THE DUTCH CONNECTION
Will Franssen, the Godfather
This year marks the 350th anniversary of Abel Tasman’s sighting of New Zealand, with nationwide celebrations, including the visit to New Zealand by Queen Beatrix of Netherlands this month.
As part of the commemorative activities, Business to Business is running a series of articles profiling Hawke’s Bay business people of Dutch descent. The Dutch Connection.
They call Will Franssen The Godfather. In the nice sense of the word. He’s not too sure how his nick-name came about. “Maybe they thought I was bossy,” he laughs.
But there is no doubting the now retired businessman from Holland has made his mark on the Hawke’s Bay (and indeed national) business scene.
Will Franssen arrived in New Zealand in September 1951, spending his first three days in one of Wellington’s leading hotels. He recalls in vivid detail – down to the soup he could not even eat – the meal he received on the first night. “And I thought if it goes like this here there must be a fortune to be made in the food business in New Zealand.”
Finding his way to Hastings, he asked to be taken to the best meal Hastings could offer: It was 8pm, and the obliging taxi driver took Will to a fish and chip shop complete with Christmas decorations from the previous year, rather dubious hygiene, and a meal of bacon and eggs with free bread.
“And again I thought, there must be a fortune to be made in the food business here.”
Will secured a job in the house bar at the Pacific Hotel where they had never heard of cold beer. It was here that he decided to move into his own business as soon as the opportunity arose – which it did in the form of the Windmill Coffee Shop opposite the Hastings Hospital. He had to buy his coffee from Wellington and roast it himself. Business did not go so well initially, he recalls. “People were not used to coffee.”
Not to be beaten, Will staged an exhibition of paintings at the Windmill which attracted the customers and was the catalyst for a very successful operation.
A certain Ron Trotter, the then accountant for the Hawke’s Bay Farmers Co-operative Company Ltd and a frequenter of the Windmill, one night asked Will if he would be interested in taking over the Hawke’s Bay Farmers tearooms. Will said yes, and bought the business in conjunction with his partner from the Windmill. It was an instant success.
“In no time at all we had the monopoly in Hawke’s Bay for catering. We catered for the Queen, and the Queen Mother, and practically everybody.”
It was not unknown for the business to cater for up to six weddings on one Saturday, with customers coming from as far afield as Waverley.
Leopard Breweries Ltd, then an entirely Hastings-based company, decided to build the Mayfair Hotel – the first in New Zealand with air conditioning and carpets in the public bar – and Will was asked to run it. It opened on March 10, 1960.
Will immediately opened the dining room until 10 or 11 pm at night – he had had enough of the 6pm – 7pm dining tradition. He ran a first-class operation, and the Mayfair soon developed a national reputation. Every Governor General visiting Hawke’s Bay stayed there. Mail addressed simply to “Aunty Beat’s Lager Bar, New Zealand” (Aunty Beat being one of the barmaids) always reached its destination.
Between 1960 and 1964 Will was also managing the Royal Oak Hotel in Wellington.
Will stayed at the Mayfair until 1980, the year of the death of his wife, Gerda Pons, the opera singer. He retired but remained a strong and generous supporter of the Hastings community.
Will says he has no regrets about coming to live in New Zealand. “I couldn’t live in Holland any more. I’ve been back and was so disappointed. Everyone was in much of a hurry.”
– Jenny Stairmand, Staff Writer
Photo caption – Above: Will Franssen pictured at his Hastings home with his great dane, Harlequin