Tell us a bit about your early life & influences..
Starting life in Dewsbury Lane, Sydenham became a favourite family joke. This was not because of the location. When Ben was at Kindergarten he wanted to see where Dad lived when he was little. I don’t remember visiting the property again before that day, but the family home had become a Car Wreckers Yard. So at show & tell at Kindy the next day Ben proudly announced his Dad had lived at a Car Wreckers.
From Sydenham, Mum & Dad moved the family to Ilam Road and I went to Fendalton Primary School. It was very modern with detached classrooms hence was called an Open Air School – hence ‘FOS’. It became famous for schooling the Hadlee brothers and several All Blacks. My 10 years of primary school weren’t much academically productive. After school though, the Hadlee home cricket nets were an example of something much more exciting.
My father went to 13 primary schools as his Stepdad was a Postmaster and in those days they were moved from town to town. He had to leave school at 14. Perhaps this gave him his ardent desire to have his four boys ‘properly’ educated. At this stage the family home moved from Ilam Road to Whitewash Head Road in Sumner. This caused significant turmoil. Mother & my eldest Brother Ron were not impressed as Sumner was much further away from the city (it seemed like that in those days anyway). I can’t say the hour and a half bus ride to Christchurch Boys’ High School each day then the 20 minute walk from the Head Street terminus up Whitewash Head wasn’t what I would have chosen but the chance of joining Cornwell Sea Cadets in Redcliffs was a memorable period in my early life. The many weekends at Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour sealed my love of the sea and boats. Of more importance the weekly military drill culture made me realise (maybe forced rather than made!) that being organised, having structure and commitment to tasks & perseverance were important traits to develop.
The second family story my children like is about my Boys’ High enrolment exam. Brother Ian managed apparently with little effort to secure the third form (Year 9) class of 3D. The class structure was 3A1, 3A2 and so on down to 3D. Dad made it fairly clear he expected better results from me. For several decades Dad met with 6 of his mates on Friday nights at the Oxford by the Avon River on Colombo St. Having two kids start in the lowest class at Boys’ High wasn’t something he wanted to have to announce. I was duly placed in the ‘bottom’ class which that year was actually 3C2 instead of 3D. I didn’t quite know how to tell Dad so just told him 3C2. To my surprise he was very pleased, I got a ‘very well done’ and a warm hand shake. Of course he hadn’t realised there was no 3D class that year, so we left it at that!
After managing to scrape through School Certificate (Yr11) my sporting inclination must have moderated or perhaps my academic side had matured a little as I was accredited University Entrance. Indoor Basketball, Rugby and Athletics training after school during the year meant the wait in the Square for my connecting bus to Sumner could be an hour. I did enjoy that wait as there was always so much going on at that time of the day to watch, fast cars, the odd police chase and the Vance Vivian shop to visit. And by the time I walked the haul up the hill it was at least 6 or 7pm and Mum had dinner ready which was always nice.
On leaving High School Dad’s kindly message was that he saw me more sporty than academic and suggested a Trade might suit. Boy’s at that age don’t like much being told what to do and I told him I was going to get a Degree. Canterbury University was in the throes of moving to the new Ilam Campus by the late ’60’s. My first couple of years were at the City Campus which is now the Arts Centre of Christchurch.
Frankly, at University I followed the subjects I passed. Pure Mathematics wasn’t one of them. As I passed Psychology, Pure Maths 1 became a mandatory subject for stage 2 due to the statistics component. After 3 failed attempts, thank goodness a new Mathematics course called Core Maths was introduced as an alternative. I passed with a B+! So, Economics and Psychology were my forte, a bit of a strange mix but subjects I enjoyed. At the end of stage 3 Economics I just couldn’t understand the theory we had been learning so I boldly asked Professor Brownlee if he could give me some tuition. The appointment was made, I arrived and his first question was ‘Huston do you intend to move onto Masters’. I laughed and said no Sir I am going to get a job. Good he replied, then he told me what to study and said he would pass me if my exam attempt was reasonable.
As my failed mathematics attempts meant 4 years rather than 3 for my degree, I did Psychology 3 in the final year so got what they called a double degree – two majors. Penny, our first gifted child was also born as I was finishing my degree.
What are your best memories from the ’60s?
Water skiing was already quite a passion for us boys, we skied at Lake Ellesmere most summer weekends. The club had a slalom course, a jump and usually smooth morning water – great for barefoot skiing. The lake also had black leaches which liked the warmth under a wetsuit. Picking them off the legs and lower torso on the homeward journey was the norm. My athletic bent was convenient as I won several junior slalom and jump events.
Our family Christmas holiday spot at Kaiteriteri was revered. Kaiteriteri in those days meant waterskiing daily in the coastal lagoons (long since prohibited), parties at night and life long friendships. After one Christmas holiday, we had a get together of the Kaiteriteri crew in Christchurch. I didn’t have a girl friend at the time and this came up in a conversation with my best friend’s sister. She suggested I go on a blind date with her hairdresser. That happened and here we are 53 years later. Ask anyone who knows Fay and I believe their description would be ; organised, positive, and pragmatic – and a lover of style!. When we met Fay already owned her own Hair Salon and drove a new Mini Cooper. I was impressed. There have been ups and downs, more in fact than anyone else we know. Three gifted children (as we boast) and 10 grandchildren, surviving life threatening illnesses and accidents, travel to many parts of the world, significant treks, ski and bike tours and a national championship! The downs of radiation, chemo, air accident and rescue helicopter flights I guess have made us stronger and hopefully better people.
Where did your working life start?
My father was quite proud that his youngest, less academic son had graduated along with two of his older brothers. He was a working man, self-educated, widely read and loved poetry. He would have embraced the opportunity to follow some of his passions through higher education. Nevertheless he was proud of being able to give his sons a good education and was interested in my future plans. He was worried when I said I wanted to be a Salesman, as he didn’t think that was a job befitting a University Graduate. I had all sorts of part time jobs while at University including a Barman at the Marine Hotel in Sumner. When I asked Lennie Barr (the leasee) if I could shout for my birthday, he was a little upset when he found out it was my 21st and he had been employing and underage barman for the previous 3 years. The Sunday night Cabaret at the Marine was something else. Alcohol was not sold on Sunday back then unless it was a function, people clambered to get a table, especially the American Antarctic Force Crew based at Harewood. Getting back to the rental on the Esplanade at 2 or 3 am and emptying my pockets of tips on the bed for Fay to count was always quite thrilling. 20 to 30 pounds in tips was not unusual for one of these Sundays. The Americans were paid in US dollars so our funny money meant little to them. I worked on the Rubbish Cart for several holidays, running to pick up metal rubbish bins and heaving the contents into the cart. No plastic bins and automated lifting arms then. For 3 seasons I stacked wheat and barley at Fleming’s Flour Mill which is where Christchurch Girls’ High now stands – a book could be written about the all the goings on there (stories of rats the size of cats!).
Maybe strangely, the job I enjoyed most was being a door to door Encyclopedia Salesman. It must have conjured my desire to sell. It taught me to keep ones mouth shut after the initial spiel then ask for the order, something I find many salespeople can’t do. The chap who trained us taught me something I had never considered – ‘Customers suffer from self consciousness like you do’. If a person wants something, the finality of saying yes is often difficult for them. Asking for the order can make decision making simpler for them. The old suspicion that salespeople could con one into things they don’t want is fanciful. Salesmanship is about winning a sale over a competitor, the customer has already decided to buy. I found I enjoyed the process and was driven by the thrill of the deal. Having Encyclopedias in those days was like having the internet.
By this time, Dad had reconciled himself to my idea of going into a Sales Role. He was a pretty savvy chap really – his upbringing must have made him worldly. His advice was ‘if that’s what you want, get a sales job with a big international company and learn the ropes’. He realized like education, whatever one did learning and understanding was the key to success.
What events led you to start BDL?
IBM was the largest company I knew of & were hiring so I applied. The local manager called me for a second interview and told me straight up that I was the person he wanted. There was only one more necessity, every IBM employee worldwide had to pass the IBM test – you will fly through he said. Well I failed! He was nice enough to ask me in again and said some very nice things and apologised that he couldn’t hire me.
Well life goes on. Next I saw a local family company, E L Wyles were advertising for a National Sales Manager. They were the New Zealand agent for Olympia typewriters and Staedtler pens and pencils. Given it wasn’t the International Company Dad advised, I decided to apply for interview experience. Lo and behold I was offered the job at the interview. There was an interesting culture at this business, the father and his two son’s did not see eye to eye. I travelled around the country to each Olympia distributor, the DC3 was still flying minor routes with Viscounts on the main routes. Olympia was the third largest typewriter in the country all to be demolished by the new king, the IBM golf ball. My time was short at Wyles but what I did learn was that I needed proper sales experience.
The next chance was with 3M (The Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company), the American multi-national. I saw a job advertised in the newspaper (as jobs were then) in what they called their Visual Division, Thermofax Copiers, Overhead Projectors and supplies . The local manager was from the Netherlands who I got along well with in the interview. After a second interview with the Auckland Manager, they offered me the job and I resigned from Wyles. Offices and schools used the products and thousands were sold. The job provided a car, my first company car, a Falcon station wagon. It wasn’t new and its motor came off its engine mounts taking off at the lights one morning, but I still loved that car.
John was a very good boss and it came about that he wanted to start his own business. After a successful year at 3M he asked me if I would join him to start up a business as a 3M distributor, along with another chap from Auckland and Barry (also from Christchurch) who headed the Scotch Tape Division. The idea was we would have Visuals and Scotch Tape. We approached Frank Leary, the Head of 3M New Zealand in Auckland, who supported the idea as 3M needed a Visual distributor in Wellington. So that’s where we started.
That was our challenge. I went to Millar the Manager of the BNZ in Christchurch with our business plan. His office is still in my mind, a lavish affair, dark wood paneled walls, plush carpets with domed leather chairs, a private PA and all. He listened, smiled then told us he knew 3M as his brother was a manger of 3M in Canada. The business funding we requested was approved then he offered home mortgages as well! This dumbfounded me as the general view about banks back then was that you couldn’t get loans. Off to Wellington I went to start Business Products NZ Ltd. Fay stayed in Christchurch with Penny as she was pregnant with Megan (our second gifted child). I commuted to Wellington working weekdays & sleeping on the couch at my brother Reece’s flat in Newtown. He was a qualified accountant and had a good job at Databank. I would fly home on Fridays & back up to Wellington again on Mondays. We decided it was time to move the family up to the Capital and found a nice house in Linden. When I went to the local manager to arrange the mortgage Mr Miller had made available, the local manger would not approve it as he didn’t think I had enough security (which was quite right!). In the end Mr Millar smoothed that one over and all was settled. I guess he had decided with 3M products we would have to try very hard to fail.
Business Products did well, but the age difference between the directors meant issues arose. As time went by perspectives grew apart. I proposed I move back to Christchurch and start the Christchurch Branch to make the company Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. This worked well for a while but in truth we were running our own businesses under the guise of one name. The opportunity came 1973 for me to start my own Company and I named it Business Distributors Limited (BDL). Business Products continued for several years until John decided to return to Holland.
What were the highlight and challenges of starting a business in the 1970’s?
‘Licensing’ was a Government policy at the time where they issued a license to import product which meant you could import only the product on the license and only up to the value of the license. So no license – no import. For license holders this was a passport to make money as it was anti-competitive! The Government introduced licensing as overseas funds were limited, but as a business model it was doomed because it stifled competition and removed enthusiasm.
My eldest brother Ron ran the family Electroplating business at the time (think of the long gone chrome plated bumper bars on cars), after an accident they had to be mended then electroplated to restore the chrome shine. Other articles like switch gear contacts and nuts and bolts were also electroplated with other metals to stop them rusting. Preparation of the surface to be plated was a key part of the process to ensure the plating would adhere properly. Sanding belts were the norm on larger items & my brother Ron said if I could source a better quality of sandpaper he would buy it.
Challenges are part of me and he had laid one down. I wrote & called on the Ministers office in Wellington on many occasions to apply for a sandpaper license. It took around 3 years but we were eventually awarded a license for a substantial sum. As I now had the license I had to find a good supplier. 3M was one of the worlds largest manufacturers of sandpaper. I hadn’t worked in that division for 3M but knew about 3M sandpaper. They had license so I needed another brand. How? With no internet to find suppliers I went to the Public library and got product reference manuals, found several addresses of sandpaper manufacturers and wrote to them. I had almost given up hope when the phone rang. Hi, Jim here, you wrote to Switzerland about buying sandpaper. He was Swiss Industrial Abrasives (SIA) Australian manager. He visited New Zealand soon after and appointed BDL as the New Zealand agent for SIA. That started a 35 year relationship, through 4 Australian managers and BDL became SIA’s largest buyer of sandpaper on a country per capita basis.
My job at 3M introduced me to the Photocopier industry. Toshiba in those days was distributed in New Zealand by Hanimex, the photographic importer. They wanted more distribution and I wanted a Copier that was economical and could produce multiple prints. Toshiba manufactured several electrostatic copiers that fitted the bill. Xerox had the only plain paper copier then but it was very large and expensive. Our customers wanted small simple machines and plain paper wasn’t an issue. They accepted the coated paper called electrostatic. Toshiba introduced their first plain paper copier in the late 1970’s.
Who would you describe as a mentor & why?
Fay and I met Colin Jones at the Hannover Messe – the world’s largest electronic IT Exhibition Fair at the time. We visited it annually for many years to talk to industry people, get ideas and look for new products. Colin was on a small stand at the rear of one of the minor pavilions. Fay was not keen to talk to him as he did look like a bit of a gangster – he was an older man in a crimplene suit and had a patch over one eye.
He was showing the Franklin electronic spell checker (this was the days before spell check was a thing!). He happened to be visiting Australia the following month & he agreed to come and see us in NZ – under his conditions, which were..
- Get a fax machine (obviously emails didn’t exist, mobile phones were not in general use & fax was just becoming the communication method).
- The LA flight arrives in Auckland at 6.30am, you meet me and have a shower arranged.
- You make our first appointment for 8.30am.
- We work all day.
We sold the Franklin range into Bookshops, Electronics Retailers, Hardware Stores, Schools & more. We sold many thousands for a number of years. Spell Checkers, the Thesaurus and Word finder where just letters were entered were the most popular models. The word finder listed words that included the letters entered so helped with crosswords.
Colin visited for around 5 years and over his visits I got to learn much about his life. He would never tell me, I had to ask.
It turned out he was a director of IBM during the antitrust years and related to me how IBM sold DOS to the fledging Bill Gates believing that he could do nothing with it. They would buy it back once the antitrust litigation died away. Colin was a World War 2 B-24 Liberator pilot at 18 and had survived two bailouts when German fighters shot them up. One was early morning returning to England over the English channel. He bailed and landed in the water thinking, well that’s my life over. When floating gathering his parachute, as practiced in training, his feet touched something – it was the bottom! He had landed near a beach, looking all around and saw a tiny light in the distance. Paddling towards it he saw a chap on a bike coming down the road to the beach. The man helped him up the beach telling him in broken English that the Germans were coming, they had seen his parachute. He took a pen and note pad out of his pocket and asked Colin to write down his address and he would contact his family. As the German’s loaded Colin on their truck the chap took a photo of him and sent it to his Mother! Colin was a prisoner of war for 18 months and reckoned he was the only American to have been photographed while being taken prisoner. He had landed near a beach in Texel an island off the Netherlands.
He had also survived 2 plane crashes after the war, one where he lost an eye and had his jaw badly smashed – hence the eye patch and dribble.
The stories he told me and advice he gave, at my request, were both fascinating and wise.
IBM in Colin’s time had a policy that staff were not allowed to take time off on a week day. The story went that three directors were playing golf on a Friday. They came across a very pleasant young chap who was playing by himself. He was asked to join them to make a foursome. During conversation the young fellow proudly announced he was an IBM salesman. The directors didn’t say anything but looked at each other in disapproval. On Monday at the directors meeting one announced that he wanted young Bill Smith fired as he was playing golf on Friday. The MD agreed that sort of behaviour should be made an example of but let’s get his file first. The complaining director said why, if he is playing golf in work hours he’ll be worthless anyway. The MD agreed but, let’s look at his file first. The director got a bit upset, if his file shows any promise I’ll eat my hat he bellowed. The MD’s secretary got the file and gave it to the MD. He looked at it for a few seconds then turned to the director and said, you had better go get your hat!
To my question about how to select staff, Colin told me he was given the job of working out how to find the perfect salesman. The board voted him a million dollars for the task as they knew it would need a team, much research and would be such valuable information that the money would be worth it. Colin giggled a bit and here’s the lesson; spending money given is easy, getting a result isn’t. The money was spent, a plan that worked was not found but, they did find out that some managers had excellent performing and long serving sales teams. The finding, a good manager is the key.
The only thing Colin ever asked me directly was to take him to Queenstown. He wanted to bungy jump and kayak. Whenever I asked him home for a meal his answer was, thank you, but wives prefer to have a break and eat out, that’s the sort of knowing he had. We were building a new house one year and I asked him would he like to visit it. He was most impressed, his comment being, my goodness sales will be good this year!
More instalments to follow….
Below – a calculator from the ’70s, an Overhead Projector & the iconic Olympia SG3 Typewriter!