Mister Moxie

Mark Rothfield | VOLUME 27, ISSUE 5
Wes, at 52, is arguably the most important figure in Australian marine circles
From life on the farm to heading one of the world’s premier boat builders, Riviera’s Wes Moxey hasn’t let much get in the way of a remarkable career.

Feast and famine, supply and demand, sunshine and apocalyptic rain … young Wes Moxey, son of a dairyman, was schooled in life’s hard knocks even before he went to school.

It was the mid-1960s, and city kids everywhere sported milky moustaches. There were pints on your front porch every morning courtesy of the frisky milkman, and gallons more delivered to school courtesy of the Education Department.

Kids nursing skull fractures discovered the hard way that milk didn’t really make you “fly through the day” as the advertising jingle claimed. The rest of us simply knew that the white stuff came from bottles and was best served chilled, not left to simmer in the summer sun.

Wes knew differently, growing up in rural Williamtown near Newcastle. This national obsession for milk meant getting up in the dark and doing his farm chores before school, then trudging back to the dairy that afternoon.

Regardless of what happened in the world, cows still wanted to be milked twice a day every day for 365 days of the year.

“Life was tough,” admits Wes. “I was the youngest of three boys and saw my parents struggle through. Eventually my father said to me ‘there’s no future here, go and get a trade’.

“I was devastated at the time because I loved farming and wanted to stay on the land and follow in Dad’s footsteps. But in retrospect he did me a huge favour.”

Now there’s an understatement … Wes, at 52, is arguably the most important figure in Australian marine circles, having returned to the helm of flagship manufacturer Riviera. Indeed, for someone who left school at 15 years and nine months, he has milked opportunity for all it’s worth.

Boatbuilding, his chosen vocation, came about purely by happenstance. He’d never set foot on a boat, let alone heard of ‘shipwrighting’.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

“My dad was president of the local Rotary Club and the vice-president, Don Laverick, happened to own Carrington Slipways,” Wes remembers. “Mum was talking to Don’s wife and she mentioned they were taking applications for shipwrights.

“I applied and was one of 65 apprentices to get employed. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, but Carrington Slipways was a fantastic organisation – they trained their employees well and gave me a good grounding.”

Everything from dredges, barges, tugs, oil-rig vessels and naval ships rolled off the slip, culminating with Wes winning a NSW Apprentice Shipwright of the Year award in 1979.

For his last assignment he had the dubious pleasure of working on the heavy landing ship, HMAS Tobruk, which was to be plagued by engine and sewerage problems; the latter fatally gassing a cadet in 1981.

“It was a disaster in my opinion because no one at the Government would make a decision,” Wes says. “After five-and-a-half years working for Carrington Slipways, I left and went truck driving for a few months, then moved to Queensland chasing adventure with a few mates.”

He initially worked for his oldest brother’s motor mechanic business before landing a job in a high-performance garage building speedway engines. Next came an opportunity to work at Sea World as a boatbuilder for the late Keith Williams.

When things fell quiet, Wes dropped in on his uncle – no less than Bruce Harris, legendary designer and builder of Shark Cats – who sagely suggested that his nephew try Riviera.

“I fronted up to Riviera and they said, ‘Do you know what a torture board is?’ … I had no idea but told them I did,” Wes recalls. “They were building a 44ft plug so I started working the next day in the new product development area.”

Back then, August 1982, Riv was a shadow of its current self. Owner Bill Barry-Cotter was on the floor, overseeing production. Helen, the Girl Friday, ran the office single-handedly.

Some years later, Wes caught Helen’s eye and eventually her hand in marriage.

“Riviera brought us together,” he says. “It means that Helen understands and supports what I have to do, which helps me tremendously.”

FIGHTING WORDS

The General Manager was the late Bob Parkin, a gruff, tattooed ex-navy type who’d “rather fight you than talk to you … but who’d give you the shirt off his back”.

Wes eventually employed his own team of 22, working as a subcontractor on varnish, fit-out and plug work. But that all changed with the infamous stock market crash of 1987.

“I remember saying it was crazy, they should have been able to see the crash coming. I was 27, cocky and pretty ambitious by that stage,” Wes says. “Bill said to me, ‘If you’re so smart, you sort it out’, and he appointed me production manager.

“Bob (Parkin) wanted to fight me. But all I did was get people to talk to each other, and even today the production planning that happens at Riviera is modelled on what we did 25 years ago, using what’s called ‘Wes’s kitchen table’.”

Wes says Bill Barry-Cotter firmly believed that cream rose to the top in business as surely as it did in milk.

“Bill mentored me for 20 years. In the good years you couldn’t have had a better guy to work for, but towards the end the relationship got a bit strained.

“I’d say to him that I can’t do everything by myself. We’d grown from an $80m business to a $125m business, moved into Coomera, and here’s me – a dairy farmer with a boatbuilding apprenticeship.

“I said we needed support to go to the next level and that’s where the management buy-out stemmed from.”

The pair no longer speak, and Wes refuses to elaborate.

BOOM AND BUST

As the duly appointed CEO of Riviera, which was controlled by Gresham Private Equity, Wes rode the boom market from 2005 to early 2008.

Then, in August 2008 and at the age of 48, he suddenly played the retirement card. The final months of his tenure had been tenuous, to say the least, but he shocked the industry, nonetheless.

“I could see the writing on the wall, that a significant downturn correction was coming,” Wes said. “Our forward orders were dropping, our deposits were dropping and our stock was building up around the world.

“The owners thought it was a sales and distribution problem and said I just needed to hire the right person and everything would be tickety-boo. They wanted me to buy Mustang and Warren Yachts, and I fought with them for 12 months.

“Finally, after 26 years at Riviera taking up the fight, I was tired and worn out. I wanted to spend more time with my family. I couldn’t take up the fight any more.”

It was a decision rooted in his desire to buy a 100-acre hobby farm in northern NSW and spend time with his young sons. A year later, he was a saddened spectator as receivers crashed Riv’s party.

Wes suffered vicariously as good people got spat out the other side, but the brand steadfastly refused to yield as loyal customers repeatedly came to the fore.

Wes credits Brand Manager Stephen Milne with achieving something of a marketing miracle: “Stephen is a very passionate and driven person, who has lived and breathed Riviera. He created the ‘I Love Riviera’ campaign when it went into receivership, and it has run through the past three or four years.

“Our customers really got that because a brand is built over a long period of time, not three years or 12 months.”

The latter became evident when Wes and renowned dealer, Lee Dillon decided to build their own brand, Belize. Some 60 years of combined history couldn’t necessarily buy instant loyalty – customers wanted to see Belize stand the test of time and be a reliable, trusted decision.

Belize was not about playing in Riviera’s plot out of misplaced vengeance. It was more about personal resurrection and redemption for the two founders.

“Helen said to me, ‘You’re too young, you have too much knowledge to put your feet up, you have to get out’,” Wes says. “There are some days when I wake up and think about life on the farm, but spending 18 months on the Grand Banks board had got my appetite back.”

The hunger was certainly evident to his long-time business companion, Rodney Longhurst. The pair had profited handsomely from property transactions stemming back to the 1990s, culminating in the development of the Gold Coast Marine Centre.

They stayed in touch during Moxey’s sabbatical … and during Longhurst’s surprise bid for Riviera earlier this year. Into Wes’s hands he placed the reins of a company cleansed of receivership and rumours.

“It’s very encouraging for me to get a second shot at it, a reinvigorated and a wiser shot,” Wes says. “I’ve had time to reflect and there were clearly mistakes I’d made in 26 years. I now have the opportunity to come back with a fresh mind and be honest with myself.

“One of my fears in returning, though, was that good Riviera folk didn’t get to have the break or the rest. I was concerned they might be burnt out, and some of that has been borne out.”

HEARTFELT DECISIONS

“We had to make some heartfelt decisions at the point of take-over as to whom we want on the new team.”

In Wes’s last year, 2008, the company delivered 326 boats … the forecast for this year is a tad over 60 boats, though these will be bigger and the average price higher.

Since day one, staff have been systematically going through the factory, rationalising space, mothballing, cleaning, repairing moulds and doing things that typically don’t get done under receivership.

The market isn’t demanding a speed-up, and for Wes it’s not about being the biggest, but striving to be the best. To focus on the people, technology and systems needed for tomorrow’s product, not yesterday’s.

“I enjoy the strategy of business and engaging with people all over the world,” Wes says. “My view is that we’re in the people business; we just happen to build boats. Those people include workers, subcontractors, suppliers, dealers or customers – all I do, every day, involves people.

“We don’t have robots in the boating industry. We have robotic varnishers, but it still takes people to load it, drive it and think about it to get the outcome right. I’m always scouting for good quality people.”

Wes’s oldest son is now 16, while the youngest is going on 12. Although both have grown up in the marine environment, it is unlikely there’s another shipwright in the making.

“I grew up in a great era where tradespeople could get ahead if they had a good work ethic,” Wes said. “In today’s world you need a leg up and a higher education.”

Wes has reinstated some of the young guns who previously worked at Riviera, for in them he sees the future. The business, he adds modestly, is not about “an old wise coot with no hair, who has come from the school of hard knocks”.

“My job is to grow and find more of those guys to allow a smooth passing of the baton at the appropriate time.

“I don’t crave the limelight. I understand a company needs a leader who instils strong leadership, but my responsibility is to find the fresh lungs and young legs to climb the next hill.”

It seems fitting that the “mentee” should become a mentor himself.

As it happens, Wes’s parents, Eric and Marea, stayed on the land until 10 years ago, living in Singleton, NSW, where their middle son ran beef cattle on 500 acres. Wes finally convinced his parents to retire and move to Queensland, close to their grandkids.

Eric passed away six years ago, but Marea remains close by.

“Dad stayed on the land on the off chance I wanted to return,” Wes said. “But I told him I’d made my life … and that I was very grateful for what I have.”


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