HARVEY BOWDEN is one of life’s inexhaustible characters. His philosophy has always been to ‘enjoy life’, a state of mind which has taken him from a quiet childhood living in rural Cornwall to almost capsizing catamarans, speeding across Route 66 on two wheels and building his company Harvey Water Softeners from a ‘man in a van’ upstart to a multi-million pound manufacturing business based here in Woking.
A plumber by trade and a former member of MENSA, in 1981 he invented the world’s first compact twin-cylinder water softener. Built for homes in hard water areas, this domestic appliance might not be familiar to some, but for almost a quarter of a million UK households who have a Harvey water softener installed today it’s an everyday essential.
Harvey set up his business selling water softeners after his wife Ann bought one. He had plenty of customers, but the product he was selling wasn’t good enough – so he decided to redesign it himself.
Almost 40 years later, his business is one of Woking’s largest employers. 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.
He chose to set up shop here originally because it was his home and where most of his customers lived. However over the years the company’s growing workforce has, in his words, become like a second family to him, with the ‘Harvey’ name an ever present feature in the town during decades of change.
“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.”
In the early days Harvey built and installed every softener himself, by hand. Nowadays things are a bit different, with 3D printed prototypes, injection moulding machines and modern assembly line techniques allowing the firm to build tens of thousands of softeners every year.
Perhaps there’s something in the water on Hipley Street, the road the business calls home. It was previously home to another young engineer, one Kenneth Wood, whose kitchen appliance company grew up here during the post-war years before going on to become a giant, global brand.
With sales at Harvey exceeding £20 million last year, the family firm could soon be following in Kenwood’s footsteps. But no matter how big it gets, Harvey wants the business to stay in the Woking area.
“We’ll soon be looking for a new factory three times the size so we can carry on growing. We won’t be going far though; Woking’s been our home since the beginning and we want it to go on being for many years to come,” said Harvey.