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Gilham, Peter Roden (1925–1996)

by Tim Jetson

This article was published online in 2022

Peter Roden Gilham (1925–1996), primary industry entrepreneur, was born on 23 June 1925 at Smithton, Tasmania, second of three children of Leslie Percy Urbane Gilham, public servant and engineer, and his wife Doris Ades, formerly Salier, née Headlam, both Tasmanian born. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Gilham family’s fortunes had been inextricably linked to mining in western and north-eastern Tasmania. Peter’s father had trained as a surveyor and mining engineer but by 1928 he had moved the family to Bracknell where he ran The Hermitage, a small pastoral property. After home correspondence lessons, Peter was educated at the local State school and Launceston Junior Technical School. On 30 November 1942 he was mobilised in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve for service in World War II. Following training as a telegraphist, he was posted to HMAS Lithgow in July 1943. The ship performed escort, minesweeping, and shore bombardment duties in the South-West Pacific Area. Back in Tasmania in late 1945, he was discharged in May 1946.

By then the family farm had been sold and Gilham instead found employment in a variety of odd jobs, including bar work, farm labouring, and shearing, on the mainland and in northern Tasmania. On 23 June 1951 he married Beverley Mavis Bowles at Christ Anglican Church, Longford. Settling at Port Sorell, he established himself as a poultry farmer and market gardener. During this period he was better known for his sporting prowess, playing senior football for Sandy Bay, Longford, and Latrobe. He represented the Northern Tasmanian Football Association and North West Football Union, and in 1952 was co-winner of the union’s Dr Wander medal for the best and fairest player. While interstate on a working holiday in 1963 and 1964, he again took on casual positions (including fruit picking) and proved to be a natural salesman. The attributes that lay behind his football success—determination and desire to be the best—became features of his business career.

Following a suggestion in 1966 by the agronomist Peter Cocker about opportunities for the mechanisation of vegetable harvesting, Gilham, Cocker, and the local farmers Bruce and Ross Cutts formed Boisdale Pty Ltd. The directors’ congruent interests and complementary skills enabled the company’s more renowned successor Vecon (Vegetable Contractors) Pty Ltd (23 May 1968) to expand from local bean harvesting to mainland Australian and South African operations. But it was not until after switching to onions in 1969 that Vecon acquired an international reputation. With Gilham as managing director, the firm capitalised on seasonal differences between the northern and southern hemispheres to establish markets in Europe and East Asia. Tasmania’s location, he believed, provided the ‘unfair advantage’ (Montgomery 2002, 32) necessary for success. Divorced in September 1979, he married Leone (Lee) Diane Blanton (née Cooper) on 12 December that year in Melbourne.

To ensure quality, Vecon eventually controlled all phases of onion production from paddock to supermarket, reflecting Gilham’s ‘belief that if you want to sell something, somewhere it must be the best possible product’ (Mercury 1981, 8). The challenges that he overcame included the departure of the firm’s other founding directors, fluctuating currency rates, and industrial disputes that hindered efficient storage and shipping. Remaining optimistic, he developed a marketing model that entailed extensive travel, ‘the more visits, the more sales’ (Gilham 1989, 41); drew on local market expertise; dedicated a percentage of the selling price to product promotion; and embedded research and development in the firm. In 1987 he engaged the agricultural scientist Grantley Chaplin to develop walnuts as an alternative income stream. Later niche market sidelines included tulips and Kuroda, a Japanese carrot variety.

In Vecon Gilham found his métier. He was a resilient workaholic, whose self-confidence and infectious enthusiasm were keys to his success. His management style was hands-on, akin to being captain-coach of the company. The one-time largest onion exporter in Australia and pioneer of mechanised vegetable crop harvesting, he also inspired some of the State’s brightest agricultural entrepreneurs, such as Buz Green and Neil Armstrong. While he was successful in attracting talented staff, notably agricultural graduates, at times his self-belief meant that the sound advice they provided was not heeded.

Under Gilham’s direction, Vecon won honours, including export awards for primary products (1980–81) and a National Small Business award (1980). His role in the company’s success was recognised with the Tasmanian medal of agriculture (1985), Tasmania Day (1988) and Advance Australia (1994) awards, and being named the Devonport Chamber of Commerce’s business achiever of the year for 1992. In 1993 he served on the Federal government’s Horticultural Task Force. Proudly Tasmanian, he had commissioned Vecon’s logo incorporating a map of the State. He also planned to host the Vecon International Onion Festival, but was thwarted by travel disruption arising from the Australian pilots’ strike in 1989. He retired from Vecon in 1994; the company would be acquired by Webster Ltd, a long-standing Tasmanian firm, in late 1996.

Having battled prostate cancer for many years, Gilham died on 24 March 1996 at South Yarra, Melbourne, and was buried in Mersey Vale cemetery, Quoiba, Tasmania. He was survived by his wife, the two daughters and two sons from his first marriage, and the stepdaughter and stepson from his second. His obituarist recalled him as ‘[a]n irrepressible ideas man with a shrewd business brain, a talent for selling and a readiness to travel the world in pursuit of markets’ (Collenette 1996, 12).

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Badcock, Barbara. ‘Born to be a Farmer’s Wife.’ Unpublished manuscript, 2017
  • Chaplin, Grantley. Personal communication, 8 and 11 June 2021
  • Cocker, Peter. Personal communication, 8 July 2021
  • Collenette, Peter. ‘Death of NW Onion Pioneer.’ Examiner (Launceston), 26 March 1996, 12
  • Gilham, Merryn. ‘History of Vecon.’ Unpublished manuscript, 10 August 1995
  • Gilham, Merryn. Personal Profile of Peter Gilham. Unpublished manuscript, 18 April 1989
  • Gilham, P. R. ‘Marketing Model: Horticultural Export Marketing.’ Acta Horticulturae, no. 247 (1989): 41–44
  • Green, Buz. Personal communication, 14 July 2021
  • Mercury (Hobart). ‘Onion Proves a Winner for State Exporter.’ 11 February 1981, 8
  • Montgomery, Bruce. ‘Growth in a Nutshell.’ Australian, 6 February 2002, 32
  • National Archives of Australia. A6770, GILHAM P R
  • Titmus, Dimity. Personal communication, 21 June, 7 and 9 July 2021
  • Titmus, Leigh. Personal communication, 21 June 2021

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tim Jetson, 'Gilham, Peter Roden (1925–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gilham-peter-roden-32002/text39546, published online 2022, accessed online 8 October 2022.

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