When we consider family business dynasties, there’s probably few as quintessentially West Australian or as diverse as the cray fishing Thompson family from the seaside town of Cervantes.
According to figures from the Western Rock Lobster Annual report, the industry contributed more than $500m to the WA Economy in 2018/2019 with Cervantes making almost $25m for the local economy, accounting for 75 percent of total economic activity in the town.
The Thompson clan has lived in and around Cervantes for decades and it was there in the 1968 season that Dave Thompson senior finally gave in to the pull of the ocean and fished his first season for cray.
His son Michael explains his father had been hesitant about going to sea until then because he didn’t want to be away from home for too long and the season at that time was about nine months.
That was understandable. He and his first wife Beth were parents to four children – Kelly, the only girl, and three sons, Michael in the middle, Dave the eldest and younger brother Matthew. There are now 8 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren between them.
“Of course, it wasn’t hard for us kids to fall in love with an industry where we were driving boats, pulling pots, and being on the ocean,” Michael explains.
“We started by helping Dad out but then he sent us all to get trades – the three boys - before we could get on the boats, then we all did an apprenticeship with our father. He helped us all get a started, so we bought boats of our own at varying times.”
All have been fishing 30 plus years and that tradition of getting a trade before entering the family fishing business has been handed down generationally. 52 years of family in crayfishing.
The family has also gone on to build a diverse agricultural portfolio, nurtured their own children into various family businesses and are looking to a future where the grandkids will be ready to take their spots alongside them.
“We’ve got the triangle now,” Michael explains “In farming we’ve got pastoral, grazing and cropping so it’s a very enjoyable life, and we get to go about giving opportunities to our children and grandchildren.” The first stage of the triangular diversification was the purchase of 205,000ha Mundabullangana (Munda) Station, 100kms south-west of Port Hedland in 1995 which had been one of the families favourite camping spots when the children were growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“We’re just the fifth owners since 1867 when it was settled, Michael explains. The station was something different for the family and something we really enjoyed.
“We always loved going there especially in winter when it’s 25 to 30 degrees every day and it was freezing cold down in Perth.
“We also saw it as our first opportunity at diversification from fishing into something we’ve never been involved in, an off-ocean investment.
“Now we’re up to 25 years of ownership and I look back and go ‘where did 25 years of my life go’ – I don’t know.”
They also had nearby Mardie Station until one of biggest concentrations of iron ore in the southern hemispheres was discovered there in 2007. Michael explains they didn’t want to diversify into mining at that point and perhaps more importantly they didn’t want to see the station reduced to a giant hole in the ground. So, they sold.
Since, the family has diversified even further, purchasing Glencoe near Gingin to create a breeding stud and a link in the supply chain, sending cattle to their own station up north and attracting top prices from other buyers.
Then there is the cropping property at Walebing near Moora with 3,400 ha of cereals and very much the focus of Michael’s son Michael (‘Budgie’) whose wife comes from a neighbouring property.
Back at Cervantes, the fishing has grown beyond a fleet to include a processing factory for its lobster exports, the Lobster Shack eatery and tourist destination, and scenic tours.
Michael says there was no pressure on the children or grandchildren to move into the family businesses just as there was no pressure on him from his father.
“He bred us to want to achieve. I’ve always thought if you have a good work ethic it comes from your parents and I had two hard working parents,” he explains.
“I’ve taught my children the same work ethic and they went fishing because it’s what they wanted, not what I expected.
“Or if they want to go cropping, as one is, or grazing or be a pastoralist I say great; carry on.
“ And if, when I put the cue in the rack for the last time, they sell up all the assets, so be it.”
David senior and his wife Thelma are still very actively involved in the fishing and farming activities so the patriarch of the family still very much leads by example.
Michael says the business has only ever had two accountants and he uses Insight Advisory Group because he gets good advice and their values are aligned.
Insight business transition expert, Stewart Blizard, says succession planning, for families like the Thompson clan, is an Insight speciality and working across multiple sectors and generations needs a highly skilled firm.