Information about work, life and play in Regional Australia

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Death of David Asimus - wool industry and regional development leader

Photo: David James Asimus

I began this post a little while ago, but was sidetracked.

The death of David Asimus at the age of 75 marks the end of an era. The post that follows is largely drawn from Malcolm Brown's obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Back in July 2006 in Why Wool? I talked about the importance of the wool industry to Australia's history.

While the modern wool industry is much diminished in importance, Australia's early economic development depended very heavily on the growth and success of the industry. Today it remains a substantial part of the Australian economy, a much larger part of Australian history.

David Asimus was one of the pioneers of the modern wool industry, as well as a leader in regional education, something I often write about on this blog.

A big man, 195.5 centimetres tall, he was born at Tumut from German stock who settled on the land in southern New South Wales. He attended Barker College (Sydney) and Sydney University, graduating in economics in 1953.

After a period farming, he became a Nuffield agricultural fellow in 1958, studying for 12 months in Britain. Back home, he returned to farming, but broader interests had been aroused, leading him to become active in industry matters.

The wool industry had boomed during the Second World War because of the demand for clothing and uniforms. In the period immediately following the War wool reached a pound a pound. Even small scale graziers made substantial profits.

This boom was followed by a long period of decline as wool came under competition from the new synthetic textiles. The industry responded by increasing productivity and by restructuring. Despite this, by 1970 it was at a low ebb.

In 1970, the Australian Government created the Australian Wool Commission to arrest the decline. Its first chairman was Sir William Vines, who appointed Asimus in 1972.

Vines later said of Asimus: "He had a practical background on the land as well as an economics degree, which helped him come to grips with the whole situation."

In 1973 the Commission became the Australian Wool Corporation, and in 1976 Asimus was appointed deputy chairman and, in 1979, chairman. He oversaw the early days of the wool price reserve scheme.

In the early 1980s, Asimus and family moved to a property near Wagga Wagga. But his time there was limited. His appointments, particularly as secretariat chairman, took him all over the world, dealing with the complexities of fashion, world markets, foreign policy. His positive approach to marketing, seeking to increase the trade to China and the United States, raised eyebrows and hopes in the troubled industry.

Asimus himself said of this time: "It is the very best job in the world, really. Where else in one week can you talk to fashion designers in Paris and Milan, an industrialist in New York, a top retailer in London and come back, head out to Bourke and talk to woolgrowers?"

His stamina was extraordinary. Under him, the wool corporation focused on quality, tailoring the product to the customer's needs, and spent heavily on promotion and market development.

Perhaps all those things on his mind proved distracting. Asimus could be absent-minded. More than once he extended dinner invitations to people, forgot to tell his wife, and then forgot about the invitations himself. The invitees would turn up, would always get a good meal, and Asimus would offer special wine.

When he retired from chairmanship of the wool corporation and the International Wool Secretariat in 1988, the number of Australian sheep had risen from 134 million at the start of his term to 163 million, wool production had reached an all-time record of 925 million kilograms and the value of the country's wool exports had tripled.

In 1989, by then having been made an honorary doctor of science by the University of New South Wales, he was appointed foundation chancellor of Charles Sturt University. He said the development of tertiary education in the regions was one of his proudest achievements.

He was a director of the Australian Trade Commission, member of the Australia-Japan Foundation and the Australia-Japan Consultation Committee, member of the government taskforce on liner shipping and the advisory council member of the CSIRO. His other directorships included board positions with BHP, the Industrial Bank of Japan, Wesfarmers, Rural Press and Delta Electricity. In 1997, he was made an honorary doctor of agricultural economics by the University of Sydney, and in 2002, Charles Sturt University made him a doctor of the university.

David Asimus is survived by his wife, Jane, his daughter, Heidi Sutherland, and five grandchildren. His son, Alexander, predeceased him.

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