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Australian family business profile: Reece

By Nicholas Moody

Originally a plumbing and bathroom supplier, Reece, helmed for almost half a century by the intensely private Wilson family, has expanded into irrigation, gas and refrigeration, and has snapped up a number of its Australian and Kiwi rivals.

The Reece business began in 1919 when Harold Joseph Reece started selling hardware products from the back of his truck. It was listed back in 1954 and the Melbourne-based Wilson family, who now control nearly 70% of it, bought into the plumbing and bathroom supplier in the late 1960s. That push was led by Leslie Wilson, and his family continues to hold a vice-like grip on the company today. Third-generation chief executive Peter Wilson has been in charge since 2008, taking over the day-to-day operations from his father, 72-year-old Alan. Alan ran the company for 43 years and remains executive director alongside his brothers Bruce and John who are board members.

Four family directors have been on the board for more than four decades and the family zealously guards its ownership – regularly facing down shareholder critics who think it should payout more of its cash pile. It has stamped its mark across the Australasian plumbing market – hoovering up rivals, including Plumbing World and New Zealand’s LG Carder in 2006. This market consolidation has seen its number of stores jump from 170 in 2000 to 450 in 2012. Reece has expanded along the way into mechanical services and gas and irrigation, as well as refrigeration. It continues to be a public company, run in a very private way.

Looking ahead
All signs indicate that Reece will have another strong year, with revenue for the six months to 31 December 2013 up 7.5% driven by improving conditions in the building industry in Australasia. Reece said it expected the present economic conditions to continue into 2014. It bought Actrol Group, a specialist industrial wholesale group to the Australian heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration industry, in January for AUD$280 million (€188 million). Patriarch Alan reportedly continues to work 48-hour weeks despite having taken his “retirement”. Longevity is in the genes – his father remained chairman till he was 90 years old. Several other third-generation family members are apparently ready to step into the business when the time comes. 

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