Ellen O’Brien having emigrated from Ireland, married fellow Irish migrant Patrick O’Brien in 1884 and together with a business partner, George Crisp, established the Defiance Flour Mill in Toowoomba in 1898.
Upon Patrick’s death in 1906, Ellen, the mother of ten children, assumed the leadership of all family businesses including Defiance Mills which she chaired until her death in 1924. She bequeathed to the business, qualities and values which endured for nearly 100 years: customer service born out of generosity to others; discipline inspired by deep Catholic faith; and sheer hard work. Such was her standing in business and the community that her funeral stopped Toowoomba.
When the business assets were frozen following Patrick’s death and she was refused a bank loan due to her widow status, local farmers came to her assistance reciprocating her generosity to them. Following her death, Ellen’s son Thomas, (TP) O’Brien inherited leadership of the company which he exercised for nearly 50 years. He had an aversion to debt and sought to consolidate the business rather than expand it but his deep understanding of milling ensured that the company remained profitable.
His reputation for honesty, customer service and Catholic inspired discipline for himself and other family employees characterized his contribution. TP O’Brien became an industry legend.
The 1960s were pivotal years for Defiance as the Queensland industry experienced serious competitive challenges, industry consolidation and vertical integration of millers and bakeries. Defiance, which had embraced innovation throughout its history, world leading in some respects, branched into pre-mix products for which it became the national leader.
It fostered the rise of in-store bakeries in the major Australian supermarket chains, becoming the dominant national supplier. Pre-mix also underpinned its successful expansion into Asia and the Pacific. Notably it was a pioneer in the emergence of hot bread shops which became major outlets for its products. These developments led to rapid expansion of the business between the 1960s and the 1990s under the excellent third-generation leadership of Pat, Bill and Tom O’Brien.
After nearly a century and four generations, ownership, which by then was widely dispersed amongst the family, passed from the O’Briens in 1997 under a takeover offer from the Bunge Group. Over the span of its history the Defiance Flour business grew into one with national and international standing, underpinned by innovation, customer care and a loyal workforce. Today, Defiance Flour, remains part of the Allied Mills portfolio.