Meet the man behind Graham Barclay Marine – one of the most successful businesses in the Great Lakes area …
You were born here, Graham, but what’s your family’s history in the area?
Yes, I was born in Tuncurry, in Taree Street.
My dad and mum met during the Depression. Dad had been working as an accountant in Sydney, but he lost his job and came back to Tuncurry to live. Mum’s dad also died suddenly, so her mother came to Tuncurry and started a dressmaking business – and that’s how Mum and Dad met.
When dad came here he didn’t have a job, so he was taught to be a fisherman by some wonderful Italian locals. Dad’s father was already in the oyster industry, so he got my dad to manage a couple of small oyster farms on the weekend, or when he wasn’t fishing. From then on, my dad spent half his working life oyster farming, and half fishing.
What do you remember most from your earlier years?
I went to Tuncurry Primary School then to Forster High School for only one year.
After I did that year of high school, Dad said I’d better work with him. I worked for two years on his oyster farms, but it was really only meant to be a one-man operation, so I had to look further afield.
You’ve always been a keen sportsman too. How did you career as a footballer and water skier unfold?
I started looking in the paper for jobs. I was a good football player, though I was only 17 at the time, and I was told if I played football in Dapto (Wollongong), I’d be given a job and accommodation. I did really well down there.
I then moved to Sydney and played first grade in the St George Pre Season Trials. After the Australian Kangaroo team returned from playing in England, 7 of us were dropped to third grade. My dad had already given me an oyster farm to work on weekends, and I didn’t want to play third grade, so I came back home to Tuncurry to work the farm.
That same year, it was 1955, Canterbury-Bankstown offered me 500 pounds to play with them. I signed up with Canterbury, played half the season, and then I was hurt badly. Canterbury paid me out, as I was told I’d never be able to play football again with a damaged knee.
At the time, I used to go out to the Manly dam on Sundays and watch Jack Murray – he ran a ski show there, it was then I decided that I had to learn to water ski. When Canterbury paid me out, I came back home and bought a ski boat.
A Forster local, Fred Williams, was making water skis and skiing up and down Breckenridge channel and I asked him if he’d teach me to ski, which he did.
Because I had the bad knee, I used to pull a Mini Minor tube over the knee to hold it together! Luckily, you don’t really need to use your knees much to water ski.
Fred and I put a slalom course in out at the Forster keys, and I’d practice every morning and night.
I went to my first metropolitan ski championships in Sydney, and I won the competition! I went in the NSW Championship, and I won that too. Then I entered the Australian Titles at Surfers Paradise Ski Gardens – and I won again. That was in 1959. I’m very proud of that trophy – my ‘Oscar’!
I was selected to go to Milan, Italy to represent Australia in the World Titles. I did really well over there, and won all of my heats. On the last day, I had to race at 3pm, later than the other competitors, when the water was really rough – but I was still only beaten by 3 bouys. I ended up coming third. I was given a contract to go to Cypress Gardens in Florida; I went over there for a while and was offered big money to stay, but I decided to come back to Tuncurry.
Fred had a ski club going in Forster then, and I started to teach some of the locals to ski. It was through the ski club that I met my wife, Kay. It took me a while to convince her to go out with me! That’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. We’ve been together for 50 years now.
How did your big break in the business world come about?
I got my big break skiing in Melbourne. At one event, a voice boomed out of the crowd, “Barclay! The General Manager of OMC wants to see you!” I met the GM, who wanted me to do some ads for outboard motors. The ads were a big success.
OMC [Outboard Marine Corporation] offered to set me up in a franchise in Forster, and basically just dropped 10 Quintrex boats and outboard motors on my lawn at home. At the time, Kay and I were living in a flat opposite the Bowling Club.
And you wouldn’t believe it – every single boat and motor sold within two weeks! That was the start of Graham Barclay Marine.
At the time decimal currency came in, I was only a small oyster farmer. A firm called Alan Giles and Company, which owned several oyster farms on the coast, sold me their Wallis Lake business. Both businesses, the marine sales from my lawn, and the oysters, took off from there.
My grandfather was originally the General Manager of Woodward And Co. an oyster farming company that also had a large number of leases in Wallis Lake at the turn of the century. In 1987 I purchased these same leases, some 100 years after my grandfather’s time, owning the company.
And you’ve run both businesses side by side ever since?
Yes. Both businesses grew – it got too big for me at one stage, and in 1975 I sold my original Boat Land and marine business and just went with oysters for a while. But I missed the marine centre, so I started up again in our new location along the Lakes Way in 1985.
What’s the significance of the ski you’re holding in our cover photo?
This is the ski that Fred Williams designed for me when I came back to Forster. I used to have trouble when I was doing fast turns at 70 mph; the spray would fly back and hit me in the leg, so Fred cut out the sides of the ski to make the spray throw out wider.
I broke a world slalom record – unofficially – on this ski, at Glenbawn Dam in Scone.
I retired from skiing at the top of my game – it was getting too busy for me to run the business and tournament ski at the same time.
What are some of the changes you’ve witnessed in Forster-Tuncurry over the years?
When I grew up, Forster and Tuncurry were two individual towns with a lot of rivalry. That’s all changed now. The bridge really made a difference when it was built in 1959 and the towns linked together. When the big supermarkets, Woolworths and Coles, came here, that made a difference too and brought more people into town.
I can never see myself retiring. I swim nearly every day and I play tennis regularly, and I try to keep fit.
I’m 80 now, but I certainly don’t feel it. I love being around boats, and I’ve travelled around the world a couple of times and believe I live in the best town in the best country. I enjoy life.
Interview by Jo Atkins.
This interview was found in issue 70 of Manning Great Lakes Focus