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Syd Staas: the legend lives on.

A tribute to a true "pioneer" of the Australian label industry.
But who was he?
A brief pen-portrait by James Cryer of JDA Print Recruit

 

 

The Australian label industry has punched above its weight on the international scene in technological innovation, as well as numbers of awards won against all comers.

Syd StaasMuch of this was driven by the fierce but friendly competition that existed between self-made men (they were all blokes in those days) who were themselves often tradesmen, before taking the plunge, buying a small label-printing press and launching themselves into that wonderful but occasionally scary orbit of the ''small businessman''.

Such small, fertile environments are renown for encouraging inventiveness and resourcefulness, and they are typically the birthplace for that classic stereotype - the self-made man. Sometimes they could be self-seeking, occasionally inspiring, often generous and frequently "politically incorrect". Invariably, it was their single-mindedness (some may say obsessiveness) which drove them to new heights, to which other lesser mortals could only aspire.

But in this fast-changing world, where industries can be transformed by being gobbled up by larger, more financially-robust overseas companies, it is easy to lose sight (or, worse, never even be aware) of those who may have strode the stage, in those early days.

Our very own label industry has such a giant: a larger than life character "who strode the stage", and arguably was the single most active "driving force" that pushed our label sector onto the international scene - and beyond.

For those of you still reading, I am of course, referring to that most colourful, ebullient, charismatic of characters; Syd Staas (1921-98), founder of the Assta/Label House group of companies which dominated our industry during the latter three decades of the last century.

My own father may have technically, in a narrow sense, been the first to produce roll-fed self-adhesive labels, in the form we now know them - but Syd, indisputably was the unrivalled "king" of the self-adhesive label industry during that formative, early growth period (1970s to the 90s).

Some know the story (and it has Syd's quirky, never-say-die fingerprints all over it): Just de-mobbed from the Army in 1947, he was a young (but entrepreneurial) accountant - yes, they do exist! He knew nothing about cars but somehow was offered a Ford dealership. When that didn't work out he persuaded his brother, John, and a colleague, street-sweeper, Les Cooper (are you starting to see a picture here) to join him in a tiny factory in Kensington, printing fabric labels. When it rained the roof leaked so they'd shove an umbrella over the gap.

Syd soon saw the potential growth opportunity, bought his partners out and moved to ''bigger'' premises at Matraville, from which site Assta would grow and become an unstoppable force in the Asia-Pacific label industry, with (in its heyday) up to ten manufacturing plants scattered across various countries in the region.

But who was this gentle giant who strode like a colossus across the label domain?

First, perhaps it should be said, he was no saint. He was a product of that male-dominated era: he loved life, he loved parties, he loved women (in the nicest possible way) and he loved building an ''empire'' which at one stage employed over 200 people. Along the way he gave each and every individual a chance to grow, and encouraged even the lowliest employee to feel part of something, as at one stage (way ahead of his time) Syd introduced an employee share-ownership scheme.

And money was not the sole driver - not by a long-shot. He could have made much more money selling each of his factories, but instead, he handed them back to each local manager for a nominal amount.

In fact, seeing as you asked, this was Syd's greatest ''love'' - the building and creating of brand new label factories, that would provide not only employment but a way of life for his staff - embodying personal, social and career fulfilment. No wonder he was so beloved by his employees!

I suspect this was the driving force: his desire to encourage individuals to grow and flourish within his "empire'' - but if they wished to leave - and set up in opposition (as often happened) he'd wish them well - and keep in touch! It is impossible to estimate how many apprentices Syd may have employed but it would be over a hundred (is this a record for a company of that size?). He also introduced an incentive scheme that paid them more, depending on how well they did. In one year alone he employed seven apprentices - and would then pay for their end-of-year dinner to celebrate their coming-of-age.

He also maintained an active Social Club (something unheard of in this more ''self-absorbed'' era) and sponsored numerous charities.

Somehow, he also found time to devote to the Scouting movement and at one stage he was a local District Commissioner.

His company was also a long-term donor to the Neurofibremetosis Foundation (of which he became a life-member) - as well as being a long-term supporter of many youngsters’ football and soccer teams in the area!

But back to business: he was also a great believer in the adage, if you can't buy it - why not make it? In 1976, Assta cracked the wine label market big-time with the McGuigan's account. This was a classic case of ''the leading edge being the bleeding edge" and lead to painstaking R&D into new adhesives, as well as the design and construction of their own range of labelling, coding and over-printing equipment.

During that era, Syd spent more time overseas than locally, as he went on a global spree acquiring overseas agencies like they were going out of style. He thrived on the late nights, the long lunches and the camaraderie that ensued long into the wee, small hours.

It was during these functions (usually after-hours) – and especially for the benefit of his Japanese hosts - that he would recount his time in the Australian army fighting in New Guinea, when he was wounded by a stray bullet. Without warning, he'd jump up, pull his shirt up and show his astonished hosts an ancient bullet-wound and exclaim: "You bastards tried to shoot me - but you couldn't kill me!" (I am told that this always met with uproarious laughter, but the Japanese are so polite, it's hard to tell if they even got the joke!)

Another enduring legacy, again, based on his desire to grow the entire label industry - not just his own company - was the creation of the industry association, LATMA. And while he was not the only one (others included Harold McKay of Briginshaws, David McMurray of Unistat and Ian Kendall of Cryers/Avery Label), Syd was instrumental in setting up the so-called "Perpetuity Fund'' specifically to pay up-coming young talent in the Aussie label industry to study label trends overseas. Thirty-odd years later the Fund still exists - a testament to Syd's far-sightedness and generosity of spirit.

I suspect that's a suitable place to end this brief outline of a remarkable individual. Not always a saint, but a man, none the less, who did many good deeds.

His legacy lives on via the Perpetuity Fund (now administered by the "rainbow-alliance" FPLMA), but perhaps it doesn't hurt to be reminded that he embodied that Aussie spirit of improvisation, innovation and resourcefulness, looking after your fellow workers - and having a good time.

Can we say as an industry that we exhibit those same qualities? Let's toast Syd - a human with frailties but a giant with vision.

Assta Label House
www.assta.com.au

 

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