This article was published online in 2017
Sir Albert Victor Jennings (1896–1993), building industries entrepreneur, was born on 12 October 1896 at Brunswick, Melbourne, youngest of nine children of locally born John Thomas Jennings, blacksmith, and his English-born wife Selina, née Steel. Much of Bert’s early life was spent in South Melbourne where he attended the local state school and was deeply involved in St Luke’s Church of England. He enjoyed the outdoors and was active in a range of sports including badminton, cricket, and rowing. A talented marksman, he represented Victoria in the 1909 Empire Day rifle shooting competition for the Earl of Meath trophy.
In 1910 Jennings commenced an apprenticeship in mechanical dentistry, learning to make false teeth. Under the influence of his mother, he developed habits of thrift and was encouraged by his brother-in-law Horrie Amos, a real estate agent, to invest in blocks of land. Aged nineteen, he sold the land and bought a house which was paid off over time by tenants. On 23 August 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was allocated to home service as a staff sergeant in the dental detail of the Australian Army Medical Corps. He re-enlisted in July 1918 in order to serve abroad. Later that month he sailed to Britain, where he worked with the AAMC’s dental service. In June 1919 he joined the Graves Registration Detachment in France. He returned to Melbourne in February 1920 and was discharged on 9 May. Not wanting to return to dentistry, he worked as an auctioneer in Horrie Amos’s real estate business. On 23 September 1922 he married Ethel Sarah Johnson, a tailoress, at St George’s Church of England, Malvern.
With the onset of the Depression, in the early 1930s house sales plummeted. Jennings was canny enough to realise that some people still had sufficient income to buy a home and, given depressed wages and lower costs, it was possible to build a quality residence much more cheaply than in the previous decade. He mortgaged his family home and, in 1932, employed six builders to construct a house at 78 Booran Road, Glenhuntly, which quickly sold. Embarking on new housing projects, he sold most on contract from the plans because this method offered greater security than speculative building. The practice would become a hallmark of his business. Working with an architectural student, Ed Gurney, and a builder, Billy Vine, he formed the A. V. Jennings’ Construction Co. By now he was widely known as ‘A. V.’
The company began work on its first urban subdivision, thirteen blocks at Hillcrest, Caulfield South, in 1933. It was such a success that other estates followed—Beauville at Murrumbeena, Beaumont at Ivanhoe, and Beauview at Ivanhoe East. Jennings’s enterprise was inspired partly by his belief in the capacity of a modern and well-equipped family home to create happy and good citizens. Commencement of work on the Beauview estate coincided with the outbreak of World War II and the subsequent decline and then banning of private home building. The company continued to prosper by turning to government projects, including military camps and hospitals. To help overcome shortages in materials Jennings expanded the firm, establishing subsidiary manufacturing and supply businesses. After the war, private housing remained stagnant but a backlog in the construction of public housing and infrastructure offered a boom in contracts. The company erected thousands of government dwellings across Australia. One hundred and fifty tradesmen were recruited from Germany to help build 1,850 homes in Canberra; the workers became known as ‘Jennings Germans.’
In 1950 A. V. Jennings Industries (Australia) Ltd was formed as a public company with A. V. as its chairman and managing director. The suspension of several large government contracts, however, resulted in losses in two financial years (1952–53 and 1953–54). Recognising the need to diversify, Jennings Industries returned increasingly to building private homes and housing estates. The company soon achieved large profits, assisted by the buoyant economic conditions and A. V.’s leadership. Short in stature, invariably smiling, he was charming, charismatic, and highly skilled at networking and negotiation. He also showed a capacity to choose and appoint competent and loyal staff who shared his values and aspirations.
During the 1960s Jennings Industries was Australia’s largest home builder with branches in each State and the Australian Capital Territory. Appealing designs offering good value for money, well-planned community developments, display villages, and a raft of innovative marketing techniques contributed to the success of the business. A visit to a Jennings display home was a popular activity. Jennings Industries, however, continued to be multifaceted. Its general construction company undertook work ranging from building mining towns in Western Australia to the Wrest Point Casino in Hobart. The company portfolio grew to encompass ventures related to its core home and general construction businesses, including finance, transport, and caravans.
From the late 1950s Jennings had been less involved in the daily running of the company. Spending only short periods in the office, he was renowned for having a desk that was generally clear of paper. In 1965 his younger son, Victor, took over as managing director. Much of A. V.’s time was devoted to visiting building sites, networking with fellow businessmen, and promoting the industry. He was active in the Master Builders’ Association of Victoria (council member 1943–71), Master Builders’ Federation of Australia (MBFA) (life member 1972), and Australian Institute of Building (president 1964–66). He served on the Commonwealth Building Research and Development Advisory Committee (1949–70), Manufacturing Industries Advisory Council (1962–72), and Metric Conversion Board (1970–72). In 1969 he was knighted and the following year he was awarded the AIB medal.
By then trouble was brewing in the family and the company. Douglas, his elder son, began to influence his father and the direction of the company. On his advice, Sir Albert persuaded the board to use some of its profits to invest in a mining venture and a Brahman cattle stud. Victor and other board members became increasingly uncomfortable with such endeavours. Matters came to a head in August 1972 when their resistance prompted A. V. to resign from the board. He retired to his home at Mount Eliza, where he remained active, swimming every morning. In 1976 he was presented with the inaugural Sir Charles McGrath Award for marketing. His support of the Jennings company never flagged and he regularly visited head office for ‘a yarn and a cup of tea’ (Waby 1986, 22). After his wife’s death in 1981, he would also pick up a supply of prepared meals from the staff canteen. In 1986 the MBFA held the inaugural Sir Albert Jennings lecture. Survived by one of his three sons, he died on 3 March 1993 and was buried in Springvale cemetery. His portrait by the photographer Kate Gollings is held by the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.
Donald S. Garden, 'Jennings, Sir Albert Victor (Bert) (1896–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jennings-sir-albert-victor-bert-19294/text30773, published online 2017, accessed online 30 April 2017.