Hard to keep up with the Joneses
First it was a one-man business. Then Mr Matthew Johnston’s [Johnson’s] daughter fell in love with a young Welshman, Jim Jones. Jim eventually took over from his father-in-law. So began the Jones dynasty and Bon Marche, the second in our series of old Hastings family businesses that have survived the good days and the bad.
By MARION MORRIS
Staff reporter, Hastings
Ninety-five-year-old Bon Marche stared out its life as Johnsons. phone 111, Hastings.
Matthew Johnson, a former deputy mayor, owned and ran the business until the middle 1920s when he became ill and appointed a manager.
Johnsons became Bon Marche, although no one knows the reason, and Bon Marche it has remained.
Matthew Johnson had two daughters, Hineparu [Hinepare] and Hinemanu. They were so named because the elders of the Ngati Hinepare and Ngati Hinemanu tribes requested it of their friend and counsellor, Matthew.
Meanwhile, a family of five Jones boys had arrived from Wales.
One of them Jim Jones was travelling for Ross and Glendenning around the East Coast. He called at Johnsons and the “personable young man” was invited by Matthew to have dinner with him at home.
He met Manu, romance blossomed and they were married.
Matthew Johnson now had a son-in-law to take over his business.
That happened in 1929 when Matthew died.
Bon Marche’s most difficult years were to follow. First the Depression, then the 1931 earthquake and finally a move from its Centrepoint site to its present site in 1936.
Meanwhile as the business grew so too did Jim’s family. Four sons were born – the Jones Boys of Bon Marche today.
Stuart was the first of the sons to join the firm for a few months in 1942 and when he returned in 1945 from the war.
The eldest son Ross, entered the firm in 1947 after completing a master of science degree at Victoria University.
Richard, the youngest son came straight from high school in 1951 and Bryce, a chartered accountant, joined in 1953.
Most people in Hastings, indeed in Hawke’s Bay, would have shopped in the family firm or known of the existence of the Jones boys.
They have continued to do business in much the same way as their father did with emphasis on “bon marche” (good value).
There have been changes, of course, over the years but the firm has stuck to its middle-of-the-road image. Another tradition that has not changed is customers can handle and inspect the goods they buy.
“It’s been our style to be careful not to modernise too much. You can’t live in the past but you can be careful of making changes,” said Bryce Jones.
A change the firm did make after some years of holding out against a prevailing trend was to open on Saturday mornings.
A family affiliation with the Seventh-day Adventist Church was managements’ reason for remaining closed on Saturday.
A favourite family story concerns Mr William “Herb” Blackmore, a well known mens’ wear retailer, who came into Bon March one day to see his friend Jim.
Mr Blackmore looked round the shop. In those days there were boots hanging from the ceiling, hats were dotted among fashionwear and work clothes among the bed linen.
“Jim,” said Mr Blackmore, “this place is like a brothel. Why don’t you tidy it up and have it looking like my shop?”
Jim replied: “If I had it looking like your shop I’d only sell as much as you do.”
They have always felt themselves to be retailers with a responsibility to their customers. Job-lot buying with other firms like H. and J. Smith, Invercargill; James Smith, Wellington, and Mrs Pope, Christchurch, meant quality goods could be offered at good prices.
Like their early advertising said “Aeroplane value – submarine prices.”
Bryce remembers many of his father’s words. Words which he has since realised were wise.
‘Walk the floor’
‘He came in to us one morning about 10 o’clock as we were all sitting in the office and said to us ‘Get out on the floor. That’s how you succeed in the retail business, on the floor. If you shut yourselves away in an office you don’t hear what the customers are saying’.
” ‘It’s vital you keep in touch with your customers. As well your presence helps to ensure that the rest of the staff looks after the customers’. ”
Bryce said it was nice knowing so many customers over the years. A Mrs Helen Nankervis reminded him one day that six generations of her family had been regular shoppers at Bon Marche.
Bryce who has handled the firm’s publicity over the years has contributed greatly to the image of Bon Marche.
Imaginative themes, innovative staff and customer participation during sale times have always been a feature of Bon Marche.
Fed sales crowd
In 1961 the Jones boys served Wattie’s tomato soup during the winter sale.
They used to put on special buses and bring people from Napier to the sales. The Ministry of Transport would be called in. Huge crowds went to Bon Marche sales.
There was the Latin Look sale, when staff dressed in Latin-American frills and sombreros.
There was the time when the male staff made a break for men’s liberation during a hot Hawke’s Bay summer and donned walk shorts. The year was 1964 – well before shorts were standard dress.
One of the promotions which captured the public’s imagination was Bon Marche’s splash-down sale at the time of the Apollo moon landing in 1969.
A photo was published showing the four Jones boys with the space craft soon after splash down.
It was, of course, a mock-up done at the Herald-Tribune, but at Bon Marche the phone was red-hot with callers wanting to know where they had had the picture taken with the replica.
It was in 1961 too that Bon Marche opened a branch in Napier.
Bryce’s most recent brainchild, Bon Marche’s Clothing Down sale, raised eyebrows as the publicity was mis-read. The sale was the firm’s best ever.
Half-a-million dollars passed over the counters during the sale.
“We were amazed how well it went in the present economic climate,” he said.
Again Bryce puts the success of this latest sale down to maintaining his father’s principles.
“A lot of people don’t expect to get looked after at a sale. We expect our staff to make a sale atmosphere a happy one and to offer as much help and service to customers as always.”
The Hastings Blossom Festival years were good times at Bon Marche.
“In those days all the retailers in the block participated. There was fun in the street. Times have changed.
“Now we have to work so much harder to make a profit. We spend a lot of time planning.
“In my father’s day every morning at about 9.45am he would go off to the Farmers tearooms for morning tea with other retailers and come back into the shop about an hour later. The same would happen in the afternoon.
“Now we seldom spend more than 15 minutes with our morning coffee which we have in our office and we spend the whole time talking business.
Too many shops
“One of the reasons it’s harder for businesses to make money these days is that most cities are grossly over supplied with shops.”
The Jones boys, ever aware of a need to maintain a high profile in the retailing world, also believed in taking a share of the responsibility.
Richard, the youngest of the Jones boys, was elected president of the New Zealand Retailers Federation in 1968. He was 35 and the youngest president ever.
His services have since been recognised with life membership in both the provincial and national organisations.
Stuart, too, found doors opened to him throughout New Zealand because of his golfing prowess.
Thirty years plus of working together has been pretty trouble-free for the Jones boys.
Kept three rules
Right at the start of their business dealings they made three rules which Bryce says have helped to keep things happy.
1. – Because money is always a problem we resolved that we would all take exactly the same money out of the business.
2. – Each person would have his own area of responsibility and there would no overlapping.
3. – No one’s wife would become involved in the business.
But all good things come to an end and the original Jones quartet has broken up. Stuart retired five years ago.
Bryce has retired – for the second time. Four years ago he sold his interest in the firm and since he has worked for a wage.
That too has finished.
Richard’s son Simon has taken over from Bryce – there are now three Jones boys.
Next week: A family business that produces the town’s upper crust.
Photo captions –
In 1985, management of Bon Marche honoured the living ex-staff member of the firm, Mabel McCormick, who is now in her 101st year. She was given a framed photograph of the firm’s founder, Matthew Johnson, for whom she worked. From left: Bryce Jones, Richard Jones, Miss McCormick, Stuart Jones and Ross Jones.
The firm’s founder Matthew Johnson, who opened for business in 1895 in premises on the Whitcoulls site.
It’s 1931. An earthquake ravages Hawke’s Bay. There’s only one thing that businessmen can do … pick up the pieces and start again.
The Apollo touchdown advertisement showing the Jones boys as successful astronauts was typical of the up-to-minute fun the firm took in its dealing with the public.