Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bunning, Charles Robert (1905–1994)

by Kylie Carman-Brown

This article was published online in 2018

This is a shared entry with Gavin MacRae Bunning

Charles Robert Bunning (1905–1994) and Gavin MacRae (Tom) Bunning (1910–1991), timber merchants, were the second and fifth of five children of British-born Robert Bunning, timber merchant and sawmiller, and his second wife, Scottish-born Helen Marion, née MacRae. The family also included two half-siblings from their father’s first marriage. Charles was born on 1 March 1905, and Tom on 20 July 1910, both at Cottesloe, Western Australia. They attended Scotch College; Charles (1914–22) became head prefect and dux (1922), captain of the athletics, cricket, and Australian Rules football teams (1922), and was cox of the first rowing IV (1917). Tom (1919–27) also excelled in sports, was cox of the first rowing IV (1921–23), played cricket and Australian Rules football, and was a prefect in his final year. After studying civil engineering at the University of Western Australia, Charles completed his degree at the University of Melbourne (BCE, 1928).

The brothers joined Bunning Bros Pty Ltd in 1928. Under the management of their father, the company held extensive timber-milling and retail interests in the south-west of the State and Perth. Charles worked in the company’s logging and milling operations. On 15 June 1931 he married Elizabeth (Betty) Blair Barber, who would become an accomplished artist, at St John’s Church of England, Toorak, Victoria. Tom was employed part time in the Perth yard office while studying accountancy; he qualified in 1931 and became the company accountant. On 4 November 1938 he married Margaret (Margot) Dorothy Law at St George’s Cathedral, Perth.

During the 1930s Bunnings won bids to source and install timber fittings on major building projects in Perth, including the Boans store and the Colonial Mutual Life building. The company also secured supply contracts in the State’s eastern goldfields and sleeper contracts in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and South Africa. In an effort to promote the business internationally, Charles attended Empire Forestry conferences in South Africa (1935) and Britain (1947). After the death of Robert Bunning in 1936, his long-time deputy, Arthur Petherick, became managing director. Charles was made superintendent of mills, and Tom continued as accountant. Their half-brother Joe (d. 1967) managed the company’s Perth jarrah mills. With their ‘enthusiasm, vitality, and fresh ideas’ (Mills 1986, 132), the brothers expanded and diversified the company’s operations.

Tom was commissioned in the Citizen Military Forces in April 1939, five months before World War II broke out. On 1 November 1940 he was appointed as a captain in the Australian Imperial Force and posted to the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion, which arrived in Singapore on 24 January 1942. The next month he was captured by the Japanese and interned at Changi, where he organised a garden to supplement the prisoners’ meagre provisions. Liberated in September 1945, he returned to Perth and on 21 December transferred to the Reserve of Officers. Charles was commissioned in the CMF in September 1940. He served part time in Perth (1941) with the 7th Army Troops Company, Royal Australian Engineers, and then (1942–46) as an acting major, commanded the 14th (Western Australian) Battalion of the Volunteer Defence Corps. After the war, Tom helped to administer a scholarship that supported Singaporean and Malayan Chinese nurses to study in Australia, in recognition of the local people who had risked their lives to smuggle food to the internees.

In 1936 Charles, Tom, and Joe had been appointed directors and took a more active role in the company. To meet wartime supply contracts, Bunnings Bros had joined forces with a business rival, Millars’ Timber & Trading Co. Ltd, an arrangement that lasted until the cessation of hostilities. The companies also built boats for the navy, including three seine trawlers, camouflaged to resemble Chinese junks, for the Services Reconnaissance Department. To help meet increased demand for timber during the postwar boom in housing, the firm established a workshop (1946) at Manjimup, and mills at Tone and Donnelly rivers, and purchased mills in North Queensland. These measures increased capacity by an estimated 25 percent. The company began producing prefabricated homes, supplying pre-cut timber (except floorboards) for a ten-square (92.9 sq. m) house, and diversifying into the hardware market. In March 1952 the company was listed on the stock exchange as Bunning Timber Holdings Pty Ltd and by the end of 1954 profits had increased to almost £64,000.

Following Petherick’s retirement in 1956, Charles and Tom became joint managing directors; two years later Charles assumed the role of chairman, and Tom vice-chairman. In 1957 and 1958 Charles travelled to Asia representing the hardwood export panel of the Associated Sawmillers and Timber Merchants of Western Australia, and successfully negotiated a substantial sleeper supply contract with the Indian Railway Board. Exports further diversified during the 1960s and 1970s into fine timber, mine-shaft guides, and wood-chips. The acquisition in 1970 of Hawker Siddeley Building Supplies Pty Ltd almost doubled the size of the company. As the stock of native hardwoods decreased and quotas on harvesting were imposed, the Tone and Donnelly river mills closed in 1978. By 1980 the company had established Pinus radiata plantations for the supply of flooring and lining; within four years new mills with a capacity of 25,000 cubic metres annually were being built. Concurrently the company sought to maintain its capacity to supply hardwoods by establishing operations in Papua New Guinea (1979). Under the direction of the brothers, after-tax profits increased to $783,482 in 1973.

Having both stepped down as managing directors in 1973, Charles continued as chairman until 1979, and then as president—largely a symbolic role—until 1990 when he assumed the title of honorary life president. He had been appointed CBE in 1969. Tom took over as chairman (1979–84); he was appointed AO in 1980. He remained a director until 1990 when he joined his brother as honorary life president. By then after-tax profits had increased to $15.8 million. Both had been active in professional associations and boards. Charles was a member of the Western Australian Employers’ Federation (executive councillor, 1952, 1957–61; president, 1953–56), the University of Western Australia senate (1960–74), the Metric Conversion Board (1970–78), and the Western Australian Cricket Association (president, 1963–64, 1979–80). Tom was chairman (1960–63) of the board of Scotch College, and president (1968–70) of the Western Australian Chamber of Manufactures.

Known for their energy and business acumen, the brothers were also regarded as handsome and outgoing, and were often seen at social functions. As joint managers, they worked ‘in complete agreement and harmony’ (Mills 1986, 255). Charles was admired for his decisiveness; he disdained pomposity and was said to know ‘almost all … who worked for him by name’ (McIlwraith 1994, 15). He enjoyed sailing and golf, often in Betty’s company, and was enthusiastic about football and cricket. Tom was praised for his ‘unwavering integrity,’ his ‘delightful sense of humour’ (BL 1991, 6), and his sensitivity to the needs of others. He won numerous golf tournaments and was captain of the Cottesloe Golf Club (1938–39, 1947–48). Survived by his wife, one son, and one daughter, he died at Peppermint Grove, Perth, on 11 March 1991, and was cremated. Charles died on 3 June 1994, also at Peppermint Grove, and was cremated; his wife, son, and two daughters survived him. In November 1994 the Bunning family’s involvement in the firm ceased after it was purchased for $594 million by Wesfarmers Ltd, which retained the Bunnings name.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Bunning, Margot. Interview by Chris Jeffery, 9 September 1980. State Library of Western Australia.
  • Bunning Timber Holdings Ltd. Annual Report and Balance Sheet. Perth: The Company, 1969–79
  • Bunnings Ltd. Annual Report. Perth: The Company, 1980–93
  • McIlwraith, John. ‘Timber Giant Bore Brunt of Green Undergrowth.’ Australian, 14 June 1994, 15
  • Mills, Jenny. The Timber People: A History of Bunnings Limited. Perth: Bunnings Ltd, 1986
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, WX3542
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, W34186
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, W85401

Additional Resources

Citation details

Kylie Carman-Brown, 'Bunning, Charles Robert (1905–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bunning-charles-robert-27603/text34998, published online 2018, accessed online 22 April 2019.

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