He was confident. A risk taker.
A tough ol’ bugger, but fair.
His handshake left yours throbbing,
and a cloud of tobacco smoke hung always around his head.
He was a country bloke at heart, and as honest as the day is long.
He spoke plainly; told it straight.
He was fiercely driven and ambitious.
But he always treated others with respect,
And the easy crack of his smile bared a glimpse of his warm heart.
He was a man of genuine integrity.
Most knew him as Allen, AW, or ‘A-dub’.
We called him Pop
AW grew up tough. He knew what it was to have nothing.
He was born in 1928. And raised on a property outside of Saddleworth, South Australia, which his family share-farmed. When the Great Depression struck, his father had 3 years of wheat in storage. The dollar crashed. And they lost everything. Like many at the time, AW grew up knowing what it was to live on nothing.
After leaving school at 13, he went straight to work.
‘The day I left school, I went home, and Dad said, “Here’s an axe. Go and earn a living.” ‘
In 1941, if you weren’t at War, you were working for the country.
Being too young for the military, Allen, at 13, took an axe and found work cutting timber.
Although only 13 AW worked and felled trees, he trimmed the boughs and cut the timber into 8ft lengths to be burnt for charcoal at Hamilton. All done by hand with an axe.
“It was hard work.
The cutting was hard, the work was hard. It was all physical.
We were working at full capacity all the time.
No room for getting any more and no room for getting any less.”
“That’s all you did – work and sleep.”
The physical work kept him fit, and as a teenager, AW loved sports. Especially football, where he was able to unleash his competitive side.
He also loved rodeos. During his late teens and early 20’s, he travelled throughout Australia competing in them. Creating lifelong mates along the way.
He had an idea about what to do through growing up with horses and poddy calves.
Back then, rodeos were a place where you could earn a few extra coins in times when it was hard to come by.
Great mates included Alan Bennet, Les Cowan, and Kevin McDaggart.
“We did it to try and earn a few extra quid.
My first couple of rides were pretty good, so I decided to keep going.
Money was one thing, but glory was the other.
There’s nothing better than being on a rough horse or bull, and you’re conquering em.
Pumps the adrenalin up.”
When the war ended in 1945, at age 17, AW quit cutting timber. Jobs were hard to come across, but he found work driving a cream and egg truck.
It wasn’t long until AW realised that to earn a decent quid, he’d have to do it off his own back. By 22, he was his own boss.
“The first truck I bought, I brought it home and pulled it up outside.
My dad came out and had a look. He shook his head.
He said, ‘You’re bloody well mad. You’ll go broke.’ “
At 20, AW first tried his luck buying a truck in shares. But he soon worked out the money was in going solo. In 1950, at only 22, AW convinced the bank it was a good risk to loan him $1600 pounds to buy a second-hand Fargo truck. It threw him straight into poverty.
“I struggled like hell to pay it off. I had to get straight to work. And I worked like hell.
But I eventually made it.”
AW knew he’d have to work hard. The first jobs he got were carting up water and chaff up to the Riverland. He took any work that was going. And always made the most of a trip by backloading with something else he could sell back home, like tree stumps and fruit. Peaches and melons were a favourite. As well as sneaking in a few long necks between chaff bags for local Riverland detectives.
AW made a name for himself as a trader making a quid through any deals he could. Carting all sorts for all sorts of people.
“I’ll cart anything, anywhere, anytime.”
The truck was always full and always moving.
(And generally, always overloaded.)
AW never rested.
He lived in the truck. Never went outside for a bed even though it didn’t have a sleeping compartment. It was his office and his living quarters.
“I never knew what easy work was.”
AW learned all about mechanics the hard way. The roads in those days were terrible. From 1948 to 1958, from age 20 to 30, AW had bought and sold 10 trucks.
They weren’t all winners either.
In one sale, AW tried to be fair and let a bloke only pay a deposit first. On its way back from Darwin, with a road train full of cattle, the bloke rolled it and wrote the truck off. AW didn’t get another cent out of him.
Another, a green AS 180 International, was a lemon. Although deemed to be the newest and best available, the engine blew up 3 times within 26,000 miles. It almost broke him.
But some were worth their weight in gold. The red AR 180 International, in which AW carted show stock from Adelaide to Sydney, AW rallied up 1 million miles in that one truck alone.
It was this truck that finally put AW on his feet.
“When I got the International, I didn’t look back. I just keep her rolling.”
During his carting days, one of the many jobs he took was carting wool from local farmers to Adelaide. Fortunately, one of his customers was the father of his future wife, Doris.
At a local dance, a rough but confident Allen Vater met a sweet and gentle country girl. Her name was Doris Rowan.
Her father wasn’t too keen at first. This was an ambitious lad with a dirty beat-up truck, first picking up his wool and now his daughter as well. But eventually, he came around. Maybe because AW was so persistent. Doris and Allen were in love and happy. But that’s another story.
After a couple of years of flirting, they married in 1956. AW was 28, and Doris was 21.
AW and Doris had five children – Roger, Jill, Kim, Richard and Tania.
The great devotion between Allen and Doris has been the key to the enduring partnership and successful business.
They registered as a business in 1957.
Doris was the humble pillar on which AW’s whole operation could lean. She supported AW in all he did. She has been the glue that kept everything held together.
‘I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if it weren’t for her.’
After making a few dollars through carting and trading goods, AW started buying and selling peas to keep money coming in for the young family.
He would buy peas from around the area, accumulate them in whatever storage he could find, and then sell them.
“I’d stack bags of peas on the truck, and sell em when the price was right – if I could work that out.”
Behind the family home he had built for Doris after they married, a storage shed was soon constructed.
In not much time, more space was needed. And the shed gradually grew and grew.
When he was only 44 years old, AW achieved his lifelong dream.
In the middle of all his trading, in 1972, AW got Doris in the car and drove out of town. They drove up a dirt track to the gate at the Greenhills; the share farming property he had grown up on.
He got out and said to Doris, “I’m going to buy it.”
Doris laughed and asked what he would use for money. He said he’d find a way. And he did.
For the second time in his life, everybody told him he was mad, and he would go broke.
“There was a bit of sentimental value with Greenhills. I was brought up on it.
I wanted to own the place I was brought up on.”
Again, he proved his doubters wrong. In his first year of farming, AW managed to not only pay off what he owed but end up with money in his pocket.
“I had a lot of confidence in myself.
I thought I was made.”
From there on, AW had an asset he could borrow money against.
He was set up. And the boom began.
Things moved on quickly then.
Motivated and willing to give anything a go, AW started selling machinery.
He soon became the biggest header supplier in SA.
He started with a sub-agency with Case. Then soon received a full agency and became the biggest header supplier in the state.
Busier than ever. Carting, grain trading, and now a machinery dealer, AW still had bigger dreams.
AW worked flat out to keep up with it all.
Through his own farming, he was figuring out what other farmers needed, where the product gaps were, and where the demand for growth was.
And he aimed to supply it all.
He continued trading in grain.
And in another story, AW cofounded Pea and Grain Exporters. Becoming the biggest pea exporter in the state or Southern Hemisphere.
It wasn’t uncommon to find unable to sleep. Spending nights pacing up and down the passage way, stressing over a deal that might send him broke.
Overseas trips to gain buyer markets became frequent.
The grain shed behind the family home grew to contain a store, and the words ‘general merchant’ on the wall.
AW and Doris’ children grew up, and all began working in the businesses he created. Roger in 1974, Kim in 1975 and Jill, Tania and Rick in the 80’s.
This completed another of AW’s dreams. He was able to provide a future in the family business for his five children.
Their input took things to another new level. Yet all under the careful watch and control of AW. Who, with his impeccable drive and business skills, remained in charge.
Roger began managing Machinery. Jill to parts and merchandise. Kim began running the grain trading and transport. Rick took over the general running of AW’s farmland. And Tania began to run the merchandise when Jill’s role turned to managing the books and agricultural chemicals.
The Merchandise and Chemical division quickly outgrew the small shed store. In 1989 it was moved down the Saddleworth main street.
Agricultural chemicals began to be widely used, and the industry kept growing. Rural merchandise stores were few in the beginning, but slowly more and more competition arose.
The growth demanded another store, and in 2005 the Kadina branch was officially opened.
AW Vater & Co grew far beyond what Allen and Doris could have imagined back in the 1950s. And now, even three of his grandchildren are currently working in the business.
Many awards were won over the years.
AW himself was Citizen of the Year in 2002 for the Clare and Gilbert area.
Countless Dealer of the Year awards. A People’s Choice Rural Business Award.
But most notably, in 2010, we were honoured to enter into Family Business Australia’s Hall of Fame.
But what honours us most is the continued loyalty and respect of our customers. Some have traded with AW for their entire lives.
In 2019 the machinery division of AW Vater & Co was sold.
AW remained the patriarch of the Vater family business until his passing in 2013 at age 85. And Doris carried on supporting her children, including daily visits to the main street store in Saddleworth, until her passing in 2020, age 84.
Jill, Kim, Tania and their families continue to carry on AW & Doris’ legacy in the family business.