Peter’s Story Part 20

My Life in Turmoil

My life, now in a perceived state of upheaval was in turmoil. I was feeling totally insecure with our permanent return to Canberra. With our mining days at Mintabie finished and all bridges burnt, with the sale of the camp and the giving away of our leases, I decided to throw myself in to running the business. I would play a waiting game with our damaged marriage and hope that it could recover. Even at this early stage of trouble I subconsciously began building a wall round my vulnerable emotional core. I knew very few marriages were perfect and often these setbacks were fixable, or became bearable over time, but I knew I didn’t want to feel this way.

My dad had died a year or so before (The demons who had haunted him for so long had finally come for their trophy). We were at Mintabie and found out, somehow, that he was in hospital and very, very ill. We packed up and were gone within the hour and rang to check from somewhere near Mildura only to find out he had died. I did not realise what a loss this great man was to me despite his alcoholism. He always had time to listen, help and not judge. Now and in the future there were roads to be travelled where I needed his understanding, support and advice.

To take my mind off the personal I decided to embark on a vigorous fitness campaign at one of the few gyms in Canberra. These days Gyms are everywhere and generations X and Y have their regular gym workouts firmly entrenched into their lifestyles. Back then it simply wasn’t as “cool”. The gym I went to was located in a small room at the end of the swimming pool at the old Deakin Indoor Centre. It had one work station, a couple of bikes, some free weights and one of those hideous belt vibrators where people who shouldn’t be seen using it often did. There were perhaps a dozen like minded people interested in fitness and we would discuss all aspects of training and best ways to reach our goals.  I made some great gym friends and this significantly expanded my knowledge and interest in fitness. A few years later the pool was removed and the gym grossly expanded to the extent of major extensions built on the vacant block next door. All sorts of new age equipment, classes, instructors and even special “gym clothing” began to be sold and the entire “fitness” world was being marketed to the masses. Gyms began springing up all over the place as the whole concept of fitness became embraced as part of a healthy lifestyle. Decades later I still regularly attend a gym close to home, several times a week, lost amongst the thousands of gym junkies who seem to stay motivated for a few months and then move on. The regulars have bonded in to a dedicated bunch and simply observe the migration of the masses between more serious, consistent workouts.

Mintabie Opal Doublets

Mineshaft was the focus of my attention and being personally involved constantly for the first time in years resulted in an upturn in sales and better looking shop displays. Stock selection and control was now much easier to implement as I could update it instantly instead of just a few times a year. I could now actively market the better selling lines and drop those that were not so popular. More importantly I had the time to pursue the direction I wanted to go and develop projects that interested me.

I began giving talks to any group wanting a speaker. I would take a selection of photographic slides and talk about life on the opal fields. Soon word spread and I was being asked to talk to all sorts of groups from embassies to Ladies clubs. This in itself was a great way to create new customers and enhance our reputation.

Landlords and Leaches

Shopping centre Landlords and leeches have a lot in common. Both like to suck the blood out of their victims! Landlords in particular employ only the best professional blood suckers to extract the most dollars out of their tenants. The bigger the organisation the better the trained bloodsuckers they employ to negotiate leases. The smaller the business the less bargaining power they have. Have you ever noticed the declining number of small independent businesses within the shopping malls of Australia? The big corporations running these centres prefer to deal with successful franchises and proven major retail operators. The major franchises have at least some clout to gain concessions but in return provide security in tenancy. The small independent, though, is like a lamb to the slaughter.  Mathematically the statistics intently studied by the leeches who negotiate with the small ‘independents’ extract the final drops of blood from the vast majority of these businesses who slowly but surely are sucked dry. This process has successfully bled to death many small businesses across Australia and I am sure you can see it happening in any major shopping mall near you today. The end result is that shopping malls are becoming increasingly boring and clones of themselves. Am I mad at this? You bet I am, and it continues to make my blood boil when I see another independent close the doors because of the process and not because of bad business decisions. I also have little interest anymore in visiting a shopping mall in another city. Boring, “same as-same as”, full of “would you like chips with your hamburger”? style retailers!… ”No! I would have ordered chips if I wanted them! Arrrggggh!”

Mintabie Opal Solids (3 to 30 carats)

Anyway our lease had twelve months to go and it was time to negotiate. I had been through the process a couple of times. I sat in front of a desk with a smiley faced negotiator, skilled in the art of frivolous small talk, armed with a brief case full of statistics to prove or disprove any point of argument and a head full of physiological debating technique learnt at some university specialising in this type of thing.  In later years I am sure the more resourceful of these negotiators became spin doctors for some of our more notorious politicians. The only ammunition I had, came from the “brotherhood of retailers” who were prepared to talk to each other and discuss what their rents were. Some of you may recall me writing earlier, about our landlord banning the meeting of three or more retailers at one time and who sent us all an official letter threatening legal action if we did, as it was a stipulation on page 321 in the small print of our leases!

The negotiator, of course, would never divulge rents of other tenants (Unless it was to his advantage). I knew the rates per square meter of several of the tenants including some of the prime retail areas downstairs. I was told that my rent would be going up 14%. There was little to no room for negotiation. “Market forces” were the culprit, I was told. My shop was upstairs on the way to the toilet and was by no means in a prime position. It was the only shop I could afford when the complex opened. Each lease renewal was accompanied by a hefty rent increase along with a fixed annual increase. Over the years it had increased substantially more than inflation and was now at the critical stage. I told the negotiator I would have to start looking elsewhere as the rent was simply too much and should be reduced to a level similar or below what other shops were paying considering the poor position. This obviously went down like a lead balloon and I was tactfully told it was not possible and the rent was more than fair. I should be happy with the modest increase.

Mineshaft Moves

A new shopping arcade was being constructed in the Canberra central business district so I made an appointment and went and had a look. It was a two level arcade and was mostly leased. The best shop on the bottom level was still vacant and was about the same rent as I was paying for a much smaller shop in a bad position. I decided to sign, there and then, and another chapter of my life was underway. I would have to run two shops for six months until the lease was finished but at least I could work towards the future. The arcade was part of a building owned by a local business group. Now this landlord I could actually talk to. I did not have to give him our monthly turnover figures and over the years he listened to how the pulse of business was going. In fact at one stage, when times were slow, he actually reduced my rent for a period. The arcade was full of a diversity of shops, mostly locally owned and the landlord wanted to keep it that way. He is now long retired and we still have time to stop and chat whenever I see him.

A professional shop fit out was beyond my financial capacity so I asked a cabinet maker I knew who specialised in Kitchen fit-outs if he would like to try building something different. ‘No worries’ was his reply and my shop was finished and ready to trade well before opening. Pink carpet and walls with display cases built by a kitchen designer actually looked much better than it sounds and all paid for the cost of wages and materials. I did the painting and organised carpets etc. The cabinet maker organised the electrician who installed the lights I had purchased.

We decided to have a closing down sale at our first shop. This was the one and only sale we had ever had and to this day the only sale we have had.  All our good stock had been moved over to the new shop along with most of our opal. What was left was old, slow or duplicates. For some reason the sale took off. We reduced everything by 50% and we had more customers in the last month than in the last two years. In fact we sold more in the final month than the previous twelve months (including Christmas). I was working the new shop and every night I would go over to our original shop, tidy up and try and fill the gaps, often taking hours. I was phoning my network of suppliers, sourcing stock they wanted to clean out at a bargain price. This made them very happy as they cleared out a lot of slow stock, oddities and end of lines. I made customers happy with genuine deals and some really different items.

The negotiator contacted me just before our sale started asking if I had considered his offer. I had great pleasure telling him I had found another spot and would not be renewing. It was only then he wanted to negotiate. A few months later the shop was offered to Pat Walker (Another local gemstone dealer who I knew well). The asking rent was less than 50% of what I had been paying. It was never leased out and a couple of years later became an office for the RSPCA so I can honestly say our old shop “went to the dogs” after we left.

When we took our initial lease, there were perhaps 30 independent businesses. When we finally closed our doors there was just one of these left trading, a butcher who closed soon after.

Home Life

On the home front things were settling down. We changed houses to a more modern house and a lot of time was spent adjusting it to our way of living. There was a small room behind the internal garage and I converted it to an opal cutting room. The yard was big enough for Michael to play in and for me to construct a good size veggie patch. Peppa the mining dog did not look impressed at the size of her domain, it being somewhat smaller than the hundreds of hectares she was used to roaming in.  Her friend “Dingo” was replaced by various yapping Pekinese and pampered Poodles from neighbouring yards and I am sure by her quizzical looks she was not impressed and could not understand a bark they were yapping.

First oal eye cut for a customer
First opal eye cut for a customer

I had time to cut lots of opal, and time to use my stored gemstone cutting machines such as the vibrolap for polishing gemstone faces and even time to dust off the tumbler for the time consuming task of tumble polishing gemstones. All this helped my shop to look good and continue to grow.

The Phone Call

Our new accepted lifestyle drifted by until one night when I received a phone call, out of the blue, from Stafford of Mintabie. Stafford owned the bulldozer that had cut our Watertank claims. He also owned a prospecting drill and other large machinery and was one of the biggest dealers in Mintabie rough opal.

Stafford said he had a proposal. With ears glued intently to the phone I listened with a significantly increasing pulse rate. “Pete”, he said, “Over the years I have done a fair bit of prospecting here and found a few potential areas with opal, but just not enough opal to gamble on the expense of using the Dozer to cut the claims. What I need is someone with a lot of Mintabie underground experience who I can trust to check these prospects out. I will pay the costs, provide the mining gear, and you can use the caravan beside our camp.  I’ll give you 25% of the opal you find”. WELL, talk about waving a red flag at a demented bull! There would be no guarantees and he expected it would take no more than a couple of months to investigate all of the prospects. The thought of mining again, especially on areas that may have opal was just too much to pass by so yet another decision was decided instantly and we were busy preparing to return to Mintabie as soon as we possibly could.

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