Chris Jones was appointed General Manager of Leitz Tooling Systems Australia 22 years ago. He has always been a leader who has demonstrated the qualities of honesty and consistency of character, but it is now time for Chris to move on. As he says, “Leaders should know when to step down.”
A man of integrity does not just want to do the right thing, he does it because it is consistent with the behaviour he has established, not only with others, but with himself. It is how many in the furniture industry will remember Chris; a man with a ready smile and a willingness to engage truthfully with everyone he meets. Chris is a person who will be missed, but he leaves with the knowledge that Leitz Tooling Systems is in an exceptionally good position and remains in good hands.
Leitz Tooling was introduced to the Australian furniture industry mainly through Wickman who bought out Australian Trade Equipment back in 1979. Leitz tooling was one of many products sold by Wickman at the time. Leitz established their own presence in Australia in 1992 when Klaus Hermann became their first General Manager. Klaus was a fastidious fellow who started in an industry that did not fully appreciate the value of a higher-priced cutting tool built on exacting quality standards.
CNC machinery had started to appear in the bigger companies six years earlier, companies like Chiswell and Parker (both furniture) in Sydney, both long gone and Dreamhaven Bedding and Tessa furniture in Melbourne; Tessa ceasing trading only last year. At the time many of these companies were using tools “off-the-shelf” and often failed to capitalise on the benefits of quality tools. Leitz coined the phrase, “A CNC machine is only as good as the tools being used” and they were right. In 1998 Klaus left the company to return to Germany and Chris Jones was appointed Managing Director.
Chris was born in 1955 in Armadale, NSW and moved to Harden–Murrumburrah when he was nine years old when his father bought a newsagency. He spent his school years in Canberra where he attended Canberra Grammar, then returned to work in the family business for two years. For a few years he lived in Yinnar near Morwell in Victoria, working at another newsagency. His father bought a second shop in Griffith, so Chris moved back to look after the store in Harden–Murrumburrah. Chris was now 22 years old and married to his wife Anne. They have two daughters and six grandchildren.
Two years later saw Chris in Sydney at yet another newsagency until at 26 he got a job managing a roof truss business in Coffs Harbour, and his first introduction to wood cutting tools. It was a small company with five employees and Chris designed the trusses, managed the production, and worked in the factory. After a while he thought it would be easier to sell the hardware than to use it, and moved to Bostitch selling gang nails, a job he did for ten years in Coffs Harbour before being asked to move to Melbourne as State Manager.
Bostitch bought a company that made springs and clips for bedding and Chris became Product Manager there, taking his first overseas tour to Mississippi visiting furniture and bedding factories. And then, in his early 40’s, Chris applied for the General Manager position at Leitz Tooling Systems Australia. He was interviewed by Dr. Dieter Brucklacher who expanded the company to become a worldwide market leader of tooling for an ever-increasing range of materials. Dr. Brucklacher passed away late 2016.
The Task Begins
When Chris took the reigns of Leitz at the small outlet in Bayswater, Victoria he began a program of expansion that would see Leitz cover all of Australia and since 2012, a full service centre in New Zealand, although Leitz had a presence there since 2008. Sydney, Perth, and Brisbane were added to the location in Melbourne, along the way building a dedicated group of sales and technical professionals that Chris is particularly proud to be associated with. He’s worked with every supplier to the industry and has formed solid relationships with everyone including his competitors like Neil Staggs at Leuco.
In the early days, most cabinet or furniture shops had a panel saw, some planing equipment and often, a spindle moulder. Back then a lot of Leitz’s work was making profile knives for the few solid cutter heads around at the time, and for slotted collars, later to be relegated to the ‘far-too-dangerous’ basket. Over the years those hands-on tasks have been replaced with automatic, CNC controlled grinding equipment and Chris was instrumental in getting Australian-made ANCA machines because of their performance, and their local service.
Chris says, “Our main focus is ‘speed to market’ and this is important to our principals in Germany. Every international subsidiary has guidelines and policies but because of Australia’s unique situation with nesting as a major production type, we have a lot of freedom in how we are able to meet the needs of our customers. As a family company, Leitz invest in a long-term vision and this makes us somewhat unique. Most of our nesting tools are now proudly made right here in Australia.”
Chris’s highlights are his people including Andrew Bismire; Charles Joel; Rob Cleary; Reggie Chia; Yvonne de la Rosa and Tony Sheppard who have been with Leitz for what seems like forever. Chris takes it as his credit that so many people have stayed there so long. And the downsides? Chris recalls 2009 as being a tough year after the GFC and losing some people in the beginning due to the inevitable culture change that has seen Leitz rise to the top. He is also disappointed that despite his best efforts, more women aren’t working in the tooling industry.
Leitz’s culture is now that of a business driven by service and manufacturing knowledge. Chris freely admits that at first, his priority was growing the Leitz brand awareness. However, very soon came the realisation that a tooling supplier needs to understand their customer’s processes. Leitz is able to provide a cost-effective cutting solution their customers understand will grow their business as well. He said, “We were never going to be the cheapest tooling supplier; we had to justify the cost of our tooling development that to this day gives the Leitz product that ‘cutting edge.’ We had to satisfy the industry that the tooling cost provided real value for money and positive returns on their investment.
New Managing Director Sam Czyczelis is already establishing himself with the local industry, but Chris’s experience and knowledge of the industry will not be lost. Leitz has asked Chris to stay on as a Director to sit on the advisory board, contributing as required. On the personal side, Chris admits his golf handicap needs some work and there’s his love of Rugby, a sport he played in school. He’ll do a bit of traveling too, this time for leisure. He said, “I reckon I’ve spent the best part of a year of my life in an aircraft seat but turning up at the airport will now be a whole new experience.” He plans to spend more time with his grandchildren too. He recalls, “I spent two months building a cubby house, I reckon I’ll be able to do a lot better than that.”
Chris has thoroughly enjoyed his time at Leitz and if you’ve bumped into him over the years you will always remember how happy he would have been to see you, no matter who you were. Chris follows several other big names taking a backward step over the last few years. People like Barry Gabbett, Bruce Evans and more recently, Neil Forbes. If any quote defines Chris it may be that of President Dwight D. Eisenhower who once said, “The supreme quality of leadership is unquestionably integrity.” That’s Chris in a nutshell.
Story by Philip Ashley