Thursday, April 8, 2021

From the House of Handley


Today a Watchmaker's Magazine arrived in my inbox. On the cover: the reprint of the very first issue published in July 1953.

What grabbed my attention was the advert by Handly: Australia's largest watch case manufacturer.

The story goes back to the 1920s when Mr Handley and Mr Tilley got into the watch case manufacturing business. Originally established in Victoria St Abbotsford, they moved from the corner of Church St to 655 Victoria St in 1929 into a new purpose built factory - the modern art deco building featured in the advertisement. What fuelled the business growth was a need for locally made watch cases: after the first world war  Australia imposed high import duties on complete watches so many Swiss movement manufacturers exported bare movements to be cased up in Australia. Handley made cases for Rolex, Tudor, Unicorn, Cyma, Movado, Tissot and Omega.

In 1928 Mr Tilley went to Switzerland to source "the most modern" machinery for watch case manufacturing. From press reports of the day his visit was far from well regarded by the Swiss watchmakers and they threatened anyone who supplied him with machinery with sanctions. They even approached police to have this "undesirable trader" deported ( which had previously happened to two Canadians).

The machinery was subsequently purchased and contracts obtained to produce cases for Swiss brands.
In 1929 one hundred staff were engaged in watch case manufacture.
For whatever reason Handley and Tilley parted ways in 1934, with Tilley signing an agreement not to work in the industry for a given time.
In December of the same year all the assets of Handley & Tilley were sold to J W Handley P/L.
Up to this point the trademark had been an open hand with the text HANTILY.
After the split, the logo was changed to HANDLEY.
(the Handley and Tilley company was officially deregistered on 11/4/1935)

In 1935 Handley launched legal action against Tilley for breach of the 1934 covenant when Tilley set up a company in his wife’s name and starting making cases and trying to poach customers from J W Handley P/L. Handley won the case and received 1000 Pounds in damages.

J W Handley went on until the 1960’s and made a great variety of products- during WWII they produced such things as compass cases and gun sights for the military. Handley eventually ceased production in the 1960’s. 

The story of a once successful Australian manufacturing business which failed to extend it’s life past the owners life is a good lesson for us. Would Handley be still around if he was able to expand from manufacturing to retail? Why was he unable to grow the partnership with Rolex and Omega? Why was no one on his team interested in taking the business over and taking it to next level? Whatever is the case, it is clear that keeping the business alive and relevant beyond one generation is difficult.

As we are setting ourselves up for ‘manufacturing in Australia’, planning for the future is clearly the most important step. (To be continued...)                         

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