On 29th July, 1887 Ralph and Richard Wilson began building metal working machinery and tools. They worked in a shed at the rear of their family home in Flemington, Victoria, using a lathe, straight edge, cold chisel, hammer and file.
Their father had emigrated from England and married in Melbourne in 1861 at the St.James Old Cathedral. The son of an English lead miner, he had been trained as a draper in Durham before he “ran away to sea”. Subsequently he settled in Victoria where he worked as a miner and also as a fetler on the Avoca railway line.
Ralph and Richard formally entered into partnership as WILSON BROS. in 1889 to produce tinned plate tea and biscuit canisters. These were manufactured in the back shed at home until 1893 when premises at Wilson’s Lane, off Buncle Street, North Melbourne were purchased, funded by a loan of £70 from their father. Another brother, Joseph, and a cousin, John Henry, helped their seniors in the business.
At the new premises the partnership diversified into jams, jellies, preserves and sauces. Seville marmalade, anchovy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and tomato sauce were leading products. The jams were marketed under the trade mark “PENGUIN”, a trade name still registered and applied today, a century later, to insulated plastic coolers.
Pioneer manufacturers in those days waged a war of savage competition. Among men of limited capital, only those with an immense appetite for work and an inviolable capacity for frugal living made the grade. A 16 or 18 hour day was nothing unusual. Family legend has it that the brothers often offset the loss of production on a strictly observed Sabbath by beginning Monday’s work at one minute after midnight.
It would have taken more than the great depression of the early 1890s to put such men out of business. The proprietors survived through those desperate times, which saw the burst of the great land boom and the bank failures, which followed.
They persevered with their “PENGUIN” jam and under the guidance of Ralph, who had served his apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer, the little factory gradually expanded its can making and metal working plant.
At a very early stage, the Wilson brothers began experimental tin printing on a converted letterpress flatbed machine; they may have been the first to venture into that field. They imported a Mann flatbed lithographic machine from England in 1902.
Ralph was evidently a man of exceptional inventive gifts combined with practical ingenuity. Applying himself to the technical problems of can fabrication, he designed and built by hand an extraordinary range of presses and machines, some of which are still useful today.
The 1890s were also the years of the great bicycle boom, and the partnership produced bicycle repair outfits to complement their can work.
Predatory price discounting by large food preserving companies with more mechanized equipment and great financial resources forced the partnership out of foodstuffs. Fortunately however, the business had a sound foundation in metal can work, particularly in square work and printing, and thus was able to prosper and to afford larger premises nearby in Buncle Street, North Melbourne in 1900.
Richard Wilson retired from business in 1906 and the partnership was dissolved. Ralph Wilson continued as sole proprietor until 1915 when the business was incorporated as Wilson Bros. Pty. Ltd.
During the first World War (1914 to 1918) the Company’s output was devoted to munitions and essential services packaging. Wearied by decades of hard work and by the intrusion of bureaucrats both during and after World War 1, the founder agreed to the introduction of new methods and product ranges to rejuvenate the faltering business. In 1922 the plant was modernized and extended.
The first domestic tin ware had been produced in 1910 – handmade by tinsmiths. In 1924, following the success of the first range of printed metal kitchenware decorated with the traditional Willow pattern design, the trade mark of WILLOW was registered and applied to the whole kitchenware range – whether decorated or not.
Products of the time included: sheets of printed tin plate tiles, candlesticks, kerosene pumps, scoops, letter boxes, milk skimmers, pannikins, ice chest drip trays, bird cage bottoms, ashpans, billies, boilers, basins, canisters, butter coolers, Coolgardie safes and baking pans.
In 1930 Ralph, the founder, died. The Firm came under the leadership of his only son, Ralph, who had worked to rebuild and improve the procedures of the tiring business during the 1920’s – its first re-equipment. Prior to joining his father’s business, Ralph III had worked as a farm labourer for his Uncle Richard, then as a wharf labourer, a policeman during the general strike and a draper’s assistant in Melbourne’s Flinders Lane.
The Company was in the midst of its second economic crisis – the Great Depression. However, its finances had been conservatively structured (due no doubt to the original partners’ observations of the financial tragedies of the 1890s which resulted in an ingrained suspicion of banks acting hastily to foreclose as mortgagees), and the Firm was able to survive once again.
At that time the North Melbourne staff was “one week on, one week off”; they were given the choice of being paid in cash or kitchenware, which they hawked on their “week-off” for an extra margin.
The depression years saw the loss of the Company’ Sydney market, due to cut-throat pricing by Sydney competitors. Ralph’s response was the brave venture, backed by the National Bank of Australasia, to start a factory there, for there was insufficient work at North Melbourne to sustain the employment of his people. Factory hands travelled in their delivery vans to take up lodgings in Sydney and to commence production at leased premises in Rosebery in 1932.
The market for the Company’s products was gradually recovered and enlarged. In 1936, a two acre site was purchased at Alexandria, Sydney, and a modern factory was built by the staff and fully commissioned in 1939.
During the second World War the factories almost exclusively produced munitions, working two shifts. They mainly made mess tins, rocket cylinder covers, small arms ammunition boxes, gas mask respirator cylinders and soldier’s cake tins. The Firm designed and manufactured a new pack of small arms ammunition which was universally adopted by the British Commonwealth and the United States of America armed forces. A hot dip tinning plant was erected at North Melbourne to process the defence requirements.
Horse and lorry teams were reintroduced into the Company because of the war-time fuel rationing, and the horse drawn delivery teams became famous in Melbourne during and immediately after the war. Teams of 3 or 5 in hand, crossbred grey Percherons delivered regularly between the North Melbourne factory and the city bulk stores. The horse teams were disbanded in the interest of cost reduction in 1958.
Raw materials were rationed during the war and were in extremely short supply for years afterwards, making the supply of civil needs very difficult. A fire during the war had destroyed the stock of kitchenware finished goods, and this upset the calculations for conservation by rationing, with the result that many customers could not be supplied.
In 1956, after their father’s death, Ralph’s two sons, Ralph IV and David, became joint managing directors, and his widow Elizabeth Dorothy Wilson, M.B.E., O.A.M., became Chairman of Directors.
Government requirements for defence munitions ceased and, since can making work had not been solicited for 20 years, the Firm became dependant once again on the domestic market. However, the consumers’ needs had changed, and the equipment which had been adequate for munitions work in the 1940s was not suited to the new demands.
The second re-equipment of the business began in 1959. Modern printing equipment replaced the old, and the first plastic moulding machines were installed at North Melbourne. A vacuum forming machine produced baby baths and the first injection moulders were installed later that year.
Expansionary marketing strategies were applied. In addition to sales offices at the factory sites in Melbourne and Sydney, resident sales staff were engaged to service accounts from sales offices in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane, and export activities began in earnest. (Orders had been supplied to New Zealand and South Africa in the 1920s and 1930s).
Sales of metal buckets, water cans, basins, tidies and baby baths – mainstays of the business – had been severely reduced due to early adoption of the new plastics technology by competitors.
Gradually, but over the next 20 years, strong influence in these markets returned to the Company as a range of plastic housewares products was developed to complement the metal range.
Despite the severe restrictions imposed by the “credit squeeze” of the 1960s and the punitive taxes imposed on private companies, the Firm began a decade of expansion, financed from its own resources. Dividends were either nominal or non-existent, and all surplus funds were ploughed back into the business.
In 1963 an acre of land was acquired adjacent to the Alexandria Sydney works. A modern canteen, raw materials store and a foam styrene moulding plant were installed to produce foam coolers, surf boards, wine racks and insulation for the range of WILLOW insulated jugs. The technology developed by the Company in this plant was exported to overseas licensees.
In 1964, in order to formalise the tradition of care for its people, the Firm introduced a superannuation plan. The benefits were made retrospective to each person’s date of commencement. The Firm was an industry leader in voluntarily providing this security for its people, many of whom were long service employees.
In 1965, the Company name became WILLOW WARE PTY. LTD. to be more closely associated with the brand name “WILLOW”.
In 1967, bulk warehouses in Melbourne and Sydney were leased to enable greater distribution throughout Australia. In 1970 the Sydney warehouse was destroyed by an arsonist. Two acres of land were purchased adjacent to the existing plant and a new warehouse was erected in 1971. Blow moulding equipment was introduced to supply plastic components for insulated jugs and coolers.
One of the product ranges then was barbecues, and a new division was developed in North Melbourne to produce a barbecue fuel from Yallourn brown coal. This was marketed under the registered trade mark, “HEAT BEADS”, for open grill barbecues.
The Company had commenced electronic data processing through an external bureau in 1965. This was as a replacement for accounting and invoicing machines and as a means of generating information. An in-house system was introduced in 1975 which, from painful beginnings, has developed into an major strength, providing meaningful and timely management information.
Although an exporter of kitchenware in the 1920s, serious overseas market development began in 1960. As well as exporting technology to overseas manufacturers by 1970, the Company exported housewares and leisureware regularly to over 50 countries in all continents, winning a Commonwealth Government Export Award in 1972.
Ralph V, son of the present proprietor, joined the firm in 1978.
During the 1980s, rationalisation of product range and manufacturing equipment occurred. This was the third major re-equipment of the business’s plant and procedures.
The market for many of the Company’s product ranges had changed. Some products were discontinued because of reduced consumer demand and others because of the high cost of production due to labour intensive manufacturing techniques. Decreased tariff protection and the importation of often inferior quality products made some manufacturing processes economically unsustainable.
As a result the Sydney hot dipped galvanising plant and the Melbourne lithographic and decorated canister plants were disposed of. The issue of these sales – the redeemed working capital, the factory space and the skilled staff – were redirected into new manufacturing ventures.
In 1985 the Company received an award form the Technology Transfer Council on behalf of the Commonwealth Government in conjunction with the New South Wales Government. The award recognised “commitment to striving for excellence by the implementation of a ‘Just in Time’ pilot programme”, at its works in Alexandria, New South Wales. In 1986 the Company received a similar award from the Technology Transfer Council on behalf of the Governments of the Commonwealth and Victoria for its works in North Melbourne, Victoria.
In 1985, the new microwave cooking technology drew the Company to extend it’s traditional Willow metal bakeware range by installing new equipment to produce a new plastic cooking range. This range, designed by the Company, received two Australian Design awards in 1987.
David Wilson and Elizabeth Dorothy Wilson retired from the firm in 1987. Ralph Wilson IV became sole proprietor.
New ranges of home storage products were introduced in 1986 and 1987 with outstanding success. With the microwave products they attracted both export sales and overseas manufacturers to produce under licence in the United States of America and in Europe. The Company received the award for “Australian Manufacturing Excellence (general merchandise)” from the Australian Retailers’ Association in 1987.
Since 1980 there was a significant and progressive decline in protective tarrifs for Australian manufacturers, and this, together with a strengthening of the A$ caused a massive increase in competition, particularly from low cost countries such as China and Thailand.
The company’s response to this situation was to rationalize it’s manufacturing and financial activities by selling it’s Sydney factory in 1989, moving it’s key leisureware manufacturing facility to the Melbourne factory, and selling remaining Sydney redundant plant, equipment and furniture at auction.
To survive when many other manufacturers did not, the company had no “sacred cows” in it’s divisions or properties. Only it’s ethic and determination to survive and succeed were inviolable.
During this period the company strengthened it’s market leadership position in bakeware, microwave cookware and food storage by acquiring the businesses of Bonco Bakeware (New Zealand) in 1987, Microwise Cookware in 1988 and Davis Plastics in 1993.
Ralph V was appointed CEO in 1995.
The company recognized that it needed to become still more productive and efficient in all areas of it’s operations, and proceeded with the implementation of a world best practice approach in modern business methodologies, including JIT, TQM, MRPII – Class A, ISO 9001 Quality Management System, 5 Star Safety and ISO 14001 Environmental Management.
In 2003 the company moved from North Melbourne to a new, purpose built manufacturing and distribution site at Tullamarine. This enabled the purchase of new injection and blow moulding machines, robotic equipment with mechanical handling of raw material servicing each machine, and the consequent adaption of automation throughout the plant, resulting in a more efficient and safer workplace.
In conjunction with becoming a more modern and efficient manufacturing organization the company strengthened it’s marketing and sales areas to assist in the provision of improved strategic direction. Product ranges have been rationalized or extended where relevant, allowing core competencies in business units to be developed to market leadership.
Commencing in 2005, the company has resourced and developed a new industrial sales channel, and very strong growth has been achieved in this area.
From 2005 to 2010 the company was involved in a social marketing campaign, linking with
and financially supporting the Surf Life Saving Association. The campaign was a successful aid in
invigorating brand awareness with the consumer in selected business units, whilst
supporting a very important community program.
The company strives to continue to meet and exceed it’s customer requirements with world class manufacturing excellence.