Showing posts with label Greater Building Society. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Greater Building Society. Show all posts

Monday, 29 July 2013

Greater Stories to be Told

“I rushed out the front door - everyone was coming out of their homes. I looked towards Beaumont Street from our elevated front driveway. I could see the Greater tower – it was leaning to the left side, not vertical, it appeared to be wavering, and I thought, This is not good!”

A few minutes before, Lynn Mangovski had been enjoying her Christmas leave from the Newcastle Permanent. She had just returned from a spot of shopping at Kotara, and was making a snack for her children. Suddenly, through the large kitchen window, she noticed that all the birds had taken flight, hundreds of her husband’s pigeons.

Photograph by Kris McParland
Cover for his book 'I'll Wait Here' (

“They seemed to be just hovering in the air”, Lynn recalled. “It was so quiet, and I thought, There is really something strange happening”.

At that moment, Lynn felt the house shake strongly, stop for a second and then start again. Grabbing her son and daughter, she rushed outside. That’s when she saw the Greater tower waver....and realised she wasn't wearing any shoes!

Inside the Greater that morning of 29 December, 1989, staff felt the building lurch and the floor roll underfoot. Huge diagonal cracks appeared in the walls.

Wall cracks inside the Greater building
Photograph by Chris Priest

The processing machines jumped 16 centimetres.

Disk and magnetic tape drive machines
Photograph by Chris Priest

Gerard Walsh[1] who worked in information technology, was in his office chatting to his boss, now CEO Don Magin. “One thing I learned that day”, Gerard told me, “was never to lean against a window. That’s where I was, when suddenly the power went off, the air conditioning stopped, and the whole building moved – like a giant got hold of a bottle and shook it”.

Don Magin was fortunate he had not been sitting at his own desk that morning – or he would have found himself under a falling bookcase.

The lifts were out of action, and Gerard remembers running down the stairs.

“Plaster was coming off the walls, lying everywhere”, he said.

Damage to stairwell inside the Greater building
Photograph by Chris Priest

Later, with John Arnold and Greg Davis, Don Magin did a final check throughout the building to be sure no one remained inside.

Staff gathered outside the building. Sandra Davis[2] remembers wild speculation about what might have happened. “BHP has blown up!” “A plane has crashed into us!”  Without radios or mobile phones,  the only thing staff knew was what they had experienced.

Everyone had been evacuated so quickly that women’s handbags were still inside; men had left house and car keys in desk drawers.

Greg and Sandra Davis lived at what was then 123 Denison Street (since demolished and now part of the Greater’s staff car park). As no one could go home, Sandra and Greg invited staff to their place.

“We had plenty of Christmas leftovers”, remembers Sandra, “so everyone got fed”. Fortunately, staff numbers were down because of the Christmas/New Year break.

Like so many Newcastle buildings affected by the earthquake, the Greater was cordoned off for safety reasons, and scaffolding erected.

The Greater  building under repair January 1990
Photograph from the personal collection of Mrs Mavis Ebbott

Competition for technical assessment services, labour, and equipment was fierce. Extensive restoration work was required before the building was safe to enter.

Building Society customers still needed access to their funds. Loan approvals needed processing. The way the organisation responded to the crisis tells much about its spirit, and has echoes of its origins.

Twenty three years later, I am having coffee with Lynn – now a Greater employee – and Craig Eardley, the Greater’s public relations consultant[3]. We chat about how the building society set up a makeshift head office in the home of Greg and Sandra Davis.

There, a skeleton staff occupied the lounge room, dining room, kitchen and second bedroom. “We cleared the dining table, set up card tables - the only bedroom I wouldn’t let them use was our bedroom”, Sandra confirmed.

Dress rules were relaxed, and as the photo below shows, staff seemed to be enjoying the change of venue. The policeman on duty at the Beaumont/Denison Street corner joined them for the shot.

Skeleton staff of the Greater outside 123 Denison Street, Hamilton 
Front row (L-R) standing Peter Thompson
Front row (L-R) seated Ian Liddell, Wayne Goodchild, unidentified Police Officer, Chris Priest, Sandra Davis
Back row (L-R) standing Greg Taylor, Gary Pickett, Leah Goodchild, Don Magin, Nicholas Read, Mick Young, Ian Hartley, Mirella Liddell, Carl Saide, Jack Bailey, Greg Davis, Bill Prince, Donna Ryan, Gerard Walsh, Wayne Dean, Andrew O’Neill (in shadow), John Arnold.
Photograph courtesy of Sandra Davis

Using the latest technology, rented mobile phones and computers operated via dial up telephone lines, staff managed to carry out their work. Gerard Walsh remembers the mobile phones provided by an obliging Telstra came in two parts – a battery (“a bit like a car battery, not as big”) and a bulky handset.

Only a few key staff were allowed inside the building by police. One critical task was to upload financial data from the branches onto the head office machines.

Police Security Pass for Greg Davis
Photograph courtesy Sandra Davis

Gerard recalls urging Cathy Jones, who was processing the customer payroll deductions, to hurry. She refused to go until she had finished. “These people won’t get their pay if I leave now. Just wait!” she ordered Gerard.

Cathy Jones at her workstation
Photograph by Chris Priest

Each day, Sandra went to the barricades at the intersection of Denison and Beaumont Streets to collect  the staff lunch orders. Beaumont Street was eerily quiet.

Barricades at the corner of Beaumont and Denison Streets
Photograph by Chris Priest

Another house in Hamilton (belonging to a staff member’s relative) was the depot for delivery of the magnetic tapes of data, which were then carried by hand to 123 Denison Street. Gerard’s Merewether flat was used at the weekend.

After a week or so, the building was safe for staff to return.

I said earlier that they way staff responded to the crisis had echoes of its origins. What did I mean?

The Greater wasn’t always the glamour building of Hamilton.

The Greater headquarters turns red for the Salvos Appeal (2013)
Photograph supplied by Craig Eardley

It started as a single office in Beaumont Street run by Mr F W Lean, whose wife was his Assistant.

Portrait of  Mr F W Lean in Three Bean Espresso's Apothecary Kitchen, 
Beaumont Street, Hamilton

Can you imagine applying for a loan by taking part in a lottery style draw? And then if you were the lucky one, having to pay no deposit? Or little or no interest?

That’s how things worked in 1924 for some lucky Novocastrians, when Mr Lean got together with Mr K A Mathieson Snr.

Photograph courtesy of the Greater Collection

At this time, home ownership was beyond the reach of many, because of high unemployment and the economic depression. Then along came Starr - Bowkett societies. They were modelled on a scheme set up in England by a London surgeon Dr T E Bowkett, who was also a progressive thinker and a unionist.

The societies were mutual self help institutions, aiming to bring home ownership to their members at the lowest possible cost. Despite problems in the UK, they became quite popular in Australia.

The system worked like this. Each member bought shares and made contributions on a weekly basis. A lottery would determine which member received a home loan. When all had drawn and repaid their loans, the society would terminate.

Later, a man by the name of Richard B Starr made some changes to the scheme, which helped make it more profitable. Hence the Starr - Bowkett Scheme, which was the start of what was to become the Greater Group, through the work of Lean and Matthieson.

It’s time these two gentlemen stepped out of the shadows, because their contribution has been inestimable. They were co founders of the first Greater Group Starr-Bowkett Society. Mr Lean had a long career with the Greater and at the age of 81, was awarded the Order of Australia for services to the community. Mr Mathieson was awarded an MBE. 

In 1945, The Greater Newcastle Co-operative Permanent Building and Investment Society began. Its first office was in Lindsay Street, Hamilton.

Staff of the Greater Newcastle Co-operative Permanent Building
and Investment Society in 1946
Photograph courtesy of the Greater Collection

The society has changed its name over the years and is now known as Greater Building Society Ltd, reflecting its reach beyond Newcastle.

The history of the Greater is entwined with that of the Wesley-on-Beaumont. That church’s story is told in the post Wesleyans of Pit Town.

Not only do these organisations share earth, and bricks and mortar. They also share values, though they express them differently.

The inclusiveness of the Wesley-on-Beaumont, welcoming people from all walks of life is not dissimilar to the imperative that drove the early founders of what is now the Greater – that people should not be excluded from the opportunity to own their own home. Innovative ways needed be found to help achieve this.

It is the block of land bounded by Beaumont, Tudor, William and Denison Streets that contains their shared land use history.

Interestingly, the present day Wesley-on-Beaumont (built in 1928) stands on the site of the original Hamilton Branch of the Cooperative Society (the Borehole Cooperative Society, 1861) [4] So the co-operative movement had already staked out this locality.

Hamilton Branch of the Co-operative Society (n.d.)
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library

In 1869, the first Hamilton Wesleyan Church was built on the intersection of the south west corner of Tudor and Beaumont Street. A two story Parsonage was built on the corner of Tudor and William Street.

In 1928, the Church and the Parsonage were bought by the rapidly expanding Bank of NSW, for £3,250. The 60 year old church was demolished by the bank, which replaced it with its own structure, at the cost of £6221 pounds. The Church was then able to finance its “cathedral to Methodism”, where the original Cooperative Society had once stood.

Like the Wesleyans before it, the Building Society progressively acquired and developed its buildings in response to the growth of the organisation.

The Greater Newcastle Hamilton Branch c.1950 – 1960s
Kennedy's Photographs courtesy of the Greater Collection

In 1946, when its Lindsay Street offices became inadequate, the Building Society moved to a new one story building on Tudor Street, between the Parsonage and the Bank of NSW.

In 1951 the Building Society purchased the Parsonage, which was being operated as a boarding house. This building was extended, shops were erected in front of the original façade, and a second story was added.

Original building with second story addition and shop front extension Tudor Street
Photograph courtesy of the Greater Collection

 In 1964 the Building Society built a three story building in Beaumont Street and redesigned the frontage to the Tudor Street buildings.

In 1976 a further three storeys were added.

 Greater Offices c.1990s
Photograph courtesy of the Greater Collection

  Also that year, 1976, the Building Society bought the Bank of NSW building, which had ceased operating, and moved its main branch there.

Before the Greater – Bank of NSW, Hamilton, undated
Photograph courtesy of Newcastle Museum

Major repair work was undertaken in 1990, following the earthquake.

Scaffolding supporting the structures for repair work, 1990
Photograph Chris Priest

The final step in transforming this site was taken over a three year period, from 2001 to 2004. Designed by Suters Architects, a new 6 story building extension has been integrated closely with the existing six story block, and the restored Bank of NSW building. The beautiful 1930s neo-classical building is now heritage listed.

Former Bank of NSW building, now part of the Greater Building Society (2013)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

It was during this redevelopment that the footings of historical Wesleyan Chapel were found and are now on display in its foyer.

Storyboard telling the history of the site, on the walls of the 
Three Bean Espresso's Apothecary Kitchen

The tower of the Greater might have wavered before Lynn Mangovski’s eyes that December morning, but it didn’t crash.

From humble beginnings, with a single office and assets of just £11,000, today the Greater has assets of almost $5 billion, 800 staff, and the largest branch network of any Australian building society. This has all happened over my lifetime.

Still customer owned, and true to its founding values, the Greater puts profits into supporting charity partners to make a long term difference to families and communities.

I was writing this as news broke of the appointment of a new Prime Minister for Australia, Kevin Rudd. Many Members of Parliament were retiring, and giving their valedictory speeches. Earlier, I had heard an interview with retiring Independent MP Tony Windsor. He said there was a saying he always remembered – The world is run by those who show up. [5]

Somehow that seemed to fit this great story of Lean and Matheison, the inspiring staff response to a natural disaster, and those who followed to make history anew.

 A selection of front pages relating to the Newcastle earthquake
Photograph from the Greater Collection

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


In November 2014, fifteen months after this story was posted, a book capturing the highlights of this blog will be published by Hunter Press. In a special collaboration, the Greater Building Society  generously  sponsored the book Hidden Hamilton. This ensured a quality publication retailing at an affordable price. Hunter Press and author Ruth Cotton gratefully acknowledge this support.

In June 2016, the Greater was renamed  the Greater Bank.

[1] Thanks to Gerard Walsh for filling me in on technical details, and providing prints of Chris Priest's photographs. Thanks to Chris Priest for permission to use the photographs.
[2] Thanks to Sandra Davis for the information and photos she provided, and for identifying staff in the photo of skeleton staff working at the Davis home after the earthquake.
[3] Thanks to Lynn Mangovski and Craig Eardley for their assistance. Thanks also to Chris Mogford for accessing photographs from the Greater Collection. Some information for this post has been sourced from: “A Brief History of the Greater Building Society and Hamilton”, written by Australian Museum Business Services, Australian Museum, 2005.
[4] Personal communication from Hamilton historian Mrs Mavis Ebbott.
[5]  Attributed to Richard G Weingardt, an American structural engineer and leadership activist.