Harold Clough interview, 17 June 2014 and 20 June 2014

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Harold Clough interview, 17 June 2014 and 20 June 2014




Harold Clough AO, OBE, CitWA is a graduate of UWA who went on to become an engineering pioneer and leading businessman. He joined the Clough family company in 1954, serving as Managing Director until 1988, and Chairman of Clough Limited until late 2002.
He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal, awarded in 1977, Office of the Order of the British Empire in 1979, Officer of the Order of Australia in 1990. He was WA Citizen of the Year in Industry and Commerce in 1983 and won the Australasian Institution of Electrical Engineers James N Kirby Award and the Institution of Engineers Australia, Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Medal in 1993 and the Australian Institute of Company Directors (WA) inaugural gold medal for contributions to engineering, industry and commerce in 1994.
Mr Clough received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Engineering from the University of Western Australia in 1990. Speaking at a UWA graduation ceremony, he was quoted as saying: “Be enterprising, work hard, take a risk. The disappointments and disasters are shattering, but the harder you work the luckier you get. So I think the two things are associated.”


Clough, Harold


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright holder University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Anne Yardley


Harold Clough


Nedlands, W.A.


Interview 1: 1 hour, 15 minutes, 08 seconds
Interview 2: 49 minutes, 58 seconds
Total: 2 hours, 5 minutes, 06 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1

00:00 Introduction by Anne Yardley.
00:55 William Harold Clough, born 30 September 1926, Subiaco. Father John Oswald Clough, born Richmond Victoria, 1887; mother Lucy Hayes born Landsborough Victoria. Father was in the Gallipoli landing, later fought in France and received a commission.
02:47 After the First World War he joined brother William Clough to form Clough Brothers builders. Building work stopped during the Depression, William went gold mining in Southern Cross as there was still a market for gold. The Goldfields flourished during Depression. Father was out of work and joined militia. Times were tough. It was an awful experience having a father out of work. There was no dole and unemployment was 30 or 40 per cent.
06:00 Harold attended Nedlands Primary School from age 6 to 12; Claremont Central School, 12 to 15 years during the Second World War. His father was now a Lieutenant Colonel commanding the 2nd Field Third Regiment. Harold became a troop leader in the boy scouts where he had many interesting experiences. He relates a story about an assignment to go to Mundaring and carry out tasks set out in a sealed envelope. The boys camped overnight in wet winter conditions. He learnt a lot in scouting.
13:45 After school his ambition was to go into the army. The war was going badly for the Allies but that changed in 1942 with United States involvement. He believes the Japanese could have won had they not bombed Pearl Harbour when they did.
18:00 Harold completed Leaving [now TEE] at Scotch College at age 16. The two year course had been truncated into one year during the war. Harold passed and applied to Duntroon but was told he was too young. With the experience of the Depression his mother recommended he work in a bank or insurance company. He took a job at AMP [Australian Mutual Provident Society] “by far the worst year of my life, never been so bored ...” His job was to send overdue premiums to clients using hand written envelopes. He admits he wasn’t very good at it. Few men were available to do office work during the war.
23:30 He met a girl there who persuaded him to try for university. He applied for engineering at UWA with only 40 places available, 100 students studying engineering out of 1000 students in the entire university. Harold was offered a place by the Dean, Professor Howard Blakey, who told him he’d never got through as he was number 40 on the list. Harold determined to prove him wrong and worked hard during the first semester. To pass engineering, students had to be either good students or good rugby players, according to Harold.
26:50 Harold took up rugby and won a half blue. He was more proud of that than getting his degree. During the war, the engineering course was reduced to three years instead of five and called a Bachelor of Science and Engineering. After the war the degree course was increased to four years. Harold was given first class honours which allowed him to win a Fulbright Scholarship. “University changed my life and ever after I’ve been particularly grateful for that.” He was very active in student affairs: on the guild council and played sport. His girlfriend, who was studying psychology, introduced Harold to the Arts.
32:00 After graduation Harold worked for Cooperative Bulk Handling, a subsidiary of Wesfarmers—a good job and good experience. The Fulbright scholarship was only in its second year when he took up the scholarship in 1951 to study for a Masters degree.
35:50 Prior to that Harold and a friend had driven to Sydney picking up jobs along the way. He worked as a miner underground in Kalgoorlie and recounts that experience. He worked in Sydney as a time and motion expert. There he learnt he had won the scholarship. He returned to Perth as his mother had died, before travelling to California by plane—an unusual event in those days—to be met by his uncle who lived in Los Angeles.
42:50 In San Francisco he stayed at International House attached to the University of California where he was registered as William Harold Clough and so he became Bill to everyone in America including his wife. He lived in the International House with other overseas students. He describes their living arrangements including the common dining room where he met students from many different countries including Iran.
46:00 Harold wanted to study economics but the course didn’t yet exist anywhere in the world. The closest was to become an accountant by apprenticeship. Harold enrolled in industrial engineering which didn’t prepare him for being in business for himself. He gained a reputation for giving great parties. He neglected his studies until he discovered he would have to pay for his course if he didn’t gain a 3.5 grade average. With last minute studying, he gained better marks than he had in Australia. He believed the Australian education system was superior to that of the US.
50:04 Australian graduates had better fundamentals, better basics. Harold won a Harold Holt scholarship for five years study to gain a PhD [doctoral degree] but not wanting to be an academic, he turned it down. Instead he took a job with Bechtel Corporation, one of the biggest engineering contractors in the US at the time. He was keen to be in the field but his job was desk bound in the estimating department for the experience. He was told: “The single most important thing in the construction business is to know the costs…you have to be able to measure the quantity of work that’s done for that amount of money.” The experience was vital to learn about accurate costing. Good companies do this well, including Clough Engineering. The present manager at Clough “has taken it to a new level.”
54:24 Harold returned to Australia with his wife [Australian Margaret, née McRae, whose father worked in the Australian Consul General’s office in San Francisco]. His father encouraged Harold to return to work in the family business where he was put him to work as a builder’s labourer on a site in Newcastle Street. He learnt a lot.
57:00 End of the first year the accounts showed they hadn’t made any money despite having plenty of work. His father was very good with figures and was working a scam involving invoicing. Harold was angry, he now had a wife and child to support. They considered returning to the US but the business won a large contract to build a new head office for National Mutual Life Association. At six storeys it would be the biggest building in Perth. The architect, Athol Hobbs, had served with Harold’s father in the war and helped with their bid, despite their different social status. Father and son worked hard on the tender but disagreed on the final price. Harold asked his wife for advice about adding 5,000 pounds to the tender instead of the 10,000 pounds his father wanted. Harold took his wife’s advice and they won the bid.
1:10:50 A condition of being awarded the contract was that Harold would be the manager. He took charge of the cheque book. Harold admits they lacked the experience to tackle a 500,000 pound job, their previous job was 20 or 30,000 pounds. The lowest bid is not always accepted, the architect’s recommendation is important as well. They were successful in the project, helped by employing very good people. Some of those people were still with Clough when Harold retired.
1:15:28 END first interview

Interview 2

00:00 Introduction by Anne Yardley
00:40 Post Second World War the government decided the Causeway bridge was becoming overloaded and needed another bridge . The Narrows site was chosen and Main Roads consulted bridge designers in London: Maunsell and Partners were selected and recommended a pre-cast, post tension concrete bridge. Pre-stressed concreted was newly developed. Harold saw this as an opportunity to work with an international contractor and using his Bechtel experience, he applied for and signed a joint venture agreement with Christiani and Nielsen a Danish company who were awarded the contract.
03:50 Clough held 20 percent, their role to provide local information about conditions, regulations. The team became integrated with half Danish, half Australian engineers. The project went relatively smoothly, delays caused by conditions being different from those assumed by the designers: about half way through construction a problem emerged with the northern end of the bridge on reclaimed land with soil extruded sideways as well as down which pushed the piles sideways. Construction was held up while a solution found.
08:00 Harold remained concerned that the top corner of the Y shape column on the downstream side could fail. He still checks it out when driving across the bridge. Harold believes it has performed very well, required little maintenance.
09:30 The bridge was particularly important for Perth as it was the first time a large engineering structure had been built by non-government entity. It set a trend, the government began using more private companies. Now State and Federal public works departments have very small team, most work is done by private companies.
10:30 The bridge contract made a big difference to Clough, previously builders, they now became engineering contractors. The iron ore industry was starting up in WA and for the first time there were large projects requiring major engineering input: railways, power stations. Clough moved more towards engineering and construction, including oil and gas projects, but maintained a building arm at about 10 to 15 per cent of total work volume.
12:30 This was personally a busy time for Harold as he and wife Margaret raised their six children, the first four born in quick succession over five years. In 1970 the family took an extended European holiday. Harold got to know his children better in these six weeks than in previous years.
15:10 His eldest son, Jock, studied engineering and although he didn’t enjoy engineering, he did join the family business. In 2005 a mutual decision was made to sell the business to Murray & Roberts over a three year period , the only remaining connection is with the name Clough. Had Jock maintained an interest in engineering, Clough could have remained a company business although Harold believes it is difficult for family dynasties to be successful. Harold’s only regret in selling the business was the loss of his name.
18:00 The Narrows Bridge project changed Clough but also changed the industry [in WA]. Clough did “some great projects” over the years. By 2005 Clough was working more overseas than in Australia with a great team of engineers.
19:00 In 1998 the decision was made to float the company. By then there were 21 offices worldwide and an annual turnover of 600 million dollars. Harold always had in mind the idea to list although decision making is easier in a non-listed company. When spending other people’s money there are more complicated decisions to make, morally and legally. It’s much easier to expand, to raise money as a public company. Particularly in the construction business, the biggest companies are family companies. Bechtel advised Harold against listing—Harold wonders if he was right.
21:50 The decision was partly governed by changes to taxation legislation. Prior to this bonuses given to staff were considered income and fully taxed but when able to get a credit for tax paid on dividends, being a public company was more attractive. By that time, staff owned 20 per cent of the business through a practice of allocating shares. Harold believes it was the right decision at the right time.
23:45 They had about 80% of the company when it listed and were allocated shares. Harold handed out shares to staff “like Father Christmas—it was great. The company was doing particularly well at the time.”
24:30 Harold comments on his business success: “by far the biggest factor was being able to have people in your team that were as good or better than you were. The strength of a company is the quality of its people. It’s all about people.” Attracting and keeping good people is more about giving people challenges and responsibilities than money; ensuring staff get satisfaction from the work. “Giving them a job they enjoyed doing is much more important than giving them more money.”
26:15 On the decision to sell the company: Jock was Chairman of Clough, Harold was “just” a board member. They had an “unfortunate” contract with Origen, oil company, which resulted in litigation, despite Clough’s doing a good job: “it was soul destroying.” Harold felt he no longer wanted to be in the business.
28:10 Harold felt retirement would shorten his life, he decided to keep busy with the family company, McCrae Investments. He enjoys the diversity of the business.
29:10 On donating to charity: It’s important. Harold says most companies have a charity budget with demands on them 20 times over and they’re all good causes. Harold’s focus has been on UWA.
31:20 Harold lectured briefly at UWA after his return from the United States. Like many he had an aversion to talking in public but an engaged group of students, willing to debate, helped him overcome his public speaking discomfort.
33:15 Harold was conscious that the quality of the company was very dependent on the quality of its staff, he felt that by offering scholarships to engineering students in their last year and then offering a job on completion, the company would attract “the cream of the cream”. Over the years, Clough has offered 149 scholarships, most have remained in touch and are in leading companies worldwide. Scholarships offered money, vocational employment, a mentor in the company and a job when they finished. About 50 per cent stayed employed with them.
36:20 “Looking back on it, I think the scholarship scheme was one of the best things I did in the company.” In choosing recipients, the company was looking for academic success and leadership qualities.
Harold discusses Clough Circle dinners and his eldest daughter Sue’s involvement with Scott Neeson program’s in Cambodia [Cambodia Children’s Fund] that selects children from waste dumps, houses and educates them. A potential donor to the fund who had been a Clough scholarship recipient instituted the Circle. Harold feels “very good” that Clough scholars are inspired by the Clough example to contribute to the community.
43:55 On winning awards: Harold has been received numerous awards including: Queen’s Silver Jubilee medal 1977; OBE 1979; Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) 1990; Honorary Doctor of Engineering in 1990 and others. He feels very proud to have been recognised: “It’s something that happens rather than something you work for.” Harold’s a monarchist and recalls the time of titles being awarded.
46:10 Harold credits his work colleagues and clients with giving him the greatest satisfaction in his working life. Projects can be both good and bad. He likes challenges: “If it was too easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable.” The harder you work the more luck you have.
49:55 On retirement: “I want to die in the chair”. Work keeps him going. McCrae Investments are very busy.
49:58 ENDS



Clough, Harold, “Harold Clough interview, 17 June 2014 and 20 June 2014,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024, https://oralhistories.arts.uwa.edu.au/items/show/78.