At the end of this year Bruce Evans, the managing director and owner of Leda Machinery, retires with a legacy lasting sixty years. From a trade background in saw doctoring, Bruce has built a thriving company with a vibrant history and a bright future.
In partnership with John Cover and Jake Martin of Allwood Machinery, Bruce started Leda in 1992 after the recession Prime Minister Paul Keating said “We had to have.” Now with locations in all six Australian states, the group is flying high, ending their biggest and most successful AWISA exhibition and their best financial year on record. When he retires at the end of the year Bruce will leave the business in good hands, having built a Company that is as well-respected as any still operating in our industry, and with a range of quality products the industry keeps coming back for.
Bruce was born in 1942 in Broken Hill, an inland mining city in the far west of outback New South Wales. Moving to Adelaide to further his education he recalls “I never really wanted an office job.” His father Ken Evans had founded ACME Saw and Knife Works in 1951 in a booming climate of post-war growth. His three sons Gordon, Bruce and Allyn joined the business with Bruce getting an apprenticeship in saw doctoring at the age of sixteen in January 1959. Bruce says “My father was a master saw doctor and taught me much more than I ever learned at trade school.”
Bruce remembers making some of the biggest band re-saw blades in the Country from the best Swedish steel. Most re-saw blades were 100mm to125mm wide but these were over 400mm (sixteen inches) wide with teeth 75mm (three inches) long. Made for a Hawker Siddeley mill in the Jarrah forests of Western Australia, Bruce remembers they were sixty feet long so they had to leave the factory back door open to lay the length of steel out when they cut the teeth.
He also did a fitting and turning course and this was to stand him in good stead when ACME later started selling machines for Sydney importers. Bruce moved into sales and book-keeping when he was 29, ironically the office job he never really wanted. Allyn took over machinery installation and servicing and Ken and Gordon continued with the saw service. At that time furniture machining in South Australia was mostly done the traditional way with static machines and a part would be made on the planer, thicknesser and spindle moulder. Moulding machines to do the whole job in the one go were not widely used or even understood. One of the early straightening moulders at the time was the Harbes brand sold only in the Eastern States. When Bruce brought the Weinig straightening moulder to South Australia he sold four in one day from the same demonstration. In fact, the introduction of the Weinig moulder “Annihilated Harbes in Australia,” according to Bruce.
ACME was to bring in a number of “firsts” to South Australia. These included a Giben computer controlled beam saw, double wide belt sander, profile sander, 6 head CMS CNC router and the Weinig Straightening Moulders. In the late 1970’s ACME Saws and Machinery was appointed sole Australian agent for Casadei and this brand was to become one of the largest selling brands in the country. They were so good at selling the Casadei brand that ACME were awarded a silver plaque as the single largest distributor in the World two years in succession! Many of the brands ACME sold back then are either no longer with us or their machinery has been replaced by CNC technologies. Older wood workers may remember Omga, Meba, Bini, Pade, Scheppach, Zangheri & Boschetti, Sicar, IDM and Stefani.
ACME opened a branch in Melbourne in 1981; about the time when CNC machines started to make a big impact in Australia. Some of the larger furniture makers in Sydney like Parker and Chiswell had CNC machines already; mostly dedicated CNC routers from Shoda and Heian, sold by Brian Lynch who Bruce regards highly. Brian is 78 now and the two caught up at AWISA this year. On a visit to Adelaide, Brian convinced Bruce to consider selling machinery to compliment the saw works. When Bruce went to see Brian in Sydney back in the early 1970’s, he also met Les Field who played rugby with John Cover and Les took Bruce to meet John, another icon of the industry. John had worked as an accountant for Australian Trade Equipment before going into sales, then appointed as sales manager. The result of these meetings was that ACME began selling machines from both Brian and John in South Australia.
Bruce recalls this was about the time when ACME Saws and Machinery started to become independent with brands like Weinig, Giben and Euromatic. Their main competitors at the time were Austral Engineering and MacPhersons. ACME continued to expand to 60 people in four States and while not intending to leave anyone out, the main early players were Mark Bevan; Jim Leslie; Michael Stevens; Lyle Arthur; Dave Clifford; Brian Hawkins; Bob Souter and Vic Kirkwood. The Sydney and Brisbane branches were opened thirty five years after Ken Evans started the business back in 1951.
Then, in 1991 the international Stock Market Slump saw markets crash around the world. Global share prices dropped an average of 25% but Australia saw a 40% decline. ACME turnover dropped 65% while interest rates surged from 9% to 23% on a million dollars of stock. ACME, like so many others could not survive and the Company was closed in 1992. Bruce recalls “It was certainly the low point in my career, I’d put thirty years into ACME and it hurt a lot to lose all my loyal people.”
Meanwhile John Cover had departed Australian trade Equipment when it was sold to Wickman in 1979. John decided to start his own business that was to become Allwood Machinery. He started out selling second-hand machinery, much the same as Barry Gabbett, before landing the rights for Weinig and Biesse. This was the start of the CNC revolution and John was in on the ground floor. The only way was up and Allwood was a very successful machinery supplier for over 20 years until Weinig became Weinig Australia in 2001 and Biesse became Biesse Australia in 2003. John was to leave Biesse Australia as managing director in 2005 but back in June 1992 saw potential in backing Bruce Evans in the establishment of Leda Machinery. Bruce said “I rate John (Cover) as one of the biggest driving forces in the industry in the last 45 years; he was a game-changer.”
Leda wasn’t in competition with John as they sold mostly Taiwanese equipment on a wholesale basis to over 50 tool stores and machinery suppliers around Australia. Over a few years Leda started selling direct into South Australia and gradually moved into more production-focused machinery and moved to new premises on Richmond Road Richmond SA. In 2005 Leda took on the KDT sole Australian agency for the range of production machines that Bruce describes as “The best partnership in my 60 years in the industry, it’s an absolutely remarkable company.”
KDT were originally made in ‘heavy-industry’ South Korea where the World’s biggest ships are made. The company moved production to China and now has several plants around the country. It’s well-known in the industry that most, if not all machinery producers have production facilities in China now and many parts for machines assembled in Europe come from China anyway. KDT is as professional an operator as any in the Country, even those managed from Europe. They make most of their own parts so they control not only the design of their machines but the quality as well.
Bruce says “KDT make seven thousand edge banders a year and well over a thousand beam saws and boring machines, some of these amongst the fastest in the industry. They’ve grown enormously over the years and Leda has grown as a result of this partnership. Bruce says “I wish I was twenty years younger to get the benefits of this phenomenal growth. Colin Clisby is the man responsible for the introduction of KDT to Leda and he’s made over fifty trips to China, so we know the brand very well.” In fact, Bruce will be handing over Leda to Colin, Peter Schilling from Leda Victoria and Andrew Masters, his current Operations Manager. He jokes “It’s probably time I got out, the young guys are leaving me behind.”
One thing Bruce regrets just a little is that “There hasn’t been much time to explore private pursuits; work has always been a high priority.” He is a bit of a car buff, owning a Jaguar S-type and an XJ-6; he also had the third Mini Cooper in the State in 1963. He would like the new all-electric Jaguar I-Pace SUV when there are enough charging points to make it feasible. Bruce and his wife Julie have just moved into a gated community after living in the house they built in Marion near Adelaide 45 years ago and are looking forward to retirement. They have a son, David and a daughter Cathryn who is quite an expert on autism, lecturing in colleges and heading a group of autistic people developing software for a major international computer company.
For fifteen years Bruce played amateur football, mostly at full back and if you ever saw a photo of him with his staff at Leda you will know why. He is a life member of the team he played for but laments “The team was formed in 1919 so it’s their centenary next year; the scary part is that I played with them before their 50th.” Bruce loves to travel and hasn’t been fazed by all the trips to Hannover and Milan over the years. “From now on it will be only pleasure; we like cruising, especially on European rivers but I still keep in touch with some of the people we’ve been in business with over there” he said. Recently he met up with an old friend in Bern, Switzerland, Hermann Birrer who used to make the H.B Sudhoff small edge banders Bruce sold at ACME. They still keep in touch, even though Altendorf bought HB out 20 years ago.
As to the state of the industry Bruce leaves in December? “It’s fantastic” he says, “I can see Australian manufacturer’s competing even with China. With so many CNC machines widely in use in Australia now, the labour costs aren’t such a huge difference anymore. Most European machinery manufacturers are here with their own offices and the availability of the World’s greatest equipment is the strongest it’s ever been.” Like John Cover and Barry Gabbett; Bruce Evans stands up there with the best of them, bringing technology to Australia in a time heady with change. Bruce has been instrumental in supporting the training sector and was a founding member of the AWISA organising committee. The industry may not be slowing down but Bruce plans to do just that…..well maybe.