Queensland Shopfitters History 1960-1970 Part 1

In 1960, Queen St Brisbane City was still the centre of Brisbane shopping, however following the opening of Chermside Drive-In Shopping Centre in 1957, the floodgates opened, with news of suburban Brisbane Shopping Centre openings and planning of others throughout the State.
This was the beginning of the end for the much-loved ‘corner store’.

With the opening of suburban shopping centres, more shopfitting companies were required and continued to start up, with tradesmen coming from carpentry and joinery or cabinetmaking backgrounds at that time. Unemployment was at 2.6% and in 1961, The Commonwealth Arbitration Commission granted three weeks of annual leave to all workers.
Apprenticeship training in the Queensland TAFE system for the shopfitting companies was based on either carpentry and joinery or cabinetmaking courses which remained in place until the 1990s, with the advent of industry required relevant training for the students.

In 1960 and with much fanfare, Myer Coorparoo Shopping Centre opened as the first suburban shopping centre on the south side of Brisbane. This suited local families, saving them from travelling to the city or Fortitude Valley by tram or having to find a carpark for their car to carry out their shopping. The centre had three levels of shops and carpark. Over time, the centre became run down and was finally closed in 2014, then demolished in 2015. It was replaced by the modern Coorparoo Square Development consisting of apartments, restaurants, retail, and a cinema.

At that stage, Myer had a large shopping centre in the western Darling Downs country city of Toowoomba on the drawing board, and it eventually opened in 1962. The successful centre went on to have further major expansions in 1996, 1999 and 2017.Also in 1960, a drive-in shopping centre named the Big Top Centre opened at Logan Road Mount Gravatt, the first of 4 drive-in centres to open in the Logan Rd Mt Gravatt areas in the years following. The fourth and largest being the first stage of Garden City Centre to open in 1970.

Around this time, the lifestyle of Queenslanders was changing forever, with the introduction of black and white television into their homes and the new craze of 10-pin bowling alleys from America arriving in Brisbane. The bowling alleys were and still are a source of fitout work for shopfitting companies and associated trades throughout the State. Chipboard/particle board was introduced to the shopfitting industry in 1960 and soon made a difference to the way items were set out, cut out and assembled, proving a game changer for the manufacturing processes. This enabled speedier and simpler production of all cupboards, counters etc with the introduction of beam saws, table saws and break down saws. Unfortunately, the bonding of worktops etc. was still a slow process with the use of casein glue, until years later when the use of contact adhesive with spreaders was introduced. Sprayable contact adhesive was still a fair way down the track.

Another addition to the way shopfitters operated in the early 1960s was the introduction of aluminium shopfront sections and aluminium partitioning suites. To become proficient in the use of these products, the shopfitters had to purchase machines to cut and drill the new materials. It didn’t take long for many shopfitters to add shopfront and partitioning works to their offerings, which many have retained until today. Specialised partitioning companies developed over the following years.

In 1960, a shopfitting company commenced trading on the Gold Coast, one that was to trade until 2001 and which along the way became an institution for local shopfitters seeking employment for the work they carried out. Harold Lowe was 21 years old when he started his company, he had carried out his apprenticeship training with Chicks Joinery at Surfers Paradise. The first Lowes Joinery factory built by Harold was at George St Surfers Paradise and as the business grew, a larger factory was established at Green Glen Rd Ashmore in 1979. After further growth he then built a ‘state of the art’ factory at Supply Court in Arundel, opening in 1989.

Many of the current shopfitting companies on the Gold Coast have owners who are proud to say they carried out their apprenticeship at ‘Lowes’. The successful business had approximately 50 employees at one stage, including seven estimators, an accountant, project managers, factory staff, and installers carrying out fitouts for many national brands throughout Australia and New Zealand.

Some of the Lowes Joinery many and varied clients were Strandbags Group, salons for Stefan across the country, Angus & Coote, Wallace Bishops, Hardy Brothers, Tom Browns Menswear Stores, Rothwells Menswear Stores, Katies, Arpel, Handbags International, Mathers, and Ken Done stores. The company’s last project was the Canberra Museum and Art gallery in the ACT. Harold’s legacy lives on with those who worked with him and were exposed to his special skills and knowledge of the shopfitting industry, knowing there will never be another like him.

Outside of his business, Harold competed in off-shore power boat racing, building some of his own boats such as ‘Lowes Ego’ and completed the Pacific 1000 from Cairns to Brisbane on more than one occasion. Between 1985 and 1995, Harold and crew were Australian Champions (class 2) seven times. He also loved driving and participated in the Porsche Targa in Tasmania and in his downtime was a prolific photographer.

Another character who was to open his factory business in 1960 was Robert Dunlop OAM. He was apprenticed at the age of 13 to Charles Kuffer, (a cabinetmaker from Switzerland) to a 5-year indenture at his Chester St Fortitude Valley factory. Apparently, he was a hard taskmaster but a young Robert was determined to learn some of his master’s varied skills. He stayed on for a further five years after the completion of his apprenticeship, before he had to go to war in New Guinea.

After the war, he worked for Kuffer for a few years before deciding to commence his own business for a time, from his home.
When commencing at his factory at Hayward St Stafford, he would carry out fitout works in retail/cafes and special furniture orders. As well as learning his cabinetmaking/shopfitting skills, he also learned woodcarving and fine timber skills, something he became renowned for worldwide. Robert carried on with a mixed order book into the 1980s with a crossover workload to pay the wages and he would take commission pieces to satisfy his master craftsman skills. In conjunction with a Danish designer, they produced a line of furniture from his Stafford factory, which sold into Denmark and the Middle East for many years. He made furniture for the High Court of Australia and a large amount of joinery for Australia’s new Parliament House in Canberra, including the Prime Minister’s suite as well as in other parliament houses around the world.

One commission he was particularly proud of was the Speaker’s Chair for the Isle of Mann Parliament.
As Robert’s factory was around the corner from mine, he would make some items for my business and we would help him out with things he didn’t want to get involved with. I always knew if I went around to his factory to discuss a small project I would be there for an hour or more, as he always had so many stories to tell. I knew also that I could drool over some special piece he was currently putting his heart and soul into, lying amongst the specialty timbers around the factory.  He continued working daily into his 80s, and his skills and knowledge were lost on his sad passing in 2014.

In 1966, another long-standing family shopfitting business, Kro Panels, was established in support of the parent company Krogh Constructions, situated at 17 Mackley Street Garbutt Townsville, in which Colin Krogh – as a builder – was the sole owner and sole director. Krogh Constructions was one of the largest privately-owned building companies in rural Queensland with a staff of around 100. At that time Kro Panels was involved in providing panels for demountable buildings to the mining community. However, the business soon also turned its hand to cabinetmaking to provide joinery to the building projects Krogh Constructions was involved in. Kro Panels then expanded its clientele and it was then decided that the business would move to a new site at 27 Mackley Street Garbutt.

It was in 1971 that Graham Jackson joined the Kro Panels team as a qualified cabinetmaker. Graham moved through the ranks to become a leading hand in the company. It was decided in 1982 that Krogh Constructions would close, as competition in this industry became harder due to the increasing number of southern entities entering the northern market, and Colin wanting to pursue other business interests. This would have meant that any business under the construction umbrella would also close. It was then that Graham approached Colin to keep the cabinetmaking division going. In doing so, Graham became a partner in Kro Panels, with Colin now becoming a silent partner.

Graham grew the company into a shopfitting business, taking over the internal fitout side of the business that Krogh Constructions had previously provided. The business was also granted its own builder’s licence at this time, with Colin being the nominee. Clients such as all the major financial institutions ANZ, NAB, Westpac and CBA were coming to Kro Panels for their fitout needs throughout North Queensland. Also, minor financial institutions such as Mt Isa Mines Credit Union (turning into Qld Country Credit Union which is now Qld Country Bank) were now also becoming clients of Kro Panels. Other projects during Graham’s tenure included exhibitory works at Longreach Stockman Hall of Fame, Richmond Air Show 88, Australian Pavilion Expo 88, Ford Pavilion Expo 88, Birch Carroll Coyle (Townsville, Darwin and Toombul Brisbane) and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Aquarium in Townsville.

Kro Panels provided major joinery works for hotel groups such as Sheraton Casino Townsville and RSL. The Education, Health & Defence Government sectors were also major clients. Fitouts for many clients in shopping centres was a major part of the company’s operation. During these periods Kro Panels consistently had 30 employees, ranging from labourers, apprentices, and trades people with various duties. All the apprentices participated in learning the skills of cabinetmaking, polishing, partitions, ceilings etc, which is knowledge that a shopfitter should obtain. During this time Graham had KroPanels become a member of ASOFIA and was involved with the Association as the North Queensland representative.

Paul Krogh (Colin’s son) became an apprentice in 1984, and Chris Jackson (Graham’s son) became an apprentice in 1986. Paul finished his apprenticeship and relocated to Brisbane in 1987. Chris remained in the company structure working his way to being a tradesman, then onto a site supervisor. Paul was approached by Kro Panels in 1994 to relocate back to Townsville and take up a position as an estimator, which he accepted. Paul tendered on a project in Cairns which was the refurbishment of a 10-storey hotel. Kro Panels won the tender in which Paul then moved to Cairns to become the site manager during the construction period. While there, other works were successfully won and completed as the major project progressed and finally finished. Chris remained in Townsville as one of the site supervisors.

In 1999 Graham decided to retire and this would mean the business would cease to operate. Paul and Chris decided to purchase the business from their fathers, with Paul becoming the nominee for licence purposes, and within three years they had also purchased the office and workshop buildings. Paul also took up the role of the NQ representative for ASOFIA until 2004.
From 1999 until 2009 the business operated in a similar fashion from the previous years, providing fitouts for national clients such as Pizza Capers (prior to being part of RFG) and Optus. This took the build sites to other areas such as ACT, Victoria, NSW and NT. Clients such as Cowboys Leagues Club & many other hotel groups kept a large amount of works local as well.
The GFC did not really affect the business too much, but Paul and Chris decided to take a different direction to accompany the type of works they were already involved with. This included providing Cat 1 works for shopping centres such as Stockland, Dexus and SCA (in North Queensland). This also incorporated general maintenance for the centres.

Due to personal reasons, Chris decided to leave the business in 2020 and Paul became the sole owner and director of the company. This arrangement still stands today, with the business providing the same scope of works which started in 1966. Kro Panels is a longstanding member of IFA, Queensland Master Builders Association and Townsville Chamber of Commerce.
Another long-standing Brisbane Shopfitting Company was Burke and Lewis. It seems that Noel Lewis and Graham Burke met as workmates whilst at Christie & Walker Shopfitters (it is unclear if they carried out their apprenticeships there) and then at Robb & Brown Shopfitters after the merge, around 1962. They started soon after and their first factory was in one of the Igloo sheds built by the Americans during the WWII in the inner suburbs of Brisbane, they had an old FJ ute and not much more. As the business grew, they applied for and received a State Government loan with which to purchase a building on Fison Ave Eagle Farm, which they moved into in the early 1970s. Apparently over the years Noel was heard to say many times it wouldn’t be possible to start a business these days with nothing. They carried out fitouts in their early days for a young Stefan Ackerie as he commenced on his journey of opening over 100 hair salons, but they had to forgo his works as Stefans’ fitouts became too numerous for them to handle. They carried out university joinery works, barristers’ office fitouts (mainly in solid timber and veneer construction and some Government office works). They also carried out retail works including some Coles stores and numerous other types of outlets.

They had apprentices, one being Richard Holloway, who had started out as a labourer and went on to become a mature age apprentice in 1972. Richard says they believed in owning everything and didn’t lease anything and he believes that came from the era when they had started trading. Richard says they were kind to him as he had lost both his parents early and he considered the ethics and standards of integrity they had in business and private lives helped him in life and will always respect and think kindly of them. Years later, Richard left Burke & Lewis to work for Duncan’s Building Supplies and later CSR, and talks about dealing with Stan Lewis and Alex Hartley, some of the Icons of our industry. As well as dealing with them in their businesses they were also on the Queensland Division of ASOFIA Executive together. Richard himself was rewarded as an Icon of our industry in November 2016.

Unfortunately, in 1962 Australia decided to become involved in the Vietnam War, so once again the federal government called upon the youth of the country in 1965 and reintroduced 2-year National Service for 19-year-olds in a ballot system. If you had completed your apprenticeship you had to register your name and then hear if you had been called up in the monthly ballot – many who did so carried out 6 months initial training and they were shipped off to Vietnam where, unfortunately, many lost their lives or were severely injured. After the 2-year National Service period many went back to their trades.

Around this time, designers were starting out in the industry, after completing newly introduced courses and then offering their talents to the shopfitting trades. This was a new way of doing business, instead of the shopfitter having to knock on an architect’s door and tender for a project, which the architect then project managed. Some shopfitters interviewed the designers as they were completing college and took them on as staff who, in most cases, became the link with the customer.
Decimal currency was introduced to Australia in 1966 but it was decided that Australia would not go metric until 1974. At that time the average weekly wage was $43.05.
There were plenty of housing projects commencing but the banks were not being helpful with loans, leading to Building Societies coming to the fore. The fitouts of the Building Societies generated good workloads for shopfitters throughout the state, which was ongoing until the credit crunch of the mid-1970s. As there was growth in the communities, new stand-alone bank branches were being opened, creating work for the industry.

The new King George Square branch of the Commonwealth Bank, designed by Conrad, Gargett & Partners Architects was completed in 1966, having been built by Concrete Constructions. Supposedly at the time, the building had the largest banking chamber of any bank in Australia. The large total meterage of counters, all marble clad, was constructed and installed by J A Hartley Shopfitters of Brisbane.

In 1967, a new suburban shopping centre was opened at Toombul, once again being built by Westfield. It was named Toombul Shoppingtown and was the first shopping centre built in Brisbane with air-conditioning. It opened with two department stores, a Coles supermarket and 60 specialty stores (one being Brisbane’s first Darrell Lea store). It was typical of the Westfield Centres built then and later by having a fountain feature in a predominant location of the main mall. It had many extensions and remodels over the years, with new replacement department store traders and re-branding. It had the first 8-screen multiplex cinema in a Brisbane shopping centre, which was a major drawcard until Chermside Shopping Centre upstaged Toombul with a modern 16-screen multiplex cinema complex in 1999, that point alone causing a shortfall in foot traffic to the centre.
Toombul seemed to trade quite well until the nearby Chermside Centre had further major upgrades, which was a huge drawcard.

Toombul Shoppingtown suffered from the start, with its location on a flood plain, and to make it worse a creek flowing alongside always flooded the lower carpark during any larger than normal storm. This also created a problem in enticing new retailers as well as customers. The centre suffered from many floods and finally its location was to be its demise with the 2022 February Brisbane flood – with three days of torrential rain – causing irreparable damage to the whole complex. Current owners of the site, Mirvac, are working on a plan for the future of the closed site.

In the 1960s most shopfitters of the time in Brisbane would deliver their product to a French polisher for final finishing and at that stage would only go so far as shellac for their in-house finishes. In Brisbane, there was a large company set up in Fortitude Valley that would turn over large amounts of the local shopfitters’ finishing works. The company was Ellaways French Polishing, made up of two brothers, Stan and Fred Ellaway. They traded for many years until shopfitters became more adventurous and started doing their own polishing and painting and, in time, installing paint booths. Ellaways finally left the industry and opened Ellaways Music Stores in Brisbane’s northern suburbs. A French polisher by trade, the well-known John Mortimer had completed his training in the 1960s, and later joined Wattyl and Colourite. With his knowledge, he was responsible for helping guide many shopfitting companies in the setting up of their in-house polishing and painting processes and helped sort out problems with finishes, until his retirement in 2006.

The late 1960s saw the start of the fashionable trend of female boutiques, which sold the first wave of the Carnaby Street Pop culture clothing craze coming from the UK. In Brisbane City, the first large stores for this market were Splendiferous and Brazila with expensive young trendy fitouts and, of course, the loud music of the new super bands from overseas. There was also

Mimi’s fashion accessories basement store, complete with a café, a major drawcard at the time.
These stores were trendy and were using new clothing systems and fitouts, forcing the shopfitters to keep up to date with the latest materials and finishes.In 1969, Woolworths developed the first large modern drive-in shopping centre on the Gold Coast, named Sundale, adjacent to the Nerang River at Southport on a 12-acre site. The 3-level centre opened with Queensland’s first Big W department store, a Woolworths supermarket, 45 specialty stores, a cinema and 7,500 carparks. The centre was fitted out by Brisbane shopfitters and Gold Coast shopfitting companies of the time. The centre was popular with the locals as well as tourists, straight off the beach in bikinis, as the centre would provide entertainment by visiting singers/bands/celebrities and fashion parades and a large slot car track area as drawcards. The centre traded well until opposition from firstly the development of the inviting Pacific Fair in 1977 with a larger number of retail outlets and then the close by Scarborough Fair in 1983. It ceased trading in 1990, was used for markets for a time and the empty building was demolished in 2003. In January 1969 the Conciliation Arbitration Federal Commission awarded shopfitters working on shopfronts an extra $7.40 per week.

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