John Muir isn’t an average individual, not at all. He is driven, focused, determined and passionate. He can also be, at times, obstinate and pig headed. It’s those characteristics that saw John build an internationally successful business exporting maritime gear to boat and yacht builders around the world. Muir’s anchor and mooring winches continue to be sought after by the makers of super yachts, pleasure cruisers, commercial and fast ferries, defence and patrol boats and other work boats from around the world.
John started his business life in a small steel shed next door to his father’s boatbuilding and repair yard on the shores of Battery Point.
He’d spent his early life as a kid growing up in the streets of this small Hobart waterfront suburb. It wasn’t your average suburb, for it boasted a thriving boat building industry and waterfront pubs that are surrounded by local folklore, some true, some that stretch imagination and the truth.
Ma Dwyers pub is one such example. When John was a lad of 12 he delivered evening papers to Ma Dwyer and always remembers her being nice to him. The pub had a reputation for being the preferred hangout and watering hole for many local petty criminals and reputedly Ma ran a brothel upstairs. The beds, it’s said, were connected by strings to bells that hung behind the bar, so she could make sure her working girls were, in fact, ‘working!’
John was part of a loving and hard-working family. His Mother had a reputation for always welcoming anyone into the house and its family activities who needed support or help from time to time. His father was an internationally acclaimed blue water yachtsman, boat builder and yacht designer. Jock Muir, John’s father had built and raced his yachts in one of the world’s greatest ocean going races, the Sydney to Hobart, and won that great event a number of times.
John was a crew member when he was just 15 years old, one of the youngest sailors to ever participate. He had begun his sailing career early, but his great love soon became apparent, after he had spent time as an apprentice diesel fitter. He discovered that he loved and was also very good at designing and building anchor and mooring winches.
As you would expect, the young John Muir was sailing from a very young age, so were his brothers and sisters. He built his own Lightweight Sharpie and competed at age 19 in the National Lighweight Sharpies competition, representing Tasmania. Both his brothers were Australian National Champions in the cadet dinghy class. Wind and water were to play a large part in all their lives.
There have been a number of times that the sea could have and almost did claim the lives of John, his brothers, Ross and Greg and his sister Lyn. The sea can be unforgiving, but a mixture of luck, seamanship and pure good fortune was with the Muir family.
The boys were keen observers of their father’s and other businesses that operated near where they grew up. One lesson John learnt from his Dad at an early age was that to ensure you won an order and kept the client, you had to be prepared to do whatever it took to make sure the customer stayed happy.
John’s father Jock built a remarkable motor-sailer, the Lady Nelson, launched in 1969 and built for Robert Robe Junior of New York. That’s how far his boat building reputation had spread. Robert Robe Junior had earlier owned and restored the well-known ketch Ti-conderoga.
“I was very happy with this boat which I designed and we built for Robert, she had a beam of 10 feet and a draught of four and a half feet and is a very comfortable vessel. The main specifications were that she had to be a lifeboat concept, so she’s got a double ender cruiser stern. I don’t know where he got the idea but I was very happy to do it.
There was a bit more work in it than another boat I built, the Van Dieman, but it looked nice when it was finished. Dave Wardrop was one of the boatyard workers who played a major role in building the Lady Nelson which was constructed of Huon pine and teak.
The launching of the Lady Nelson was unusual, done according to American custom, at night, under a blaze of electric lights with plenty of champagne flowing. Jock was on board for the delivery run to Sydney where she was trans-shipped to the USA and is believed to be sailing around the coast of Maine.”
John also developed an international reputation for unparalleled after sales service as his anchor and winch business grew to cover the Australian mainland, SE Asia and eventually the biggest yacht builders in the world in Europe, the UK and America.
The other great lesson John learnt from his Dad Jock was this:
“When you design and
build an anchor winch, make sure that it’s over engineered and no part of it
can fail, even under the most arduous of sea conditions. Make sure the winch
cannot fail. Build the winch stronger than the foredeck on which it sits, so if
anything fails it is the foredeck,
not the winch.”
John did that and his equipment has been sorely tested from time to time and has always exceeded expectations. His gear has never failed, foredecks have. John has an enviable international reputation for having the capacity to listen to advice from others based on sailing experiences, about the need for better design or equipment strength.
Keen observers of John Muir say he always wanted to ‘make things.’ He was never really interested in retailing, putting margins on something someone else had manufactured, he was always wanting to build things and build them better than anyone else. That was the philosophy behind the extraordinary growth and success of his Muir Engineering business. What he did build was the very best with a reputation for strength and reliability.
It is also extraordinary that he successfully built the business from a small city, on the southern coast of a small island that lies to the south of mainland Australia. Tasmania lies at 42 degrees south in the belt of the roaring forties. It has a legendary association with the sea, as it’s the finishing line for one of the world’s greatest blue water classic races, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race.
David McQueen, internationally acclaimed mega yacht builder is one of many Muir winch true believers. “Until I retire I’ll still be unofficially selling Muir winches, because it’s the best product in the world.”
John’s mantra is “You have to find the best customers and you have to work hard to keep them as a bird in the hand is always better than two in the bush.”
Boat shows were to play a pivotal part in the expansion of the Muir business. They are an important social and commercial event in the yachting and boating world calendar, particularly the international shows. International boat shows are where you mix with the beautiful people and rub shoulders with some of the world’s best designers and builders. Places where luxury yachts, superyachts and pleasure cruisers of all shapes and sizes are on display or for sale. The atmosphere is fueled by glitz and glamour. Beneath that glitzy surface is where the action is and that’s where John worked like a navvie.
John began showing off his wares at the Melbourne Boat show in 1972, he quickly outgrew that event and went on to Singapore, Osaka, Chicago, Miami, Monaco Amsterdam and many more. His selling motto was simple:
“Knock on the door, if that doesn’t work, climb in the window. If that fails, go round the back and if all else fails, climb down the chimney.”
In other words, never give up. It was attitude that finally saw John Muir successfully sell his marine gear to a large Dutch ship and yacht building business after ten years of knocking on their door and trying. It pays to never give up.
Malcolm Lewis, the Australian Manager for the large Italian industrial engineering business Bonfiglioli said; “The marine environment for which John Muir engineers his windlasses and anchoring system are every bit as demanding as the environments for which we engineer our wind turbines and port technologies. What makes our business relationship truly special is the focus we share on quality, performance and innovation. John is always innovating.”
One of John’s European representatives, of over 30 years, Jeroen Jeltes described John as “half gentleman, half streetfighter!” Jeroen remembers one sales trip through Holland and Italy and visiting an Italian shipyard, John was asked when was his flight home? His response was ‘not before I get your order!’
In the days when John was growing up in and around the streets of Battery Point, learning to survive in the school of hard knocks. It paid dividends many years later at the METS boat show in Holland. Muir’s had a stand at the show and John caught a European winch manufacturer taking photos of his gear, having pulled a winch top works down without permission. Before the man could react and get away, John grabbed his camera and said: “Bugger off mate, you can come back later and get your camera once you apologise to me. It won’t have any film in it when you do come back.”
Life hasn’t been an easy ride for John Muir, but he never complained or grizzled, he just got on with whatever needed doing at the time. His grueling international travel schedules took a toll on his health. Just 40 years old and at the end of a five week sales trip to the USA he ended up in hospital with an attack of acute pancreatitis. The morning after, while in intensive care, the surgeon told his wife Wendy, John was a lucky boy to be alive, for if the attack had hit while he was still flying home he would have been dead within 20 minutes. The illness left John with a legacy, loss of part of his pancreas, he became insulin dependent with type 1 diabetes.
‘Muir winches’ have a global reputation for excellence, reliability and design. For those men and women who choose to go to sea, winches, anchor systems and the right ground tackle are the difference between life and death. John Muir had the foresight, a dream to build the perfect winch. He did, and as the business grew so did the size and capacity of those winches.
Jos Scholten, owner’s representative and Project Manager for European based Gerry Pepping, another Muir Engineering client said: “When I think back about why I, again and again, advised my customers to use Muir equipment on their yachts and launches I came to the conclusion that there is one man at the helm, one man giving directions.
I have a strong aversion to accountant driven companies, they make for a while nice profits, but these accountants have no clue about the technical details of the products they sell. Their focus on profits diverts from the need of the customers and R & D usually suffers.
For me that is where John Muir stands out, once or twice a year you would receive a call from the director who travels the globe to give personal advice on chain run, anchor rollers, brake bands or hydraulics, you name it. Not only that I found my customers always had the chance to comment or to make changes that would suit the project and John listened.”
“The fact that Muir always kept the focus on their main business, being anchor systems, gives me the confidence that my customers can rely on that ‘shiny things on the foredeck’ which can suddenly be the last bit of hope of surviving!”
To end this bio here would do John a disservice, we must include a letter written to John by the Captain of the MV Illona, a 74m motor yacht that was originally fitted with anchoring and mooring equipment made in Holland. This gear failed repeatedly on her maiden voyage to Australia and all her five anchor and mooring winches were replaced with Muir anchor windlasses, capstans and variable speed control cabinets.
The Captain, Peter Oddie said in part “we decided to use Muir because of their reputation for the highest quality and user friendly operation. I understand that Muir gear is being installed in shipbuilding yards including Lurssen, Feadship, Trinity, Austom, Nobiskrug, Delta, Alstrom, HDW, Oceanco, Pendennis and other well-known yards in Europe and the USA.
I can highly recommend Muir as a company that build superior equipment and who stand by their product anywhere in the world.”
Today many seafarers across the globe owe their lives to John’s commitment to creating perfection for those ‘shiny things on the foredeck.’
Back to Blood, Sweat and The Sea.