THE life of Patricia Kailis is a virtual history of contemporary Western Australia, etched deeply with extraordinary stories of hard-won discovery and the economic fortune that followed.
Her arrival in WA in the late 1950s, as a young doctor full of hope that opportunity abounded in the West, coincided with the closing phase of the State’s setting as a sleepy agricultural backwater.
Over almost five decades Dr Kailis has emerged at the head of one of WA’s most successful families, overseeing a private business empire that had a net revenue of $166 million last financial year.
The only divergence from the imagery of WA is that the backdrop to her life’s work was not mining, but rather fishing and, later, pearls.
From the early hardships experienced while she and her new husband, Michael, grew a small crayfish export business in Dongara, to the recent launch of Kailis Australian Pearls in Spain, Dr Kailis’s life parallels and encapsulates the massive change that has taken place in WA during the past 50 years.
Although she only became governing director of MG Kailis after her husband’s death four years ago, it is clear that Dr Kailis has played an integral role in the development of a family business empire that stretches across the continent and reaches out to Europe, Asia and the US.
While she may prefer to play down her involvement then and now (MG Kailis is now run by her son, Alex), Dr Kailis admits she finds it hard to keep her finger off the pulse.
“I still get the [Exmouth] prawn catch figures every morning,” she said, adding that it is more out of habit than anything else.
“I am gradually withdrawing from the business. It is hard to do. The business has been part of my life for 45 years.”
But, in pondering this, she recalls the mid 1990s when she made the decision to quit medicine, most particularly her 25 years of unremunerated role as a genetic researcher in the prevention of inherited neurological disorders and as a genetic counsellor to patients and families with neurological and neuromuscular disease in WA.
Though unpaid, this work had been her major focus at Royal Perth Hospital and Royal Perth Rehabilitation Hospital Shenton Park, for which she was honoured with an OBE in 1979 and a Member of the Order of Australia in 1996.
“I could never imagine that I would stop my work as a doctor,” Dr Kailis said.
But that is exactly what she did, in 1995, ending a medical career that had also included 10 years as a country GP in Exmouth and Learmonth as she and her husband pioneered the development of lobster, prawning and pearling.
Instead, she turned her hand to the business of retailing pearls through a new shop, Artisans of the Sea, in Fremantle.
The shop marked the first time MG Kailis had sold direct to the public outside its pearling home in Broome, where the business had started involvement in this intriguing industry in the early 1970s. At this time the family was desperate for a marine pursuit without the risk of spiralling fuel prices associated with fishing.
Dr Kailis worked on the shop floor in the shop’s early days, when the retail outlet’s objective was as much about educating consumers about Australian pearls as it was selling them.
“I loved it,” she said.
“I love the jewellery, I love the pearls and I like dealing with people.”
“Coming from medicine, which is very demanding, to working in the pearl shop was so relaxing.”
It is not the first time Dr Kailis has been hands-on within MG Kailis – in the early days she would manage some of the operations as her husband sought new grounds to develop.
One memorable occasion was when she used her medical knowledge to help avert a potential crisis in the pearling operation.
The drama occurred in the early 1980s when a mystery illness was affecting the health of the shell that was harvested for pearls.
As Dr Kailis’ unpaid medical work often allowed her to take time out for the family business, she sought an answer to the problem by travelling up to Broome and out to the floating platform, where the shells were inserted with nuclei from which pearls would come.
“I said even if you don’t know what the disease is you can prevent it spreading,” she said.
“When I got out on the raft I told them to clean up. They had to get rid of the lunch and the Coke cans and the cigarette butts off the operating table.
“Generally, they had to institute hygiene procedures.”
Dr Kailis said she recommended they avoid keeping shells out of the water for any longer than necessary, particularly hot days, that unhealthy shells be kept separate from healthy ones in their seabed holding points and that the transportation tanks be cleaned properly.
These measures kept a disastrous disease outbreak at bay and were adopted industry-wide over time.
It was one of those rare occasions Dr Kailis said stood out in a life that was a constant stream of leaps and bounds, as the family business grew voraciously in line with the development of the State.
“It is hard to find milestones,” she said. “It just keeps going.
“There is no time to watch it grow, you are so involved.”
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