You’ve probably never heard of Len Hunter, but there’s every chance you have an iconic Australian product at home that his family created in the early 1950s. He tells how a cockatoo created a fortune.
Your family developed Pine-O-Cleen, which is probably a staple in many households across Australia. I’m told there’s an interesting story behind how the product was developed. Can you explain?
Yes, there is. It goes back to the early 1950s. My father, Len senior, owned a company called Oxford, which primarily made shoe polish. He had become convinced that Australian housewives needed a quality cleaning agent with germ-killing appeal. There was just such a product on the market and it was called Dettol, but it was expensive and sold only through chemist stores. Dad had managed to acquire the importation licence from America for pine oil. The oil was in short supply, but Oxford, being the first to apply for a licence, was given exclusive Australian rights. Now that we had the oil, what were we going to do with it?
Mum and Dad lived in Footscray and in their back yard, Dad and I, as a young salesman, would mix detergents and pine oil in an old copper tub, trying to find the best formula. It was always too cloudy, or it would split, or it didn’t smell right. This went on for three months. Every morning, he’d put a glass into the copper and scoop out the liquid and, bugger, it would separate. In the yard, we had a cockatoo. One day, Dad left a half-gallon canister of ethanol beside the copper. The cockatoo, being mischievous as he was, knocked the canister of ethanol into the copper.
The next morning, Dad and I went out and Dad took a scoop as usual. ‘How sparkling is that,’ he said. It was perfect. Then we realised the canister was in the copper and the ethanol had come out and given us the perfect balance.
The cocky had done it for us and without his help, we’d still be buggerising about trying to get the right formula.
Did you reward the cockatoo?
I think Dad bought him a gold cage and a gold chain.
Pine-O-Cleen must have done wonders for the Oxford company …
It was like suddenly having a Phar Lap in your stable. It became a dominant cleaning agent throughoutAustralia.
Then the family sold Oxford to an English company …
We did. They made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.
So you’ve sold your company, but you’re a young man. What did you do?
We started a family business called Hunters Industrial. Under the terms of a selling arrangement, we weren’t able to enter the home cleaning business, but we were able to concentrate on the industrial sector – schools, offices, pubs, sporting clubs …
We established a reasonable niche market, making and selling things like mops, buckets, serviettes, air fresheners, toilet paper and yellow deodorant tablets that seemed to sit at the bottom of every male urinal in the country.
And you didn’t limit yourself to cleaning products, did you?
No. We also ventured into toys, selling them first through supermarkets and then through our own toy stores called Children’s Palace.
This was all done with your siblings?
That’s correct. I was one of five. And I have five boys who are all in the business today, one inSydney and the others here inMelbourne.
You’re now 87 and you seem remarkably active.
I walk my dog every day and I go to the football most weekends to watch St Kilda or the Bulldogs. I live not far from Etihad Stadium in the Docklands. I go to lunches and see my boys and brothers regularly. And my wife likes to walk over to the casino, play the pokies and see friends. It gives her an interest.
I understand you had a passion for big American cars. Is that still an interest?
Not so much. They’re too hard for an old bloke like me to park.
What have you owned over the years?
I had a Dodge, then three Cadillacs. Today, it’s just a small two-door Mercedes.
And you’ve written a book about your life?
With some help, yes. I think such things are important, for the next generation and later generations, to know something of their family history.