Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Vos, Roelf (1921–1992)

by J. Richards

This article was published online in 2016

Roelf Vos (1921–1992), supermarket entrepreneur, property developer, and philanthropist, was born on 4 October 1921 on a boat at Bergum (later Burgum) in the Netherlands, one of seven children of Meint Vos and his wife Janna, née Kuiper. Meint was a bargeman who ferried freight from wholesalers to shops along Holland’s canals and inland waterways; later he bought a truck and delivered fruit door to door. After leaving school at the age of fourteen, Roelf worked in his parents’ delivery business and later in a drapery shop.

During World War II Vos was involved in the Dutch Resistance and was forced to hide to evade arrest by the occupying German forces. After the war he opened his own drapery store at Oude Pekela. The business proved successful, demonstrating his entrepreneurial flair and drive. He married Harmina Catharina ‘Miep’ Nieboer on 11 July 1946 at Nieuwe Pekela. With their three children, the couple arrived at Mascot airport, Sydney, on 21 February 1951 and were housed at the Bathurst migrant camp. Their decision to emigrate was prompted by concerns about future conflict in Europe and a yearning for adventure. Encouraged by a fellow Dutch immigrant, Engel Sypkes, subsequently founder of the Purity chain of supermarkets in southern Tasmania, the family settled at Ulverstone, Tasmania, in March.

Vos combined day work as a builder’s labourer with evening shifts at a cannery. He and Miep spoke little English and both suffered from homesickness. Resilient and adaptable, they appreciated the support they received from local people and Tasmania’s relatively large Dutch expatriate community. In 1953 the family moved to Deloraine after Vos opened a gift shop there. His brother, Harry, managed the shop while he worked as a door-to-door salesman for W. T. Rawleigh Co. Ltd. In 1956 he opened a second shop at George Town, allowing him to give up the Rawleigh’s round. The businesses showed limited prospects for growth, and in 1957 Vos sold them and moved the family to Launceston. He became an Australian citizen in 1960.

Food retailing appealed to Vos as a more reliable source of income, and its rapid turnover suited his limited capital. He rented a milk bar at Launceston but soon converted it into a self-service grocery store. The concept was readily embraced and he developed a chain of thirteen Roelf Vos supermarkets in northern Tasmania, employing around five hundred people. His success was the result of his business acumen, work ethic, ceaseless optimism, appreciation of the abilities of others, and innovative advertising; footprints painted on Launceston streets attracted customers to his first store. He was also the driving forced behind the establishment of Statewide Independent Wholesalers, a buying group that helped cut prices for its members. Vos sold his supermarkets to Woolworths in 1982, but retained the stores’ freehold and name. At the time of the sale, their annual turnover was reported to be approximately $40 million.

Vos looked for new challenges and turned to property development. Inspired by holidays in Switzerland, he endeavoured to recreate a Swiss village and holiday resort in the Tamar Valley, north of Launceston, which he called Grindelwald. It included a residential subdivision and business developments. While criticised by some for its incongruity and prescriptive design controls, the project was commercially successful. After a sudden heart attack, from which he recovered, his son Michael, and later his son Harry and brother Harry, joined him in the business.

Community oriented and a generous benefactor, Vos supported the work of many groups, including Rotary, the Clifford Craig Medical Research Trust (of which he was vice chairman), the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, and the Launceston Christian School. The family business, Vos Nominees, established the Vos Foundation in 1987 to formalise his philanthropic efforts. He supported the Liberal Party but never joined, despite encouragement from members.

Vos, a deeply committed Christian, was an elder of the Reformed Church of Launceston. His son Michael recalled that ‘He loved God, he loved life and he loved people’ (Vos, pers. comm.). Sunday was devoted to family and church and Vos always took two to three weeks annual leave to spend with his family. His hobbies included woodcarving, painting, and photography.

Five foot ten inches (178 cm) tall, with dark-brown hair, blue eyes, strong features, and a ready smile, Vos wore a neatly trimmed moustache, and sometimes a beard, in later life. Survived by his wife and their six children, he died at his home at Grindelwald on 2 December 1992 and was interred at Carr Villa cemetery, Launceston. More than a thousand people attended his memorial service.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Examiner (Tasmania). ‘Retailing Giant Put God First.’ 3 December 1992, 1
  • Examiner (Tasmania). ‘Tributes Flood in For “Great Man”.’ 3 December 1992, 6
  • Musch, Rodney. ‘Vos’s Village.’ People, 8 October 1984, 50–51
  • National Archives of Australia. P3, T1960/1340
  • Vos, Michael. ‘The Life Story of Roelf and Miep Vos.’ Unpublished manuscript held by Michael Vos
  • Vos, Michael. ‘Roelf Vos.’ In The Companion to Tasmanian History, edited by Alison Alexander, 376. Hobart: Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, 2005
  • Vos, Michael. Personal communication
  • Walsh, Rae. ‘Thanks a Million!’ Sunday Tasmanian, 28 January 1990, 17

Citation details

J. Richards, 'Vos, Roelf (1921–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/vos-roelf-16279/text28221, published online 2016, accessed online 18 November 2017.

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