Profile: A true son of Queensland

By: Col Jackson

Presented by

Publican Albert Hakfoort believed Australia was the land of opportunity. Years before his passing, he sat down with Col Jackson in a revealing story of his Dutch heritage and a successful life in business, especially in western Queensland.

Profile: A true son of Queensland
Albert Hakfoort

The Hakfoort family arrived in Australia just after World War II — mum, dad and seven children. The eldest of those seven, Albert, has led a remarkable business life; he puts it down to having the right attitude toward his new country.

His is a story of making do, of working hard, military service that gave him untold experience and knowledge, love at first sight, and finding endless opportunity.

Albert Hakfoort was born in 1941 in the tiny village of Beek (meaning ‘a bubbling brook’) near Arnhem in The Netherlands.

Although so young, he remembers the war. He recalls the sounds of bombers overhead, he remembers hiding in the cellars and having a staple diet of cabbage.

"That’s all we had to eat," he says as he sits in his office in the family-owned Red Brick Hotel on Annerley Road in South Brisbane.

After the war there was the rebuilding, and his father decided to migrate to Australia.

"We were one of the first families to arrive by plane," he adds, smiling. "It took a week, spending overnight in Rome, Bahrain [where he remembers seeing his first Arabs], across to Calcutta, then Singapore and on to Perth.

"It was absolutely marvellous to land in Australia — what a lovely place — we thought we were in heaven.

"From that moment — day one in Australia — our family policy of ‘when in Rome’ was instituted, and we only spoke English.

"That’s why I haven’t got a Dutch accent," he adds.

The family then flew to Melbourne, where they boarded a train for the long and tedious journey over three different rail gauges to Brisbane via Sydney, and ultimately to Biloela — "because that’s where the work was".

He continues: "The government of the day said there were jobs there, so that’s where we had to go. In fact, the government encouraged immigrants to go to the country.

"We were as poor as poor can be, but in those days everyone was poor.

"But it’s all down to attitude when you come here," he emphasises.

The Hakfoorts moved into a fibro house, and Albert’s cabinet maker/builder father had doubts about the asbestos-based product.

"We had a Southern Cross diesel generator, but could only afford to run it for an hour-and-a-half each day," he remembers. "We ran it at night for lighting — that’s all it could generate — but we still thought it was marvellous."

He harks back at the government of the day, and recollects the arguments he had with his father over socialism, even at that young age. And he maintains that same view, saying "The problem with socialism is you eventually run out of other people’s money to spend.

"This is what’s good about Australia," he continues.

"People from a low socio-economic country like Holland can come here and get ahead.

"The opportunities are endless for those who want to integrate and accept the standards of their new country," he says.

"It’s unlike today, where many of those arriving here want to bring their own customs and baggage."

He returns to discussing the government of the day when the family arrived in Biloela.

"The government was doing things that were good for Australia — regional development, decentralisation and generating vibrant regional cities and towns." Again, his views haven’t changed.


A working life

Albert’s father obtained a job as a builder and learned the ‘Australian way’ of doing things.

After three years his father started his own joinery business, and Albert worked for him part-time after school.

Then, to make ends meet, Albert went to work for the Central Telegraph newspaper straight from scholarship (Year 8).

He did an apprenticeship as a letterpress machinist, and topped Queensland. He later worked as a hand and machine compositor and then guillotine operator. This printing industry experience was to put Albert in good stead in later life.

He left Biloela for Brisbane when he was about 20 years of age, completing his secondary education at night school in South Brisbane.

"I wanted to get out into the wide world — but I didn’t like city life at all," he says.

As a tradesman letterpress machinist he could operate the largest machines available, but he found it boring to stand in one spot eight hours a day.

He moved on to selling fire extinguishers, which he describes as a very exciting job.

"I was cold calling, and getting thrown-out time and again," he chuckles.

He was sent to Townsville, and a sales rep job came up with Willmetts printers and stationers, so he moved to the northern city.

Again, opportunity was knocking — but that was for the future.

Albert always wanted to have his own business, but never had the money.

He began to branch out into the regions, going as far afield as Mount Isa, which he regarded as the western run. He’d travel by Fokker Friendship on the ‘milk run’ via Charters Towers, Richmond, Julia Creek and Cloncurry.

"I tried to convince Hume Willmett to open a branch in the mining town," Albert says. "He was a very astute businessmen, but couldn’t see the benefit."

Albert could see how great the potential was of Mount Isa, and moved there. He bought a milk run, but that was too hard, so he bought a small printing operation — "and just went from there".

Apart from the printing requirements of the town, he could see opportunity in office equipment supplies — and the business grew over time into a very large operation employing 45 people.

Printing came under threat from computers and copiers, so he sold the printing works to the local newspaper, and carried on with computers and stationery for some years, before selling to staff.

Albert was a workaholic and never took holidays.

"I was burnt-out by then, and virtually gave it away," he adds. Three years later the business closed.

He leans across the table: "A lot of people can’t run a business, you know."

It was while in Mount Isa that Albert became heavily involved in the 35 Field Squadron of the Citizens Military Forces, now known as the Army Reserve.

He had joined 31RQR in Biloela in 1958 and found his feet. He even considered Regular Army life.

He was promoted to Corporal and Sergeant, and was honoured to be selected for Officer rank.

"I got through that and received my ‘pips’," he continues. "I wanted to be the best I could — an infantry officer as second-in-command of an Engineer unit of 200 men."

It was at this time that he needed to make a decision — be in the Army and climb the ladder, or run a business.

Cyclone Tracy in Darwin made the decision for him.

"The Unit could have been in Darwin within 24 hours after the cyclone hit," he relates.

"We had 60 volunteers, and full support of Mount Isa Mines and other employers.

"We had the trucks and equipment ready to go, tents, rations, water sterilisation equipment, the lot, we were self-contained — but we had to get authorisation from Canberra.

"After seven days to consider the request, Canberra said ‘no’.

"It’s a story not told to this day," Albert says.

In disgust, he applied to transfer to the Reserve of Officers. He then joined Rotary and served in many roles; he became president of the Chamber of Commerce, and he kicked-off the Tourism Association.

He was one of the youngest to join Rotary in Mount Isa, and it was at a club barbecue at Kalkadoon Park that another opportunity presented itself.

A fellow member introduced Albert to her sister, Dianne, who was on a quick trip to the town before going overseas. The pair clicked.

"It was just one of those things," Albert says. "Dianne didn’t go overseas and we married within six months."

After selling the office equipment business, and because of his building background, Albert applied for a Builder’s Licence.

"While I wasn’t a tradesmen, I had the experience; I was licensed and still have it today," he says.

Starting out as Lite Brick Mt Isa, Albert employed his brother, Hans, a Gold Card Builder, as building supervisor, and local tradesmen to construct houses and sheds.

That’s when he also purchased his first hotel at Goodna in Brisbane.

"I was very fortunate to get it," he adds. "It was at the exact time that Wayne Goss became premier of Queensland and introduced poker machines into hotels.

"This was at a time when the hotel industry was on a downturn, and many pubs were going broke," he adds.

Albert says he decided to give building away and move into hotels, and in 2010 owns eight enterprises encompassing the hospitality industry:

• The Burke and Wills Hotel, Burke’s Bar and Bistro, Stock Hotel and Newtown Hotel (Toowoomba)

• Red Earth Hotel and Isa Hotel (Mount Isa)

• Port Curtis Hotel (Gladstone)

• Red Brick Hotel (South Brisbane).

"They were mostly broke or on the way when I bought them and we have since redeveloped them into modern enterprises and are building them up," he says.

He has employed Hans as group building supervisor, and they do their own refurbishments and maintenance.

Albert Hakfoort looks back on business and life itself.

"Having a good partner in life and business is essential, and whatever you set-out to do, it is vital to do it together.

"If I want to do something, I always run it past Di and I’ve always got her support."


A knowing wisdom

Albert and Dianne celebrated their 37th anniversary on the day of this interview in July 2010. They have a son, Albert junior, and a daughter, Michele. The foursome are partners in the Hakfoort Group.

Albert is forever grateful to the Australian Army for accepting him into an Officers Training Course.

"The experience and knowledge gained is vital for anyone going into business," he contends. "The lessons learnt and things I had to do included discipline and people management, and this applies across the board to business."

In fact, Albert has always considered military service highly in job applications.

He also has definite ideas on hotels and food service.

He acknowledges the difficulties that Australian primary producers and suppliers are having when it comes to promotion of local product.

"The education system is not set-up for cooks, chefs and hospitality people to learn about local products.

"It concerns me greatly that suppliers buy the cheapest overseas products," he says.

"I have continual battles with kitchen staff as to why they don’t readily prefer Australian grown and produced produce and products."

He sees the problem as suppliers sourcing and promoting the cheapest to the detriment of Australian growers — "and they get away with it," he exclaims as he again leans across the table.

"The major supermarkets are doing the same thing," he adds.

"We buy pallets of the best quality Australian beef, yet it’s disappointing to me that our TAFE colleges aren’t teaching our chefs and cooks how to present a good steak."

Until recently he owned a property on the Sunshine Coast, where he ran Brafords, but being coastal, moved to Droughtmaster. The property also had a macadamia, lychee and lemon orchard.

"This was sold for more hotels," he says.

Albert Hakfoort is totally committed to decentralisation of Queensland and Australia, and is a shareholder and director of the Australian Transport and Energy Corridor, under the chairmanship of Everald Compton. The company is positively promoting a standard gauge railway from Melbourne inland to Townsville, across to Mount Isa and to Tennant Creek and Darwin.

He has a whinge: "I believe in rail, and when we needed a consignment of bar fridges in Mt Isa, we specified rail. Queensland Rail sent them by truck."

Again he points out the three major factors in his life: being born, Army officer training and getting married.

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