Obituary: David Johnson, a great life taken too young

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Alex Commins, CEO of Jamestrong and former CEO and owner of Colorpak, pays heartfelt tribute to his Colorpak/GPI colleague David Johnson who died on 13 July of cancer.

40 years a one company man. A great life taken too young.

David Johnson was born on 9 June 1964 and spent his childhood growing up in the suburb of Dandenong in the south east of Melbourne. His parents were Jack and Francis. Jack a plumber and Francis a homemaker. David was the fourth child in a busy family of six children. Older siblings Andrew, Ann, Elizabeth, and younger siblings Matthew and Brendan.

David attended local schools in Dandenong, which was very much an industrial heartland of metropolitan Melbourne in that era. He completed Year 10 at St Johns Regional Catholic College in Dandenong when the prospect of attaining a trade qualification became his pursuit.

David started his printing apprenticeship at a relative minnow of the packaging industry, Colorpak Packaging, in 1980 aged 16. After completing his trade qualification, wanderlust got the better of David, and he set off with a few mates for a twelve-month journey exploring the big brown land we call Australia. With an empty bank account and ink coursing through his veins, David was warmly welcomed back into the Colorpak family, where he progressed to running his own machine.

My father Walter Commins along with his business partners purchased Colorpak in 1985. At that time, I was a first-year university student and sought to earn some money working as a casual on the shop floor. It was in 1985 I first met David. He was my boss and I was his press assistant. My first impression of David was that he was a tough guy, and a man of few words. It was not that he did not know many words, he just chose to use them only when he felt they were necessary! I vividly recall he showed terrific acumen as a pressman and took great pride at the quality and efficiency of his output. I was left under no misapprehension that I was not to be cut any quarter in relation to David not achieving his goals for each shift.

In 1992 our family purchased Colorpak outright and along with my two older brothers Paul and Harry and our father Walter we got on with the task of running a small manufacturing business in Clayton.

David, along with his younger brother Matthew who was also working at Colorpak in 1992, very much became part of the successful growth story which started at that time. The street-smart pair from humble beginnings had a natural nose for business and their contributions were significant.

David was promoted to run the Colorpak prepress department, which was his first foray from the shop floor. He did very well in this role and along with my brothers attended Drupa and other trade shows in Europe. Besides enjoying a beer and a bratwurst, David was well equipped to apply his technical knowledge to help make astute capital purchases for the business as it grew. The first that comes to mind was our commissioning of a computer to plate device. Early adopters of technology were things that David and the team understood would eke us out a competitive advantage in a tough marketplace.

David got married to the delightful Marion in the early nineties and together they had Samuel now aged 26 and Tess now aged 22. In his spare time early on David enjoyed working with his hands-on mechanical hobbies like restoring old 1970s cars.

I know that David was inspired by the life story of my father Walter who had come to Australia aged 15 with nothing, and worked his way up from the shop floor to owning his own company by working hard and applying himself to further study. So David was sponsored by Walter to study a Diploma in Applied Science (Logistics ) at RMIT. After successful completion of his studies and with a thirst for knowledge and hungry with ambition, David made his way into the sales force. It was during that period David proved himself to be a solid commercial manager and forged strong relationships with many key clients. I know he was very proud of cracking open PZ Cussons which ended up being a very large and successful account for the company.

In late 1999, early 2000, we began an industry roll up which saw Colorpak expand into NSW with the purchase of Sydney-based Hale Foldpack and some twelve months later Pemara Packaging in Melbourne. This further expanded and solidified the company’s position as one of the leading folding carton suppliers to the pharmaceutical industry. This suited David very well as his deep knowledge of process, both our own and that of the pharmaceutical client, saw him flourish to be an expert in his field.

In early 2000 we needed a manager to run NSW. No Commins brother was willing to head north. David, also known as the fourth brother, sniffed an opportunity and relocated his family initially to be an understudy to Bob Hale. Twelve months later David finally took over the reigns as GM of NSW when Bob retired.

David immersed himself in the new role and new lifestyle very well. He located his family in the well-heeled suburb of Bronte and quickly took up the surf club mantle. He loved to run and swim with his mates from the Clovelly/Bronte/Bondi surf clubs which often culminated in several social frothy beers on a Sunday afternoon. In no time at all David would turn up to management meetings in Melbourne with a golden glow, no tie, and probably one button undone lower on his shirt than convention would dictate! He reinvented himself as the urbane surfside Sydney executive and was loving it. It was not long after that we discarded our ties in Melbourne also. To dispense with such formalities David was clearly an innovator.

In April 2004 Colorpak floated on the ASX and David took on the title Chief Operating Officer NSW. He quickly adapted to the public company formalities and was much admired and respected by the Board. In 2005 we bolted on Castle Graphics to extend our product offerings to the pharmaceutical industry. As this was based in Sydney it came largely under David’s remit and with his strong technical background, flexographic label and leaflet printing was an exciting opportunity to strengthen our already strong links to the pharma sector.

In 2006 David formed part of a team that developed a greenfield site in Regents Park to allow for further expansion in NSW. The new facility was opened in 2007 with a big industry night and David was proud as punch to be on the podium telling the industry our plans for future growth were now a reality as we said goodbye to our old digs in Erskineville.

Left to right: Paul Veigel, David Johnson, Peter Bevan, Bernadette Obeid and Warren Smith
Left to right: Paul Veigel, David Johnson, Peter Bevan, Bernadette Obeid and Warren Smith (2009)

In the period between 2006 and 2011 David led the business with a confidence and capability that saw Colorpak continue its expansion in the NSW market and very much dominate the pharmaceutical sector. David was well respected by the customers and was able to transition his time between the face of the customer and back to the shop floor to ensure we were delivering on our promise.

2011 saw Colorpak take the bold step of acquiring the folding carton division of Carter Holt Harvey from NZ businessman Graeme Hart. The business was in poor shape financially, a point of which we were well aware. We picked up one plant in NSW, two in Victoria, and one in NZ. Overnight we were employing an additional 500 people. David was promoted at that stage to the role of General Manager Northern Region as he took on responsibility for all of the NSW sales and operations.

The ensuing years were without doubt the toughest we encountered as a team. Integrating a business twice our size was not without its challenges. One thing was clear, we needed to streamline our footprint and retain work that aligned with our strategy. My brother Paul ably led the integration process which was akin to eating an elephant one bite at a time. By the time we finished, six plants in 2011 become three plants by 2015. David was reliable and determined when running the NSW divisions, maintaining our results to the public market whilst transitioning the Villawood operation inside of Regents Park.

David always had his finger on the pulse of technological change and prosecuted the case to invest in digital technology for the flexographic division of Colorpak. Once we had relocated Castle Graphics from Baulkham Hills to Regents Park in a near side facility, David’s wish became a reality first with a narrow web HP digital press and shortly thereafter a wide web format HP digital printing machine.

In 2015 David completed further study and became a Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. He was a continual learner and boasted a curious mind.

In 2016 Colorpak was taken over by Graphic Packaging International based out of Atlanta, Georgia. It was the end of one era and the beginning of another as the business had carved out a strong position in the beverage and food packaging industries also. David was appointed to the role of VP Sales and Marketing – ANZ.

Later in his career, outside of work David took up the hobby of renovating houses with his younger brother Matthew who like David was a fabulous, long term, loyal and strong contributing member of the Colorpak family. Matthew was well skilled in turning “renovators’ dreams” that nobody would touch, into the dream house. He made it look easy, so David joined the fray and together they enjoyed much success in the Sydney market too.

David battled cancer privately for some time. It only became apparent some twelve months ago how unwell he had become. He fought on bravely and passed away in the early hours of 13 July, aged 56 years.

When William Shakespeare penned the quote: “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them,” I have no doubt he had a character like David Johnson in mind.

David went about life in a calm and thoughtful manner. He had a great sense of humour and was a private individual who would open up to those he considered his friend. The boy from Dandenong achieved more in his short life than I am sure  he would have expected when stepping foot into that tiny print factory in Clayton in 1980. He had so much to be proud of.
David was much loved by his family as a husband and a father. He was loved and admired by his work colleagues past and present. He will be dearly missed as a highly respected industry leader, and leaves an indelible mark on a company which has his DNA in its success story.

A great life taken too young! Rest in peace brother.


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