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In the past, Sir William Tyree transformed the Australian Engineering, manufacturing and the power industry. Now he wants to transform the future!

When he was eight years old, William Tyree, home from his Auckland school with bronchitis, built his mother an electric toaster. It was a harbinger of engineering feats to come. He would go on to establish the original Tyree Industries (subsequently sold to Westinghouse) and the Tyree Group of Companies making the Tyree name synonymous with electrical transformer manufacturing. National and international honors for his contribution to the engineering industry include a knighthood in 1975. And along the way he became one of Australia’s leading philanthropists

He is a major benefactor of the ‘Sir William Tyree Laboratory in Power Engineering’ opened in the University of Sydney in 2008. It has created the physical infrastructure needed for the university’s ambitious new programme on power engineering, addressing both the needs of engineering students and the Australian energy industry. Most universities provide undergraduate training in power engineering in laboratories equipped with software only – the Tyree Laboratory allows them to work on industry standard equipment, closing the gap between industry and academia.

“Unless something is put back into education, Australia will not grow”, says Sir William. “Companies must constantly innovate and Australia needs a more entrepreneurial culture to become a smarter and more competitive country”, he says, stressing the need for better education at all levels.

Engineering is in the Tyree blood: his grandfather built bridges and was Chief Engineer for Sydney’s underground railways.

“Growing up I had two ambitions – to be an engineer or an agriculturalist”, he says. He succeeded in both but engineering came first. Because opportunities were limited in New Zealand his mother took him to Sydney when he was 16. He as apprenticed to the long established Sydney electrical company, O’Donnell Griffen and when he finished his 6 year diploma he was offered a job as Executive Manager of one of its subsidiaries.

“I came home very thrilled but my mother said ‘Would you really want to do that or would you like to have your own company?’ And this made me think. But you needed money to start your own company and having none I had to think up ways of getting some: so I made football and hockey pants and sold them. I used my mother’s sewing machine and contracted work out to my mother’s friends. I did that for a year. I also used to spray motor cars at the weekend”.

The owner of the workshop where young William did his spray painting said he would finance him 50% when he set up his own business. “I was able to scrape together £5000 pounds and with his £5000 pounds it was enough to allow me to start manufacturing electrical motors”.

The first Tyree company was called British Consolidated Industries. The motor he built is still called the Tyree motor. However, electrical transformers were to be his main contribution to the engineering industry – the really big stuff. “I loved designing transformers – they became my love and glory”, he says. (Post war, the waiting list was up to three years and the transformers being shipped out from England were old and out of date.)

The first order for transformers from the original factory at Camperdown in Sydney was placed in 1948 by the Sydney Water Board – two 50kVA, 11kV 415 units. The successful manufacture and supply of these products against the entrenched overseas competition led to a strong, long standing relationship that lasted many decades.

In 1952 a new factory was established in Kingsgrove, a Sydney suburb, as the company had outgrown their original premises. Production was extended to include up to 1500kVA 33KV products and the first of these was delivered in 1953.

“I was able to build transformers two years ahead of any of my English-controlled competitors. It meant I was eventually able to buy them out”.

Early in his business career he acquired a commercial pilot’s license. This enabled him to fly to his customers and factories in Melbourne and Adelaide and then return home in one day – not then possible using commercial airlines.

By the early ‘60s he was the largest manufacturer of transformers in the Southern Hemisphere.

Westinghouse kept trying to buy Tyree Industries and eventually did so, on the condition that he had free reign to run the company for 10 years. Today there is a Tyree Group of Companies which is still run by Sir William and his family.

His early agricultural ambitions were not forgotten. He bought 3000 acres at Wellington, NSW, grew wheat and ran 1000 head of prize winning cattle – “the best cattle in the Western Districts”.

In 1978 Tycan established a new factory in Mittagong, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, to produce enamelled copper wire. Mittagong is around 100 kilometres from Sydney and the factory was established there because the state government provided incentives for decentralized industries. Located on part of a 40 hectare site owned by Sir William, this plant is close to the expressway between Sydney and Melbourne, and the main train line between the two cities.

In 1983 Sir William started the construction of his new transformer factory on an adjacent site to the Tycan wire factory.

He has donated millions for medical as well as engineering research, professorships in Otolaryngology and Music, and scholarships in Information Technology. He has supported other institutions beside the University of Sydney and, for doing so, was nominated by the University for the 2007 Outstanding Philanthropic Support of Higher Education Award given out by the Business Higher Education Round Table, which he won.

His commitment to education, he says, is an investment in Australia’s future. “I want to try and improve the education of the people coming on to replace us ‘old brigade’, otherwise Australia will simply not achieve what it should. We must always be ready for what the future brings.”