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Jennings, Sir Albert Victor (Bert) (1896–1993)

by Pieter Bruce

from Australian Financial Review

In the depths of the Great Depression, Bert Jennings, a struggling real estate agent, set up as a home builder, funded with a Pound 700 ($1,400) second mortgage on the family home.

The year was 1932 and Bert was 35. Yesterday, Sir Albert Jennings, the grandfather of the Australian home-building industry, died after a brief illness.

From humble beginnings in 1932 – he sold nine homes in that first year – Sir Albert went on to establish a thoroughly Australian brand, AV Jennings, as well known in its market as Arnotts and Vegemite are in theirs.

The Jennings company went public in 1950. Sir Albert retired as chairman from Jennings Group in 1972 after a dispute with the board over a failed diversification into mining. It set a pattern for future years: Australia's most successful home builder rarely managed to make a profit outside its traditional field.

In housing, the company reigned supreme, partly because of the guidelines set by Sir Albert. From the outset, when speculative home builders sold poorly serviced weatherboard houses, AV Jennings would match the market price with bigger, sewered, brick houses with hot-water systems.

The company continued to set benchmarks for quality and service. At first it could only get funding for pre-sold houses, and the home-building operations continued to be conservative.

In 1982, Jennings took over the subsidiary of an American engineering company, Dillingham Australia Ltd, and ventured into civil engineering, and later – disastrously – into speculative commercial property development.

Mr Ashley Goldsworthy was brought in as managing director in 1987, the year after Fletcher Challenge Ltd took a controlling interest. Under Mr Goldsworthy, the Melbourne-based Jennings Group Ltd gambled spectacularly on a big block of industrial land it had acquired south of the Melbourne CBD earlier in the 1980s.

The Southgate office, hotel and retail development, originally budgeted to cost $650 million, almost sent the company broke. It is being completed under the watchful eye of its financier, Westpac's subsidiary, Australian Guarantee Corp Ltd, as Melbourne comes to grips with its status as the most blighted of the nation's struggling property markets.

However, Jennings Group's recent reputation as a poor commercial developer has threatened to mask its record up to 1987 as one of the few compassionate big companies in the country.

Twenty years before the Dutch engineer Mr Gerardus (Dick) Dusseldorp founded Civil and Civic and later Lend Lease Ltd as builders and developers on humanitarian, co-operative principles, Bert Jennings was doing the same on a smaller scale in Melbourne's south-east.

For 21 years after his retirement, Sir Albert – the "very proud old builder" of the TV ads – would drive into the Jennings headquarters at Mulgrave, Melbourne, every Wednesday for lunch and a chat with his staff.

To his employees and colleagues, "A.V." was not only a good home builder but a genuinely nice bloke who inspired extraordinary loyalty in all who met him.

Original publication

  • Australian Financial Review, 5 March 1993, p 37

Other Obituaries for Sir Albert Victor (Bert) Jennings

Additional Resources

Citation details

Pieter Bruce, 'Jennings, Sir Albert Victor (Bert) (1896–1993)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/jennings-sir-albert-victor-bert-19294/text31762, accessed 23 May 2019.

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