John Dunphy (1943 – 2015) passes: a legend in the fishing tackle business.
  |  First Published: January 2015

It is with great sadness we advise the passing in January of Shimano Australia’s founder, John Dunphy.

John had been fighting a long battle with liver cancer throughout 2014. John passed away in Osaka, Japan where he had been undergoing treatment and was accompanied by his family.

 John founded Dunphy Sports/Fishing Imports in 1981 and a short time later secured the distribution rights for Shimano in Australia and New Zealand. We thought it the right time to run this interview piece that Shimano stalwart Steve Starling penned for the ATFR trade magazine a couple of years ago.

Steve Starling snapshots the man known to many simply as ‘Dunph’ or ‘JD’ as he talked about his life, his times and his amazing achievements in our industry.

SS: So John, paint me a brief picture of your childhood. Where were you born, and what it was like growing up there?

JD: Well, I was born in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah, and at that time my family lived in nearby Allawah. I have one brother, Terry, who’s two years younger than me, and two sisters, Dianne and Trudy.

Dad worked for himself back in those days, selling horse manure! When Mum finally got us kids off to school, she also went off to work, in a coffee shop in the city.

Those early days growing up in Allawah and later in Jannali were lots of fun, and I remember them being really good times for us kids. However, when I was about six, we moved into some housing commission huts at Herne Bay (the area known today as Riverwood). That period was a real learning experience for us kids. There was almost a fight a day in the crowded Housing Commission settlement, which had a really bad reputation in those days. That period lasted for about three years before we were lucky enough to get a housing commission house (a brick one!) in the suburb of Narwee.

In those days, Narwee was a great place for kids to grow up, because there was bush everywhere. That gave us plenty of places to play and explore after school and on the weekends. Terry and I loved parrots and finches, and we used to trap them in the bush, right near home. Life was pretty good, and we really enjoyed growing up there. We made some great friends along the way, too. In fact, I still have yearly reunions with my old mates from Narwee, although the area has changed quite a bit since then. There’s certainly not as much bush as there was back in the days when Terry and I were out trapping birds!

SS: What are your earliest fishing or fishing-related memories, John?

JD: My earliest fishing experiences were always connected to my uncles from Allawah. They were incredibly keen fishos! I’ll never forget the many times we’d go down to the banks of the Cooks River in Tempe to dig bloodworms. Then we’d either head to Tom Uglys Bridge over the Georges River with our wooden handline spools, or we’d get up really early and drive all the way north to the Hawkesbury River road bridge. The Hawkesbury was a bit of a dream destination for us, and its Holy Grail was the mighty jewfish. But of course, we made a lot more trips to Tom Uglys, because it was so much closer to home.

We’d usually fish off Tom Uglys Bridge in the night, often from midnight until 3.30 or so in the morning… right through the middle of winter, too! You can imagine how cold it was. Some nights we’d catch up to 30 big bream and maybe half a dozen jewfish, including a few big ones. Some of the jewies we hooked were simply too big to haul up onto the bridge, even with our heavy handlines, and we lost them.

Another reason we tended to fish more at Tom Uglys in those days, rather than making the long haul up to the Hawkesbury, was the number of catfish you’d sometimes encounter up there. When the catfish were on the bite, you’d catch heaps of the bloody things! It’d be frowned upon these days, but the way we’d get them off the hook was to swing them around and around in the air on our handlines until we built up enough momentum to belt them down onto the concrete of the bridge. They’d soon spit out the bait and hook then! Anyway, that system worked well until my Uncle Dicky miscalculated his swing one night… The fish came straight down and embedded itself into the top of his head! Yep… all aboard for a quick dash to Hawkesbury hospital. That was the end of our fishing for that night.

SS: Sounds painful! What was your first real job after finishing school, John?

JD: My father got me my very first job. He had a mate in what was then called the PMG or Post Master General’s Department [nowadays Australia Post]. I became a junior postal officer. I clearly remember that my starting salary was one pound and ten shillings per week. The weekly train fare into the city and back worked out to 10 shillings, and my board was also 10 bob a week… That left the princely sum of 10 shillings each week to live on.

SS: So, how and when did you get involved in the sporting goods and fishing tackle industries?

JD: My involvement in the industry started in 1964. By that time I was in the state public service, working as a “fair rent inspector”. My territory included Kings Cross. You can probably imagine some of the premises I had to inspect and measure up in the Cross! Anyway, it wasn’t something I felt cut out to do, and I wasn’t really enjoying it much, so one day I simply left. I didn’t have another job to go to, but I knew I didn’t want to pursue that type of career.

I was recovering after breaking my ankle while playing footy when I spotted an ad’ for a storeman and packer at a sporting goods company in Redfern called Jones and Joseph. Well, I applied for the position and got the job…

The day I started, one of the first people I saw was Fred Glover, who I knew through family connections. Along with Gus Veness, Fred Glover was one of the true legends in the sporting goods and fishing tackle business in those days, and he’d always wanted me to go into that business with his son, John. When he saw me at Jones and Joseph that morning he was really surprised. “What the bloody hell are you doing here?” he asked. Little did I know that he’d recently sold his own sporting goods business to Jones and Joseph. Anyway, I replied that I’d seen the ad’ for the job in the paper, applied and got it. He smiled and said: “ This is so bloody ironic! It suits my plans perfectly.” At that stage, I had no idea of exactly what he meant, and I never had the chance to ask as him. Tragically, Fred had a massive heart attack that same night and died.

So I started with Jones and Joseph and the rest, as they say, is history.

SS: And it’s been quite a history! Give me a run-down of your career in this business...

JD: After a while I was head-hunted from Jones and Joseph to become a cadet in the Dunlop sporting goods’ division. I really liked that job and probably would’ve stayed on there, but Dunlop and Slazenger merged and I lost the motor car that had been a part of my package. It was about this time that the management of Jones and Joseph lured me back for a further three years with them. At the end of that period, I left them to go into business with John Glover, so I guess old Fred’s dream had finally come true!

That partnership in the sporting and fishing tackle game lasted 14 years, and it taught me so much, as well as giving me valuable contacts. At the end of that period, we sold out to Protector Safety Industries. I wasn’t all that happy under the new management, so the offer from Shimano in 1981 to set up their Australian business was very timely.

SS: I clearly remember the arrival of Shimano Fishing Tackle in Australia, Dunph’. I’d just become editor of Fishing World magazine, working under Ron Calcutt. The brand made a huge impact here. I’ll never forget going to a little coffee shop at Central Station with Ron to meet you for the first time. Your enthusiasm was infectious! What are some of your proudest achievements with Shimano Australia? I’d imagine the creation of the Baitrunner concept must be right up there?

JD: Yes, Baitrunner was certainly ground-breaking stuff, and went on to be big around the world. But in those early days it was just such an exciting spirit that existed in the Shimano development team. We were very much the new kids on the block. We were all 10 feet tall and bullet-proof and thought we could do just about anything… and we did! The great thing is that some of us are still alive to look back on it all although, unfortunately, some are no longer with us.

The guys involved from the USA were Big Bad Fred, Russell, Kendall and others. From Japan there was Noda, Mitsuo, Junior and Shinji. In Australia we had my brother Terry, Mikko [Mark Mikkelsen] and yours truly.

For me, the real excitement was the fact that, thanks to 14 years of developing product in Asia and elsewhere, I had all of these ideas about exactly what we needed to build. But I didn’t have the serious money needed to develop major projects such as new reels and so on. Suddenly, when I hooked up with Shimano, I had an open chequebook to create true high-quality gear. Before they knew it, we threw out all the old existing moulds and concepts and all these wonderful new products began to happen every year.

We wanted Aussie fishos to experience and share the same sense of excitement we were feeling about doing things differently and creating new concepts… and it worked!

Most importantly, we copied no one, and we still don’t. Can you believe how many amazing products came from that wonderful period? Low-profile baitcaster reels with tolerances fine enough to fish with 3lb line are a great example. I remember the bad old days of taking the torch and screwdriver to old-fashioned baitcasters to pick out backlashes in the dark. Then there were the TLD, TTS, TSM, BTR and Beastmaster series, to name just a few highlights.

SS: And then later you guys did the same thing with rods, and also had the foresight to back Bushy and myself with the Squidgies. But going back again, who were your heroes when you were growing up and in later life, and what people do you most admire in the business world?

JD: Certainly, my biggest hero when I was growing up was [rugby league legend] Reg Gasnier. In later life the term ‘hero’ doesn’t apply so much, but there are many people I respect and admire, and my success with Shimano has allowed me to get to know a lot of them personally.

In rugby league there are so many top players who really love their fishing, like Bozo [Bob Fulton] and ET [Andrew Ettingshausen]. In the first grade cricket world, I think they just about all fish, especially my good mate Heydos [Matthew Hayden].

In the fishing industry, Rex Hunt has done an amazing job, especially in the early days when we really needed wider public recognition for our sport. The contributions made by you, Bushy, Tim Simpson and Barra [Ian Miller] shouldn’t be ignored, either. Other people such as Julian Pepperell, John Diplock and John and Jenny Mondora are also very dear friends from the fishing world.

In the business world, I have great respect for my good friend John Conomos, who was the chairman of Toyota throughout their most successful growth period in this country. John’s a very astute businessman and I’ve learnt a great deal from him over the years.

SS: How has Shimano Australia managed to remain so successful and continue to grow each year, despite tough economic times and global downturns?

JD: A key element is to come up with significant innovations and improvements every year, without fail. Also, you need to protect and build your customers’ profits and always market your brand professionally. Finally, it’s essential to protect the image of your brand and its products at all times. A strong brand and great product are all that separate you from the also-rans.

SS: What does your future hold, Dunph’? Are you going to potter around the garden now, or do you have new challenges to embrace?

JD: I’m not entirely sure at this stage, but I don’t think I can sit around not doing anything. I’ll still get involved somehow with product development, as it’s a real passion for me. I’ll also play a bit more golf! But I have a few other irons in the fire, too, so stay tuned!

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