Despite being one of Australia’s earliest settlements, Port Macquarie’s really quite new. Bob Todd came here in the ‘70s, a latter-day pioneer in a town of just 8,000, a tenth of its size today. He gets a kick out of reminiscing – and is looking forward to our future.
He’s one of nature’s gentlemen, I decide, before I’ve spent very long in Bob Todd’s company. His grin gives him away at the start: a big open smile and twinkling eyes, shuffling to his feet to say g’day and offer a warm handshake. Right away I feel at ease with him. Heck, I could buy a used car from this man!
No wonder Todd’s a cheerful, confident cove: he’s fairly comfortable as a result of his life’s endeavours, I’d guess, with nothing to prove – and that’s the best sort of man. But he’s not finished in the business world just yet. We’re in the offices of his engaging, third, wife, commercial realtor Debbie Moore, rummaging in a box of stuff, looking for old newspaper cuttings of his first caryard on Clarence & Murray, the Holden dealership bought in 1973, when the HQ was king. By the time he sold the business a few years back, by then on Gordon Street, he had 65 employees, a smash repair business in Blackbutt Road and had long held the NRMA franchise. Things are in boxes because the Todds are between houses, moved from the North Shore into town pending completion soon of a new North Harbour home. Todd can’t wait, because while it’s a “fairly modest three-bedroom house”, it’ll have one “real good boat shed”.
We unearth the 1973 books; in July that year Todd paid $1733 payroll tax. Handwritten wages records show his own salary at $130 a week net; his accountant earned more. Todd looks on the past fondly: he still owns one of the first, early series, 1948 Holdens. We examine a yellowed newspaper from ‘77 – the HZ era – recording the opening of a new showroom. It’s packed with photos of a smiling service manager, panelshop foreman, spare parts chief, office staff, salesmen, apprentices and Todd gives me a rundown on each; he seems to have been a real “people person” boss. The old papers trigger memories: he recalls the now-demolished Sandcastle Motor Inn, where The Stunned Mullet stands, and Tony Reid’s (menswear and furniture retailer) great bar there, with great views north up the coast. The papers show the 15c Surfing Santa Christmas stamp; The Rural Bank’s ruling 9% interest rate; that a new Gemini cost $3990.
Todd started out as a car detailer in Sydney in 1958, moving up to salesman and yard manager over the next decade. Then, after five years at an Orange dealership, he borrowed $120,000 to buy the Port prospect, “some from the bank, some from Mum”. Before long he’d built the new showroom, expanded to the Port Pacific block, taken on Mazda too. “We gave people what they wanted: service. If you came to Bob Todd Motors you got looked after.” He also gave back, supporting junior lifesaving, Sea Rescue, community groups. “What we earned in the town we put back into the town,” he says. “There weren’t many Bob Todd didn’t look after,” a contemporary attests. He can’t estimate how many cars he sold but clearly it would have been tens of thousands, worth hundreds of millions gross. His dealership’s now confined to Kempsey-Macleay where his oldest son Jeffrey is manager. It sells boats, too, not surprisingly. Todd’s always been into deep-sea fishing, jet-skiing swells at sea, ski boats (he tells a funny story of being nibbled by a shark in the Hastings River), enjoys “throwing a line in at the end of the day”. His houseboat sleeps eight and he overnights on it in summer. “We go mudcrabbing. We cook ‘em up on the barbecue on the boat and eat ‘em on board”. Once, “I had a nice cruiser at Runaway Bay; the idea was to drive up and use it for the weekend. But then I didn’t set foot on it for seven months, so I sold it,” he says, both disappointed and disgusted. “I should’ve bought it now …” he muses, but then corrects himself: “but Deb’s working full time, so we still wouldn’t use it.”
Time weighs on his hands now and as you read this he’s burning up central Australia with somemates on bikes. But he’s also keen for new ventures and I have to drag him to lunch because he’s wound up showing me his commercial-industrial property development – his expanding Merigal Road project for example, where he was “lucky enough” to pick up 12 acres. Moving from the council-owned rutted roadway onto a smooth section of asphalt he chuckles: “Look at theirs! Then look how good this is, the road they made me put in!”
We enjoy a convivial meal at The Mullet and end up encouraged, tactfully, to leave, because I’m lingering, fascinated by the characters he talks of, his anecdotes. Our conversation continues out on the pavement: noting ugly overhead power lines from Owen Street across the beach; agreeing it’s a shame the North Shore bridge wasn’t built back in the ‘80s; typical Port Macquarie chitchat. With council elections in 2012 or even earlier, Todd reveals he might stand. But he cautions: “I’m ONLY THINKING about it! I reckon I could do a bit for the town; I’ve got time now, and friends who could do it too.” When the council recently sold off property assets, Todd bought the old Hibbard General Store and: “I reckon I’ll do real well out of it,” he says matter-of-factly. His original yard’s one of the few vacant blocks in town awaiting revival: “We spent $200,000 on an archaeological study for Heritage Council approval: they were there for months with dustpan and brush – that’s what they do! They found some old relics and a convict drain we already knew was under the footpath.” His face says it all.
All the same, Todd has an enduring love for and faith in the town. “This town’s so good; you’ve got no idea. Someone could come here still and do well in business provided they work hard and have the right attitude. There’s lots of terrific opportunities. When I came here this town was smaller than Wauchope; it just grew and grew. One day, Port and Wauchope will be joined together. Then, it was six and a half hours to Sydney; now you can do it in three and a half, 110 most the way, have a weekender here. They’re talking about opening up the airport to Melbourne; it opens the door to bigger businesses to come here. With jet services to Brisbane too, this town will open up, you wait and see.
“It’s one of the greatest towns in Australia.”
> Out to Lunch is hosted by The Stunned Mullet