Starting as a roll boy at the tender age of 16, Billy Dows became one of Brumby’s most successful franchisees before being appointed as the brand’s general manager. Here, he explains how his recent battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma has given him a new outlook on life and the business of baking.
Billy Dows got his first job at a fruit and vegetable shop at just 13 years of age. He soon heard of a roll boy job going at a local bakery, where he worked before being offered an apprenticeship as a pastry chef.
He moved to Brumby’s to work as a full-time baker and soon became a production manager for a number of stores. It was at one of the brand’s busiest locations that he met his now wife Candice, who was working as a front-of-house manager.
“We’d been working together for a while when we decided to take the next step and buy our own store,” Billy says.
“We saw Brumby’s was advertising a new site in Nundah. We went for a drive around the area and saw it had huge potential, so we sold our home and put the money into a business loan. After being approved by Brumby’s, we opened the store in June 2007. ”
With Billy’s drive and Candice’s people skills, the store became an overnight success, immediately ranking in the top 10 Brumby’s stores Australia-wide.
“The store consumed our lives. I think I worked 98 15-hour days straight at the start. Candice was always there too, working the front of house. I made sure that the customers had anything they wanted available. If we ran out of cob and they wanted cob, I’d make more just to build up that customer count so no one walked away empty-handed,” Billy explains.
Three years later their first son, Bailey, was born, which took Candice out of the business for the first time.
“Starting a family changed things dramatically,” Billy recalls.
“I remember when Candice came back from maternity leave, we had the grandparents bringing Bailey to the shop multiple times throughout the day so Candice could do feeds. We just didn’t have anyone else to fill her shoes. It was a lot of pressure because we wanted to make sure the store remained successful.”
In addition to the Nundah store, Billy and Candice bought an existing Brumby’s store at Wynnum Plaza that was doing low sales. After they took it on, the couple doubled the store’s sales within a year before selling it in 2017.
With sons Frederick and Eddison joining the family in later years, Billy and Candice decided to sell the Nundah store to devote more time to their young family.
Billy was considering a career in the police force or fire service when his regional manager invited him to work for Brumby’s as a brand trainer. Billy agreed to give it a go and travelled all over Australia helping franchise partners with their production and business operations.
He then became operations manager before taking on the role of area manager, with a portfolio of 20 stores throughout Queensland.
“I built that portfolio up and got those franchisees really engaged, which RFG—Brumby’s parent group—recognised. They invited me in for an interview and put me on as general manager in 2020.
“It was obviously a big role, so I had a lot of work to do, particularly in the early days of the pandemic, reassuring our franchise partners that there was light at the end of the tunnel.”
Six months after Billy took on the role, he noticed he was feeling unusually tired and losing weight but thought it could be a side effect of being particularly busy at work.
“At first I thought I was just tired from being in a new role,” he says.
“Then I started getting a nasty cough. Candice thought it could be pneumonia, but I didn’t think it was anything to worry about until I started feeling really lethargic. I was also spiking fevers and getting night sweats, which I knew was a bad sign.”
After more medication and even more blood tests, they were still no closer to figuring out what was wrong. Three months on, Billy was still going in and out of emergency departments with raging fevers.
“They were doing x-rays, scans, all sorts of tests. They just didn’t know what was going on. Nothing showed me as anything other than a healthy 39-year-old man.”
But Billy knew something was wrong. After consulting his GP, they agreed he needed to go back to hospital for more tests. In hospital, he mentioned the lymph nodes under his arms were enormously swollen and painful. A biopsy of these nodes finally revealed Billy had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma—a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system.
“As soon as I heard that I went, ‘Right, get me out of here.’
I immediately got an ambulance to The Wesley Hospital, and that night I met with a haematologist and oncologist named Simon Durrant, who is one of the most reputable haematologists in Australia for this disease.”
A full PET scan and tests revealed Billy had Stage 4B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which Simon said was the worst he’d ever seen in his career.
“I had it pretty much everywhere. It was in my spleen, my neck, my lungs. I went on chemo the very next day,” Billy says.
“As soon as I got that first round of chemotherapy, the cough stopped. I never got another fever again. It is just incredible what it can do.”
Being in the middle of COVID, Billy wasn’t allowed visitors. He wasn’t able to see Candice or their three sons for a month. Understandably, he wasn’t in a good frame of mind.
“Hearing the words ‘cancer’ and ‘Stage 4’, I thought I was gone. I was just sitting there alone with my thoughts, petrified at the idea of leaving Candice and the boys.
“I’m a numbers man, and I remember saying to Simon, ‘What percent chance have I got to survive this? And he immediately said, ‘There’s a 99% chance I can get rid of it, but I can’t guarantee it won’t come back.’
“Hearing that 99%, I just thought, OK, yep, I can do this.”
So, Billy got to work. The numbers man went from analysing profit and loss statements for his franchisees’ stores to poring over his blood test results as soon as they came in, studying the haemoglobin levels to see how the chemo was working.
“In the hospital there was an exercise bike, and I’d jump on that every single day and do 10km. The doctors actually thought it might have helped pump the chemo throughout my body faster, and I certainly felt like it was helping me get my strength and stamina back.”
Billy says the team at RFG was hugely supportive, with the operations manager running Billy’s job for him while he was undergoing treatment. They also ran fundraisers for the family and offered support to Candice while Billy was in hospital.
“Candice was incredible the whole way through,” Billy says.
“She didn’t take any help or support even though she had so many people offering it to her. She took on all of my work at home in addition to her own. She’s a tough cookie.”
Billy is now Hodgkin’s Lymphoma free and fighting fit, keeping to a healthy diet and running when he can.
“Being in hospital and seeing guys my age losing their battle with cancer really put things into perspective for me,” he explains.
“I was lucky to have a treatable cancer. I feel lucky I was able to get better and go home to my family, because not everyone gets to do that.”
Billy is still as passionate as ever about continuing to build the Brumby’s brand and supporting franchisees. He recently held a baker recruitment program in partnership with the Department of Education, Skills, and Employment, which garnered an incredible 457 expressions of interest.
“It resulted in the creation of 200 retail positions, 200 apprenticeships, and 50 bakers,” Billy says.
“A year later though things have obviously gotten worse because of the skills shortage, and industry-wide we are still struggling to find bakers.
“There’s an art and science to baking that not everyone realises. You can do so much with our range of sourdoughs and the role really allows you to be creative. Then there’s the coffee component with Brumby’s and the fact we make everything from scratch, which is the point of difference between us and the supermarkets.”
“There are huge opportunities out there for bakers, and that’s what I really want people to see.”