Two Scotsmen originally from the ‘rival’ cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow together formed a trading partnership. They established a line of sailing ships and steamers, trading between Sydney and Queensland ports, and then expanded into ports in the East Indies and Pacific Islands. The firm expanded and in 1883 consolidated as Burns, Philp and Company Limited.
Over the years the firm was involved in the wool, sugar, timber, gold and silver mining, pearling and tourism industries, and later became involved in insurance and banking, backing the founding of the North Queensland Insurance Company in Sydney, which later grew into QBE Insurance.
Through the first half of the 20th century, Burns, Philp grew into one of Australia’s leading corporations, and became a blue-chip mainstay on the Australian Stock Exchange. Through the 1960s, the company continued to seek out new business opportunities such as the ownership of copra plantations, even though they largely exited that activity following World War II. Nonetheless, the company’s growth centred mostly on its three core operations of retailing, shipping, and insurance and other financial services. Through this period, the Burns family remained in control of the company, providing it leadership.
By the early 1980s, Burns, Philp had been transformed into a sprawling, internationally operating empire of more than 200 companies involved in some 100 separate industries, including toy manufacture, perfumes, automobile sales and rentals, production of penicillin and other antibiotics, and an extension of retail operations into the hardware segment through the Australia-based BBC Hardware store chain. The attempt at diversification severely strained the company, and in 1984 new CEO, Andrew Turnbull, the first from outside the Burns family to head the company, began to restructure the group, selling off most of its smaller operations and rebuilding it around a new core composed of its retail hardware stores and food ingredients.
By 2003 the company had found a new direction with the acquisition of Goodman Fielder Ltd. That $2 billion acquisition boosted the group’s sales by more than $600 million, and extended the company’s operations to include 114 manufacturing facilities in nearly 30 countries.
In December 2006 New Zealand businessman, Graeme Hart, then an investor in, and Chairman of, Burns, Philp, acquired the remaining 42% of the company which was delisted in the same month. Today Burns, Philp is wholly-owned by Mr Hart’s private investment company Rank Group Limited.
Sir Robert Philp was a popular and active member of Townsville’s political and business life. In 1886 he was elected as member for Musgrave and in December 1899 was elected as Premier of Queensland. He died aged 70 in June 1922.
Sir James Burns took up pastoral interests and was a director of many companies, and a committed philanthropist, who in his later days gave £100,000 to the Burnside Homes for Scottish orphans. In 1908 he was appointed to the Legislative Council of NSW. He died in August 1923.