular ply) but which is then fully enveloped in the thin Teak boards. Almost like applying veneer, except that it’s 8-12mm thick and adds great strength, rather than 0.6mm thick veneer, which is purely cosmetic.
If say 45×45 (2″x2″) wood is needed for table legs, I’ll make hollow legs, by ripping four strips of the 100×12 to the desired width, with 45 degree bevels on all long edge. Then with a lowered blade, I cut spline grooves along the bevels, and glue the four lengths together using the ply splines for location and tight rubber bands for applying uniform gluing force. They’re incredibly strong, light-weight, use less of the precious teak, and look and feel exactly like solid legs.
So I sort of puddle through my days now, and spend up to two hours a day staying fit – treadmill, stretches, and the 9-letter word puzzle in the Sydney Morning Herald to keep my brain juicy.
I give thanks for my workshop, my man-cave, and for the hours of joy – and frustration – it affords. Although it needs to be said that my girl is always welcome there. She is a dab hand in the workshop, always handing me exactly the right tool before I even know I need it, often coming up with ideas on how to do things better. And if I haven’t got a proper job for her, she cheerfully sweeps up the sawdust and shavings, and organises my tools.
She’s a highly skilled masseuse and gives me the most superb massages any time I like, and helps keep my increasingly creaky bod going. She’s also a fabulous cook, and in fact the smells of superb Thai cooking are starting to waft under me nose right now, so I’ll love you and leave you for now. Hopefully I’ll update this blog one day…in less than 16 years this time.
Cheers, and make sure you always work safely,
PS I briefly alluded above [the bits in square brackets] to some of the other periods of the first 25 years of Triton. And doing this blog – which I’ve enjoyed – has reminded me that I really should write up those years as well, because that story is inspirational and still informative and useful today to other start-ups. And also because if I don’t write it soon, there’s a danger it’ll turn to mush in me ‘ead.
So if you think that is a good idea – and could perhaps form the basis for a future book – then please let me know by posting a comment on Stu’s Shed as a way of encouraging me to do it.
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