Bowens, the hardware and building supplies giant, are celebrating an important anniversary. FTMA Australia finds out what it takes to go the distance.

This piece was written by FTMA’s Kat Welsh.

Like most Victorians, I am familiar with Bowens, their stores and products – having visited them or past by them across this fine state. I see their trucks and advertising far and wide, the familiar blue background with yellow lettering, as I go about my daily life. Their name is known by those in the building industry across the nation. Not only are they leaders in timber and hardware, but they also supply throughout the state and ship across Australia. When I had the opportunity to do the interview for this article, I leapt at the chance to find out what was behind the giant of Victorian building supplies.

 I pictured the meeting place at an enormous industrial block, needing to be early to get parked, find the reception, be led through a warren of offices and then settle into a board room on the top floor with an impressive view. What I found though, was a down-to-earth office in a bustling Melbourne suburb, on the street parking right out the front, and in modest gold lettering on the front door was ‘Bowen & Pomeroy PTY LTD’. It was a warm afternoon-sun filled space, ground floor off the street, a cup of tea made by John Bowen, and genuine welcomes from 2 generations of the family-owned business. Despite my seasoned career of holding space with an abundance of diverse people and potentially intimidating environments, I admit I had been nervous about meeting the head honchos of Bowens. But, I most definitely needn’t have been.

The time spent with Jack Bowen and John Bowen, (Chairman of the Board of Directors, and Managing Director, respectively), left me feeling that I had been in the presence of humility, genuine-ness, and kind-heartedness – something I hope I can congruently convey with the words that follow as I tell parts of the Bowens story.

The main reason for the interview was that Bowens is celebrating 130 years in business this year. A major feat, when thinking about the history of Melbourne and the progression of one of Australia’s most impressive cities. Bowens hasn’t just existed throughout this time, it has thrived – part of the bones and muscles of the community, and it keeps on growing.

Behind Bowens is a family that has worked hard, steered, and led through prosperous times but also tough times. Also behind Bowens are the staff that give it life – people that have dedicated their days to the values, crafts, and supplies that they provide. What is evident when you go beneath the surface of Bowens, is that there is rich history of passion and collaboration with everything they do. So, where did it all begin?

Richard Bowen 1891

Richard Bowen 1891

Bowen & Pomeroy Staff 1924

It all started at possibly the unlikeliest of moments in Melbourne history – founded by Richard Bowen and Redmond Pomeroy. In 1894, Melbourne was in crisis. After decades of the gold rush attracting thousands to Victoria and the affluent city landscaping burgeoning in the bay, Melbourne hit quicksand in the 1890s as the goldfields depleted. Many left, descending on Western Australia in pursuit of finding wealth, or at least enough to persist. Despite the harshness of the time though, Richard Bowen entered partnership with his brother-in-law Redmond Pomeroy. Richard had the knowledge and skills – having already been working in a second-hand timber business – Redmond had the capitol. The city’s downturn meant that there was plenty of un-employed men desperate for work, and the demolition business which Richard had been working in, was in high demand.

Richard was first generation born Australian, to Irish immigrant parents – raised in a goldmining community near Ballarat. At age 16 he left Springdallah as the local mines dwindled, and upon arriving in Melbourne picked up labouring jobs. His early years of hard work never left him. Even after Bowen & Pomeroy was an established business, Richard was always present with his employees – one of the team. From all accounts, he prized hard workers and recognised staff for their abilities, their input, and their comradery.  Richard never lost his respectful charismatic qualities. “Richard built a great culture,” said Jack, “which has been maintained. I think that’s the important thing. He really got a good crew of people. We haven’t really changed. We’ve always had pretty good people. That’s what John’s doing now, he’s building a great team. They’ve been loyal, and we’ve always gotten on well with our staff.” Ethics of teamwork, pride in the work, and genuine care for the relationship with customers, is something still strong today.

Charlie Barrass and Jack Bowen (Snr) 1937

While picturing Richard out in the yard working with his staff on a daily basis, John is doing the modern version of this. Richard had a concentrated team and worked alongside them, John has multiple stores and locations to cover. Making the most of technology, John produces monthly staff vlogs. They showcase new services, staff stories, successes, also about how to deal with any problems that arise. John provides and maintains actions of connection and togetherness, as much as Richard did. The positive culture flows on – staff in turn provide that to customers. “We have to do our best, to try and create an environment where our customers feel as though the people they’re dealing with care, and that can’t happen by accident,” said John. Staff are involved in every episode of the vlogs, social media posts, and blogs, giving them involvement, pride, and recognition. There are regular staff events, honourings of years of service to the business, showcasing expert employees, the establishment of the Margaret Hickey award (named after Bowen & Pomeroy’s first female employee, to recognise remarkable contributions to the building and construction industry by women), and the Women in Trade events.

Jack and John talked about the change of name that we are more familiar with today. For many decades it remained as Bowen & Pomeroy, given that was how the business was established within the community. It’s still the incorporated name. Bowen & Pomeroy had had many major dealings, including government soldier settlement contracts post World War 1. It made sense to keep trading under the name even after the Pomeroy component was bought out. The alteration came in the 1980’s. They changed to Bowens as the business transitioned and expanded, hitting new markets. It was the opportune moment to simplify the public identity and rebrand.

While the business changed in name, the Bowen & Pomeroy morals were held onto. From the very beginning, Richard saw what was needed, and did what it took to deliver the promise. In the 20s, there was a clear requirement for streamlined building and timber supplies in more rural areas. Richard employed a sales rep specifically to focus on securing contracts in regional Victoria. It revolutionised the service of delivering supplies to locations that had previously been unpredictable. The ability to see a need and make it happen is still prevalent – Bowens recently partnered with Uber, to provide a 90 minute hardware delivery service.  Of course, they need to stay on top of the game and not risk losing out to competitors, but it’s also to give the very best and convenient service to the customer.

Bowens today, is still very much a family enterprise – the loyalty to the business has continued through the generations. Following the unexpected passing of Jack Bowen (Snr), Jack (Jnr) took over in the early 1970’s. His younger brother David later joined him – both dedicating their careers to the industry with steadfast commitment.

“An important element to our success as a family company has been the selflessness of family members – my mother and my sisters were amazingly supportive of their son and younger brother when our dad died suddenly in 1971. I was not prepared to lead the company then, but this family support was unwavering – no interference, complete faith in my ability to ‘do the job’,” said Jack. 

John has been Managing Director for 25 years now. His brother Andrew Bowen came on in 2015. “I couldn’t be more proud of what John has achieved as our MD, and now Andrew’s support to his brother and his own impressive contribution in the growth of the innovative model that is Bowen & Pomeroy today.”

This is a feature that the community doesn’t get from other large hardware and building supply chains. “There is an advantage to a builder or a customer, to be able to deal directly with the people that actually own the business… we like that idea… there’s no Mr. Bunnings for someone to ring,” Jack said. They don’t take the family element for granted though. The success of 130 years comes from maintaining many things – staff culture, productivity, combined with staying on top of changes and the demands of the industry. ‘We’re an old company, that strives to be relevant, and innovative,” said Jack.

“You can’t hide behind being independent, or family-owned,” said John, “because your relevance disappears pretty quickly. You have to prove you are relevant, beyond being independent and family-owned.” It still comes down to the basics though, if you can’t deliver on the commitments, the formula degrades. It is something obviously close to the hearts of Jack, John, and the Bowen family – to do what they do well, and be progressive. The little things are just as important as the big things – The $10 sale and the $10,000 sale, the quality, the time of the delivery, and how the customer feels walking out of the shop.

The amount of hardware and timber in Melbourne and Victoria alone that originated from Bowen & Pomeroy, subsequently Bowens, would be incalculable. Behind plasterboards, layers of paint, and ceilings, the fingerprints of the business are everywhere. The genuine love for what they do is evident from reading about Richard’s endeavours, and also talking with Jack and John. Bowens have supplied for many iconic parts of Melbourne and surrounds – the first Ford factory in Geelong, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, the MCG, the new Royal Children’s Hospital, the Royal Exhibition Building, Crown Melbourne casino… the list is endless and includes many specialty timbers and renovations for heritage buildings. “Because they’re heritage projects, like the State Library of Victoria, they have to be built with identical material in identical dimensions, which is material you can’t source now,” John said, and talking about a project in St. Kilda, “we had to scallop weather boards out of Douglas fir, which isn’t something that you do now.”

Andrew Bowen, Jack Bowen, and John Bowen

I asked Jack and John what Richard Bowen would feel if he could see the business today, 130 years later – that legend has it, only made Sixpence for a Piece of Timber on the first day of trading? (This is also the name of the Bowens’ history book). “He would be absolutely wrapped,” said Jack, “because he was a worker, he was admired by his workers, he built a great team.” When Richard passed away in 1924, that strong and capable team he had cultivated, came through for Bowen & Pomeroy. A very young Jack Bowen (Snr) became part of the fabric under the team’s combined wisdom and skill – attributable to Richard and his ability to bring people together.

David Bowen, Jack Bowen, John Bowen, Peter Hart, and Andy Bowen

The Bowen family don’t hold lightly what they have inherited. It’s honoured, it’s cherished, and it’s something they continue with great pride – with salute to all the people that have made it what it is.

I left their office with a sense of harmony, and faith – that big business chains can and do have hearts and souls – as I went back out into the Melbourne landscape, held up steadily by 130 years of Bowens.

Congratulations to Bowens, for all you have done to contribute to the growth of Melbourne, Victoria, the industry, the community and much much more. Many thanks for your time, Jack and John, it was a pleasure to meet with you both.

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