SPECIAL REPORT: Family business AT Brine & Sons has played a prominent role in shaping Perth since 1894, constructing some of the city’s most notable buildings.
Family business AT Brine & Sons has played a prominent role in shaping Perth since 1894, constructing some of the city’s most notable buildings.
From waistcoats, makeshift pulleys and scant concerns over safety to high-vis jackets, cranes and wide-ranging OH&S regulations, building sites have changed dramatically since AT Brine & Sons started out in the industry more than 120 years ago.
One component that has remained constant throughout, however, is the business’s family connections.
Today, Christopher Brine, the great, great grandson of the business’s founder, Alfred Tonkin Brine, oversees the company’s operations as managing director.
Two years ago, he took over from his father, Tony, who still works in the business a few days a week and says building is not just in their lineage, but in their blood.
There’s no doubt the call of the family business is strong, with both initially setting out on different career paths – Tony doing a bachelor of arts at the University of Western Australia to teach, and Christopher’s BA at UWA focused on music – but returning to the fold at a later date.
“The company has gone through various shapes and sizes over the years,” Christopher told Business News.
“There have been periods where it’s been fairly inactive; during the world wars it was quiet.
“Back in the early 1900s, AT Brine had hundreds of employees; it had its own quarry, stone masons, a joinery shop that built its own windows and doors, carpenters, plasterers and bricklayers … the industry has evolved since then and its mostly subcontractor-based now.”
In the 1890s, the late AT Brine, who came to WA from Victoria, completed his first building job in Perth – a small cottage on Leeder Street, now Carr Street, in Leederville.
The late Alfred Tonkin Brine with sons.
The company went on to secure contracts for the construction of Graylands Hospital, the State War Memorial in Kings Park as well as the WA Trustee Building and the Royal Insurance Building on St Georges Terrace.
It was also appointed to undertake the £12,227 conversion of the Town Hall’s ground floor council offices into shops in 1925.
By 1929, the firm had more than £450,000 in contracts for works on UWA’s Winthrop Hall, the expansion of St Mary’s Cathedral at Victoria Square, and for the Perth Metropolitan Markets, on the site where Watertown Brand Outlet Centre is located.
Laying the foundation stone at Winthrop Hall in 1929.
A few years later, the company signed a £63,257 contract for extension works to Wellington Street department store Boans, now Forrest Chase, and later built the First Church of Christ Scientist, an art deco edifice still standing at the top end of St Georges Terrace.
In the 1960s, the company built both the Fremantle Ports’ administration building and Fremantle Passenger Terminal.
Beyond sculpting the cityscape, Master Builders Association WA executive director Michael McLean said the company's founder and his family members across the decades not only threw themselves into the association's affairs but played leading roles in community and government activities.
The late WL Brine was president of the Master Builders Association (1935-37), as was KI Brine (1962-63), who also helped set up the builders’ registration board and was on the board of Guildford Grammar School and Princess Margaret Hospital.
"The company's influence on Perth and WA's building industry can't be overestimated," Mr Mclean said.
An on site tour for Winthrop Hall at UWA.
Tony Brine said there had been one break in the lineage when his grandfather went off to World War II and his great uncle didn’t.
This resulted in his great uncle running the business for subsequent years until 1979.
“They started to get beaten on a lot of the contracts because the ‘Multiplexes’ had moved in by then and my great uncle’s side didn’t want to continue the company in its old structure,” he said.
This growing competition from new, larger players led AT Brine & Sons to wind down its project list during the 1960s and 1970s, with its final major work being Oakleigh House, a nine-storey office building on St Georges Terrace (to which an additional 18 storeys were added in 2008 to create Condor Tower).
Although there was nothing in the way of future contracts or physical assets, Tony said he was thrilled to be offered the business name.
“I’d been a school teacher for 10 weeks and didn’t like it. I’d worked with my grandfather, I still have his tools; he was a carpenter by trade, and dad used to take me out on jobs since I was a kid,” he said.
“I was proud as punch that they wanted me to take it on.”
One feature of the original company that did carry through to its new iteration was its culture, particularly regarding its practice of full-time employment, rather than subcontracting work out.
“It’s not all square metre rates and making money, it’s also about trying to provide a human service so that our people working on jobs care and have a bit of a vested interest in supporting and promoting the company,” Tony said.
“Many may say it’s not cost-effective but we find it’s the way of doing a quality job.”
Christopher, who started full time in the business in 2003 shortly after graduating from university (and assessing his options in the music world), has retained this family value, with a current pipeline mostly consisting of renovations and million-dollar bespoke residences.
“We’re a small company now employ around 30 to 35 people,” he said.
“Because of that, when people work with us they deal with me. Its old school; a lot of companies these days are becoming impersonal and systemised online, but I think people want that personal touch.
“Commercial work has changed; it’s highly competitive, we still do some warehouse and factory developments, but nothing like in the past.
“We don’t advertise; it’s all word-of-mouth and repeat customers.
“Last week a lady rang up because my grandfather built her father a home in the 1950s and she wanted us to renovate her house.”
Christopher said the team had also worked on the relocation of the Talbot Hobbs Memorial from Elizabeth Quay to the Supreme Court Gardens, all because of a plaque on the side noting AT Brine & Sons had built it.
“It’s funny, these connections,” he said.
“That was part of the reason why I took over the business. It’s a very rare thing in this day and age for anything to last for a long period.
“I’ve always been involved in the company; my ‘apprenticeship’ was my whole life. Being the eldest grandson of the Brine dynasty, I didn’t want to be the fifth generation that ended it.”
An article detailing AT Brine & Sons' success in Perth in the early 20th century, published in a 1935 edition of the Sunday Times.