Owner and Director of WN Bull Funerals, 1986 – 2010
John Harris was born in the Western District of Victoria, a small town, Camperdown. It was a distinctly Catholic, rural environment. John was greatly influenced by this environment and by the traditions and rituals of the church, particularly the funerals. He was also a great teller of stories.
John would have known of the Furphy water carts and their motto or inscription: ‘Good, better, best, never let it rest, ‘till your good is better and your better best.’ His stories of his own life and of his business heroes, Sidney Myer, Reg Ansett, Fletcher Jones, invariably revolved around small beginnings, attention to detail, dedication to service and success.
Like Sidney Myer, John’s early work experience was as a hawker, a travelling salesman in country Victoria. He was a successful and appreciated employee of one of the rag-trade businessmen in Melbourne. However, this was just a stepping stone.
Tobin Brothers Funerals, founded by four brothers in 1934, was a prominent Melbourne funeral company and closely associated with the Catholic church; this was where John wanted to work.
John had his many stories about Tobin Brothers and retained a friendship with the family and the business long after he left Melbourne. It was while working for Tobin Brothers that he met his wife, Agnes; that he had a prominent role in the preparation and conducting of the funeral for the legendry Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix and that he was the recipient of a significant gift from Leo Tobin, one of the brothers, when he left the company to begin his own funeral business in Wagga.
The story John used to tell was how the first funeral he conducted in Wagga was after a tragedy in a family and there was little money. It was some years later that he used the ‘top of the range’ coffin given him by Leo Tobin, for the funeral of the Bishop of Wagga, Bishop Henschke. Compassion for the less wealthy and a close relationship with the Catholic community were to become hallmarks of John and Agnes’ business, in Wagga and later in Sydney.
WN Bull Funerals, founded in 1892, like Tobin Brothers in Melbourne had a long association with the Catholic church. In the early 1980’s there were no longer any family members directly involved in the company. The business was for sale and it needed an injection of energy and vision to redress a decline in image and quality of service. John and Agnes were invited to make an offer.
‘Good, better, best, never let it rest, ‘till your good is better and your better best’. This could have been a refrain, from the old days, that John brought with him to WN Bull Funerals. When John, Agnes and John’s young son, also John, took over the business there was considerable work to do.
John designed the new hearses himself, reconfigured Ford sedans. He insisted on tailor made mourning suits for the funeral staff and discipline and strict protocols for funerals. The reputation of the company grew and over the years WN Bull was chosen for the burial of Cardinals of the church, political figures, a governor as well as the ordinary Sydneysiders and those introduced by the St Vincent de Paul Society. Just on twenty five years ago John made an important decision; he employed Patsy Healy.
John and Patsy formed a team. While Agnes supervised the financial operation, John and Patsy developed the culture of the company, trained staff, strengthened relationships with the Catholic community and established offices at Parramatta and North Sydney. John had also made a significant contribution to the wider role of the funeral business when he appointed a full time Director of Bereavement Services.
While John’s primary focus was on WN Bull Funerals, he retained a keen interest in the industry as a whole. The small, in-house magazine John created, Dialogue, grew with John’s encouragement into a well produced and appreciated journal, received by new clients and distributed to the wider Catholic community and beyond. ‘Lifting the veil’ on the funeral experience was John’s description of the role of Dialogue.
In 2010, John and Agnes relinquished ownership of WN Bull Funerals to InvoCare. In speaking with the staff after the sale, John expressed confidence in InvoCare management to provide the financial and industry security for WN Bull to continue. The dream begun many years ago, the stories told and re-told, the years of family and business collaboration with his wife, Agnes, and a shared vision and enduring friendship with Patsy, constitute the rich legacy of John Desmond Harris. Much loved, admired and warmly grieved.