Tackle Titan

Jim Harnwell | VOLUME 32, ISSUE 4

Innovative pioneer, larger-than-life personality and passionate angler – it’s unlikely we’ll see the likes of John Dunphy again any time soon.

John Dunphy – aka JD, The Silver Fox, The Godfather, or just plain Dunph – was (and in many ways still is) a dominant figure in the Australian recreational fishing scene. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the fishing-tackle industry, Dunphy’s clout extended far beyond his own business interests. The line-up of politicians, sporting celebrities and corporate identities attending his memorial service in January 2015 remains a stark testament to the influence he wielded and the respect he commanded.

An archetypal self-made man, Dunphy was born and raised in Sydney’s south, working at various low-level public-service jobs before becoming a salesman for a sporting goods company in the mid-1960s. Together with fellow tackle industry legend John Glover, Dunphy founded his own company in the late ‘60s, selling fishing tackle and sporting goods. This enterprise lasted for 12 years before Dunphy took on the Australian agency for Shimano.

The rest, as they say, is history.

These days, anyone with even the remotest interest in recreational fishing knows of the Shimano brand. Surprisingly enough, back in 1981 when Dunphy and the Japanese company first joined forces, Shimano was only a very small fry in an Australian fishing-tackle market dominated by American and European giants.

Dunphy’s previous experience in the fishing industry provided plenty of impetus to grow the fledgling Shimano brand. In an interview with fishing-media luminary Steve Starling, Dunphy recounted those heady early days, when pretty much anything seemed possible.

“I had all of these ideas about exactly what we needed to build. But I didn’t have the serious money needed to develop major products such as new reels and so on,” he said.

OUT WITH THE OLD

“When I hooked up with Shimano, I pretty much had an open chequebook to make true high-quality gear. We threw out all the old concepts, and all these wonderful new products began to happen every year. We wanted Aussie recreational fishos to experience and share the same sense of excitement we were feeling about doing things differently and creating new concepts.”

Back in those halcyon days, Shimano was focused on manufacturing fishing reels. With input from Dunphy, his long-time business partner and friend Mark ‘Mikko’ Mikkelsen and his younger brother Terry, the Shimano reel line-up grew. Ground-breaking products such as the BaitRunner, TLD, TTS and Beastmaster were developed and marketed locally and internationally.

Dunphy is quoted as saying the early to mid-1980s was a “dream period.” He and his team were intimately involved in the R&D of products they were selling. Importantly, the feedback they were giving the Japanese designers was resulting in reels built tough to handle harsh Aussie conditions and cope with the punishment dealt out by hard-fighting fish, including barramundi, kingfish, marlin and tuna.

With a range of quality products he could be proud to sell, the next big challenge for John Dunphy was to market his Japanese-made reels in a market dominated by long-established Northern Hemisphere rivals, as well as develop new products specifically for the local market. And it was as a marketer and product developer that Dunphy showed his true colours as a tackle business innovator.

MASTERFUL

Aku Valta, the executive vice president of lure sales and brands for the Finland-based tackle giant Rapala Corp, is a marketing professional and long-time admirer of John Dunphy.

“As a brand builder, Dunphy was a master of the game,” Valta says. “As an example, he developed the Shimano Australasia Annual, a classy print magazine combining a product catalogue with stories from renowned fishing writers. There was no expense spared in making not only the featured products look great, but also the brand experience feel very special, totally different from anyone else.

“At the time, the Annual seemed like a dedicated attempt to connect the brand directly with the end consumer – equivalent to what everyone is trying to achieve now on social media. John was clearly ahead of his time.”

Dunphy was Rapala’s Australian distributor from 1998 to 2005, when the company decided to set up its own local operations. Even after Rapala severed the business relationship, Valta says he and Dunphy remained good friends.

“That’s pretty telling about John’s character,” he says. “While he was a savvy operator who knew what he wanted and how to get it, he was also very capable of looking above business to the bigger picture – life. To most, business comes first, but to him friends and relationships seemed equally as important.”

While the early work cementing Shimano’s reputation as a manufacturer of high-quality fishing reels was paying off with a range of market-leading products, including Calcutta, Stradic, Tiagra, Chronarch and the sublime series of Stella spinning reels, Dunphy was actively developing new markets by releasing extensive rod ranges featuring designs by acclaimed Australian rod builder Ian ‘Barra’ Miller, plus the popular Squidgie range of soft plastics developed by Kaj ‘Bushy’ Busch (left) and Steve Starling (bottom).

Apart from managing his business empire and fishing around Australia and internationally with friends and clients, Dunphy was a passionate follower of the footy, horse racing and golf. His love of sport sowed the seed for another of his masterstrokes: the forging of strong personal and business relationships with high-profile sportsmen such as cricketer Mathew ‘Haydos’ Hayden, AFL veteran Rex Hunt, and league star Andrew ‘ET’ Ettingshausen.

ET and Dunphy enjoyed a particularly close relationship, with the former Cronulla Sharks legend acting as a brand ambassador for the Shimano brand, promoting it via his popular TV show. Dunphy was also a big backer of the Rex Hunt show, with Hunt putting his famous bearded face on various Shimano combos and spruiking the products onscreen.

MARKETING MUSCLE

Combining the TV exposure with saturation advertising and editorial coverage in the fishing magazines of the day, and clever consumer-driven promotions via stickers and hugely popular blue and white T-shirts, Shimano Australia swiftly developed into a unique and powerful marketing machine the likes of which the Aussie tackle scene had never seen before.

Although there were obvious corporate benefits resulting from this intensive advertising and product promotion, the fact is the work Dunphy and his team did to grow the Shimano brand also resulted in broader public recognition of fishing as a healthy, fun, family-orientated pastime.

As his business grew and became even more successful, John Dunphy was able to step back from the day-to-day operations of the company and become more involved in what is possibly his most important work. It’s in the realm of politics, lobbying and fighting for the rights of recreational fishers that I knew Dunphy best – and where I developed a lasting respect for the man and all that he stood for.

Dunphy was unique in that he understood that a strong and vibrant recreational fishing sector was not only good for his business, but also good for society as a whole. He dedicated he was truly interested in making recreational fishing better inordinate amounts of time away from his business talking with politicians and policy makers about improving recreational fishing opportunities through initiatives including habitat restoration, fish stocking and practical environmentalism.

PASSIONATE SUPPORTER

Dunphy was truly interested in making recreational fishing better, both as an industry and as a sport enjoyed by millions of everyday Australians.

In my 20 years as editor of Fishing World magazine, I knew most of the ‘bigwigs’ in the tackle industry. Almost all were keen anglers, and more than a few would put their hands in their pockets to support a good cause, but I can honestly state that none were as passionate and involved in supporting and growing the recreational fishing sector as John Dunphy.

By the time I really got to know him, Dunphy was an extremely successful and influential figure, widely respected by his peers and admired by the rest of us. Perhaps more importantly, he had a highly strategic mind and was equally effective at discussing policy initiatives with politicians and senior bureaucrats as he was at making deals with tackle retailers or marketing the latest hot new reel.

In private, he was often scathing of the political process. But in meetings he was calm, rational and skilled at putting forth complex arguments. In turn, he listened attentively and displayed admirable patience in often trying circumstances.

UNREPENTANT

However, Dunphy’s patience wasn’t limitless. I well recall hearing about a phone call he received following a state election. The call was from an MP whom Dunphy and the Australian Fishing Trade Association (AFTA) CEO Allan Hansard had spent a lot of time schmoozing about recreational fishing matters. The MP’s party had recently won government and he’d been appointed to a senior ministerial portfolio. This particular MP had made very positive noises about recreational fishing during the election, but was back-pedalling fast now that his party was in power. Dunphy listened in stony silence as the newly appointed minister explained that the things he had previously promised would need to be delayed. Some, unfortunately, would now be impossible to deliver.

When the pollie had finished reciting his spiel, Dunphy delivered a concise appraisal of the hapless MP’s lineage, his mental acuity and his party’s future electoral prospects before abruptly hanging up on him. AFTA’s Hansard was reportedly horrified at this seemingly cavalier treatment of a senior government official, but Dunphy was unrepentant. It’s interesting to note that that particular MP is now no longer an MP, let alone a minister of the crown …

While he wasn’t one to suffer fools, John Dunphy was a convivial sort of bloke. Back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon to get a cheery late-afternoon phone call. He liked a drink and he liked to talk after he’d had a drink or two. Whenever he rang, I’d picture him in his glass-walled office, air blue with cigarette smoke, open bottle of scotch on the desk. He also enjoyed taking long lunches with friends and colleagues. I was lucky – or maybe unlucky – enough to get invited to a few of these lunches and well remember waking up very sore and sorry for myself the following day. Dunphy liked to drink white wine at lunch, often with ice cubes added to the glass. White wine gives me a shocking hangover so, after the initial few lunches with ‘Dunph’, I resisted the wine and just stuck to beer. Much safer that way …

John Dunphy sold his business to Shimano Japan in 2008, maintaining an advisory role with the company until 2011. At this stage of his life, he was a very wealthy man and justifiably looked forward to enjoying the fruits of his labours, living a carefree life filled with golf, horse racing, travel and, of course, lots of fishing.

Life isn’t always fair, however. John Dunphy was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2014 and died in January of the following year.

The last conversation I had with Dunphy ended with him telling me as forcefully as he’d ever told me anything before that he was going to beat this thing. Unfortunately, however, it beat him. But there’s no doubt he would have put up a good fight before it did.

On the drive home from his packed-out memorial service, held in southern Sydney on a sunny summer’s day in 2015, I spotted Chris Cleaver, a good mate and long-time Dunphy acolyte who had started out in Shimano’s warehouse before working his way up to a product manager role. Chris was filling up his boat at a servo. As I hadn’t caught up with him at the service, I pulled in to say g’day.

Long story short, Chris was heading out to chase a late-arvo marlin and invited me to come along. We hooked three fish and landed one that day – a nice striped marlin of about 80kg on a 20000 Shimano Saragosa spin reel. It was certainly one of the better spur-of-the-moment fishing trips I’ve taken. And I’m hard-pressed to think of a better way to celebrate the life of a great man like John Dunphy than by catching a great sportfish. I’m sure Dunph would have approved.

Jim Harnwell worked in the tackle sector for 20 years as a magazine publisher and lobbyist. He also served on the board of AFTA and Keep Australia Fishing. Harnwell now works as a recreational fisheries manager for DPI Fisheries.


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