F L Bone – Tony Bone
Joyce Barry: Good evening everyone, thank you again for coming out tonight. This is a special night because as you know F L Bones [is] a very special place and it was one of the rare places that I know, a woman could go into and be treated completely seriously when she didn’t know whether she needed a flange or a thing; the guys treated her wonderfully, and I’ll always remember that … just how wonderful it was. There’s not many shops you go in, as a woman, knowing nothing and they fix you up, and that was F L Bones to me.
But this is one of the wonderful workers, and I guess you developed it in a huge way, Tony, so welcome tonight. Tony grew up in Hastings, did his primary schooling here, boarded at Wellington College and then came back and went straight into the firm and worked in it for fifty-nine years, so I think he knows something about it. After tonight we’ve got a wonderful array of ledgers and photos from the store in the old days over on the table, so please go and see that. And I’d like Tony tonight to talk a bit on his rowing career ; he was runner up three times, New Zealand Single Sculls which is the same event as Mahe Drysdale now. He still has a George Pocock scull, and he told me he did eight ks [kilometres] yesterday in it. And George Pocock is a famous scull-maker, and he’s English; and it is well documented in his book ‘The Boys in the Boat.’ If you’ve ever wanted to read a magnificent book, it’s ‘[The] Boys in the Boat’. And Tony’s got a great history from his rowing years, so over to you, Tony, and thank you very much.
Tony: Thank you.
Thank you, everyone, for that. I’ll mention the rowing just as a start because it had a fair impact on my life. I spent a fair bit of time on it – fifteen years competitively – and it taught me dedication, and stickability, fitness of course, and all those sorts of things which were useful parts of my working life. I’ve made a few notes on this and I’ll follow the notes because it’s hard to give a continuous story, I’ll have to go off on branches and then come back and start again, more or less, if we bring different aspects of it into the talk.
The business started … just go back a second. We’ve talked about the business being a hundred and thirty years old and a family business since about 1885. In the last two or three years some of our boys at work have got onto the internet, and with some of the newspapers being digitised they’ve picked up a bit more information, so we know a bit more about the beginning of it. It started in Napier as Boyland & Co [Company] in the 1860s; it became Ruddock & Fryer, and they set up in Hastings in 1883, and my grandfather F L Bone was their apprentice at that time. In 1887 it was purchased by W F Burnett, who was mayor from 1890 to 1891; and he took his own life in the business one morning and my grandfather was the one who found him there. That’s come out of the newspapers; that bit of information has never come down through our family. I didn’t know about it until we found it about two years ago.
In November ’83 [’93] it became Bennett & Bone. Bennett retired in 1898 and Holroyd joined to become Bone & Holroyd. There was dispute that dissolved the partnership in 1899; it became F L Bone from 1900. One of the little family quotes that came from that was that F L said to my father, “Never take a partner”, so I presume that dispute was fairly heated. [Chuckles]
We’re still on the same site; interesting, that’s a question that’s often asked. So we’re still on the same site. It was destroyed by the earthquake. The front was out of the shop being renovated; ‘course the bracing had gone so it all collapsed. And another part of the anecdotes that come down in the tradition – the earthquake was in the morning as you all know; by two o’clock in the afternoon my grandfather had builders working on what is now the store, or what is now the building we operate from, because all the stock was exposed and had to be covered. It operated from that store for two years while the main front building was built, and that was, ‘course, in theory, pretty earthquake-proof for those times. My father used to say to me, “If there’s an earthquake and you’re not in it, get in it!’ [Laughter] But interestingly, because of the age it’s now being classified as an earthquake risk until we can prove otherwise, which is going to be quite difficult I think, at some stage.
F L went from mid-1983  to his death in 1945 at seventy-six, so he did sixty-two years. My father, who was R L, Ralph Leonard – F L was Frank Leonard; my father was Ralph Leonard but he was always known as Bill. I only ever in my life, ever heard one man call him Ralph, and that was a fellow that’d obviously been at primary school with him. He went from 1918 until his death in 1982, again at seventy-six; he did sixty-four years. It was made into a company, F L Bone & Son in 1932 so my father is the son in the title; became a limited company in 1941.
I joined in 1957 and did fifty-nine years ‘til end of 2015. I went straight from school, as Joyce mentioned, into the business. My father, when I was finishing school said, “You can go to university and learn accounting, but if you learn the hardware trade you’ll always have a job and you can always hire an accountant.” So that was pretty true of course; to hire somebody these days that knows the hardware trade is virtually impossible. And to hire somebody that knows the architectural hardware, which we’ve specialised into – that’s like door handles and door closers and pull handles and locks and fittings for commercial buildings, it’s almost impossible to hire somebody that has training in that. It was only … really only three of us in my time, and there’s two younger fellows now still carrying on with that. And we trained them both, and that was the only way we could get people that knew architectural hardware.
Brother Dave joined in 1958, a year after me, and did about fifteen years and then took on the farm at Patoka. I’ll come back to that in a second. And now Dave’s son, Kim, has joined from 2005, so he’s fourth generation in the business. Kim started off farming with Dave on the farm at Patoka. They converted it to dairying and then sold that, and Kim went to Australia and worked on some quite big farms over there, and eventually went on to a fourteen thousand acre farm on King Island and developed it up to thirty-four thousand acres. So that was under a Melbourne consortium, so he had some quite useful big business knowledge which was one of the areas that I’d never experienced. So he’s brought some good knowledge into the business and has put a bit more fire into it recently, which has been good.
The farm deal came about because in the early 1970s, one year we paid $135,000 in tax; it’d be $1,000,000 dollars these days, pretty easily. And it was tax on inflation, not tax on profit; and it was killing us. We couldn’t get enough money from the products we sold to replace those products, and so we had to do something about it. So we went to a fellow named Selwyn Cushing. [Laughter] And the first thing he said to us, “We won’t do anything dishonest.” [Chuckles] But he said, “There’s three things you can do – you can, if you’ve got surplus money, you can put it in the stock market”, and we didn’t have surplus money – that was the reason we were going to him. “The second thing you can do is go into manufacturing”, and we didn’t have manufacturing experience so that was a ‘stick-to-your-knitting’ sort of situation. “The third thing you can do is buy a farm”. And Dave had a bit of experience in farms; my father had experience in farms because F L had a stud jersey farm with stud jersey cattle, and they were all still interested in farming. So farming was what we did at that point, as a tax sink if you like; it certainly interested Dave and my father – he enjoyed that side of it as well. And we bought it over … I think, three years; we bought the stock one year and the farm part of … land the next year, and something else the third year. And that suited the fellow that was retiring and getting out of it and it suited us as a tax avoidance if you like, at that point, to get it established. And that worked; the tax thing paid for the farm eventually – not that the farm ever produced that much profit as such. I think you know, farming, as most of you’ll know, is not that easy, but it was pretty useful for us in that scene and it kept us alive, I think. at that point. If we’d gone on with those high taxation bills it would’ve killed us.
Just as another little interesting thing in there – when F L died in 1945, he owned most of the land, approximately, that the Havelock High School is on; and all the sections that faced onto Havelock Road; the house up Durham Drive that Peter Dunkerley’s got now, called Falcon Ridge – I think he built that; and there was seven acres – Greenwood Road goes round in a big curve shape and covered seven acres – there was seven acres in there that he owned. And they all went in death duties – the whole lot. The only thing that was saved was the business. So that was a set back at that stage.
Okay – so originally we were very general hardware merchants … very general. I think in the early days they even listed wood and coal and all those sorts of things, but it was a business that obviously serviced a colonial country town. Over the years we’ve tended to specialise rather than expand in that scene. When I joined we had hardware, paint, wallpaper, glass, things like wood burning stoves … Shacklock and Champions … a lot of you will know the names of; space heaters. We gradually dropped those stoves at that stage – they were going out to some degree; and the space heaters; then we dropped glass because there was other merchants with bigger buying power than us at that point; and then wallpaper went under import licensing; they made it New Zealand and everybody had the same thing. Prior to that we had a very good wallpaper business because we had access to a good licence and could buy a good selection that had people that had good knowledge on that. And we’d get in truckloads of it, packed in bales sort of this round and the length of a roll of paper. We’d get a hundred and twenty of those in a shipment originally, but the import licensing thing and everybody having the same just killed that, so we eventually got out of that.
However, we were very strong at hand tools, and that was our real strength at that time. And we gradually got more into architectural hardware – it was something that I took an interest in … not quite sure why, but I took an interest in that. We were weak in it at those times, but we gradually developed that.
In the oil crisis in the early 1970s we got back into a few stoves; that’s when we started to get into the Rayburns that we’ve got now, out of England. They were straight cooking and domestic hot water type stove, and basically made for coal burning but in lots of places … well, in New Zealand basically … we used wood on them. They weren’t really designed for that but they worked pretty well on it, and they were a much better product than the Shacklocks and Champions that were made in New Zealand – much heavier castings and a much more robust unit. And they gradually developed those Rayburns into models that would burn wood, and then models that would run radiators as well, so that side of it developed from those early days.
And then as Rayburns were connected with AGA – in those times it was known as AGA Rayburn, so it was the same company – we gradually got into AGA, very slowly, ‘cause they were quite technical and they wouldn’t sell them to us until we’d had training. And I did three or four days training in England at one stage which was a very basic bit of training; normally the training for those was two weeks but they said, “Okay, we’ll sell them to you now. But prior to that they wouldn’t even sell us parts for AGAs that were in New Zealand that needed servicing.
Then a director from AGA who … we had a quite a strong relationship; this is within my time again … transferred into a sister company called Rangemaster in England that made a range-style cooker – that’s a double oven, pressed steel regular cooker with electric oven, gas hobs, or other variations of that, but electric oven gas hob were the most popular versions. And he wrote back to us and said, “These guys are making some pretty interesting stuff; you should have a look at it.” So we bought one out and had a look at it. We sold a few; that encouraged us to open a store in Auckland, and that increased the sales and the interest a bit more, and we started to get them established. And once we then got them really going we then were able to put them out through resellers, and that’s what we do now. [We’re at] the stage that we bring in about two containers a month of those. They’re branded ‘Falcon’ in New Zealand now, though they’re still Rangemaster in England.
A couple of years ago when the rest of the world was slowing up, we were held up as an example of one of the best distributors they had, interestingly. And about eighteen months ago when Kim went to England they gave him a little award for being the best distributor for that year, which was interesting, ‘cause we still have to be a pretty small market for those sorts of companies.
AGA’s recently been taken over by an American company called Middleboro, and they make Viking cookers out of the States, so we looked as though we would gradually get into a few of those Viking – very upmarket stainless steel cookers. They’re very good; they’re very good but they’re very expensive; they’re sort of AGA price range again – and some high-quality barbecues from the same company, so that’s an interesting development.
And we’re also back into fires; Kim got onto a company in France that’s making some very good cast iron open fires and we’re just getting those tested at the moment for the regulations and that. The architects have expressed a lot of interest in those ones.
If we go back to my start, as I mentioned earlier we were very strong in hand tools. We’d sell things like three-foot rules – we’d buy them annually, but we’d sell about a thousand of those a year. We’d sell something like ninety panel saws in a year, and ninety No 4 planes, the little short plane that all the builders use. A gross (a hundred and forty-four) half-inch chisels was quite regular sales in those times, so we really got into that sort of stuff.
As I mentioned we had the architectural hardware. We were weak in it; we managed and then we gradually build that up. I built a display stand that we put near the front of the shop and there were sixteen little panels, about, beside it, and I laid it out with everything we could put on it so that everything was out there in logical order, and you could actually see what we had and what it looked like. And that worked for us pretty well, and we gradually got back into architectural hardware.
I did a young person’s OE [overseas experience] in 1965 at the age of twenty-five, when I’d been in the business seven or eight years, which was a good time to do it ‘cause I had an understanding of what the business was, and what the world was about at that stage I guess, too. So instead of just going on holiday I went to the factories that we dealt with; I built my the whole trip around going to those factories that we dealt with. It was the first time in the history of the company anybody’d been overseas, or been to those sorts of factories. And so I’ve been to all of the well known tool factories – Crescent Tools, Disston Saws, Nicholson Files in America, Stanley Tools in America, Stanley Tools in England, Record, [Joseph] Marples, Josiah Parks, Union Locks and Newman door closers – there was a whole list of them – Henderson door gear – Bernard Henderson himself set me up a programme, and I was there for a week and went through a training session on all their sliding and folding door gear which just put us in the market when I came back here and talked to architects. We knew what it was all about and we could give them the right specification, and we just got the business, just by knowing it well.
We went to Whanganui and Palmerston; it was quite [a] substantial success. There was a lot of military work as the troops came back from Singapore, and they built accommodation buildings in Waiouru and Linton, and we supplied the hardware for lots of those. The Officer’s mess at Waiouru, which is a big building up the side of the hill, looks out over Ruapehu. It should be a tourist hotel. We put a ton and a half of hardware on that, just in door handles and door closers and fittings like that. Part of that was we developed a system that was very accurate, where we triple checked something before we packed it. So we’d go to an architect and pick up a plan, and sit down and write a specification for each door individually; list every door out separately so that it was totally detailed. And it’s very easy to go through a schedule like that and say well, “This door and this door, they’re latch set on, but when you look at them one’ll have a floor door stop and one’ll have a wall door stop and one’ll have a cabin hook and all those sorts of things, and they’re all just a little bit different. So we’d detail them all out. We’d then take off a quantity schedule – originally we did it by hand. When the computer came along that really gave us a boost. But we’d take a quantity schedule off that there and make sure it balanced as we did the quantities, and then come back and pack in the door to door schedule. And it had to balance – if there was something left over or something short we’d go back and find it, so that when it went out of our door we were sure that it was packed accurately. When we started to get into our export markets, that really worked.
We computerised in the early 1980s, and again we took a gamble on it; we looked at all the computerised system[s]. And we were a bit slow getting into it which was a trait all the way through in what we did – we tended to be not the first into the market. But we’d watch, and then invariably get the best that was available four our position, in products as well as systems, and we did same with a computer. We bought an IBM Series 36 which had an operating … [Chuckles] It was something like $150,000, which was a lot of money in those days and a fair gamble for our sized business. I don’t know that we ever got the best out of it for purchasing and stock control, that sort of thing, but for the architectural hardware market thing it really worked. It gave us a real advantage and we had a system that worked. We’d’ve been seven of eight years ahead of the rest of the market in Australia and New Zealand, easily. With hindsight we didn’t make enough of it in actual fact, but it did work for us.
In the 1980s when we had export incentives going and we had the Hawke’s Bay Export Institute set up here, Wattie’s fellows … there’s a little colour catalogue over there that you’ll see that some of you will probably recognise; in the late 1970s we put out a couple of series of catalogues of our hardware, which again lifted our profile. I think the catalogues tended to become a hardware reference rather than an F L Bone reference unfortunately, but it still did us a lot of good. And Wattie’s fellows took this to the trade commissioner in Fiji and said, “Is there a market for this sort of product in Fiji?” And they said, “Yes.” He came round and talked to me, and I’d sort of thought about architectural hardware into the Islands but never very seriously. So I tried to find out a bit about it and couldn’t find out much, and in the end I joined the trade delegation, quite late in the piece when it had quite a few meetings; I was quite late in the bit. We went to Fiji, Tonga, American Samoa and Western Samoa, and it was all set up – the trade commissioners set up little shows for us and all the rest of it, which was quite a good introduction.
Our first success seemed to be hand tools for the Education Board. When we had the meetings prior to going away, they stressed that Fiji in particular was a price market, and you had to have your price right and all the rest of it. I was gambling – I didn’t know what to expect, or what to do, or how to use the export incentives that we had, or anything else, so it was very much a trial and error sort of situation. But what I realised when I got there was the hole in the market wasn’t price, it was quality. There was just nobody – they’d all concentrated so much on cheap, cheap, cheap, but nobody had quality, and the Education Board over there were dead keen to get good quality tools. And we got orders for hand tools to send there as a first round; orders that were $30,000 – I remember $100-120,000 now for just basic hand tools.
And then gradually we got a bit of hardware going; there’s a restaurant in Pacific Harbour I think, was our first job over there, Pacific Star Restaurant or something like that, and we gradually developed that side. Once we got going with our efficient scheduling and packing system, we started to get a pretty good reputation and that’s when we got the Sheraton Hotel over there in 1987 – I think it was $240,000, which again was pretty good money in those days. We had supplied it all and not been paid when Rabuka [?] the coup. [Chuckle] We came right, fortunately, but it was a bit hard on the nerves. [Chuckle]
Fiji slowed of course after that, pretty dramatically. One of the trade commissioners from there transferred to Papua New Guinea, and after a year or so they came back down to New Zealand. And they’d seen what we’d done on the Sheraton, and said to us, “There’s a market for you in Papua New Guinea if you want to go there.” So we said, “Well, if you can establish some credibility, we’ll give it a go”, ‘cause if you go cold into a market where nobody knows you it can be three years proving that you do know something about it. So they did a good job on that, the trade commissioners in particular, and we got going in Papua New Guinea. We gradually built up quite good business; I would go three times a year over there to do it, quite hard work – but I’ll mention that later on – until about year 2000. And it slowed substantially quite quickly – the whole market, ‘specially the building, slowed down.
And then Speight came along, and had a coup in Fiji the same year. The UK [United Kingdom] exchange rate with their North Sea Oil went from .35 to .27 in a matter of months, and that meant when we had a container load of shipments it would cost us another $50-60,000 extra, just in exchange rate. And the bit that bites in that as well is having to find more money to replace your stock, and to put your prices up, which slowed your market as well. So it was a real two edged sword.
And we’d taken on a business in Auckland that wasn’t going very well at that point – we’d taken over an old, established business that was closing up. And some of the manufacturers asked us to have a look at it, which we did, and took it on and took on the staff which … without going into a lot of detail, was a mistake.
Our exports at that point were twenty-five per cent of our business and they virtually cut off overnight. And we were in trouble – simple as that. We had a period where we went out with our payments to four months late, which was the first time in the history of the company that we’d been late with 20th payments, and it happened on my watch and I’ll always regret that. But it happened in a matter of months, it reversed like that. We sort of screwed everything down really tight; most of our suppliers stood by us, interestingly – very well; there was only four that stopped credit in that time; all the rest of us kept going. We had to put off some staff; we cut everything down; we stopped going to Papua New Guinea; I didn’t draw a salary for fifteen months … nothing at all; and cut all my own spending down at that point. The only thing I bought in that fifteen months in clothes was two shirts that I bought at a sale. [Chuckles] Not a very pleasant experience, I can tell you that. [Chuckles]
However, we gradually came out of it and started to get going again. Then we got a request to go back into Papua New Guinea from a couple of the architects, which I did, to a good reception at that stage. And they were building that LNG gas plant that is now in operation. They spent $19 billion over four years … $19 billion US dollars … over four years developing the plant; and that’s $13 million a day if you work it out, so you can imagine what that would do in a small country like Papua New Guinea – just wound the whole economy up so it was going.
And we didn’t do a lot of work directly for the gas plant, certainly for a lot of the other projects that benefitted from that. We supplied the hardware on some dormitory blocks for the University of Goroka which is up in the highlands – only a small town the size of Havelock or less – but it serviced a wide area and a lot of students. And they put up four seven-storey buildings and we supplied the hardware for that; there was nearly three quarters of a million dollars worth of hardware went into those. In those buildings we put three hundred door closers, like the hydraulic door closers on the top of a door; there was three hundred door closers went into those buildings.
And then more recently, for the South Pacific Games we supplied two large grandstands and an aquatic centre. Again it was well over half a million dollars worth of hardware in those projects. The aquatic centre had a full-size Olympic swimming pool and six basketball courts all under one roof, so pretty hefty buildings in those sort[s] of countries. They spent a lot of money in there, which made me a bit nervous in the end.
After that the market slowed a bit, and the Chinese were coming into there, which is another aspect of those sorts of markets. And while some of their buildings were really rough … really rough … they were accepted because they were so much cheaper, and once that’s happening our market was starting to fizzle a bit. A good example of what was happening was a building client in Lae, on the other side of the main island. I know they were very short of work, and they put a price in for a job of 15million kina – kina is about two for one New Zealand dollars – and the job was awarded to a Chinese company for 5 million kina. That’s very disruptive. They’ll eventually pay for it of course in maintenance and those sorts of things but … I had the feeling they overspent on the games, ‘cause they really spent big money, so we gradually pulled out towards the end of 2015. I kept going in the business saying to my nephew Kim, “While there’s a market in PNG I’ll keep servicing it; but once that’s had it I think I’m all over.” So that was about the end of it.
They were pretty hard trips up there; I’d do nine or ten flights in twelve or thirteen days, stay in seven or eight different hotel rooms, do roughly thirty-five business calls – I count the calls where you actually talk business, not the ones where you go there and the fellow’s not there when he said he would be; or when you phone them ten times to make the appointment and all the rest of it. One trip I kept a record of the time I spent sitting in airports, and it was seventeen and a half hours in those ten or twelve days. So, as well as market slowing, and I was getting older, we gave that up; so we pulled out of Papua New Guinea, but we still go to Fiji – one of the younger boys does Fiji, and we still do quite well there.
If we go back to the early 1990s after the 1987 crash, Hastings was slow and sad as you all know. The works closed or slowed; Wattie’s head office shifted out; factories such as Morrison closed. They were all clients of ours in those days. There were no good houses being built with no executive people being employed here, so there was no market for our hardware. Our market had just gone, it was as simple as that – when you sat down and looked at it, it wasn’t there. On top of that, the market for hand tools was starting to go as well. So with aluminium joinery coming in, which is made in the factory with machines, instead of … lot of it being made by hand and fitted by hand; trusses were getting nailed together in the factory instead of being hand-sawn and hand-nailed and all the rest of it. Nails were put in with a pneumatic gun instead of a hammer, and it was pretty obvious that things were changing, so there wasn’t anything like the market for our hand tools. At that point we started to think about it; we were struggling to make a profit, and we decided that it was all over.
Emotionally it was only reasonably hard, though it was not very encouraging, so it wasn’t that hard emotionally; financially it was pretty easy. It was quite obvious what to do, and that was close it down. So we closed the retail shop and just quietly kept going from the back store into Eastbourne Street where we are now, with our good quality architectural hardware and the Rayburn cookers at that point, and just into AGAs too, at that stage. So that’s all we had; we went down from staff of twenty-two down to five, and hung on. [Quiet chuckle] And that’s what we did for two years. And at one stage we discussed it at management level and said … after two years we said, “I think another year of this and we’re all over.” So it was as close as that. But we gradually started to pick up again and the market started to go. We started to get a bit more progress, and so we’re still there.
We opened our Auckland showroom in 1999 in Manukau Road. We shifted it to Teed Street – that was Kim’s doing to some degree, and at that point he was keen to change it. We had our hardware and our stoves in one operation in Manukau Road. We shifted into two separate shops in Teed Street, but now we’ve gone just round the corner into Morrow Street and back together in a bigger showroom, and I think that’s a good move – it’s established it. We opened in Queenstown in 2012 – that is a market for our high-quality hardware and high-quality stoves, and it’s starting to go pretty well.
Okay, so the question in all that is, “What made us successful?” We were very strict on our own importing … very strict. We’d buy as little as we possibly could at a wholesale level within the country; we weren’t good markets for the wholesalers that would call on us, and we would really sit it out very hard before we bought at that level, so there were no internal freight costs when we did that. We had buyers in England who would assemble our shipments and combine the shipments into one shipment. We’d save costs on bills of lading, and freight and all those sorts of things; so we got product out as economically as we could. But we did have to carry larger stocks, so we tended to buy once a year on that scene. [A] few little items we’d buy every two years even, and just carry the stock for that period. But it meant that we had the product; we had it at a reasonable rate. We did to some degree get a wholesale and a retail markup on them, which we needed to hold the stock for that period of time. But it worked. The accountants were always onto us about stock turns ‘cause they were low, but we argued pretty hard that it worked, and I think it did work. We would do things like … we’d buy spades and forks and get them packed in a four-hundred-gallon square galvanised tank, which we could sell to the farmers once we got it here. So we would get our packaging and our freight cost back, so we’d get those products out economically. And one of those tanks would hold four hundred spades or forks; and that was the sort of figures we bought quite regularly in that scene.
Buying was critical. Buying was critical – [a] matter of not just buying the cheapest, but buying what was good product and good value. I think that was an important part of it.
We watched the markets pretty carefully – I used to go to the Chicago Hardware Fair every two or three years; think I went about six or seven times. It was a massive fair. And I’d go there, and of course by the time you bought the airfare to go to America in those days, it was just as cheap to go round the world, so I’d go to England and go to our suppliers at the same time, and just keep up to date with them; keep in contact with them; look through the factory. And I’d say to them, “I’ve not come for a free lunch; I want to have a look at what’s happening; how you’re making things and what’s happening.” You know, if I could get a quality control fellow to show us around it would be much better than a salesman in those situations. So we learnt how things were made and what made them good, and what made them different or better.
But it’s interesting – all the good factories were totally strict on quality; you wouldn’t think you’d ever get a faulty product from them. We did, for all sorts of reasons, but when you see their testing and their checking and the quality in the things they did – you wouldn’t think you would but you could see how they got a reputation. One of the examples I use there – one of the factories I went to was Thermos factory in England. They had three electric motors that stood about that high; [demonstrates] in series it would pump for two minutes on a vacuum refill to get the air out of it. As a comparison you could say, “Well, why can’t a competitor get two electric motors and pump for one minute?” And when you buy that product, you don’t know until you’ve used it, or you compare it. But that’s a common theme – those people would stick to their quality whatever happened. And that was a useful lesson as far as we were concerned, but also good knowledge, to know how those things are made when somebody comes to you and says, “We’ve got a faulty product”, or something, you can see … you have some idea of whether it was genuine or not. But more importantly, when you’ve got new products you could look at it and say, “Well I think that quality’s okay, or it’s not.” I’ll come to a little story about that in a minute. But we’ve done things like cut those hydraulic door closers in half to have a look and see what’s inside them, so we know when we sell that product, that it’s good.
So Chicago Hardware Fair was interest[ing] – we didn’t pick up a lot of lines there; we did pick up two or three quite good lines, and things as simple as little screw hooks and screw eyes; and straining eyes that were manufactured out of wire, and that sort of stuff. Most of the merchants in the country went to China, and we went to America and we got a wider range and better products, and not that much more expensive when you get to the right fellows. But it was certainly better product.
The other thing was that we looked for quality, not gimmicks. You could go to those shows and look for the gimmicks for short term sort of quick sales. We went looking for quality; better products; agencies of our own that was worth putting some time and effort into marketing them – all those sorts of things were relevant to us.
At one point, Atlas Industries that made shovels and rakes and hoes and things in New Zealand and were protected by import licence, failed; they’ve come back again later on, but they went clean out, and so there was nobody supplying those. Most of the merchants went to China again; we went to America again and bought True Temper products from there. Some items were too dear for our market but most items were good, and again it was better quality product.
I think in making us successful, it’s a clear ability to assess what we were buying. If we go back in history, my grandfather … when stainless steel cutlery was first introduced, he took a knife home and stuck it in a lemon overnight to see what would happen. [Chuckles] So the old steel cutlery at that stage would’ve rusted or corroded completely; stainless was okay.
But the really good story that I must’ve told a thousand times – and it happened before I started, to my father – was when Japan was coming into the market, and they were just starting to make things, and copying things and all the rest of it. A rep [representative] came round to my father with a pair of pliers that looked just like Crescent pliers … Crescent Tool Company that made Crescent wrenches and all the rest of it. We used to sell quite a few of those to the Power Board, and the electricians and all those sorts of people. And they looked just like them – blue handles and polished up head, and all the rest of it. And my father … in his early days when they had the Jersey cattle and they had to milk the cows by hand, so he had big strong hands … he whipped down and got a three inch nail, and … crunch! The handles broke. [Laughter] But that’s not the point in the story; the main point is that that rep said, “I’ve been all round the country, and you’re my second to last call. What am I going to do?” If you knew my father, you’d know very easily he would say, “I don’t care, but we don’t want them.” [Laughter] But no – they’d bought those products purely on appearance. And you can walk into the big box retailers now and see products that are … not as dramatic as that, that’s for sure, but that sort of attitude of buying and not evaluating things.
So that’s one of the other things that helped us, and we had a reputation: ‘If Bones didn’t have it you couldn’t get it; and if you got it at Bones it would be good.’ Now we didn’t promote those quotes; those are customers’ quotes, and we didn’t promote those ‘cause it was pretty hard to be perfect on that sort of quote; but it was a very common comment that we got from there. And it was built up with that sort of setup.
One of the interesting decisions I made on one of those trips – I was stood in Piccadilly Circus one day, right opposite Fortnum & Mason. And it was at the time when the supermarkets were just starting to get going; everybody said the local grocery stores have had it, and all the rest of it. And there was an old-fashioned grocery store with all the staff in morning suits, Rolls Royces parked round the outside of it, and going flat out. And I thought, ‘That’s us! That’s us … forget about your opposition; you look after your loyal customers; you get your products right, and you keep going on that.’ I pushed that pretty hard to everybody when I came back, and that was probably one of the best decisions I made in running the business.
Another little story that’s more interesting is at one paint in my grandfather’s earlier days one of the local lawyers came in and said to him, “You look worried – what’s the problem?” “One of the big stations hasn’t paid their account, and we’re going to miss our 20ths.” “How much do you need? I’ll lend you that money.” And it was lent without any interest, without any legal work or anything else; and when it came to pay it … “No, just pay it back, and that’s it.” I’m not sure what the conversation was to get it, but in the end … he must’ve said, “I could use a good pen knife.” So F L took him down to the bay and said, you know, “Pick out a pen knife.” When he picked it out, he said, “Now if you ever lose it, we’ll replace it.” [Chuckles] I think it was about two or three years after he’d died, this lawyer came into my father and said, “I’ve got a funny little story to tell you.” My father said, “I know – you’ve lost your pen knife.” [Laughter] And I thought that’s … it’s sort of part of the tradition and strength of a family business, I think. And I think the traditions of three generations that was my scene – four generations for Kim – I couldn’t put it in black and white terms, but it’s almost the things you don’t do than the things you do do in that situation; there’s a tradition and an expectation of how you operate that just sort of carries on and works pretty well for us. I think the earthquake story earlier on, with the building being built at two o’clock in the afternoon is all part of deciding and getting on with it, sort of scene.
That’s my main notes – I can go on a little bit, but … probably going to run out of time. Shall I just mention rowing briefly?
I was a mug sportsman at school. [Chuckle] My brother, Dave, was a good rugby player, and of course he played for Hawke’s Bay under Kelvin Tremain in the Ranfurly Shield era. I was no good at rugby – they didn’t want me in the lowest teams. [Chuckles] But I took an interest in rowing when I was about nineteen or twenty, which is quite late these days. And I got into it, and the first couple of years I was always going to give up, but I never did. And I rowed for fifteen years and took it pretty seriously, as Joyce said. I got three seconds in the National Champs, [Championships] and at one stage, very close. Over eight years I had five thirds and three seconds, so I was always in amongst it, and I actually, for the fifteen years that I rowed and went to championships, I was always in the final of the New Zealand Championship level race. Six boat races in those days; I was never last, and never first. [Chuckles]
But in amongst that scene, in my early days we had import licence for dinghy rowing oars, ‘cause they weren’t made in New Zealand, we used to import them from America in those times. And one year we had [a] licence that we weren’t going to use, and I thought, ‘I’ll buy myself a good pair of sculls’, thinking that’d make me go faster [chuckle] which is not the case of course. And I made some enquiries, and someone said the best ones in the world are made by Pocock in Seattle. So I rattled round and got the address; I don’t know how I got his name to start with now, but I got that, and I bought a pair of sculls. I thought I was going to get two pair with the licence, and I only got one pair. And I hadn’t given the spread … the width of your swivels … and they were a bit short, so I wrote to him; and in the end we put a little pack on the end to make them long enough. But I had a contact with him.
And then shortly after that I went to a regatta in Hamilton, and at the end of the regatta the sculls were on the bank, and somebody said, “What sort of sculls are those?” And I said, “Pocock.” “Oh, he was here today.” And I thought, ‘Ohhh, gee’ … [Chuckles] And he had developed a relationship with Bill Stevenson; Sir William Stevenson, that developed Lochinver Station on the Taupo Road … W A Stevenson. He was a champion sculler himself, and had managed the rowing previous to the Vancouver Commonwealth Games, or Empire Games they were at that point. And one of their boats got stuck on a ship in Honolulu and wasn’t going to arrive in time, and he’d borrowed a boat from Pocock, so that was the beginning of it. I won’t go into a lot of detail ‘cause it [be]comes a long story, but after that regatta in Hamilton I rang him at night and talked to him. And then about a week later at work I got a phone call, and he was travelling back to America from the Perth … I think they were Empire Games too, there … on a freighter, like the freighters used to carry twelve passengers. Well they came into Napier. [Chuckles] And he came out and had a meal with us, and he was there for about ten days; and he came and gave me coaching and all that sort of stuff, and I obviously got to know him pretty well. In 1965 I stayed with him in Seattle, and I bought a boat from him eventually; in fact I bought two boats from him. The first one we decided at one stage was a bit small for me, and I sold it on, and it’s been wrecked, which is a shame. The second one is the one I’ve still got – and there’s the photos of it over there – and that I still use. Work of art; absolute work of art. If you’ve read ‘The Boys in the Boat’ … he was a superb craftsman – artist, really. He was rated as the best boat builder in the world, and I think he’s still being rated the best boat builder in the world. The boats have all gone to fibreglass, all that sort of thing now, which is a shame because some of the character and artistry of rowing has gone with them. I walked into his workshop one day, and there was eight eights stacked up, four on each side, and the same quality as my single. It was like an art gallery … it was just like an art gallery.
But he was extremely knowledgeable on rowing; he helped me a lot, inspired me too, and that sort of thing. There’s all those little quotes in ‘The Boys in the Boat’ at the beginning of each chapter which are very relevant in rowing, and they’ve got deeper meaning still. But a very great guy – he influenced my life, I think, as simple as that, in the way he operated and the help he gave me. Two little quotes that aren’t in those books – the guys poke it back at me at the Rowing club ‘cause I quote them a fair bit – but he said, “Don’t let self-pity enter in; pain is good for the soul”. [Chuckles] And I used to put a little notice on my footrest sometimes when I was doing, say, five hundred sprints, and it would be amazing how much harder you could go when you really thought about that. Self-pity just slows you down. And the other one he said: “A man can be a pygmy or a giant.” And that’s a pretty good quote too.
Okay, I think I’ve worn out my welcome …
Joyce: Resilience, Tony. I mean as many of you know from your own family histories, to keep a family history [business] going three and four generations is often unheard of. But any questions? You see, it’s been such a full talk, Tony …
Question: Did your brother not keep involved in the firm? The rugby player?
Tony: Yes, he started a year after me and did fifteen years, and then when we bought the farm he took over the farm and ran that.
Joyce: Your staff were fantastic; I called in to meet them, and they were great. So you’re still training them up very well. I want another round of applause … [applause] Thank you very much.
Tony: Thank you.
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Format of the originalAudio recording
Landmarks talk 13 June 2017