April 2018

Expertise and excellence: the Arvi Parbo story

  • By Cameron Scott

Sir Arvi Parbo’s remarkable career spans the second half of the twentieth century and took him from post-war Germany to the start of a new millennium in Australia

Sir Arvi Parbo arrived in Australia as a young immigrant in 1949, escaping the uncertainty of post-war Europe. In the decades afterwards, his determination to learn and passion for mining saw him climb the ranks to senior positions within Western Mining Corporation (WMC), where he worked for 43 years. Under his direction as Chairman and Managing Director, WMC’s expansive exploration projects proved extremely successful – including the discovery and development of the Olympic Dam mine. Parbo was influential outside WMC too, joining the board of BHP in 1987 and becoming its Chairman in 1989.

Throughout his career, Parbo earned the respect of some of the country’s most influential figures. In 2006, Prime Minister John Howard said of him: ‘Nobody understands and knows more about the mining industry in this country than Arvi Parbo.’

Parbo spent his formative years in his native Estonia on his parents’ farm and moved to Tallinn to study electrical engineering. In Estonia, a good education was like a passport – it could grant its owner opportunities far beyond the borders of Europe. Parbo’s career has been studded with trips across the globe – from Japan and China to the US.

Parbo’s education in Estonia was cut short by the Soviet occupation in 1944. Near the end of World War II, Parbo, separated from his family, fled to Germany.

Parbo decided that an education, which would always stay with him, would be a lifelong asset. Although he had initially studied electrical engineering, he had a passion for minerals. He decided to merge the two into a career.

‘As a refugee in Germany after World War II there was an opportunity to enrol in the Clausthal Mining Academy and I decided to combine the interests in engineering and minerals to study mining engineering. It was a good decision!’ he says.

At the time, Clausthal did not offer much in terms of creature comforts – having only just reopened after the war, in winter, with no fuel for heating, students and teachers alike attended school in overcoats, hats and gloves. But Parbo remembers his time at Clausthal fondly, recalling in his written memoirs the first mine he worked in as a student of the academy.

‘Because the mine I worked in was so old, the current workings were a long way from the main shaft. We descended in a cage down this shaft, travelled in an underground train for some 45 minutes, went down an internal shaft, and walked another quarter of an hour or so to the working place,’ he writes.

‘At the end of the shift all this happened in reverse.’

However, there weren’t many opportunities for mining engineers in Germany at the time. In 1949, when presented with options to emigrate, Parbo was given the choice of a variety of countries including Canada, the United States, Brazil, South Africa – and Australia. Parbo was already familiar with names like Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie and ultimately chose Australia for its promising mining industry and its desire for skilled engineers.

Upon arrival in Australia, Parbo’s first job was government-allocated – he worked as a jackhammer operator at a quarry south of Adelaide.

He was eager to complete the studies he had begun in Germany, but as a migrant he was obliged to work where the government sent him.

Determined to finish what he had worked so hard for back in Europe, Parbo negotiated with the employment services until eventually he was transferred to Geo Gitsham and Sons, a factory within bike-riding distance of Adelaide University, where he attended lectures part-time while working.

‘Gitshams were very good allowing me to take time off for lectures, even though they knew that it meant I would eventually leave them,’ he says.

During his time at Gitshams, the factory lost its engineering draftsman and, owing to an ‘acute shortage’ of skilled workers in Australia at the time, Parbo took up the role. He was later awarded a Commonwealth Mature Age scholarship, which financed his last two years of full-time study towards a Bachelor of Engineering.

The mining engineering course had a tiny cohort (there was one other student in Parbo’s year) and the course head, Professor John Morgan, was able to provide individual attention to his students.

At 30 years of age, Parbo was ten years older than the usual graduate, and Professor Morgan advised that a small company with rapid growth would provide him early opportunities for more senior roles.

‘He [Morgan] introduced me to WMC and his assessment was exactly right,’ Parbo says.

Parbo’s career began as an underground surveyor in Bullfinch, Western Australia. This involved daily trips through the mine, from the highest level to the bottom – some 480 metres below the surface – to measure the amount of ore extracted. Parbo took this role seriously, as his calculations would determine the rate of pay for the miners.

After this, Parbo became manager of a satellite mine and in 1960 was sent to WMC head office in Melbourne as a technical assistant to Bill Morgan, Managing Director of WMC.

In 1964, Parbo was assigned back to Western Australia as deputy to Sir Laurence Charles Brodie-Hall.

Parbo attributes a great deal of his managerial prowess to observing his superiors, some of whom became not only mentors, but lifelong friends. Parbo and Brodie-Hall remained close friends until the latter’s passing in 2006.

In 1967, Parbo returned to Melbourne and was appointed General Manager, again reporting to Bill Morgan. Upon Morgan’s retirement due to illness in 1971, Parbo was appointed to succeed him as Managing Director of WMC.

Following Sir Lindesay Clark stepping down from his role as WMC Chairman in 1974, Parbo was made Chairman and Managing Director. Other prominent leadership positions included Chairman of ALCOA Australia and the first president of the Business Council of Australia, which was formed in 1983.

Looking back on his monumental career and the people he worked with, Parbo says it was the actions of senior members of companies that determined the company culture.

‘Those lower down in the organisation watched very closely what their leaders did and how they behaved,’ he says.

‘It was the values and standards of the leaders, what they said and, most importantly, what they did that set the tone throughout the company.’

For the current state of the industry, Parbo says one of the greatest challenges, from an operational standpoint, is responding to the rapid development in technology and automation.

‘Many of the work practices today are becoming increasingly out-of-date as time goes on.  Professionals need to be at the forefront of developing and applying more efficient practices,’ he says.

The physical conditions in mines have certainly experienced an evolution since Parbo first worked underground 70 years ago.

‘The pick and the shovel were still widely used tools,’ he writes in a collection of memoirs.

‘On smaller mines ore trucks were still pushed by men from the loading point to the hoisting shaft and horses were used in some coal mines.’

Parbo at the Bergmannsglück coal mine in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, 1948.

Parbo has seen the progression of technological advancements first-hand throughout his decades in the industry.

Today machines do everything, the industry and its equipment is much larger and increasingly computerised. To Parbo, these advancements are levelling the playing field; physical strength is becoming less important, while technical skills and scientific knowledge continue to shape the future of the industry.

It is no surprise that Parbo is an outspoken supporter of scientific innovation. He was President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering from 1995-1997, served as an ex-officio member of the Prime Minister’s Science and Engineering Council and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Victoria.

Despite the continued advancements in technology, Parbo’s advice to those interested in a career in the mining industry is to do as he did back in 1949.

‘Get to know the industry and the people in it, either by visiting many mines or obtaining vacation work, or both,’ he says.

He also believes that the future of Australia’s resources industry will depend on industry professionals acting as ambassadors to the public – promoting the resources industry as a driver for economic growth, and its contributions to social improvements across the country.

‘Without the minerals industry Australia would be a different and much poorer country today’, he says.

Parbo has been a member of AusIMM for almost as long as he’s been in Australia, joining the Institute as a Student Member in 1954.

‘Attending AusIMM meetings and functions has given me many contacts in the industry and a unique feel for the people in the industry beyond the colleagues I worked with,’ he says.

As he grew in his career, he also took on more senior positions within AusIMM, becoming a member of the Council from 1974-79 and then Vice-President from 1979-1982, before becoming President in 1990.

Parbo employed his people-focused managerial practices during his tenure as President.

‘I wanted to meet as many members as possible,’ he says.

‘I decided to visit all the Institute branches in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, speaking on each occasion about the mineral heritage of that particular area.’

Parbo was grateful for the help of numerous people who assisted in compiling notes and speeches for the major undertaking.

Parbo visited a remarkable 37 out of 38 AusIMM branches (Bougainville was inactive); by his own estimate, he met with nearly half of all AusIMM members at the time. The lecture tour formed the basis for his 1992 book Down Under – Mineral Heritage in Australasia (AusIMM Monograph 18).

Parbo’s Presidency of AusIMM and, indeed, his entire career from Europe to Australia is a testament to the idea that no matter where you come from, the resources industry can be empowering and provide a global network of peers. As technological and scientific advances continue to transform the industry, there are opportunities for more people to follow in his footsteps – or forge their own path.

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