Home / William Sydney Cutbush 1932-2008

William Sydney Cutbush 1932-2008


Passed away peacefully on December 7, 2008.
by John Swainston

Bill_Cutbush_feb08_smallBill Cutbush, long-time leader in the photo industry has died, following a short illness. He was 76. His death so soon after his retirement from his role as Chairman of Coates Hire, came as a shock to many who had not known of his recent illness, born stoically and privately, without fuss.

Bill studied as a pharmacist, but early in his working life found himself a career in the food industry, and transferred to South Australia to run a food cannery. It was in South Australia that he formed a close friendship with Jim Hardy, now Sir James, of America’s Cup and wine fame and where his life-long passion for boats and sailing was established. His wife Mary bore the brunt of bringing up what became a large family of five boys, often left alone, while Bill took on roles in business of ever-greater responsibility, requiring inter-State moves on a number of occasions. Mary’s Sacré Coeur upbringing provided the rock to deal with the pressures, both financial and organisational, of such a task.

Cutty – as he was known by many, entered the Photo Industry in his mid-forties, joining 16mm Australia as a division manager. Shortly thereafter, the company was broken up and sold. Part went to the Rank Organisation and part to principle US supplier, Bell & Howell Company of Chicago.  It was Bill’s appointment as Managing Director of Bell & Howell Australia in 1973 that saw him really hit his stride. From the Pyrmont headquarters in Sydney, he managed the diverse businesses of consumer photography -brands such as Chinon, Ricoh, Nikon, Mamiya and Bell & Howell, regional export responsibilities in Asia, AudioVisual Equipment sale and film hire businesses, and a series of office equipment ventures within Australia. But he also found time to swim nearly every day in all seasons and sailed his beloved boat from its mooring at the Port Hacking Yacht Club whenever possible.

Bill rapidly gained the attention of Chicago head-office senior management and was headed for the top international role in the 13,000-strong company, had the untimely illness and death of his youngest son Jim not intervened in 1980.

Bill regrouped, as ever, wonderfully supported by Mary and the family. He took on the role as President of the Photo Industry Council, succeeding John Bleakley when he retired from Rank Canon. Bill grew Bell & Howell Australia rapidly. He was the consummate master of public affairs, his name seldom far from the pages of the Australian Financial Review or Jim McLeod’s weekly column in The Australian. The company regularly rated as one of Australia’s Top 100 companies in national listings in the then new BRW magazine. He just made it sound like it was. As a private company Bill never disabused editors of the actual size of the business! But a change of company head-office policy led to the forced closure and disposal of the remaining consumer photo businesses, in 1983,which resulted in the formation of Maxwell Optical Industries. It was a change that Bill felt removed much of Bell & Howell Australia’s core strength. Time for a change.

Bill was well connected and respected in broader business circles by now, in part from his yachting connections, enhanced by membership of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron. Financial difficulties at Australian photo industry icon Hanimex after the ’81-82 recession, led to Bill being offered the role as a turnaround CEO by the lenders. His first weeks there were a bid to save the company, negotiating with multiple banks and trying to make sense of the extraordinary complexity of Jack Hannes’s former empire. It almost failed. One bank could not be persuaded. Bill personally negotiated a solution. He saved the company. As might have been expected, Bill soon pulled together a stellar team of senior managers and restored the company to health and back to Australian industry leadership. He developed deep personal friendships with Fujifilm Japan senior management, the company’s principle supplier and oversaw a period of significant growth, while ensuring the company’s continued franchise in Australia, through his constant nurturing of relationships. Later he passed the reins to others but remained as Chairman and continued as a guiding hand through .

Eventually Bill sought a different stage. He moved to roles as company director or chairman of companies, both Public and Private. In 1988 he joined the board of Blackmores, a role he was to continue for 17 years, many of which as Chairman. He also sat on boards at Freedom Furniture, Millers Retail and Nuance. His last role as Chairman was at Coates Hire, a role he relinquished in November 2007. In each case strong personality, remarkable diplomacy and negotiation skills, ensured the success of these enterprises. Where he found management less than acceptable, he resigned when it was clear entrepreneurs were unwilling to follow his advice, or he felt strategies were unsound. 

Bill Cutbush contributed in so many different areas; he gave 100%+ to everything to which he set  his attention. His sailing prowess and connections led to advisory and fund-rasing work for the Australian National Maritime Museum, where he became the inaugural chairman of the Foundation. This is just one example of his voluntary efforts. There were dozens of other quiet good works, but they were done quietly and always hugely supportively.

Bill had the rare ability to make anyone in an organization feel at ease, helping them to produce their best. One of his last roles was as a director of Maxwell Optical Industries, the privately owned imaging technology company. It was a role he took on for five years while still having a punishing set of other commitments. Already in his late sixties, he became a Board member at the request of the company’s two co-founders, John Bleakley and John Swainston. He was a guiding hand, enabling the company to survive a difficult period, resulting in the sale of the business and the formation of Nikon Australia and Maxwell International Australia.

As someone who accepted an offer from Bill to move my family to a new life in Australia from the cold winds of Chicago in 1979, I will be forever indebted to his leadership, counsel and friendship. In what was to be our last conversation a few short weeks ago, at a time when he already must have known his own prognosis was not good, he expressed deep concern for the health of a former colleague and made no mention of his own challenges – a word Bill so frequently used rather than talk about problems.

Bill Cutbush: Industry Leader in many Australian industries, Public Relations master, family man and friend to so many; a man of great warmth, he will be sorely missed. To Mary and her sons, go our sincere sympathies and best wishes.

John Swainston – December 11th 2008.