Alfred Neumann, John Neumann

Shifting Sand

Tim Baker | November 2019

The Neumann Group has helped shape the Gold Coast for three generations, from a small sand mining operation 70 years ago to a thriving range of businesses servicing the construction industry today.

When the son of German migrants, Alfred Neumann, moved from Laidley, west of Brisbane, to Currumbin in 1922, he was hoping to make a modest living as a builder and cabinet-maker close to his favourite beach.

This was hardly a career move. The coastal village of Currumbin, on what was then known as the South Coast, was a sleepy fishing and holiday spot with a tiny permanent population. Alf could have had little idea as he pitched a makeshift camp on Currumbin Hill that he would one day launch an empire that would employ three generations of his family, and quite literally shape the Gold Coast into one of Australia’s fastest growing cities.

Almost a century later, the Neumann Group employs around 600 people in a range of businesses from mineral sands and dredging, to pre-mixed concrete and reinforcing steel to civil construction and property development.

Alf won a ballot for a perpetual lease on a block of land on Currumbin Hill and camped on it until he could afford to build a simple home. The block remains in family hands to this day, subdivided to accommodate more family members.

He called the house “Marbordo,” which means “beach” or “coast” in the international language of Esperanto, which he studied as a means of bridging language and cultural barriers.

“He was a real Aussie, a man who had quite different ideas… he believed in equality. He spoke Esperanto because he believed that everyone should be able to speak one language. He never drank,” recalls Alfred’s granddaughter, Kath Conforti.

But back then, Alfred was simply trying to make ends meet, after meeting his wife Kathleen and fathering five children.

“He wasn’t broke but we used to get thruppence a week pocket money and plenty of times mum couldn’t give me my pocket money,” remembers their youngest son Bruce Neumann.

Kathleen hand-made all the children’s clothes, but there were ample compensations for the simple existence.

“We’d just run down the beach in the summer time and jump off Elephant Rock, or go fishing. It was a good lifestyle,” says Bruce.

Alf and Kathleen were always heavily involved in community activities.

“Alf was chairman of the school committee at Currumbin  school, member of the Currumbin Progress Association, life governor of Currumbin Vikings and for 10 years an alderman of the Coolangatta town council,” writes Michelle Neumann, Alfred and Kathleen’s granddaughter, in a family history. “They (the town council) met once a month at night. Grandma would see the lights of his car come around Kirra bend and tell us to set the table – hard to believe now.”

The family fell in love with Currumbin and were determined to make a life and a livelihood in its pristine, coastal environs, despite the apparent lack of business opportunities. One of the Indigenous translations of the word Currumbin is “shifting sand,” and the Neumann’s took this quite literally as they grew their fledgling business.

“My father was always interested in mining and he told us he saw a man on the beach at Currumbin in a black frock coat and the man was talking to dad about this black sand on the beach and said, one day this black sand will be worth a lot of money,” says Bruce. “Dad was a carpenter here for many years and my brother Robert worked with him and then they decided to go into sand mining and were able to get some leases on the beach here and set up a small beach sand mine.”

In 1948, they formed a company called Pacific Minerals, a sand mining and mineral processing business that produced rutile and zircon. The father and son began a small sand mining operation at Flat Rock Creek, then moved to Currumbin Creek.

“That was a good little set up, they were able to make some good money,” says Bruce.

All five of Alfred’s children – Robert, Margaret, John, Pete and Bruce – entered the family business, and diversified into allied industries, in turn creating more job opportunities for the next generation.

“We just all love Currumbin,” says Kath, the daughter of Alfred’s eldest son Robert. “The idea was when granddad and dad started the business it would mean employment for the family and that’s what happened, for (her brother) Mark, (sister) Michelle and I and our cousins. It meant we all stayed on the Gold Coast and everyone having good, secure employment.”

One business quite naturally led to another.

“It was very much an evolution,” says Kath. “They were mining for minerals in the sand, so they had excess sand, so people came for the sand, so they started dredging the creeks. They had extra gravel and they didn’t know what to do with it – we can make concrete. Because we had dredges we had tankers to take fuel to them. We were dredging for sand and gravel, so we were contracted to dredge the Palm Beach canals. We realised we can change one of our dredges to suit land development. Everyone loved our dredges so much, we made them for export. We had excess concrete, so we started making curbs and channelling, so we need reinforcing steel. Bruce has quarries, because people didn’t want you to be in creeks so you needed to have quarries.”

Does Kath think her grandfather envisaged the business growing and diversifying like this?

“Granddad, no. Dad, absolutely. He had the opportunity to travel, when he was travelling he wasn’t a details person, he was more big picture – granddad was the details person. It was a perfect partnership.”

Bruce agrees it was his older brother Robert who was the real entrepreneur of the family.

“Alfred – he was no businessman, he was a builder. He had vision, but the real shaker and mover in those days was my brother Robert. He was definitely an entrepreneur. Dad’s technical abilities and Robert’s entrepreneurial abilities, the business started with a combination of the two.”

The diversification of the business meant the Neumann Group has contributed to almost every aspect of building the Gold Coast as we know it today.

“We did a huge amount of dredging on the Gold Coast for the canals. That’s still an active business, we built most of the canals on the Gold Coast,” says Bruce. “We then supplied concrete and steel to the construction industry. We built a hell of a lot of it.”

And having a local, independent supplier to the construction industry has been a great benefit to the Gold Coast, he says. “There’s no question that us being here has been a huge saver to the Gold Coast, a multi-million dollar saving to the community,” says Bruce. “Where multi-nationals dominate prices go up, and so they try and put independents out of business. We’re a local independent company here having to compete against these guys – they don’t take prisoners, they’re tough cookies. Not many independent concrete companies survived. We were able to survive because we had our own raw materials and we diversified.”

Kath agrees. “There were really tough times and real boom times. We had so many varied businesses, when one was booming another was in crisis, then it would get back on its feet. Mineral sands prices collapsed, others would prop it up for a while, there was no interest charged. It’s good to have that difference,” she says.

While the Neumann family looked out for one another in business, they always ran a tight ship.

“We didn’t get dividends for 30 to 40 years, all the money went back into the business. We had just enough wages to live on, we didn’t pay ourselves much,” says Bruce. “We’re all individually administered. We all had our own ideas on what to do and there were family arguments all the time. We’re all independent with our management and that definitely worked well, and as things are going on it’s going to evolve, we’re going to bring in more outside, independent directors.”

Robert Neumann maintained the family tradition of community service and became Gold Coast mayor in 1973, taking over from Sir Bruce Small. Alfred Neumann passed away on June 8, 1976, at the age of 87, but lived long enough to see the family business thriving as the Gold Coast boomed.

“He would have been a very proud father by this stage. The Neumann associates building had been completed and grandma Kathleen, who had just been recently widowed, had such pride in planting the first tree out the front in commemoration,” says Michelle Neumann.

Today the Neumann Group consists of six key businesses – Neumann Developments, Neumann Contractors, Nucrush Quarries, Nucon Concrete, Neumann Steel, River Sands and Corridor Sands. Together, they turn over in excess of $250 million annually.

And while the family have done well out of the business after decades of hard work, it has come at a cost.

“You live the business. It’s not a nine to five business. You don’t finish at five in the afternoon. You work all bloody night and most weekends, thinking about it ,” says Bruce. “You’ve got to think hard all the time, put constructive thoughts together, work smarter. When you’re up against these huge companies, you’ve got to work hard because they’re out to bankrupt you.”

Kath says she learnt many essential business lessons from her father.

“Work hard, take risks, don’t micro-manage. Mentoring is huge. Lots of people have been here 30 or 40 years,” she says. The Neumann family are also well-known for their philanthropy and support of many community organisations and causes, supporting local schools, surf clubs and charities.

Managing the growing business was always demanding, but Kath says they’ve been able to balance it with family life.

“Not a lot of work was really brought home, there were more general discussions on politics and the state of the world. There was a big family lunch every Sunday at grandma and granddad’s. Grandma would make it and whoever could come would come,” she says. “There were arguments but it doesn’t matter what happens, everyone still had lunch together.”

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