City of Kingston Historical Website logo

Home | Articles | Did You Know?

Nylex and Mentone

Click on thumbnail image to link to larger image

Nylex Delivery and Employee Entrance Gate on Nepean Highway, 2006. Photographer Joe Astbury.

Moulded Products came to Mentone in 1944 but the company’s history goes back much further in time and is connected to the business acumen of John W Derham. In 1944 the company took possession of 18 acres of land on Point Nepean Road, previously owned by the Brigidine Order and in 1952 it purchased a further 17 acres. It was there they built a factory to produce a large variety of plastic products for use both in the home and in industry. Moulded Products became a major employer in the district. The growth of the company while not spectacular was steady and carefully planned over many years. Recently the company was finding increasingly difficult to compete with cheap imports and decide to close its operation at Mentone, over 60 years after first being established there. [1]

In mid-July 1904 members of the Irish Brigidine Order arrived in Mentone to establish a convent and school in the former Coffee Palace. It was the next month, on August 7, 1904, that Archbishop Thomas Carr travelled to Mentone by train to officially bless and declare open the new venture. In May the following year Mother Benedict Moore arrived to take up the position of Superior and one of her first decisions was to purchase a farm of 35 acres 2 roods and 14 perches on Point Nepean Road for £850. It was named St Benedict’s Farm. [2] Two young men were enlisted to develop and manage the property which produced milk, cream, vegetables and eggs. Edward Naughton had been managing his own farm and Festy Coyne had been a driver on the horse drawn Sandringham to Cheltenham tram. Together they provided the sisters and boarders at the school with fresh produce on a daily basis for almost fifty years. In July 1944 they gained some respite from the burden of running the farm when the sisters sold eighteen acres of the land on Point Nepean Road to Moulded Products Australia Limited so that an extension to the college could be financed. The remaining 17 acres were sold to the same company in 1952. Edward and Festy both died in 1963 and were buried in the Pioneer Cemetery at Cheltenham. Until that time they remained, by agreement between Nylex and the Brigidines, at the farmhouse.

Click on thumbnail image to link to larger image

Aerial view of the Nylex factory with the original farm residence in the foreground, c1985.

The origin of Moulded Products goes back to the 1920s when John Derham, with some technical assistance, set up a company to make the plastic components that were previously imported from overseas to construct radios receivers. The company, the Australian Moulding Corporation, was established in North Melbourne in 1927. Over the next few years the range of plastic products increased, new types of plastic material were introduced and bright colours became standard. It was in 1930 the ‘Harlequin’ plastic tableware was launched.

In the early thirties with the onset of the Great Depression many companies found themselves struggling to survive. One solution was to yield to the pressures of the time and enter into bankruptcy procedures, another was to manufacture new marketable products and a third was to seek strength in amalgamation. The Australian Moulding Corporation adopted the third option when it amalgamated with Moulded Products Pty Ltd a company that had a factory in North Fitzroy where it had been in the business of manufacturing compounds for gramophone records. In 1931 Moulded Products ceased production of compound and began manufacturing bottle caps replacing the cork stopper that had been used for generations. John Derham sold his company to Moulded Products and became a minority shareholder in the combined company of Moulded Products (Australasia) Pty Ltd. Later, in 1934, the Dunlop Perdriau Company who had entered the field of plastics to combat the anticipated competition with hard rubber decided to invest further in the plastics industry and acquired a controlling interest in Moulded Products. Dunlop held this interest until 1937 when they resolved to concentrate on rubber products allowing John Derham and friends to seize the opportunity to buy the Dunlop interest for £50,000.

John Derham as General Manager, while travelling overseas accumulating new knowledge, became convinced of the potential of the new thermoplastics, the polyvinyls and the polystyrenes. However, the Second World War intervened requiring the company to concentrate solely on defence work manufacturing such things as laminated plastic sheets, army crash helmets, and jungle telephone wires. But during this time the company experimented with plastics and developed valuable technical expertise that was to prove significant in the company’s post war success and expansion into the thermoplastics.

At the end of the war Moulded Products constructed a new factory at Mentone with further expansions in the 1950s to manufacture a new range of plastic goods. Initially garden hose and cables were produced at Mentone with calendered film being produced from 1948. In 1966 the company name was changed to Nylex Pty Ltd because, as the chairman explained, a considerable amount of money was being spent promoting two names, Moulded Products and Nylex. As Moulded Products, the company was supplying components of high quality to manufacturers and government departments. Many of these customers were unaware that Nylex products in stores were made by the same company. Conversely many people who bought Nylex consumer goods did not know that Moulded Products made them. Even the name Moulded Products was no longer accurate as few of the company’s products were made using the process called compression moulding. [3] Over the next few years a number of joint venture companies were formed including Armstrong Nylex Pty. Ltd., ACI-Nylex Pty Ltd and Olex Cables Ltd. Later some of these holdings were surrendered. The fifty percent share in ACI-Nylex was released and its share in Olex was sold to Dunlop.

By the 1970s the Mentone plant was employing over a thousand workers, a large number of whom were local residents. Michael Klaproth joined the company as financial accountant from Broken Hill Pty Ltd in January 1976, a period he described as “the good old days”. At the time there was a small accounting department that used ledger machines but had access to a computer main frame from the 1980s. In comparison with today’s accountancy operations it was “absolutely in the dark ages”. The computer operated on the batch mode. Information was key punched onto cards which were fed into the computer main frame and processed over-night with the results being provided the next day. It was in the late 1990s that the company adopted a German integrated software package known as SAP that handled distribution, sales, manufacturing, financial management and specialised programs. Today, Michael said, the computer sitting on his desk through which he accesses SAP is about five times more powerful than the main frame that occupied more than thirty square feet.[4]

Click on thumbnail image to link to larger image

Erecting the electric clock sign at Nylex, 1967. Courtesy Nylex.

Philip Kelly joined the company in 1969 as a fifteen year old. This was unusual as the company normally only employed people eighteen years or older. Philip explained that Jack Spooner, the company secretary, as his family’s Legacy man intervened successfully on his behalf to have him placed in the raw materials store as a store boy. His job was to move the materials to the calenders on a pallet truck or hand trolley. He described it as ‘real hard yakka’. Later the company gave him an apprenticeship as a printer which required him to attend night school at Richmond Technical School. At the time Nylex produced all its printing needs but subsequently closed the department and out sourced the work to other companies. This resulted in Phillip taking up other tasks in the company including colour matcher for eight or nine years, working in the laboratory, supervising the night shift and acting as a quality inspector. [5]

Both Michael and Philip agreed that the Nylex had always been a good company to work for with many individuals being long time employees; although they acknowledged companies today are entirely different from when they joined the workforce. Michael suggested there was more care and concern for employees back then. “As part of our conditions of employment we were provided with a free lunch in the canteen where there was a choice of a hot meal or sandwiches or whatever you wanted. Our telephone rental was paid at that stage. I immediately joined superannuation back then in a defined benefit fund. When I had been there about eight years they offered a salary increase or a car. I opted for a car. There had been a number of retrenchments in the sales area and they had all these four cylinder Toranas which they didn’t know what to do with so they offered them to the accounts people. The provision of a car then became part of our package.” Michael recalled there was a very active social group that organised dinner dances and theatre nights but gradually it died through lack of interest. Within the accounting area there was a cricket team called the Kittens which used to play teams from various other Nylex sites, the major one being at Frankston. “It was an annual grudge match and very enjoyable. It was a very social game but always played very seriously.”

Philip said for him the company was a home away from home because you spent most of your life there with management wanting you to work seven days a week. On pay day workers received their wages in cash in an envelope but were able to deposit money into their bank accounts because Nylex had arranged for a local bank to be present. It was at this time that workers could purchase shares in the company through the scheme the company had initiated. Like Michael, Philip recalled the social activities associated with the company. He specifically mentioned the Nylex Ball held at the St Kilda Town Hall where the senior staff had “a roped off section.” The senior staff were those employees who received a salary, in contrast to the workers who received a weekly wage. Philip also mentioned the Miss Nylex Pageant, the golf tournaments and the racing yacht Miss Nylex whose achievements they watched with interest. The Christmas party organised each year by the Social Club was a special and important occasion. During the year members of the club contributed twenty or fifty cents to the Christmas fund which was then used to buy a present for each child and provide for food and entertainment. Kegs of beer would be obtained from the Royal Oak Hotel and senior management would serve all the workers in a specially erected marquee. On that day, Philip said, there was no distinction between top management and workers.

Not all local residents welcomed the presence of Nylex in Mentone. Philip recalled some of Nylex’s neighbours complained about the pollution the factory was creating. He suggested the fumes emanating from the chimneys that one lady complained about were in fact steam from the boilers and the offensive smell was not of Nylex’s making but rather a factory further up Nepean Highway. Nevertheless, when in 1984 the Environment Protection Authority granted a preliminary discharge licence to Nylex the Mordialloc-Moorabbin Clean Air Group protested loudly. The Group objected to the granting of a preliminary discharge licence to Nylex by the Environment Protection Authority. A spokesperson from the Clean Air Group said that a cancer-causing chemical was being emitted from the factory and it was the intention of her group to stop this. While a spokesman from Nylex acknowledged that there was an emission of the chemical, he pointed out that it was in very small quantities and not enough to cause harm. However, this situation was unsatisfactory to the Clean Air Group who wanted no discharge whatsoever. They saw even the smallest emission as detrimental to the health of the people of Moorabbin and Mordialloc. [6]

Click on thumbnail image to link to larger image

Group of neighbouring residents who objected to Nylex factory ‘smells’. Courtesy Leader Collection.

A total of forty appeals had been lodged with the Planning Appeals Board but in March 1985 the board was informed the noxious odour problems had been overcome. The Nylex Corporation had agreed to install a natural gas after-burner to destroy residue from the manufacturing process. In addition the plant had been extensively modified and stringent controls enforced to eliminate problems. Representatives of both Moorabbin and Mordialloc councils indicated that they were satisfied with improvements at the plant and conditions imposed on the licence to overcome problems in the future. The Environment Protection Authority believed the conditions contained in the discharge licence were adequate to protect the air environment in the company’s neighbourhood. The licence restricted odorous emissions and all discharges permitted were consistent with the State Environment Protection Policy and the Environment Protection Act. [7]

Recently Nylex has faced serious competition from overseas manufacturers and workers at Mentone were aware that some drastic measures would be required if the company was to be a profitable concern. Compounding the problem was the fact that some of the machinery was thirty-plus years old and made to last, but technology had passed it by. Over the last five years Nylex had failed to make a cent from more than $4 billion of sales. [8] The share price had fallen, reducing the value of the whole company to $53 million where it was once close to $1 billion. Peter George, Chairman of the Board, saw the failure of the company to invest in innovation and to keep pace with consumer tastes as the core of its problems. Nevertheless, Nylex had a name for producing high quality products and was one of the best known brands in the country. These were seen as its strengths. George saw the need to compress the company’s business into three divisions, based on who buys the product – water based products, lifestyle products and products sold to car companies. The aim he said was to focus on what consumers want and to strip out costs. [9]

Click on thumbnail image to link to larger image

Machinery at Nylex Mentone, 2006.

Over the last few years the number of workers at Mentone has been reduced. In 2003 there were 350 members of the National Union of Workers employed on the Mentone site but in February 2006 Nylex announced that the remaining 120 workers would be retrenched. Production previously undertaken at Mentone was to move off-shore thereby saving the company about $5 million a year. [10] A number of Nylex’s valuable patents were licensed to overseas companies. A finishing plant at Sale was to continue to operate but the company planned to source its products mainly from Malaysia, China, Taiwan and France. As part of this relocation the desirable Mentone 11.45 ha site was sold in 2003 to Pivot Group and Calardu Mentone who made an application to the State Planning Minister, Rob Hulls to rezone the land as part residential and part industrial to allow new uses of the land. [11] Consequently, the company that had been an important part of Mentone industrial scene for over sixty years, providing employment and training for many, was to go, a sad occasion for many.

Click on thumbnail image to link to larger image

The Wrecking of the Nylex Factory at Mentone Begins, 2006. Photographer Joe Astbury.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. Underwood, Margaret, A View from the Tower: Kilbreda 1904-2004, 2004.
  2. Underwood, Margaret, ibid, page 12.
  3. MP Contact, December, 1966.
  4. Whitehead, G J, Interview with Michael Klaproth, 2006.
  5. Whitehead, G J, Interview with Philip Kelly, 2006.
  6. Mordialloc-Chelsea News, February 1, 1984, Page1.
  7. Moorabbin Standard News, March 20, 1985.
  8. Sunday Age, June 25, 2006.
  9. Sunday Age, ibid.
  10. Sunday Age, ibid.
  11. Moorabbin Leader, March 22, 2006.

Article Cat. Did You Know?
Article Ref. 384

City of Kingston logo

Copyright © 1998-2007 City of Kingston Historical Website
Information about reproducing articles and/or images is available on our copyright page.

Home | Contact Us | Privacy | Copyright | Search | Help