ON a dreary morning last Friday, Henry Donohue was driven by his wife Iris from the couple’s Edgar Street home and dropped off a few short kilometres to his office at Coldon Homes’ headquarters. The 83 year-old gave his soul-mate a peck on the cheek, stepped out onto the Cape Paterson Road footpath and wandered towards the place that has been his second home for more than half a century.
It was just like any other weekday, and the couple treated it as such, but beneath the routine lay the unspoken recognition that it was the end of an era: Henry’s final day of work. “I always like to be dropped off halfway; it’s what we’ve always done,” Henry said from his office chair on Friday as he took a break from sorting through some final pieces of paperwork. “If it’s raining I might be driven all the way, and then Iris comes and picks me up again. “She’s my best mate.” A founder of Coldon Homes – one of the region’s greatest small business success stories – Henry remained the company’s owner and managing director up until last year, when he signed the business over to his son, Keith.
Henry reached retirement age almost 20 years ago, but decided against calling it a day. He does, however, remember telling Keith in 1994 that he might “give it a spell.” “I remember Keith said to me ‘well, what are you going to do at home,’” Henry recalled. “I said ‘probably nothing’, to which Keith replied ‘well, you might as well come to work and do the same!’” Anyone who has seen the rise and rise of Coldon in the past few decades will undoubtedly understand that Henry didn’t sit on his hands – the company, which eventually grew to include the ownership of several Capeview Mitre 10 stores, maintains three separate display home sites and multiple offices (Wonthaggi and Phillip Island). Born in Wonthaggi in 1929, Henry relocated houses, schools, halls and office buildings on the back of flatbed trucks for several years before forming Coldon with business partner Bill Collins. The pair remained best friends until Bill passed away in 1996.
Fuelled by a housing boom on Phillip Island in the late sixties and early seventies, aptly referred to as ‘the Coldonisation of Phillip Island’ in Henry’s self-published memoir, ‘A Fortunate Family’, Coldon went from strength to strength in its formative years. In 1966, Coldon sold 15 factory-built homes. Just three years later, Henry and his team were celebrating building the company’s 100th house. While he could have packed up his desk as soon as the company was transferred into his son’s name last year, Henry said he preferred to ease into retirement, so he stuck around Coldon’s Wonthaggi office doing general clerical work. “I basically like what I’ve been doing,” Henry said with a shrug. “I wasn’t ever really thinking about when I’d leave, exactly. “But I know I’m not as mentally capable as I used to be. “Keith had taken over many of my responsibilities so it made sense to pass the baton when we did.”
Henry has nothing but praise for his only son, whom he describes as “a very fine person”. “Keith is very capable and hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t pop in here to ask how I’m going,” Henry said with a smile. “I’m very, very proud of him and his three sisters.” “They all get along so well.” And while he’s immensely gratified with the legacy he leaves behind as Coldon moves into the future, Henry believes his greatest achievement in life exists well outside the workplace. “I’m most proud of my wife and I don’t want to even think about trying to manage without her,” he said, simply. “We’ll have been married 59 years soon and it’s great that we still have so much love and respect for each other.” Helping his wife out in the garden is the only task on Henry’s to-do list as he gets used to having more time on his hands. He’s also mindful of not visiting the office too much, since it would seem like he never left. “I think I’ll stay away, even though they all say ‘you’ll be back’,” he laughed. “I’ll really miss the people here, though.” A farewell dinner was held for Henry at the Dalyston Deli on Friday evening.