Alistair Henry Holder Interview
I’ve got Alistair Holder, a man who has been in Hastings for sixty-odd years … great friend of mine. And he is the Managing Director of A W Holder, who are wholesalers for plumbing etcetera. Good morning, Alistair.
Good morning, Jim.
Nice to talk to you on a beautiful 1st May.
Thank you, Jim. Lovely to live in Hawke’s Bay, isn’t it, with the sun streaming in on us?
Now Alistair, I’d like to know about when you first came to Hawke’s Bay; I want to know about your parents and perhaps your grandparents just briefly – about them when they first came to New Zealand, and then I’ll just leave it to you to tell us of your history up to the present day.
Thank you, Jim. Well I’ll probably glide through and just … be mainly business, because when I left school at seventeen and came over here, that’s the only job I’ve ever had and the only job I’ve still got.
But I was born in 1931 in Taranaki, in New Plymouth. And I’ve always had an affiliation to dairy farming because I come from Taranaki, and my mother came off a dairy farm – born in Dudley Road in Inglewood … little town outside of New Plymouth. And all our relations lived in Dudley Road on farms and around that area, as my grandfather had originally come out from England as a soldier to fight the rebellious Maoris if they played up too much. And that gave him the little perk of getting a farm to live on while the country was in a peaceful state. So I know he enjoyed the life out in New Zealand, coming out from Scotland – that was my mother’s side, and they were Burroughs. They had a reasonably large family of girls, my grandfather and grandmother, and they stayed their lives in Taranaki, around those places.
I went to New Plymouth Boys’ High School, and I was there and enjoyed my time there for about six years. Moyes left the school as the headmaster – and he made a great name for New Plymouth Boys’ High, Moyes … Mr Moyes – and McNaught came back from the war as a Colonel, I think he was … Major or Colonel … and he became headmaster of New Plymouth Boys’ High School, and I went through his round.
And were you a prefect? And what House did you belong to?
I was in Central House, but I wasn’t a prefect. My brother was a prefect, but I wasn’t a prefect. I never got on with McNaught, and he cancelled a few things – one in sport where I wasn’t given the captainship, and I also wasn’t made a prefect. So while I didn’t know him very personally, as I say I enjoyed my time at school.
And we had one little bout where some of my friends – we weren’t bad boys; we weren’t naughty; we weren’t rude; we were just average kids. But two of my mates broke into the Armoury – pinched a couple of .303s, having read the book ‘Von Luckner’, who was the German who [chuckle] sailed around blowing New Zealand ships up. They read his book and they decided they’d run away into the hills and quit school. They stole the rifles and headed to the ranges, and next morning three or four of my mates and myself were called into the headmaster and interviewed by the police to see what the hell was going on. And I think McNaught never ever forgave me for that episode, even though I did nothing.
Yep, who of course is a very historical figure around New Zealand, and must’ve been quite a character.
Anyway, the boys came out of the bush when they got a bit hungry … didn’t know whether to shoot the farmer or give themselves up to get some food … they decided they were too hungry and didn’t shoot him. Came back, and became the quietest boys at New Plymouth Boys’ High School for two years thereafter. I don’t know what the police said to them but they didn’t lock them up or anything stupid, but they became perfect citizens after having a talk with the police. And that’s a little episode in my life I’ll never forget.
So having gone through high school I was going off to university, so I went through the first Science course in New Plymouth Boys’ High School. They formed the course when I was in 3Science1, when I went to high school. Went through the six years, and I was going to go off to university. And my father, who had had a business in New Plymouth, said to me one day “would you like to go over to Hawke’s Bay and open a company, and run that instead of going to university?” And being young, I immediately jumped at the chance, rather than going on to more schooling. And we came over in 1947 … 1947-’48 … right on the Christmas 1947-’48, and started the company with my older brother.
In my family there were seven children. The brother above me and myself never went overseas or served in the war – we went into Territorial training. But my other brothers, funny enough – one was one of the first to go over in the Army; the other two went into the Air Force. One got killed over Kiel Canal, and the other got [the] Distinguished Flying Cross, ‘cause he went on two tours having become angry at his brother being killed. And my brother-in-law was killed in a flying accident reconnaisance over Scotland … flying into an island and the plane crashed into the top of the island, which was the highest military depot in the British Isles. And it was one of those Scottish nights where the mist was down etcetera, and that was the end of him. My other brother-in-law – he also flew bombers, but he came back all right as well, thank goodness. But that was the family service through the war.
John and I came over here. John was working for Avery Motors, and also he worked for the Audit Department for the Government in Wellington, having finished his degree. So whichever job he was working at the time, he left that and came up to Hawke’s Bay and started at the plumbing merchants’ business which is still going today in a bit of a stronger position, ‘cause we have three depots. In Hastings we have two – one in Omahu Road and one in Warren Street, and one in Napier … in Taradale Road Napier, which is heavily sided towards being a Showroom rather than a trade, but there is trade business there. The Omahu one is more trade with everything, and is also … we’re responsible for supply of industrial gases to the area. And the head one in Warren Street has a separate Showroom and then all the trade stock sitting there for all the clients that are going on at the present time. We’re starting to see a lift in building and could be heading towards a bit of a boom, which is about time after the eight or nine years we’ve been in a depression in Hawke’s Bay. And maybe the Government will finally recognise the provinces do contribute something to this country – I certainly hope so.
When I came over to Hawke’s Bay I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the first thing I joined over here was the Jaycees … Junior Chamber of Commerce … and that was very enjoyable. And what I learnt then was that the businesses in Hawke’s Bay – probably typical of New Zealand – they were ‘name’ businesses. They were old families who’d started up in the early days and were still in business, so that you got to know a lot of the history of Hastings … Hawke’s Bay … from the people you associated with in clubs, ‘cause they were the sons of the forbearers [forbears] of the business in the area. And it was the same when I joined Rotary. I was quite young, and I was quite chuffed to join Rotary, But it gave me an introduction to people who were probably thirty or forty years older than me who, once they got to know me, accepted me and told me a lot about the development of Hastings, and how things went on. And I’ve always been lucky that way – like, Jim introduced me as being a long-time friend of his. Well when I came over we started in Thompson & Hills’ warehouse, ‘bout twelve feet below the road level, subject to floods, so it was quite exciting. And across the road was Jim’s father’s business, the brewery, and they were always generous, the Newbigins – of a Friday night you could walk across and have a quiet beer if you want[ed] to – I was quite young, and one beer was probably enough for me in those days. But it gave you an insight into the development of the province which I wasn’t familiar with because I’d come from Taranaki, and knew the people in Taranaki and New Plymouth well through my family living there for years. But Hawke’s Bay – you’re a bit of a fish out of water until you’d lived here for a few years, and you were accepted by everyone and got to know everyone.
But Hawke’s Bay is I think quite a historical province in itself, and some of the books that’ve been written by the farmers in the area on their families’ history and growth, and where they came from, are so well-written and so informative that I get great joy every time I see there’s one come up – and there aren’t that many – I can read that and it just develops my knowledge further of Hawke’s Bay. And the older I get, the more I love the area … great weather, great people, great food here grown [loud noise] around the place – sorry ‘bout that. Yeah, it gives you [a] lot of enjoyment. Various things you can do in the area that’s pretty widespread – you can go out duck shooting, you can go swimming, you can go up the mountains and everything else. We’ve been fortunate enough to follow the footsteps of a lot of Hawke’s Bay people and make Taupo another area for us to have holidays in and enjoy. And there was a tremendous number of people went up into Taupo in the old days, and we followed them up and bought a house there, and finally have ended up out in Hatepe, which is a little Maori lease development, with people coming from all over the North Island and the odd one or two that do come over from Australia and the South Island. And it just makes the living in this area so much more enjoyable – two hours and you’re away with many people that you know from Hawke’s Bay itself, down in Hastings or Napier, and we get great enjoyment out of that. So we’ve enjoyed the life here.
One things as you get older you get a kick out of, is that being the little, young boy being sent along to conferences for the organisation you’re in, the Plumbers’ Merchants. You’re usually given a bit of stick by the older members, but if you live long enough the older members disappear off the scene, [chuckle] and you become one of those that’s in the box seat. And that follows with clubs or anything else. So age has its benefit at times, although if we could stand still would be nice also.
Talking about your family life – now, you married Margaret, then … if you can give us her maiden name and birth date if you can remember? Your marriage and where you got married … honeymoon … just give us a little bit of thought about that. But you could’ve been too busy to do those sort of things, ‘cause you’re always at work.
I can’t be that busy, Jim, or I’d get more stick from my wife [chuckle] than I get now. But yes, when I came over, after a little time I met Margaret Lowe as she was cycling along. And I had a van from work and gave her a lift, and things developed from there. Margaret is four years younger than me I think it is, and she was born on the 28th November 1935.
And her father … her family were all contractors – metal contractors, roading contractors, the father having come out from Scotland, from Glasgow, at a very young age. Was going to Australia, but somehow got diverted to New Zealand and settled in Hawke’s Bay. He was lucky enough to survive the earthquake, and his family all did the same – there was no one damaged or hurt … injured. And he borrowed some of the housekeeping from his wife, Queenie, and bought a truck … second hand truck … and helped clean the rubbish out from the damage done in Hastings, and maybe Napier, from the earthquake. ‘Cause there was [were] buildings down everywhere, there was [were] chimneys down, even with the houses that were still standing. And there was a lot of work made for people who came from Wellington and around the area, to get employment up in Hastings and Napier after the earthquake. And they got employment building chimneys or knocking them down, so the chimneys in themselves were very profitable to people living here when things were a bit difficult.
And Peter, Margaret’s father, got the truck – he got into carrying the rubbish away to the rubbish dump and landfills. And when that started to peter out he started carrying shingle, and was astute enough to start his own shingle pit which was very profitable for him, especially as Gisborne was always short of shingle, and you could ship shingle up to Gisborne on the rail, quite profitably. And his sons went into the business, and his grandsons are still working in contracting, but not quite as large as Margaret’s father had his company.
And Margaret, who worked in offices, enjoyed her lifestyle. And she also had a lot to do with family businesses … second generation family businesses, many of whom were in Rotary or any organisation I was in. So that developed my knowledge even further – just associations from her work. And she worked for the Jockey Club … Hawke’s Bay Jockey Club … Mr Wishart. And also there was another man that worked there, Trevor Caseley, and Margaret got on like a house on fire with both those gentlemen who treated her very, very well. And Margaret’s father had racehorses, so for some years she knew a little bit about horses, but she was never a gambler. But in latter life of course she’s withdrawn from all that, so she’ll now only say “I used to work for the Jockey Club, but cannot give any information on the breeding any longer”.
Before I got married I joined the Maraenui Golf Club, and we used to catch the bus out there and play golf, ‘cause I had actually played golf at school and enjoyed it. And it was a sport I wanted to continue, ‘cause I knew that when all your rugbies and soccers and indoor basketball were over you could still play golf. So I was keen to keep that association – we played at Maraenui Golf Course … my brother and I … for several years. In those days it wasn’t really tile-drained, so in the winter it was pretty wet and hard going. But it was a wonderful club, and I met a lot of new people there and enjoyed myself very much.
Later on when I was married to Margaret, I joined Flaxmere Golf Club which was just starting, and didn’t have even greens when I started. You used to hit into a [chuckle] bullseye virtually. But they got it off the ground – it ended up some of the best greens in the area, and lovely fairways also. But unfortunately it’s obvious that a lack of money has made them go back a little bit.
But I played there, then Margaret – she wanted to play golf. I think that she was a bit jealous that I got away of a Saturday morning, and she wasn’t getting away to some sort of sporting form. So she joined Bridge Pa … Hastings Golf Club. And that got complicated then, because she wanted me to play with her on the Sundays, and twilights, so I joined Bridge Pa as well, and made up a family team of Margaret and myself with our friends, to play in different tournaments. And that was good – I had my brother-in-law to play over at Flaxmere – Tori Reid, married to Margaret’s sister, Pam. And Tori and I had some success together there winning the odd cup – but not too many – but we also had a lot of fun.
But eventually, Tori started to withdraw a bit from it, and Margaret got a bit more demanding with socials over at Hastings, and so I eventually gave up the membership at Flaxmere and concentrated on Bridge Pa, and I’m still there to this day and I still enjoy it very much. And it’s been interesting to watch how the family side of it … the husband and wife side of it … is [has] to a large extent gone a little bit backwards, and the Sundays aren’t how they used to be. And some of the old cups that you play for and things aren’t as competed for as they used to be. And that’s a bit of a shame, but that’s the trend of life today with husbands and wives both working, which wasn’t a thing in our day when I started. But that coming into it has certainly changed the attitude of most people to life in general.
Just looking at some of your business connections, you must’ve seen big changes in business with Government policies, and tax, and holidays over the years?
It’s been interesting, Jim, when we started out business was in a very orderly fashion in New Zealand, and set ways, and that led to society being very much in a form of structure. And that came from … the position you took was the position you held in society. In Hawke’s Bay it was different to Taranaki in that the Hawke’s Bay farmers I think were better off than Taranaki dairy farmers. And the farmer was quite respected and looked up to – in fact some of the older families would … to use a very loose term … looked on [as] the royalty of New Zealand, the ones who’d come out and developed the land and settled the land and worked hard, and introduced the ways of England or Scotland or wherever they came from. But it was structured down from the farmer.
Then you had the service industry underneath which supported the farming and any of the industry that came here – some of the orcharding or horticulture and things like that. Then there was the doctors and the lawyers fitting into a structure; then the school teachers … civil servants slotted in there somewhere, and then you came down until you ended up with labourers, etcetera, etcetera. And that was very structured, and that was your set in life. And I know it wasn’t set in concrete, but that’s how it was to a large extent.
And slowly but surely that’s all changed, and the ten per cent of well-off people in New Zealand now has gone down I think, to probably three to five [per cent], and the middle class has fractured out of there and certainly doesn’t have the same bearing that it used to have in the old days, and there’s more poor people in New Zealand.
And it’s quite funny – I met an Eastern European girl at Hereworth School, where there was a function on, a prize giving just a few months ago. And now we look on Eastern Europe as perhaps not being that affluent, not that great a lifestyle etcetera, and I was quite amazed for that girl, who’s married a New Zealander and loves New Zealand and has children here now – she’s still fairly young – who remarked that the one things she’s found about New Zealand is there is a tremendous number of poor people. Now we would’ve been horrified to’ve been told that [a] few years ago. We were egalitarian; we all could meet anywhere; while everything was structured, there weren’t too many people who didn’t mix well with everyone, and it was a great place to live. And it is quite alarming to see this growth of a very select few with a huge amount of money, and a very large number who can’t seem to get anywhere – they just remain poor and struggle through life. And I found that statement from her very interesting.
But from the structured form that I went into in business of [in] this society, there’s things that I can explain to a large extent, and one of them is importing. There was [were] importers, and they were the ones that were given the opportunity to bring goods into New Zealand to be sold out to the various merchants or suppliers. And that was in turn sold to re-sellers, and then to tradesmen, and then to retail clients. And one of the reasons why that was set in concrete at the time was that if you were lucky enough to apply and get an import licence, you had to use that import licence yourself – you could not sell it. Also, the Government gave you a sheet which showed you the percentages you would apply to the imports, and that gave you a reasonable profit. I can remember the sheet well, and how we had to go to it when we were setting our prices. When a price was set – say, for a new product coming into New Zealand – that price hardly ever changed, and if it did it was only a few per cent due to freight or something like that. So things were very set and structured, and everyone could live in their place. Say you made thirty per cent on the import to start with, then you put twenty per cent off to the person you sold [to], who developed it and sold it through the country, and so on, so forth … twenty, ten per cent, through to the tradesmen at the end. That made business relatively easy. Your advancement was structured and governed by getting a [an] import licence and increasing the import licence. But if you had a good case, it wasn’t too difficult – sometimes you hit a bit of a brick wall, but you could develop and grow. So it was good, and you knew you were going to make good money out of it, so you didn’t have people … you know, getting into trouble financially and things like that, as long as they had common sense.
But – this is how the world is a funny place. The Government who was going to prosecute you for perhaps selling your licence under the table to someone who wanted to get into something – from that situation the Government decided … and as a rough guess I think it was the Labour Party … they started thinking ‘why are these importers protected? Why aren’t we making money out of it?’ So they started selling licences. Now that – it’s always seemed funny, but those are the things that upset society and changed things in some cases for the worse, and I certainly think that was for the worse. You lost a bit of control of orderly trading in the country, and I haven’t gone to the trouble of following that through.
But we in latter days, were given the opportunity through a company called Zip Industries … a guy Potham who bought Zip Industries, who’d made their name out of water heaters. And he bought it, and he was fairly astute and saw that there was a gap in home appliances, and he looked around and he made a [an] electric frypan … set up a factory. And he sold that very successfully, and he used the outlets known through him in the plumbing … in some instances, not all … as well as the people who were distributing home appliances. So that gave us the opportunity to buy things which were really a retail product – we could buy them straight off the manufacturer, Zip, and we decided we’d sell them cheap to the tradesmen and anyone else who’d like to come in and buy them … sort of split out what was happening in the home appliance line. Potham then made the kerosene heater, which took off like a rocket! And once again we were selling that, and probably to the disadvantage of all the retailers who were buying them off us as well.
And the point I’m making here is that with that type of action, later on, we were selling so many home appliances … electric blankets … all sorts of things. But I wasn’t as astute as a gentleman living in Auckland because he started a company, The Warehouse. And he broke all the rules, and brought in product from overseas, and he bypassed all the distributors of home appliances and sold them direct, and cut the price down very low. And that was the start of all the loyalty etcetera etcetera of sales in New Zealand on that line. And I’m sure it followed that in a lot of other products in the country, not just through the plumbers’ merchants or anything.
But a lot of that structure disappeared, and it became who had the money and gumption to set up and buy products cheap somewhere and then market them direct to the retail instead of going through say, four hands, out to the market. And if we drive around Hastings today, we see import shops like Uncle Bill, and places like that, where they’re bringing in product very cheap and discounting them out very cheap. So New Zealand has gone through great changes with it all.
The other interesting thing which as an old Taranakian watching the dairy industry and being very much on the sideline with that, is to see how the growth of that has just rocketed. But we get the disadvantage, ‘cause we still look on New Zealand as “clean and green”. And I always have a little bit of a chuckle when I see that, because we can’t eat the trout that’s in the Tuki [Tuki Tuki] River now ‘cause of pollution, and our children aren’t allowed to swim in it. And obviously the Government overlooks all those things a bit tongue-in-cheek, so that we get great money from our exports, the dairy industry, which is one of our biggest if not the biggest, at the present time. But I think it’s a bit of a shame, coming from Taranaki where the old mountain fed the mountain streams and rivers, and they were cold to get into but boy! Were they clean water, even though they had dairy farms over there there wasn’t enough stock to pollute them as they’re being polluted today. Come over to Hawke’s Bay – the rivers are much slower, they’re just flowing out to the sea very slowly, and certainly can’t clear the rubbish out. But it is a shame to see a country that was clean and green.
And another one, they say “safe”. And I read the other day: ‘Sixty-three Homicides in the Year’ … or sixty-eight, I forget the figure, but over sixty. I can remember a farmer in Nelson area who had a run-in with his neighbour because I think he probably had more to do with his wife than he should’ve, and also there was a bit of nonsense about the farm stock, and he ended up shooting his neighbour. And I wish I could remember his name, because this was in the wartime when I was very young – it was in wartime. And the joke was, when the police couldn’t flush him out from where he was hiding, and he actually wounded a couple of police before they actually did capture him – he may’ve even given himself up – but I always remember the joke was that Hitler had sent a telegram out that if he could hold the South Island, he’d send troops into the North Island and take the north. Now that was the one murder in that year, and that was how New Zealand was. If there was a murder, it was national headlines! Everything, and the country was safe. And now we’ve got to where we have sixty-three.
When I went to London at one stage, I saw them pulling a body out of the Thames … the police and … couple of plain clothes people. And I thought ‘I’ll read about that and see how that body got into the Thames.’ Next morning there wasn’t a [an] article on that death, and that’s how blasé they had become with murders. Now I think we’re heading fast in that direction. So our poor old country, you know – it’s such a marvellous place, but if we’re not careful we’re going to just follow in the footsteps of all the other countries overseas with bigger populations.
Yes, you’re quite right.
I was just going back on to your products, and how in the old days they lasted for a number of years. And now … now it’s gone to The Warehouse and the likes of, it’s meant to last only a year or two and you get another one.
Yeah, that’s a bit of a shame, Jim, I do agree with that. Fortunately in plumbing, most of the plumbing that are [is] sold by the plumbers’ merchants at this time are still very good products. Methvens are our biggest tap manufacturer in New Zealand, and Methvens have had a very great success in recent years with export, and they’re well-known right through New Zealand – I think everyone knows of Methven taps. And it was amusing … we were having a sale the other day, and my children asked me “how long have you been a client of Methvens? Because they’re coming to the sale … they’re sending reps to the sale to help us, and we’d like to advertise the fact that they’re doing that and just say it’s an association we’ve had for a long time.” And I said “well, I’ve had an association with them as long as I remember, but the only way to really get this fact right would be to ring Methvens”, which one of my sons did. And he came back and he said “you’ve been a client of Methvens in Dunedin for eighty years. You’re our [their] oldest client”. [Chuckle] And I got a great kick out of that. ‘Cause I said that [a] lot of the other firms have disappeared and we’ve survived. But eighty years of contact with Methvens which are the biggest tap manufacturers and suppliers in New Zealand. Great thrill. And they respect us and treat us pretty well.
But yeah, that sort of thing. You buy taps off a company that’s been making taps for you know, maybe a hundred years – they’ve got a bit of pride, and they make them well. But there are taps that come in, and – ‘course there’s people … with the boom in Auckland and the boom that’s seeming to spread through New Zealand … there’s a lot of people doing houses up and wanting to sell them on, and all they want to do is make them look good. And if they get some of the imported taps that we don’t know much about, they’ll last for a little while, but ha! Two or three years you won’t be able to get parts for them anyway, if the washer goes and they’ve got a funny washer. So yeah – it is a bit odd.
We also had a lot of growth with Ballinger Brothers in Wellington. Now Ballingers were … there was [were] three firms of Ballingers down there in plumbing. But Ballinger Brothers were the ones who manufactured ridging and spouting and roofing, and did a lot of sheet metal work. And I got on well with the manager of Ballingers, ‘cause Ballingers being an old family, there was only one of the sons left running a firm, and that was I think Thomas Ballingers – that’s right – Thomas Ballingers Limited he ran, and the manager ran Ballinger Brothers in Kaiwharawhara. That was along the waterfront, and there was a lot of industry along there. Well we used to get our spouting off him, and we also experienced … when there was a company developed making lead-edge ridging with a machine, and making it to longer lengths than the 2.4 metres … 8 foot. They started extruding it out of a machine, and this took off like a rocket. And there was a couple of companies made a lot of money out of that. And Ballinger Brothers went into it, and then they started making long-run spouting … galvanised spouting. And the machine would extrude it to any length you wanted. But most of the ones with extruding galvanised spouting machines stuck to the six metre lengths, or the 2.4 – they didn’t want to vary that very much. But … I’ll add to that story in a minute.
One day I was standing in the warehouse, and I was very much the boy then – Dad was still alive, and my brother was senior to me in the company at that stage. And I was standing in there and in came Mr Thomas, from Ballinger Brothers Limited. And we’d had a lot to do with each other – I used to go down to the Plumbers’ Merchants meetings in those days in Wellington – and he came in and he was looking around. And he was getting on in years, and he was a canny old fella and quite a wit with him, and I enjoyed him very much and I like to think that he enjoyed me, as a young person. And he said to me “you don’t know what I’m looking at, do you Alistair?” And I said “I think I do, Mr Thomas”. And he said “what am I looking at?” I said “you’re looking at the shape of our warehouse, and you’re wondering whether you can make spouting in our warehouse”. And he laughed, he says, “you’re a very bright young lad”, he says, “I am”. He says “I’ve bought a … what was the prototype from a company that’s making some of these spouting machines”, and he says “I got it at a good price, so I thought ‘I’ll place that with one of my clients, and they can make it”. And he said “I thought of you”. And I said “well, that sounds all right to me”. So that’s how we got a [an] extruding machine in our warehouse. And it gave a bit of trouble because it was a prototype, and one of the engineers made a few bob out of that, locally – a chap by the name of Eric Jepson, who was [chuckle] a great talker. But straightening out this machine was right up his alley ‘cause he used to fine-tune it, and then he could talk to whoever was standing nearby. But he spent many hours, but he got it straight.
But we didn’t stick to six metres, or 2.4 – we started making it any length you wanted, and that gave us some great sales. In those days New Zealand Electricity Department, as with all Government departments, sent out tenders for the supply of goods, and we used to quote on plumbing for them. And we were … well, I wouldn’t say we were always successful, but up at Tuai where they were based by Wairoa, we were very successful and had a lot to do with them. And when we got the spouting machine, that expanded into a lot of the electrical manufacturing areas because they re-roofed their cottages with it. And we used to make it all to length, which saved them a lot of money because they’d get a plumber in and he just had to fabricate it together. And I can remember making that right through ‘til say, three in the morning to get orders out, and we used to have this pile of spouting there we used to have to strap up and send away to say, Tuai, or other areas. But that was a great thing for us. And we’ve still got a picture of us carrying a length of spouting over to Jim’s brewery, and I wouldn’t like to tell you how long it was but it was the width of the road and more, and we would have six of our staff carrying that over, and we’ve got a photo of it to put up somewhere in the brewery. And that’s the longest length of spouting I think that’s been made in this area. But that’s just one of those things you’ll always remember.
Now as we progressed with business, the Plumbers’ Merchants Association in Wellington decided they’d start up a co-operative of their own – they’d band together to get more buying power. And this was really the brainchild of J S Allen in Gisborne, and Harold Pierard in Palmerston, and … probably Diamond & Company in Wellington, but one of the merchants in Wellington. And they got together – unfortunately we weren’t invited into that at that stage. But it took several years to get going, and they started up Plumbing Plus. And that saw the death knell really, of the Plumbers’ Merchants Association, which was a bit of a shame because the Association had done all our pricing for us, which was pricing that wasn’t set in concrete but it gave you pages of what you could sell – all plumbing goods. And it was well-structured, well-priced, and kept everyone virtually on much the same price. But obviously, if there was larger sales to be made all the loyalty went out the window, and you were on your own, and you priced it according[ly] to see how it was going.
Well Plumbing Plus started up, and also the Master Plumbers’ Association start[ed] up their co-operative. Now the Plumbers starting up their own co-operative and taking shares in it gave them great loyalty to the Master Plumbers. That cut the sales to the Plumbers’ Merchants down by a large percentage. But what the Master Plumbers didn’t realise … an old saying that if you apply pressure somewhere, the pressure comes out somewhere else … that meant that the Plumbers’ Merchants’ loyalty to the plumbing trade was certainly weakened, because none of us were going to sit on our hands and let the Master Plumbers take over the sales of plumbing right through New Zealand. So it broke the loyalty there, and the builders started to be able to buy off us at competitive prices; the retail started too; we set up showrooms that were more active, and so there’s been a lot of competition with Master Plumbers. And I think obviously that the Plumbers’ Merchants have won out.
But as it progressed along, we were asked to join the Plumbing Plus, which we did. And that’s been of great benefit to us because Plumbing Plus is an association of plumbers’ merchants that goes over into Australia as well as New Zealand, and probably gives us as good a buying power as any other merchant in New Zealand. And we’ve benefited greatly from Plumbing Plus, and today my son’s retired out of the company, and my other son’s partner, a young lady who has got a degree in Human Resources, is now running the company. And she would be the first female to join Plumbing Plus, which of course, when she walked in the door, was a little bit tense. But with the brains she’s got I’ve been delighted to see that some of the Plumbing Plus members, who are astute, strong members, have taken no time at all to come along and use her knowledge and ask her judgement on certain things.
And also it’s rather interesting that we’re trading with China with some of the products, and importing them. And with the downturn in business eight or nine years ago, the Chinaman we used to rely on for purchasing, who was born in Australia and then went over to China … and his fluent English was of great help to us New Zealanders … he was the one who determined a lot of what we bought etcetera, etcetera. With the downturn a few years ago he has been totally in China and a lot of contact was lost with him, but my manager has dug him out and she is now going to take him along to Plumbing Plus to reinstate him in the good books of the plumbing fraternity. And so this is another way that my son’s wife is going to certainly gain some strength in that organisation, and I think she’s well-respected now and she’s only been in there a very short period of time. That helps the company to have better contact with members, and respect and growth, because there’s no doubt that this driving force in any organisation gives you the opportunity of growth, and I can see the company going from strength to strength.
We have sales now and you can hardly get in the warehouse for the product that is sold and we have to buy in to distribute – and that is probably the greatest problem after the sale’s over, handling the goods when they come in and getting them out to the people, ‘cause some of them aren’t building straight away and they want the product held, and that’s just becoming a nightmare for us. But success often breeds a little bit of problem, and that’s where you have to overcome that to be successful.
That’s a great insight you’ve given us on the plumbing world, and some of it was news to my ears.
Now you touched on your children … can you expand on that? Have they carried on the business – under your guidance of course? You know, when you get a boss, sometimes it’s pretty hard to let go.
Jim, you’ll always bring me down to the ground, won’t you? Because you often make a little comment like that to me – and I appreciate it too. And I can see the humorous side of it, and I can also see that there’s a little bit more depth to it than we perhaps place on it. But you and I both know that some of the things we say to each other do carry a bit of strength in them and are always interesting, and … yeah. And [chuckle] and still can give me a bit of a smile.
Yes, I have three children: Vicki-Jane Holder, and Mark Holder, and Brent Holder. Vicki’s the oldest, Mark’s the next, and Brent’s the youngest, and they actually do slot into their areas pretty snugly, too, which is normal I think with families. They all know who was the oldest and who’s been around the longest, but Vicki has never been one to play upon that at all, so Mark gets to act like the oldest son in most cases. But Vicki-Jane … she’s been a delight to me because she’s never been any problem with me, financially or otherwise. She’s been I think, successful; she’s quite astute; she under-values her importance I think, but she’s done well in life. She was always interested in writing; she was always very good at French which gives her benefit with languages – if you have two languages I think you understand both languages a lot better, and some others as well. But she did a journalism degree. I think she just did a Bachelor of Arts to start with and then went into a journalism degree under a very clever writer in the South Island, whose name certainly escapes me – but he was very well-known right throughout the country, and no doubt he’s well retired now, and may not even be with us any longer.
But Vicki first of all got a good job with the Auckland Herald as the editor for the Housing Division, and she did that for years. And that opened doors to her to the Real Estate, and so she started doing work for the Real Estate, and still does. And now she does writing for quite a few diverse people, and she’s been fairly successful. She’s fortunate in buying a house early in Mount Eden, and I always look on that as an astute investment which’ll serve her well in later life. So Vicki’s in Auckland enjoying life. Unfortunately her marriage broke up … she has two children, Alex and Kit. But she’s always enjoyed life – I’ve loved going overseas with her because she just accepts me for doing what I want to do, never criticises, and she’s delightful company, so I’m particularly fond of my daughter, as I think most men are. I’ve been very lucky with her – she’s tremendous, and I’m pleased that she’s successful. I’m sorry that she can’t come back into Hawke’s Bay and work, but you have to work where you slot into society.
Mark, my eldest son, who went to Hastings High – Vicki went to Karamu, and went through the era when Peter Bevan, my nephew, went through. And the young fellow, the announcer who lived out there and has died – what’s his name? You’d know him, you know, he was the talkback host of New Zealand for years … he went through, and Williams, the political man … there was a group of them – all of them. And – oh incidentally, the chap who died the other day who used to be our the comedian, the gumboot man …
Clarke [referring to John Clarke aka Fred Dagg] – he was one of the ones that went through Karamu there. But the group of them … Clarke was the funniest, he couldn’t speak without making you laugh, whereas the other one which you have to remember for me Jim, because you know him so well – lived out Poukawa … had the house out Poukawa …
Holmes, Paul Holmes. Paul Holmes was … I found him very humorous. He did so well, and entertained New Zealand so well. But Clarke was just head and shoulders above the lot of them, which I found most interesting. But there was that clique that went through Karamu at that stage, which wasn’t looked on as a great high school, but it certainly did the job for Vicki and it did the job for that group of people, so it couldn’t have been doing too much wrong. But we get our highs and lows in high schools.
And Mark went to Hastings Boys’ High. Funny enough, he was the slightest boy on the paddock in the First XV, and he was a hooker. And the scrums would push so hard they’d cut off the blood and he’d pass out at odd times. He did that a couple of times, which evidently happens in scrums. But we were quite happy when he gave up playing rugby, which he did through a mishap in the university where one of the university boys either suffered a terrible injury or got killed playing rugby. And that was the end of Mark’s rugby days – he gave up. And then Mark went to Lincoln for his agricultural degree … commerce … Agricultural Commerce degree. And he had an interesting time serving his Practical, when they send you out. He did his dairy down in the Manawatu on Massey Farm, and he said he never wanted to live in Manawatu, [chuckle] particularly in Palmerston North. The breeze’d come across there and freeze him to death – he said it was terrible.
But I found it interesting – one of his professors, or [it] might’ve been a Massey professor, I don’t know, but he was a professor at a university – gave up being a professor to do fencing, and he turned fencing into an … I mean building fences for farms … he turned it into an art form. He could put up a fence faster than anyone else around, and he came from a university professor background – I found that intriguing.
But he finished his degree and did trips overseas … quite an interesting life overseas, and then he ended up going over with his now wife. He went down to a farm down Tierra del Fuego, down the bottom of South America, and he was there when the Falklands outbreak turned, and he said there’s no way the British didn’t know there was going to be trouble in the Falklands, because when he came in from his farm to go to one of the cities, he’d have to go through a roadblock of strange young Argentinians who carried guns which were loaded and everything else. And he said it was quite alarming, ‘cause they were so young and so volatile.
But that was going on while he was farming with one of the Argentinians who’d gone through Lincoln University with him. New Zealand had a great affinity with Argentine, [Argentina] which Jim, listening to this, will agree – there were so many Hawke’s Bay farmers went over to the Argentine to see how they farmed, and conversely there was all these Argentinian young chaps would come to go to universities in New Zealand, or work on a farm in New Zealand to see how we worked, also – always a strong bond between them.
And Mark worked there and enjoyed it very much. Oh, an interesting fact about where Mark worked – he worked on a farm down in Tierra del Fuego – and that was getting the blast from the Arctic [Antarctic] no trouble at all, and really wild, and unfortunately his friend … Argentinian friend who’d invited him over there from university days … took a girlfriend back from New Zealand, from Hawke’s Bay. And the tragedy was that before she went over onto the farm she decided to become a vegetarian. So you can imagine working, and adverse effects on this farm, and being served vegetarian meals. When his friend and his wife used to go into the city Mark’d slaughter a sheep and cook it. [Chuckle] But he couldn’t hide the smell of it – when she came back there was always an argument, when she came back.
Anyway, Mark and his now wife … his girlfriend at the time … hitch hiked from Tierra del Fuego up to Boston. That was quite a journey, and quite an interesting episode of their lives, as you can imagine. And one was being picked up by a truck to be given a lift, and the chap’d stop in the middle of nowhere, and he said “oh – okay, just wait on”. And he’d go and open a trapdoor in the truck, and someone’d climb out who’d been sleeping there, and the driver’d climb in and he’d have a sleep. [Chuckles] And things happened that were just astounding. But the most astounding was when he got to Panama Canal, and he asked someone at Panama … Oh, I’ll just tell you – before he got to that stage he was obviously short of money ‘cause he phoned me from Panama and he said “Dad, I can’t talk but I haven’t got any money, and I want some money put in this bank account.” And Margaret came along and took the phone off me. [Chuckle] And he’s short of money and he’s panicking, and his mother says the usual pleasantries, and Mark said “just get off the phone, Mum [chuckle] … give me back to Dad.” So we got the money transferred to him and that kept him going, but it upset Margaret for a little while.
And having got the money off me, he went into the city and he said “I’d like to get onto a boat for a while if I can. Is there anyone here who’s taking crew, either sailing up the coast or anything like that?” And they said “you’re new chums?” And Mark said “yeah. We haven’t really done any sailing … any ocean-going sailing”. And they said “well you’re not going to get a ship, are you? Because everyone wants people who are experienced”. They said to him “but you are lucky, ‘cause there’s one chap here who’s got a yacht and he’s looking for a couple of people, and he doesn’t care whether you’ve got experience or not.” And Mark says “oh, yeah – why’s that?” And they said “well the poor chap – he comes from a farm in America. And they grow wheat on that farm, and they burn the wheat off as we all know, when the crop’s gone. And they have a double burn to keep it controlled, and he unfortunately went in to light the second burn and got trapped, and the fire went over him. And he put his hands over his head and face to protect himself, and his hands and arms got burnt to such an extent they had to amputate his hands. So now what he’s got are claws – three claws”. I don’t know exactly the detail of that, but I know what Mark told me about it. “And with that, he has sailed – because he’s done so many things … unbelievable things … but he has sailed. And he had a deep freeze on one of the yachts and his claws got stuck in the ice and the product, and he couldn’t get out. He eventually did of course, but he couldn’t get out momentarily, and it woke up him [woke him up] to the fact that solo sailing wasn’t ideal for someone who hasn’t got hands. So he’ll take you on.” But he said “don’t worry”, he said “anything he does, he’s good. He’s done underwater welding on boats; he’s driven racing cars; he’s done so many things – life has become a challenge to him, and he’s done it.” And so Mark said “oh, we’ll give that a go”. So he went along and met this chap, and made him a friend for life. And they sailed out into the Pacific and around about, and had a wonderful time. And Mark learned a lot from him, and Jo – Mark’s wife – could do cooking, and so as I say, they became friends for life.
And when Mark came home to us after he’d been up into Boston, a letter arrived from this chap, which was probably – being quite generous – a paragraph long and pretty scribbly writing, Mark said “you would not know how long it had taken that chap to write”. Very nice.
So he left him and went on up to Boston. And he went down into an area which I’ve been to and I can’t remember the name, but it’s a coffee house there that’s famous, and a tea house there that’s famous. And they worked in I think the tea house, or the coffee house, or both – probably both. And Mark can remember the Turkish immigrants coming in there to get their coffee first thing in the morning – it was like syrup, it had to be served – and some of them were shaking until they’d had their couple of coffees before they went on.
And he came back from Boston and joined me in the company, and he ran the company with me for a long time but recently decided he would retire and do something different, much to my regret. But that was brought about from association with someone who was – I thought giving him good advice, but I didn’t think it was very good – not very happy about the whole thing. But he’s now working for one of the main builders in Hawke’s Bay, and appears quite happy.
But he’s also bought a block of land down in the Waipawa-Waipuk [Waipukurau] area, right up in the hills, and he’s trying to establish an arboretum. As fast as he plants trees they disappear into the area, and it’s amazing how many thousands you have to plant to make a statement with nature. But he’s got deer jumping the fence – which he shoots every now and then – biting the tops off the trees and eating them; and hares, which we don’t see many of here in Hastings-Havelock area, but he’s got hares down there and they also bite the tops off the trees, and that’s to prune them to keep them low so they can eat them later on. But he’s developing this area – he’s got a little cottage down there and he goes down weekends and I think he thinks it’s Christmas. He’s developing it up quite nicely, and the farmers are quite curious and everything with it all, so good luck to him with that.
And Brent, who used to run my Omahu Road branch when we were the agents for British Oxygen, he’s taken over the travelling for the company – goes to Gisborne and Palmerston North using a van, and he’s loving it. But boy! Do I wish he was a bit tidier in how he handle[s] things, ‘cause he’s … you can hardly see the dashboard of his van for paperwork. This weekend he’s worked all weekend writing up all his sales for last month. But there’s always got to be a character in any business [chuckle] or family, and Brent’s the character – he loves life, and he loves his children. He’s got three, whereas Mark’s got two.
Mark’s got Maddie who does design work through university, and got a degree. And what her work is at the moment is setting up houses before they’re sold by arranging furniture and things like that, and she loves doing that. She’s also done a bit of modelling, and works making advertisements … videos, where she talks. And Nick – he’s done a design degree and has [a] part time job in skateboards … designing skateboards and putting artwork on them. And also he does designing of shops when they set up … setting them out so that they can have their showroom with a bit of design system, and he’s getting a bit more work with that, getting a bit more each year, I hope. And so he’s happy.
Whereas with Brent, who’s over fifty now – he’s got three young children, the oldest being about eight or nine – two girls and a boy. The eldest is a girl, going through the Havelock Primary School. And then you’ve got young Felix. The oldest one is keen on dancing and everything else and gives a lot of enjoyment there. And then Felix, he’s the middle one, and Tula’s the young one. So he’s got three there to bring up, and as he’s older than most fathers, no doubt it’s a bit worrying for him, but he loves them, so that’s great. But that’s my children. Ruby, the oldest of Brent’s, she has great affinity with her father and gives him a lot of pleasure, and also probably keeps him in line a bit too. But they’re delightful children, and lovely families.
Good. Well that’s given us a great insight, and it looks as if A W Holder will last for another hundred years or so.
Can we just touch on CMT? Compulsory Military Training? And then after that, some of your travel – you know, where you’ve been overseas. And of course you’ve virtually travelled the whole of New Zealand, but just touch on those ones as well.
Well with Compulsory Military Training … as I said to Jim before we even started this interview, I’ve always been a bit fortunate with anything I’ve had to do with the Army. When I was doing my Barracks in high school, I told him I was put in charge of the Attendance Books and odd jobs, so I had a pretty cruisey month when we had Barracks at the beginning of every year. But no, I became a Corporal or something in there, so that made it even more cushy.
And then Compulsory Military Training – because my family had such great affinity with flying, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. And the only one in our family who wasn’t in the Air Force was my oldest brother who was the first overseas, and he did his Army over there as a water carrier in the desert. And going early, he was repatriated before the war had finished, back to New Zealand, and what does he do? He promptly joins the Air Force, and goes down the South Island with that. So they all ended up in the Air Force, so it was understandable I wanted to be a fighter pilot. So I applied for that, and I had School Certificate and things like that, so they said that I was just the right type of person they were looking for. But – I don’t know why to this day – I ended up for about two years always getting my eyes checked. And they weren’t ever happy with my eyes and I could never understand it. So I never, ever did get into the Air Force.
Eventually I had to give up or I would never’ve done any training, so they put me into the Army and they took me in as a driver, and that’s where I got my heavy duty licence, which was very good because it helped me a lot – coming back to my own business, I could drive heavy trucks. And it wasn’t really difficult getting your heavy duty licence in the Army – they actually just put you into a truck and told you to drive around Linton, and gave you a licence. But the frightening thing was that you’re in a large truck and eventually got a job of work to do. And when we’d served our Basic we were put in charge of going down and picking up ammunition and carting it to the wharf to send it over to Indonesia, or Vietnam. And a lot of those drivers I wouldn’t’ve wanted to’ve been sitting in the truck with, [chuckle] at all.
But I hadn’t … with my Basic training I’d only been in about a week or so, and the old Staff Sergeant – I was the apple of his eye and everything, and things were going rosy – and I got mumps. Now, I won’t go into graphic details with the mumps, but I was out to it – I was virtually [chuckle] … I didn’t know what was going on with me. And when I started to come to I found that they had to give me a harness to carry my crown jewels around, into. But it was a great time, because they had a couple of nurses there, and I was about the only one in hospital most of the time and they made a big fuss of me. So that’s where I got it cruisey there – once I got out driving things were just great.
And then one of the insurance agents in Hastings, whose name I forget, he was a Lieutenant down in Linton as well, and he wanted me to go in Officer Training. So most of the people down there treated me pretty well while I was going through, and I had a great time. I didn’t have to go up to Waiouru or any of those cold places, so I enjoyed my training once I recovered from the mumps. And just a bit of irony, the Staff Sergeant [chuckle] – he went down with the mumps when I came out, and he always blamed me for him catching them. [Chuckle] So that was rude.
Oh, an incident … I’d just like to comment on how the Army is so concerned about you when you have these things. Eventually, like all people doing their Compulsory Military Training, you had to go through a medical to be cleared. And the extent they went to see that I hadn’t had my life … so I couldn’t reproduce or anything else – I went in to the doctor who asked me to undress nice and politely, and he immediately lifted my crown jewels, told me to cough, and said “you’re okay, mate!” [Laughter] And sent me out. [Chuckles] So [chuckle] I lost faith in the Army with their medicals after that. But as life went on I found that he was quite right – I was okay. [Chuckle]
Oh, I actually have had a good life with the people I meet in the business and things like that. And in later life I had a great lot of fun with taking my wife and going overseas, and we went to a lot of countries when we went overseas. But first of course – you have to do when you’re a New Zealander is go back to England and Scotland and Wales and Ireland, which we did. And Brent was living over there at the time as a car salesman which he loved – it was right up his alley, but he never, ever clinched the deal – someone’d jump in and pinch the deal off him, ‘cause he was so unorganised.
But yeah, we stayed over there and we saw so much of the country, ‘cause Brent’s boss was very good with him and allowed him to buy a car that had a bit of an accident. Went to the Tattoo and all those things New Zealanders do – all the castles and it was great. Then we went into Europe and did a trip through there. Really enjoyed all of Europe – it’s such a fairy tale seeing the buildings over there, and meeting all the people. Everyone’s so good to you really – even the French are good eventually, even if you don’t speak French.
But we always stayed right in the centre of cities; we always could walk and see all the sights. Italy was wonderful … go down and see the various artwork and stuff like that. We went back a second time and Margaret insisted on seeing all the gardens, and that made her interested in establishing a garden around our place, which has been expensive because you need a gardener if you have a big garden. But we’ve always had luck with our gardeners and luck with our garden. And it’s always been great to come home for that reason, that you come home and see what’s happened, and what’s growing, and things like that. So I’ve enjoyed that.
And we’ve had a couple of boat trips … one on the boat that Mark’s sister-in-law has a share in, ‘The World’, which is an intriguing boat where everyone on the boat that owns the cabins, owns the boat. ‘The World’ was built by some astute business people with the idea of selling shares in the boat, and ie, ownership of the boat itself. So the captain and the crew work for them – they pay all expenses. So it’s an expensive investment for people, but it’s organised to go wherever they want to go … round and round the world, and they can get on and get off … do what they like with it. They can have as big an area of cabin space as they can afford to buy. And the basic one is expensive believe you me, to start with, but they’re one or two bedroom, right down the bottom. And so if you have got the basic two bedroom one you can invite your relations to come and stay and things like that. So it’s an intriguing thing.
But these business people built the boat … put in money towards the building of it, and sold some more cabins to other business people, but it never got off the ground and the company went bankrupt. And I’ll never know whether this was organised or not, but those business people then bought back the bankrupt company at a very reduced rate. And where the ship would not have been viable because it had been too expensive to build, all of a sudden it became viable and so it’s been operating from then. Other companies have tried to do the same thing, but of course [chuckle] unless you can get it to go bankrupt, you can’t build it so it’s cost-efficient.
But we hopped on that boat – and that was an eye-opener, to see and meet people who you never hear of, and realise how wealthy some people are … going around the world on a boat and having a passenger jet follow them around in case they want to go back home at a moment’s notice, or things like that. Unbelievable wealth. So that was a great thing – going through [the] Mediterranean and that.
And we did a Pacific cruise on a boat, and we’ve done a lot of travel into Asia, ‘cause I love Asia. People are so poor, and yet you’d never find happier people than them, and it’s been tremendous at all times. But I think that’s one of the things that happens as you go through life, when you get to mid-age – if you’re fortunate enough to have been successful in what you’re doing and you can go and see the world, which of course is becoming easy to see year by year. Now our children are doing things we would never have dreamt of doing, with tripping overseas. But yeah, it’s good – I still love travel and I hope that we still can do some, but having got a bit of a problem with my blood circulation, you have to be a bit careful what you do and when you go. So we’ll just face the future as to what allows us to have fun and what doesn’t.
Alistair, that’s one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve done, and I thank you for that on behalf of the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank. You’ve certainly travelled the world, but you’ve always been and up-and-go man. Anyway, I want to thank you very much indeed for the interview.
Well Jim, before you go, I haven’t read what you’ve handed in to these people but I certainly would love to read it if it wasn’t too personal. But Jim, no matter what you say to me, I know that you’re actually an identity of Hawke’s Bay. You do things without even a thought, such as what you’re doing now, to the benefit of the area. You’ve had … you may or may not agree with me … but I think one of the most successful lives of people around here. You’re a sports person, which means you’re a real identity in yourself – a successful sports person; you’ve got eye and ball co-ordination that most people would give millions for, and it never leaves you. You never give up, no matter what affects you in little adversities in your health, which haven’t been too many thank goodness, although you’ve had a few operations. But Jim, I have the utmost admiration of you and think you’re a very successful person, and I thank you for your remarks to me. Thank you, Jim.
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Interviewer: Jim Newbigin
- Alistair Holder
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