Harvey Bowden: Biography of an Inventor
Harvey Bowden is one of life’s inexhaustible characters. His determination to ‘enjoy life’ has taken him from a quiet childhood in rural Cornwall to capsizing catamarans, speeding across Route 66 and building a multi-million pound British manufacturing business.
Meet Harvey. Once you do, you won’t forget him.
After all, it took a special kind of person to spot a problem that was presented to him by his wife - the problem of hard water - and then invent a solution that would help hundreds of thousands of homeowners.
It all started long before that though, in a simple farmhouse on a Cornish Farm back in 1949. Harvey’s childhood home was in the grounds of Trelawny Manor, once home to Bishop Trelawny whose imprisonment during the English Civil War inspired the unofficial Cornish national anthem.
The young Harvey adopted this rebellious streak from birth, being an unexpected surprise for his parents. Even during his early school years in Looe, where he struggled with dyslexia, he knew that his future lay in business rather than education.
His father, a baker who had turned to farming during the Second World War, had passed on the entrepreneurial spirit to his son. Harvey left school at 14 to start work, with the words of his English teacher ringing in his ears: “If you can’t write, stand up and talk”. So that’s exactly what he did.
The early years (1978-1980): One man and his van
It took grit and determination to get the business off the ground in those early days. Harvey had both and he quickly became the biggest water softener installer in the area. Back then it was just him and his trusty Transit van, as he spread the word about soft water - building and installing every softener himself. He had plenty of customers, but the product he was selling wasn’t good enough. The softeners were big, cumbersome beasts which couldn’t work continuously. An idea had started forming in Harvey’s mind; one that would transform the industry.
The lightbulb moment
After first trying his hand as an electrician, then a tyre-fitter, then a plumber, his life changed forever when, in 1975, his wife Ann bought a water softener. He was instantly converted to the benefits. Built for homes in hard water areas, this domestic appliance wasn’t familiar to many back then and Harvey saw the opportunity. Two years later he began selling water softeners door to door in Woking where he was living and then, in 1978, Harvey Water Softeners was born.
Decades of change (1981-2000): Revolution
These were years of big social changes, and the same was true for Harvey. In 1981 he invented the world’s first compact, twin-cylinder softener. Small enough to fit under a sink and able to soften water without interruption, his invention shook up the industry and during the next two decades, Harvey Water Softeners grew and grew.
All the while, Harvey’s innovations kept on coming. In 1995 he released the world’s first block salt softener, another step change for softening, and by the turn of the millennium his business had became the largest softener company in the UK.
Our modern age (2001-2016): Unstoppable growth
A new century and a new beginning for Harvey’s booming business. His son Casey joined the business in 2004; a new generation with new ideas for the future. In 2007, the business moved into a new home too; a 35,000 sq ft factory on Hipley Street in Old Woking, allowing it to expand even further and develop the first water softener designed and built in the UK. As the market for softeners grew, so did the company. Not even the financial crisis of 2008 could put paid to the company’s ambitions, as it carried on growing through banking bailouts, recession and austerity.
In 2015, Harvey reached another milestone when he turned 65. He’d built a business from just him and his van into one of Woking’s largest employers - a manufacturing business turning over £20m a year, employing almost 200 staff and selling tens of thousands of softeners every year in the UK and Europe.
“I’ve always believed that work has to be fun, so as I’ve built the business here I’ve wanted the people I work with to enjoy coming into the office every day too. The fact that we’ve had so many team members stay for years and even decades is, I hope, proof that this approach has worked.”
The future (2017-beyond): Something in the water
As it approaches its 40th birthday, Harvey Water Softeners is going through another transformation. Together, Harvey, now non-executive chairman, and Casey, executive chairman, brought in new blood to lead the business well into the future. The revolution in R&D and manufacturing continues, with 3D printed prototypes, injection moulding machines and modern assembly line techniques allowing the firm to build tens of thousands of softeners every year. It’s a long way from those early days of hand assembly, but none of it would be here today without them.
The adrenaline junkie
Building a business while raising a family came with many challenges, but Harvey never forget his philosophy of ‘enjoying life’. Having grown up by the sea, boats were always a big hobby of his. Not sedate sailing boats though; he prefers to race catamarans instead, actually capsizing on many occasions! And when he’s not on deck, he’s barefoot water skiing, motorboating or jet skiing around the Cornish coast. When he can get away from the office, that is.
Back on dry land, he grew up on two wheels. He’s had many bikes over the years, including his beloved Vincent Rapide which carried him faithfully across Route 66 last summer.
His trademark ‘Harveyisms’ have taken on legendary status among the 190 staff who work there, with his favourite catchphrase ‘I feel great today’ regularly being heard across the factory floor.
What’s in Woking
Harvey set up shop here originally because it was his home and the place where most of his customers lived. In the years since, the company’s growing workforce has become like a second family to him, with the ‘Harvey’ name being an ever present feature in the town during decades of change. Perhaps there’s something in the water on Hipley Street. It was once home to another young engineer, Kenneth Wood, whose kitchen appliance company Kenwood grew up here during the Post-War years before going on to become a global brand. No matter how big Harvey Water Softeners gets though, it will always stay in Woking.