Wizard of Oz

Seeley International

Frank Seeley is neither shy nor retiring. This passionate advocate of the future of manufacturing in and exporting from Australia is not prepared to even contemplate stepping down from controlling his Seeley International air-conditioning company, the country’s biggest manufacturer of climate-control systems, despite admitting to being above retirement age. “Why would I want to retire?” he asks rhetorically. “I’m enjoying it too much!”

A Member of the Order of Australia, Frank is well known for his simple formula for successfully making things in a high-cost country: “innovate and automate.” Seeley International was established in a garage in 1972 but now employs 300 people, with manufacturing operations at Lonsdale, South Australia and Albury, New South Wales. From its sales offices in every state and sales operations in the US and western Europe, the company exports to more than one hundred countries.

Not only is Seeley making things in Australia, but its operations are not even under threat, Frank says – unlike so many companies whose CEOs complain bitterly about how difficult it is to produce things here, hamstrung by red tape and punishingly high exchange rates. “Our manufacturing is going very well. We are increasing our market share and turnover although both the heating and cooling industries are down in the country. We are growing at a very perceptible rate and it’s because of what we do in manufacturing.” Frank recognises he is something of a lone voice in the wilderness, only too used to hearing the opposite view from businessmen around the country. But there is a “huge future for Australian manufacturing providing we do two things – innovate and automate – and keep on doing them and doing them well.”

This philosophy can be applied across the board, says Frank – even the automotive industry. But subsidies for the latter need to be dependent on “clever ideas you come up with that are incorporated into your cars, with strong intellectual property, patented here and processed either here or under licence elsewhere.” He agrees that at present the subsidies paid by Canberra, Adelaide and Melbourne simply go straight to Detroit and are, in effect, a waste of money. “It needs to be done on a basis where we are going to get something back for the country.”

“If we can find a way to build value that stays in Australia for a significant period of time, then we all benefit.” Otherwise people should be retrained to do something that doesn’t lose money.

He acknowledges that Seeley received grants during the development of its Climate Wizard systems, but that the government received benefit in return from the export dollars around the world. His company retains the intellectual property in Adelaide but, as with other Seeley brands, some production is being done offshore – only under licence, with Frank’s team retaining full control. As for the other part of the “innovate and automate” mantra, “we are not as automated as we can be, so not as much as we should be. We have automated processes throughout our plants and it is very impressive to see, but there is always more we can do.”

Seeley has a comprehensive breadth of products and systems for air conditioning and heating, with its well established Braemar and Breezair brands, Convair and Coolair, Climate Wizard, and distribution of the Chinese Haier range. The latter has been a slow starter, says Frank, largely because the savings in energy and the enhanced efficiency of the indirect cooling system are so spectacular that many specifiers just didn’t believe the figures. “The early problem was that [the design] was too good.” Frank would talk about getting 140 per cent wet-bulb depression and engineers would argue that more than 100 per cent was simply impossible. “Well, we can and we do. Now we are finding ways of making it better and cheaper and we will keep on doing that.”

Now, though, the message is getting through that this is really something a bit special and worth a look. Seeley has just shipped two large high-volume modules to the US and Mexico; based on twenty foot container platforms. These are to be tested on a trial basis with some sixteen more to be ordered if they work as claimed. The design is evolving on an almost daily basis, following Frank’s dictum of innovation. He cites a case where the company had just received a six star Green Rating and he sent the engineers back home with a simple command to start work next day on a seven star version. “If we don’t do it, someone else will,” were his words of warning to the team.

This versatile system can be retrofitted to a refrigerated air conditioning system to reduce power consumption “dramatically”, while there is also the imminent prospect of an all-plastic version. Frank is no stranger to this sector – after successfully developing the first all-plastic portable coolers, he developed the world’s first all-plastic rooftop coolers. These helped expand the whole rooftop cooling market in Australia from 12,000 coolers each year to around 70,000. Plastics are more easily recycled than steel; more significantly, they are much more efficient in terms of heat insulation – steel or aluminium gets far hotter when exposed to sunlight.

Frank’s passion for manufacturing is matched by his enthusiasm for good works; he and his wife Kathy are heavily involved in church and charitable work. For more than twenty years, they have worked closely with local disadvantaged children and feed up to fifty children and teenagers in their home each week. He has no intention of stopping this work either. “The Bible doesn’t say anything about retiring. Why should I stop doing something I enjoy so much?” Doing good while having fun is unbeatable, says Frank.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:32 PM AEDT