Bowers & Wilkins is 50 years old in 2016. As part of the celebrations for these five decades in the world of high-performance audio, we are running a series of blogs that investigate our history, our people, our technologies and our products. Here we look at how the goals, passion and influence of our founder, John Bowers, and how these tenets are still driving the company 30 years after his detail.
Company founders come and go and if they have been successful their company tends to outlive them. It is certainly the case with John Bowers, who died almost 30 years ago. In 1966 John Bowers was a man who felt aggrieved about the poor quality of loudspeakers available for him to listen to his beloved classical music on. Experiments in making his own loudspeakers eventually blossomed into a company called B&W Electronics, which is now known as Bowers & Wilkins, and is regarded the world over as producing some of the very best high-performance audio equipment available.
However, some 30 years after his death the influence of John Bowers can be felt in every aspect of the company he founded. His passion, his desire to produce the very best, his belief and leadership of the people around him, and many of the decisions that he made continue to have a major impact on the way Bowers & Wilkins operates today.
Steyning Research Establishment
The Steyning Research Establishment is perhaps the most tangible example of John Bowers’ legacy. After experiencing a similar set up at the BBC, Bowers decided that he wanted a separate R&D department, one that was shielded from the requirements of production, sales and marketing. The resulting set-up has been the foundation of Bowers & Wilkins success for the last four decades, and it is in Steyning that all Bowers & Wilkins new technologies and products are developed.
Removing the constraints on the research team quickly fostered a sense of freedom that allowed for the kind of pioneering experimentation that not only resulted in technologies which changed Bowers & Wilkins loudspeakers, but which changed the way the entire industry made loudspeakers.
Bowers & Wilkins ex-Chairman Joe Atkins explains: “Other companies had founders that gave them a soul, but once those founders were gone the soul went with them. John Bowers had the vision to create the Steyning Research Establishment, and that is our soul. The factory might have changed four or five times, the people have obviously changed over time, but if you build on that legacy and you make a better product you will be successful. That soul has passed from John Bowers to Steve Roe and on to Steve Pearce, and that was brilliant on John Bowers’ part. John Bowers had the vision.”
Another John Bowers’ decision that remains fundamental to Bowers & Wilkins was his belief that a loudspeaker should also look good if someone was spending a premium on purchasing it. In the early days of the company, loudspeakers were designed by the engineers, and the idea of making these high-performance units look like anything other than rectangular boxes was rare in the industry. But as was often the case, John Bowers saw things a little differently. He wanted to produce loudspeakers that not only sounded as good as it was possible to make them, but also looked good in people’s houses. See, for example, the DM70: a beautiful loudspeaker that came straight out of the idea of form following function.
When John Bowers did decide to use an industrial designer, not just anyone was good enough for his speakers. After an introduction by mutual friend Lord Snowdon, in 1974 he employed Kenneth Grange of the famous Pentagram design consultancy – the man behind a seemingly endless series of iconic products. Since then, Bowers & Wilkins has only worked with a very select group of talented industrial designers. The company generally spots their gifts early, and works to build lifelong relationships that have resulted in a wonderful portfolio of products – including an unprecedented number of design classics.
But Bowers’ legacy is much more than just the institutions and procedures he set up. It is also the way that he inspired people and how those people then went on to inspire others, especially when it came to producing the best that they were capable of.
Steve Roe, who worked at Bowers & Wilkins for over 40 years, was clearly inspired by his employer’s singularity of vision: “John Bowers was a very generous man – but he was only interested in loudspeakers really. Even when he took up photography he mainly took pictures of loudspeakers! He was very intense. He worked very long hours. Saturday mornings in those days. He was a leader – always pushing to get something better.”
Steve Pearce who worked with Bowers for a year before his death had a similar experience: “JB would encourage you to listen; he was inclusive: “listen to this lad,” he would say. And we are still like that – if we make headway and make something that sounds great we are very come and have a listen to this!”
And it is not just in Steyning, but also elsewhere in the company – as Andy Board who is in charge of our Chinese manufacturing facility explains: “Even if you never met John Bowers – which I didn’t – I feel like I did, and I feel like I understand his ethos. That’s come from the people who did know him and work with him.”
Just make things better
Key among his messages was that if you make a better product, then you will sell it. This is an ethos that is still at the heart of what Bowers & Wilkins does today. Ex-research director Peter Fryer, who was originally employed by John Bowers, clearly remembers this passion to always make things as good as they could be: “His ethos spread to all of us who met him. You have got to do the best. That’s the bottom line. And it still exists in the company today; people have it ingrained in them. John refined the design of a product over and over until it was perfect. He never knew when to stop! He was right that if you make better products people will beat a path to your door.”
As Steve Roe says: “The ideas for products came from a variety of people, but John Bowers always had the ambition to make things better.”
This is very much John Bowers’ legacy – the desire to make things better. He set out as a fan to make better loudspeakers that did justice to the recordings and music that he loved, and he continued to make them to the very best of his ability. As a result, everyone now gets to hear music that is much closer to how the artist intended.
Read more about John Bowers here.