Trailblazing female woolbroker and mentor says role in Merino industry ‘enables me to do what I love’

Headshot of Shannon Verhagen
Merino industry stalwart and Elders district wool manager Stephanie Brooker-Jones.
Camera IconMerino industry stalwart and Elders district wool manager Stephanie Brooker-Jones. Credit: Supplied

A pioneer of the Merino industry and trailblazer for female classers, Stephanie Brooker-Jones says the world of wool has taken her on a journey second-to-none.

And there are women now putting their hands up to follow her lead.

A city girl from Adelaide who wanted to work in the outdoors and travel, she settled instead on wool classing and “never looked back”.

She has since forged an impressive international career, with 15 years as a classer and almost 30 as a broker, all the while taking on a mentorship role for others having a crack at the industry.

Speaking at the Women In Wool event on Friday, the South Australian said the industry had changed vastly since the mid 1970s when she and her friend Susan Carn began at the Marleston College of Further Education School of Wool and Textiles.

“Susan and I sat down and there were probably 50 young fellas around the room and two girls and we both said, ‘bloody hell how are we going to survive this?’” Mrs Brooker-Jones laughed.

“We were both pretty nervous at the time.

“I was at a wool classing course last week and . . .. there were 30 students there and 28 were girls and there were two fellas.”

With their teachers “very supportive” of their decision to take on the male-dominated industry, the girls were none-the-wiser to their doubts.

“I did learn later that one of the lecturers said, ‘we all thought you two would never make it,’” Mrs Brooker-Jones said.

“But they certainly didn’t let on to us at the time and were fantastic and supportive and have been the whole way through.”

They also came up against hurdles in clocking up in-shed hours.

“There were no women roustabouts in the shearing sheds, so when we wanted to do our practical, we had to find places that had proper accommodation for females,” she said.

“Just finding employment with contractors that would taken women on was quite difficult.”

With a passion for her craft and steely determination, she went on to land a rehandling job at Bennett & Fisher’s wool store.

“It was a dirty dirty job, but I appreciate the time I had there and the ability I had to come back and work at the wool store when there was no work in the shearing sheds,” she said.

In the next 15 years she would go on to class in sheds around the country and New Zealand, during a time of advancement and change in wool handling.

“I was right at the forefront of micron and yield,” Mrs Brooker-Jones said.

“I really appreciate that I had to learn the whole raft of traditional wool classing as it was known from 1920 to 1976, and then move onto testing, objective clip preparation and going into the big sheds at the Riverina.”

She then landed a full-time private buying role with Michell, which she stuck with for 10 years, before starting her current role as a broker at Elders 18 years ago.

While the role has changed to be more sales-focused over the decades, Mrs Brooker-Jones said it had been a great journey.

“The role has changed in that I don’t know if people demand the service they used to, but they demand the knowledge and it’s something we seem to be lacking in the industry, we turn over people a lot,” she said.

“It enables me to do what I love — meeting people and travelling.

“I do 80,000km a year, I’ve had up to 220 clients in my role with Elders and I’ve maintained relationships the whole time right through from wool classing, Michell and Elders to where I am now.

“I’ve been in the industry over 40 years and it’s been a great industry for me.”

The 2018 Australian Wool Industry Medal recipient and first female president of Sports Shear Australia has become an icon of the industry, who always has the time to share her passion and knowledge with others.

Mentoring was part and parcel of her role as a classer, but her passion for passing on knowledge extended to training up judges and competitors and the competition circuit and today she remains heavily involved in mentoring the next wave of shed staff.

“I really do love working with interested people that want to soak up the information we can pass on,” she said.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there for people.

“It’s been a great journey for me and wool’s taken me around the world.”

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