A bang-up career

The West Australian

With a hearty laugh, Imre Mencshelyi admits his career with Co-operative Bulk Handling started with a bang, literally.

And for those who know the easy-going grain industry identity, this probably doesn't come as a surprise.

"My first posting was at Norpa, south east of Merredin, as a bin attendant, and there was no electric refrigeration back in those days," he said.

"The Malaysian weighbridge officer we had there thought that the higher you turned up a kero fridge the cooler it got, but we all know it's not as simple as that."

The story follows that the kerosene burner exploded, burnt down the weighbridge, and consequently the entire site was shut down in the summer of 1966-67.

"The only thing we managed to save was the boxful of books. Otherwise we would have lost all the delivery records from that harvest," Mr Mencshelyi said.

Only 13 at the time, but a self-described "big strapping lad", Mr Mencshelyi passed for much older and spent his summers working for the bulk handler as he went through school and university.

Trained as a geologist during the 1970s mining boom, he couldn't secure work in the industry because of the numbers seeking geological work at the time.

"So I went for a job interview in Merredin for a teller position with the bank of NSW, but the manager told me I was overqualified. As I walked out of the bank and down the street I bumped into CBH supervisor Bill Reynolds, told him my story, and the next day I was working as a receival point operator at the Warralakin bin," Mr Mencshelyi said.

It was at this point his lifetime commitment to the WA grains industry really began.

Refugees from Hungary, Mr Mencshelyi's parents were first sent to a camp in Northam in the Avon Valley upon their arrival in Australia.

For many years Mr Mencshelyi's mother worked as a domestic at the Merredin hospital, while his father was a lumberjack in the Margaret River region before moving to Merredin where he commenced a long career with the railways.

Mr Mencshelyi spent most of his childhood in Merredin and is clearly passionate about the farming industry in the central and eastern Wheatbelt.

But after a time spent as supervisor in the Merredin district, Mr Mencshelyi moved to the Jerramungup area where he worked closely with many farmers who had just begun their farming career.

"This was pioneer stuff, the Government had just opened up this area, there were a lot of war service settlements and leases, and a lot of the farmers down there were new entrants to the farming game," he said.

At just 19 years old, Mr Mencshelyi bypassed the normal CBH selection criteria to be chosen for the coveted cadet supervisor traineeship.

"The age limit was 25, and I was just 19, so I had to go through an extensive and intensive selection process, but I managed to get into the cadet course, and that training and development program was one of the best courses I've ever been involved in. It taught me the basics about leadership, understanding people, conflict resolution and negotiation," he said.

These were all skills he had to call upon time and time again throughout his 42-year career with CBH.

Climbing the corporate ladder the old school way, Mr Mencshelyi served at the coalface of the bulk handling operation, from the receival sites through to the ports.

"I managed the Kwinana grain terminal for five years at a time when there was a lot of industrial upheaval on the waterfront," he said.

"The waterfront was not efficient, and not cost -effective. It needed to change and we were part of that at Kwinana.

"Now Kwinana grain terminal is recognised as an efficient cost-effective terminal, with dedicated employees and that's certainly a real highlight."

But Mr Mencshelyi didn't stop at the ports. He was focused on the top job.

"Doing that cadetship and with the folly of youth, I felt that I had sufficient training and development to manage an organisation. At the time I was full of confidence and thought I knew it all," he said.

"I now look back and realise how little I did know at the time. I applied for the general manager's role three times during my early years."

Mr Mencshelyi was rewarded for his persistence and appointed general manager/chief executive when he was just 41 years old.

"Yes, I was young, particularly given that most CEOs were appointed in their 50s or 60s in those days, so the CBH Board must have had a lot of faith in me, even though I was considered to be young and inexperienced at that time," Mr Mencshelyi said.

Mr Mencshelyi humbly credits past chairman Mick Gayfer with much of the modern success of the organisation, which now has assets worth $2 billion and employs more than 1000 people.

CBH is also Australia's largest co-operative.

"Mick Gayfer was a visionary in my mind, and I still believe he hasn't received adequate recognition for his vision for the grain industry in WA," Mr Mencshelyi said.

"He always only had one objective in mind, and that was to better the lot of farmers and the co-operative.

"He worked very hard, and some of his long-term strategies included the Kwinana Grain terminal, Metro Grain Centre, and rationalisation of receival points in the 70s, which wasn't necessarily a decision favoured by every farmer.

"I was fortunate in that I worked with five excellent chairmen during the 15 years that I held the position of CEO, including Mick, Alan Watson, Rob Sewell, Tony Critch and Neil Wandel.

"All five of them were outstanding leaders in their own right. They all had their own style.

"But, of those, Mick Gayfer was chairman for 25 years and he was the figurehead that brought the organisation from binder twine and wire through to the current technology that is now part of storage and handling."

But it was also Mr Mencshelyi who pulled the bulk handler into the 21st century, presiding over major structural changes, with the organisation now regarded by many as the most efficient grain handler in the country.

Some industry commentators say the organisation, in its co-operative structure, is the envy of farmers across Australia.

Under his leadership CBH has evolved from simply managing storage and receival sites, to having a marketing arm, and an international investment he says now allows growers to participate in profits throughout the entire supply chain.

Throughout his 15 years as chief executive, Mr Mencshelyi believes there were three events that marked turning points in the life of the organisation, these being the merger with the Grain Pool of WA, the investment into Asian flour mill InterFlour, and the deregulation of the wheat industry.

"I liken the position of CEO to that of a coach of a football team - you need to understand the ball in front of you. It's also crucial to understand your players and their capabilities and skills," he said.

"Watching people develop, and building that team into a stronger unit, that was the most enjoyable part of being a CEO."

Mr Mencshelyi retired from CBH in 2009 and these days is a farmer in his own right.

He and wife Sue now live on their Karridale Olive farm, and produce some of WA's most renowned olive oil products, under the Whirlwind brand.

"I'm very passionate about it but it's very labour-intensive - I guess like all agricultural pursuits," he said.

"I'm finally understanding how difficult it is to make money from agricultural pursuits."

Mr Mencshelyi is also the independent chairman of the InterFlour Group, the joint venture between the CBH Group and Indonesian magnate Anthoni Salim.

Looking back at his CBH career, would he change anything?

"I have a lot of fond memories and received a lot of satisfaction from my career, and no, there isn't one thing I would change," he said.

"I enjoyed meeting people throughout the State. I enjoyed the various roles I had in the organisation and moving around the State.

"There was always a new challenge. I enjoyed every moment."

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