The story of the Lyons Building Company
Written by Kevin Lyons, December 2021
The story begins when Eric James Lyons was born in Drysdale on the 4th of June 1909. Eric’s father, Ernest was a farm labourer and his mother Flossie looked after the home and Eric and his sisters; Freda and Una and his younger brother Allan. Eric walked a quarter of a mile to the small primary school from their home near Lake Lorne each day, and to the Methodist Church on Sundays. Drysdale was like an English village in those days.
The family moved to Highton when Eric was 11 and he attended Highton Primary School where he obtained his Merit Certificate, aged 14 and 6 months.
Eric was apprenticed to Jack Freeland, a local builder and his first job was to ride his push bike, with his boss on the back, to build a boat shed at Barwon Heads. They did this for a few weeks until the job was finished. It was a low carbon business, and soon after Jack bought a horse and cart and his business was growing, still low carbon.
Eric applied himself to learn building and he completed a three-year building and construction course with the International Correspondence School. He paid for the course and completed it working at night after a hard days work. By 1928 Jack Freeland had a large team building houses in and around Geelong. Eric had progressed to be a Foreman by age 18. Sadly, Jack’s business collapsed due to the depression and Eric was out of work. Jack gave Eric a reference letter that stated, “Eric has made remarkably rapid progress and he has shown extraordinary ability in his trade”. Eric survived doing small jobs and making and fitting flywire doors and screens.
In 1929 Eric obtained a contract to build a Closer Settlement – a 5 room farm house at Patho West near Echuca. The contract price to provide all the labour to build the house, verandahs, chimney, water tanks complete was £59-10-00. Eric, aged 20 and Allan aged 17, set off in his 1924 Dodge car that he bought for £70-0-0 and then built a tray on the back. They had their tent, tools and youthful energy, and they sure needed it. They worked for 10 weeks and completed the house. The work supervisor said they had done an excellent job and he wanted them to build another house at £59-10-0? But Eric said I have my sweetheart back home – my mum, and we want to go back.
In September 1930 Eric and Allan won their first P.W.D. contract to build a one room school at Minhamite near Hamilton. The price for labour and materials was £437-10-00. They completed the new school and were pleased to be back home again. 50 years later, the pair were invited back for the school’s 50th Anniversary. In 1931 Eric obtained another P.W.D. contract to build five one room schools in the Heytesbury District near Timboon. The price labour and materials was about £300-0-0 for each school. In the 1960’s the schools were shifted to Timboon to become the Timboon Consolidated School. Last year I visited the Timboon school hoping to see one or more of the schools. They had all been sold off or demolished, I still hope to find one.
Do you see a pattern developing? 6 schools to date 1931.
When the depression lifted Eric started building houses in and around Geelong, he employed up to 12 men and he was the pacemaker and leader. Allan worked with Eric until he retired at 65. Eric worked from home with the Iron joinery shop in the backyard and I slept in the office when Eric was working late on plans and quotations.
During the war Eric was conscripted into the Civil construction Corps C.C.C. and he was directed to work at Mulwala building the large brick munition factories that are still in use today.
In 1944, a bushfire burnt through Moriac and Mount Duneed and Eric built two farmhouses that had been burnt. There was no labour available and he employed Bruce Priddle as an apprentice. Bruce lives in Queenscliff at age 94 and he said that Eric was a good boss – firm but fair.
The work picked up after the war and Eric built up his team and continued building houses. I was apprenticed as a carpenter to my father starting on the 12th Jan 1953 and I was living my dream to be a builder like my Dad. I worked with a gang of 4-5 men building houses in Belmont and all areas. I started as the billy boy, and as the boss’s son I didn’t receive many favours. I enjoyed working with hand tools as we did not have any power tools until about 1955 when Dad purchased a Parkin docking saw. This was a radial arm saw with a petrol motor and it was mounted on a trailer. Working with green hardwood timber was quite different to the pine used today and with hand tools before we had electricity on the sites.
A giant step for Lyons was when Eric purchased land in 42 Little Fyans Street South Geelong and built a modern office, joinery factory and store yard. This complex was opened in July 1959. Having this new facility where we had the office employing a secretary/bookkeeper and the joinery, with three joiners and two apprentices we could make doors, windows and cupboards for the jobs we were doing.
Dad’s 30 years of hard work had paid off, he was not a backyard builder anymore. I spent more time in the office and I did some night courses in estimating and supervision. When a man on the job said
“Kevin how did you learn building?” I said “By my mistakes.” He replied “Gee you have learned a lot!”
I am very grateful to my parents as they cared for our family with my sisters Doreen and Heather and my brother, Norm. Mum always supported Dad in the business as Margaret did for me and our family.
I was very fortunate when my Dad invited me to join the business, my capital contribution was my Holden ute. A few years later my brother Norm who had completed his joinery apprenticeship and then went to England for two years work experience, also joined the firm. We were building houses and small commercial projects and forming relationships with Geelong Architects.
In 1977 Gary Iacono started in the office as a Junior Estimator, his father John was working for us as a carpenter. Gary worked with myself and Norm taking off quantities and obtaining quotations for sub trades and material supplies for the jobs we were tendering on. This was done with ruled foolscap sheets of paper and a basic calculator. Gary’s involvement grew with our business, and he is now our Managing Director with 44 years’ service. We have had many long serving and loyal employees, Bernie Henry started as an apprentice in 1980 and is now our Senior Site Manager and a member of our Board. He has supervised many of our standout buildings, including Smorgy’s on the Pier and the Sacred Heart College’s new two storey classroom wing over 3 ½ years.
Norm and I gradually took over the management and Dad retired in 1975 but he kept a close fatherly eye on the business until he died peacefully at age 97. We moved from building large houses to commercial projects. When I drive around Geelong with my grandchildren I say “we built that”, they say “Yes Pa, you’ve told us before!”
A giant step for the E.J. Lyons & Sons Pty. Ltd. Master Builders was when we received a phone call from Mr. Alec Strang, the Victorian Public works Architect for the Western Region of Victoria. He asked if we would tender on building the standard LTC school buildings. Dad said we could not compete with AV Jennings as they had a stranglehold on these projects. Mr. Strang said he would like us to tender and we did and we got our first job building the new Montpellier Primary School in Highton. Were we the lowest? Our daughters Christine and Jennifer went to the school, and they liked to say, “Our dad built our school”.
I think that there is a pattern developing, Five schools in 1930’s, one school in 1969 and from then until today over 100 new schools and additions, both government and private. This pattern still stands today, we are currently working on:
- St. Ignatius College, Drysdale – Three Storey Admin – $11 Million
- Iona College, Armstrong Creek – Stage 2 – $13 Million
- Marcus Oldham College, Highton – Two Storey Student Accommodation – $ 4 Million
- Good News Lutheran College, Tarneit – $ 7 Million
- Holy Family Primary School, North Geelong – $ 2.5 Million
- 181 Moorabool Street – 3 additional storeys on existing 2 storeys – $ 9 Million
- RCA Retirement Village Centre – $ 3.5 Million
Construction methods and materials have changed greatly over the past 25 years and I am amazed when I visit our various sites to compare what it was like 50 years ago.
The Company changed to trading as Lyons Construction in 2000 and we moved the office into a new modern building we built at 100 Fyans Street, South Geelong. We closed the joinery factory leasing the office and joinery but retained the store and yard.
There are 28 employees on the staff, Norm’s son Steve Lyons is Commercial Manager assisting. Gary, and the office has Reception, Accounts, HR and Marketing Personnel, Estimating, Health & Safety and Project Manager’s, and on site are Site Managers and Labourers. All other site construction is done by subcontractors and most days there would be up to 150 personnel working on up to 10 Lyons projects.
Most of our projects are built to plans prepared by Architects and Consultants and we submit a tender price hoping to get the job competing against up to five or more other builders. This is an article that I have read outlining some building definitions.
- Tender – A wild guess carried out to two decimal places.
- Lowest Tender – A contractor wondering what he has left out.
- Project Manager – The conductor of an orchestra with each musician in a different key.
- Project Management – A building technique for losing your shirt under perfect control.
- Liquidated Damages – A penalty for trying to achieve the impossible.
When I complained to Dad saying, “this game is too hard” he would say “it was worse in the depression, Son”, I would say “Yes Dad”.
When Eric James Lyons went with his brother Allan to build their first house in 1929, did he ever imagine that in the next 90 years that hundreds of buildings would be built under the Lyons name. Each of these buildings have been built solidly and honestly and every person who has helped in their building can be proud and thankful.
One of my favourite buildings is the St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and it was completed in 1710. Wren spent over 45 years designing and supervising the new Cathedral with its over 100 ft dome. I have stood beneath the dome and marveled. When you look down at the floor you see this encryption:
LECTOR, SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS, CIRCUMSPICE
When translated in English
“Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you”
I am proud of every building built by Lyons, and they are a memorial to every person who helped create them. Thank you.
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