Press "Enter" to skip to content

John Swainston steps down as Maxwell MD

After 44 years  in the photo industry in the UK, USA and Australia, industry icon John Swainston has announced he is stepping down as managing director of Maxwell International Australia Pty Limited.

johnswainston_2013[1]John Swainston will also pass on his remaining international responsibilities for the Asia Pacific arm of parent company DayMen, (Lowepro, JOBY, Acme Made) to Hong Kong-based senior vice-president, Robin Riley, who has led DayMen’s manufacturing arm in China over the past decade.

Maxwell will, from April, be under the leadership of long-time general manager, Sales & Marketing, Malcolm Pirie, who joined Maxwell International early in 2007.

John Swainston will continue on with DayMen in a part-time consulting capacity outside Australia. He said he is also looking forward to working with other non-competing businesses.

John came to Australia in 1979, as group general manager of Bell & Howell Australia, responsible for Audio-Visual and Consumer Photo operations, working for Bill Cutbush, then managing director. With Bell and Howell exiting consumer markets three years later John, with industry stalwart John Bleakley, started a new company, Maxwell Optical Industries, to take on distribution of Nikon.

Sue Lewis presents John Swainston, as MD of Maxwell Optical, the Merv Lewis Memorial Supplier of the Year Award at the Camera House AGM, approx. 1994.
Sue Lewis presents a youthful John Swainston, as MD of Maxwell Optical, the Merv Lewis Memorial Supplier of the Year Award at the Camera House AGM, approx. 1994.

For the next 24 years John Swainston grew that business and acquired complementary distributorships until in October 2006, the company split into two. The Nikon business reverted to Nikon, which started its own Australian subsidiary, and a new entity, Maxwell International was established, handling Tamron, Lowepro, Velbon and Cokin.

Les Brener looks on as Alan Michael, Michaels Camera Video & Digtal, Melbourne,  snaps a picture at PMA in Melbourne, circa 1995. (Pic: John Swainston)
Les Brener looks on as Alan Michael, Michaels Camera Video & Digtal, Melbourne, snaps a picture at PMA in Melbourne, circa 1995. (Pic: John Swainston)

In the new business, John ‘evangelised’ the value of accessories to specialists and consumer electronics retailers alike. Maxwell International more than doubled in size during the digital camera boom. Of recent times Tamron has been a star growth engine, as consumers seek out premium performance lenses to expand their capabilities.

‘Our industry has grown enormously overall, despite the recent retreat. Retailers like Paxton’s in Sydney, Camera House and Ted’s nationally, and individual specialists such as Michaels in Melbourne, Diamonds in Adelaide and Camera Electronic Services in Perth, have ensured that consumers still have excellent sources of quality advice and value, along with the popular consumer electronics houses such as Harvey Norman, JB HiFi, The Good Guys and Dick Smith,’ said John.

Bruce Pottinger, MD of L&P Imaging, Sydney, with John Swainston and the late David Moore, leading Australian photographer, at  Manly Art Gallery for David’s show on Sydney, circa 1996. David was the co-founder of the Australian Centre for Photography in 1974. John Swainston was deputy chairof the ACP from 2003 to 2005.
Bruce Pottinger, MD of L&P Imaging, Sydney, with John Swainston and the late David Moore, leading Australian photographer, at Manly Art Gallery for David’s show on Sydney, circa 1996. David was the co-founder of the Australian Centre for Photography in 1974. John Swainston was deputy chairof the ACP from 2003 to 2005. (Pic: John Swainston)

‘Australian pros are incredibly well served today by the likes of L&P and Kayell, under the leadership respectively of Bruce Pottinger and Rob Gatto. Canon’s commitment to the Canon APPA awards and Nikon’s with The Event, as well as their own several-thousand strong national body, the AIPP, under Ross Eason as president, also ensure success for the profession.

‘Over the years,’ said John, ‘I have had the wonderful privilege of making some great friends in this business, amongst dealers, competitors and professional customers. In that time I’ve also developed a passion for photographs and plan to keep up that involvement in my consulting days ahead.

He has mentored five young AIPP members this past year, which he described as one of his most fulfilling experiences yet, involving coaching, mentoring and business development.

‘Seeing how one’s experience can help guide new entrants into the photo-video profession, and go beyond the undoubted craft skill they all have into a profitable business model, is such an important step. I hope that the AIPP (mentoring) initiative previously under the late Ian McKenzie’s guidance, now under Queensland-based Eric Victor, will prove enduring.

John was quick to respond when asked to nominate his highlights over the years.

Les and Jessica Brener – on the occasion of Les Brener’s 70th birthday, in Sydney, June 2000.
Les and Jessica Brener – on the occasion of Les Brener’s 70th birthday, in Sydney, June 2000. (Pic: John Swainston)

‘There are four things I think were really important. First, soon after I arrived in Australia, by coincidence, PMA established itself under Les Brener. For two decades it served the retail industry incredibly well. Also under Terry Rimmer and Peter Rose. That, in collaboration with the PICA/IDEA trade shows kept photography to the forefront of consumers’ minds.

‘Second, at Maxwell and Nikon we made an early commitment to Press Photography and the profession, starting Nikon Professional Services (NPS) in 1982 for the Brisbane Commonwealth Games and pioneering annual Press Photo awards that run to this day as the Nikon-Walkley Press Photo awards. Many of those winners have gone on to be recognized globally in the World Press Photo awards.

‘Third, Nikon Club Australia, which reached a peak membership of over 16,000 active members receiving a quarterly magazine with expert advice, encouraged and rewarded serious amateurs in a way that few other loyalty programs worldwide have reached or exceeded since. Under the editorship of Melissa Coleman and editorial backbone of Glenn Watson, this kept our brand right up there in a highly competitive environment against a very strong and worthy competitor, Canon Australia.

‘Lastly, in recent years, through Maxwell, especially with Lowepro and more recently with JOBY, we have delivered some great accessory opportunities that have made money for retailers and delivered great carrying and support experiences for consumers. Brand remains immensely important, much more so than price. I hope in the future that retailers continue to recognize just what a large proportion of their margins have and should come from quality branded accessories.

‘Buying better means nothing if the consumer does not get the value or quality they want. Retailers get significant contributions of support from local suppliers and cutting them out will ensure the consumer never hears the voice of great brands, which is what they seek out.’

The future
After fulfilling some commitments in April, a short family holiday in Europe is on the cards early in their summer. Then the focus will be on a book he’s planned for over a decade. It will be about Australian photographers, and is due for publication by the end of next year. And with some free time at his disposal at last, he also has plans to work on his own photography.

He will be in Perth later this month for the half-yearly Camera House Conference to say a few personal farewells.

Peter Stallard, the incoming 1990 chair of Raleru (Camera House group) presents outgoing chairman Alan Small, of Taree Camera House,  an appreciation Plaque from members in thanks for all he had done for the Group. (Pic: John Swainston)
Peter Stallard, the incoming 1990 chair of Raleru (Camera House group) presents outgoing chairman Alan Small, of Taree Camera House, an appreciation Plaque from members in thanks for all he had done for the Group. (Pic: John Swainston)

‘Alan Small as the then-chairman of Camera House, re-launched the organisation just two weeks after we started Maxwell Optical in May, 1983. No one should under-emphasize the contribution that Alan made to the whole industry at that time. His drive and passion created a whole generation of very successful retailers in Camera House across the country.

‘Mark Alderson and most recently Lance Miller have continued to ensure specialist retailers survive and prosper in times of great change. This industry was built by people with passion for great retailing and expertise. It’s what consumers most respond to. It’s wonderful to see some of those names still doing great business. Richard Robertson, formerly MD at Ted’s, was another visionary leader, who made a great deal of difference and, as the late Ron Evans often said, “you always want to be seen to be successful in a successful industry. ”

‘While the future will be very different from the past, I am convinced that images will remain one of the most valued things in people’s lives for decades to come. It’s up to a new generation to take the torch forwards to the bright future that’s ahead for retailers and distributors ready for change, excited by technology and able to deliver great experiences for their customers, at a price people are prepared to pay for,’ he concluded.

Unmatched industry contribution
As well as distinguishing himself year in, year out, as the man with the camera in his hand at industry functions (mostly a top-end Nikon with a serious-looking Speedlight) John Swainston, has more than anyone else in the industry over the past three decades, contributed continuously and generously to industry associations and initiatives.

‘When I came to Australia the industry, except for Kodak, had no market data. Within the PIC, in 1979, we started data gathering for the first time on a sell-in basis, using a public accounting firm as the independent arbiter. I headed that up with Derek Plante.

‘As President of PIC in 1982 we worked to merge the wholesale industry and succeeded in reaching agreement with PIMA to form PICA, covering both consumer and pro markets. John Koens, Brian D’Arcy and Peter Rattray all made that much easier. We then tried to pull off one leg too far in APIA, which was to be an umbrella body. But in doing so it set the scene for possibly the closest working relationship between associations and photo interests, for we have always since had strong dialogue with the profession, something absent in much of the rest of the world. Val Forman and Ian McKenzie of the then IAP were key players in making that happen.

‘Paul Curtis also managed to cover both amateur and professional subject matter when he produced copy for regional newspapers and radio stations and was a tireless contributor.

‘I was twice president of PICA, in the tough times of the first Gulf War where we succeeded in scaling back Ben Hur-like exhibition stands and cut our coat according to the tough times of the day. Again in 2006-7 I felt a lower operating cost for the association was essential as the industry experienced rapidly falling hardware prices and revenues. I worked consistently with Roy Pung (PMA) and his staff to ensure Australians regularly spoke at US conventions and people like Rob Tolmie (National Photo), Michael Warshall (Nulab) and others became valued global players in their fields, as they still are today.

‘In 2000, several of us were concerned that the founding objectives of the Australian Centre for Photography in Paddington, Sydney, has lost their way. Working with Les Brener of PMA and professionals David Moore, Chris Shain and North Sullivan, we managed to get Les and me onto the Board at the same time as a new director came on board. Working hard to support Alastair Foster in his new role, and under the outstanding leadership of Joanna Capon as chair, the ACP rapidly became once again a leading International player for the promotion of photo media and photo education.

‘One of the most enjoyable tasks was working for a decade every month as the photo correspondent on ‘Australia Overnight’ for the Macquarie Network, hosted by 2GB in Sydney. Initially I worked with radio legend Owen Delaney, and the 90 minutes passed rapidly between 12.30 and 2.00am on the first Saturday night of each month. There were 600,000 listeners on 35 stations, and we had both technical and artistic dialogue that still leaves a warm spot.

Des Crawley
Legendary photo educator and renowned photographer Des Crawley, along with John Swainston an avid supporter of of the camera club movement.

“And I can’t overlook the importance of camera club talks. I still go there. They remain the best possible feedback for where enthusiast photographers are at with photography, and I am privileged to be the junior patron of St. George Leagues Club Photo Society, under the senior patron, legendary photo educator Des Crawley. I learn as much as I impart at these events, and the warmth and fellowship and the huge influx of new younger members is both exciting and uplifting.

‘Participating in one’s industry in all its aspects has made for a very rapid transition of 44 years. Happily I am not fully retiring, but I am happy I won’t be faced with another 200 days of travel each year, as I have in the past year.’


  1. Robert Heim Robert Heim March 6, 2015

    Excellent tribute to a “Living Legend”. Thanks John for being there when so many others fell by the way side. Best of luck, I know you don’t know how to “retire”, long life and good health.

  2. Paul Atkins Paul Atkins March 6, 2015

    John, you are this industry, you embody everything we aspire to. Thank you for your tireless work and broad smile.

    What an excellent tribute! Best of luck for your future, I cannot imagine them being ‘quiet’.

  3. Peter rose Peter rose March 6, 2015

    John, you earned a reputation, both in Australia and overseas that we would all be envious of.
    Your knowledge and enthusiasm in presenting at conferences,to both your peers and to enthusiasts, continually rated you amongst the highest in post conference surveys.
    You deserve to be well satisfied with your contribution to the industry and to individuals within it.
    We look forward to hearing of your next phase!
    Sincere best wishes,

  4. Alan Small Alan Small March 6, 2015

    C’mon John! You can’t leave yet. You and I are just getting the hang of this industry that has absorbed so much of our lives.
    To be more serious – there hasn’t been and it’s unlikely there will be a person who has displayed a greater commitment to photographics than you have done since the moment you arrived here. I well-remember that you and I stepped up to the plate around the same time with the same determination to make things work and to advance the industry as a whole. I enjoyed your generous friendship.
    It is universally known that you were always available to be an ambassador, not just to Maxwells, but to the entire industry. Enjoyed working with you John. We mainly saw eye-to-eye as to where this industry should go, but to some extent we were cut off at the pass by hard-core discounters who hi-jacked photographics; they simply wanted to ride on the back of what was once superb little industry and get as rich as possible along the way. What you now have is an entire army of people who don’t understand their cameras and the possibilities they offer, so they pick up a smartphone.
    My best wishes go with you John; all the very best for what you plan do with your time. And good health!
    Alan small

  5. Lincoln Gray Lincoln Gray March 6, 2015

    Congratulations John on what can only be described as a ‘staring role’ in the Australian photographic industry. Your love of photography, your commitment to the industry and your consideration for the people working in it is legendary.
    I have admired and respected you over all those years and I thank you for the advice and assistance you gave so freely. Good luck to you John, I will always think well of you.
    Lincoln Gray

  6. Paul Boniface Paul Boniface March 6, 2015

    Thank you John for all you have done for the photographic industry
    Your time & devotion to the photographic industry is unparalleled
    Enjoy your retirement All the best
    Looking forward to your words of wisdom in print
    Paul Boniface

  7. Robbo Robbo March 6, 2015

    Great to see youve survived to retirement(semi)
    You are 1of three industry luminaries who carried their cameras on them at all times you,les brener and walter reuter You did the talk and and did the walk….not many can claim that
    .the industry will be the poorer .
    The late ron evans quote is
    ” youwill never be succesfull in an unsuccesfull industry”
    John you were pivital in making it so succesfull.
    I look forward to catching up when you next in melbourne

  8. Noel Bentley Noel Bentley March 6, 2015

    Events certainly happen fast these days. When we spoke last Monday and you mentioned world travel I didn’t read retirement this week into the conversation.
    Thanks for your help over the years and all you have done to promote photography.
    Don’t forget the Queenslanders when you start to travel Australia. Head north first to the Sunshine State – you and your wife will be welcome

  9. Margaret Brown Margaret Brown March 7, 2015

    Congratulations on a stellar career, John, and an abiding contribution to the photo industry over a very long time. I wish you on-going success in your retirement and plenty of exciting photo opportunities in the course of your travels. I hope our paths cross again at some time in the near future.

  10. Malcolm Kennedy Malcolm Kennedy March 7, 2015


    You have been a fierce competitor .

    You have made an absolutely outstanding contribution to our industry.

    We wish you good health and every happiness

  11. John Swainston John Swainston March 7, 2015

    I am very humbled by all these kind words. Glad Robbo managed to correct my quote, because that’s the heart of it: grow the pie and there’s more for all to eat. Now the industry needs to sort out a new ingredients list, get the proportions right and bake it up good! No doubt see you all soon. And I will make sure to break bread again before too long. No doubt see many of you at Peter Rose’s do in April.

  12. Ron Frank Ron Frank March 7, 2015

    John I have watched many folk in industry since 1968 when I started with Ron Nell at W.J.Lucas retailing photo gear on Saturday mornings and it was a terrific ride. there have been few men who were able to carry themselves with the dignity that you have demonstrated.
    In 2008 my sons convinced me to retire and after a long hospitalisation I came to realise that the retire word is a grave mistake.
    For the sake of your own sanity retain a position that enables you to remain in the work force.
    I look forward to breaking bread with you after the PMA do soon and bid you a long healthy life with many more pleasures to come.
    All the best Ron Frank Perth

  13. Phil Gresham Phil Gresham March 9, 2015

    John we will miss you, who will take those iconic industry photos into the future? I suppose there will always be an iPhone in the crowd!

    I remember you taking some photos of my young family in December 1990 around the pool at the Sea World hotel where we were gathered for an industry get together, the title of which I forget!

    Keep up the great photos on Facebook though I guess there will be less reports from airport lounges in the future?

  14. Alan Logue Alan Logue March 9, 2015

    John. The words from Keith are a fitting tribute to you and your stellar efforts for the Australian Photo Industry.
    In fact, to many of us, maybe you are the industry.
    You are always there with a camera – something many others forget.
    I would suggest your love of photography has made your involvement in this crazy industry successful for both yourself and your company, as well as many other owners and stores.
    Thank you sincerely for what you have given, and please, if you are retiring, keep taking photos.
    If you are semi-retiring, then still keep taking the photos.
    All the best for the future.
    Alan & Catherine.

  15. Tony Quigley Tony Quigley March 9, 2015

    Sad to see you go John. You are a true one off and you always brought an intellectual outlook to the table and really cared about the industry and about what you did. You were most helpful to me back in the high day of Kodak Express and I thank you for that. The photo business has changed beyond recognition since those days and I wish you a happy retirement. I can tell you that it does have its compensations. Go well mate.

  16. Paul Curtis Paul Curtis March 9, 2015

    New directions and a change of work is a great idea….but please John, never retire. It would be a terrible waste.

    • John Swainston John Swainston March 9, 2015

      Paul – I’ll just have to balance things up and learn to pace myself. It’s kinda in my blood so hoping to continue to make a contribution somewhere.

  17. Duncan Dodd Duncan Dodd March 10, 2015

    I had the privilege and honour of first meeting John when he was seconded to Bell & Howell Australia as 2IC to Bill Cutbush MD and he had his first of many visits to Western Australia in 1979.
    In 1983 when Bell & Howell no longer wanted to be involved in the photographic
    equipment distribution business, John had the foresight to convince some investors to form a new company, Maxwell Optical Industries Pty Ltd to distribute Nikon & Photo Lamps in Australia. Forming a great dedicated team
    was due to John’s people skills and concern for his staff that always came first, which ensured the company had many long-term employees over a number of years. The industry had many up’s and downs over the years and he always had a positive attitude or a solution to move forward and overcome any barriers which motivated the rest of the team.
    His dedication to the industry has also been outstanding with commitments to PICA, PMA, ACMP, AIPP, Camera Clubs and I daresay many others, too many to mention here.
    Always armed with a camera, in many cases the only one to do so at industry events has enabled him to build a photo library of the industry and it’s personnel second to none.
    Now joining the retirement rank’s I know we have not heard the last from him and I look forward to seeing more of his inspiring photography, his proposed books and many of his other of his proposed projects come to fruition.
    Thank you John for being an industry stalwart, a mentor, employer, and friend for the last few decades and I am looking forward to catching up with you when you are in Perth soon.

    • Alexx Alexx March 10, 2015

      Love this dedication Duncan. That’s m’ Dad!

  18. Peter Rattray Peter Rattray March 10, 2015

    John it has been a pleasure working with you over all those years in the Australian Photo Industry. Your personal contribution is only surpassed by the passion you have for Photography. Enjoy your retirement, very well deserved. Look forward to hearing the next JS chapter. Best wishes Peter Rattray.

  19. Adrian Tamplin Adrian Tamplin March 10, 2015

    congratulations John, your endeavours have been rewarded with the knowledge that people power is the ultimate winner along with the determination of a belief, that is Photography ” it captures that moment in time, that allows us to reflect” best regards Adrian

  20. John J Kerr John J Kerr March 10, 2015

    Hello John. Your retirement news had to come one day and hearing it is not good news for the photo industry. Our work lives crossed many times and I can say that those moments are scribed in my memory. I remember the fun we had when I MCd the Nikon Kodak Press Awards nights for you. Always a professional event and one that took the pro side of the industry to another level. John you will be missed greatly however no doubt you will find many things to enthuse the Swainston brain in years to come. I do hope that our paths cross again one day.
    Well done good and failful
    servant. Best personal regards John Kerr.

  21. Brian Kearney Brian Kearney March 13, 2015

    All best wishes John for your future.

    I was impressed with every presentation you gave at the many PMA shows I attended.

    Your enthusiasm, vision and perspective was inspiring.

    You certainly shaped this industry.

  22. Steve Scott Steve Scott March 14, 2015

    Hope John an industry legend and Peter an all time gentleman enjoy change of life but never forget how we all got here and still have the occasional lunch and beer when either come to Perth.
    All the best to both of you in the future,and thanks for your contribution and for just being who you are,
    stephen scott compix

  23. Andy McCourt Andy McCourt March 17, 2015

    Although I segued from photographic into graphic arts/print in the mid ’80s I have been blessed with retaining warm industry friendships and I am proud to say John Swainston is one, on the occasions our paths have crossed. One such was the Sydney Olympics 2000 when we had been let down by a supporting supplier. With superb understanding and faultless cooperation, we were able to set up colour-managed large and small format printing within Nikon’s press support area; with great results for both companies. I’ll never forget that John and always be grateful. Happy trails wherever they lead you and I hope we ‘bump’ into each other again periodically.

  24. James palmer James palmer May 8, 2015

    John I have been catching tonight on the glowing comments on the web on your professional life since we lost contact some years back. Congrats to you and family on your success and I look forward to seeing you soon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Our Business Partners