LV Martin: setting service before sales

By Merv Robertson April 12, 2011 Retail Icon

There aren’t many retailers in the appliance channel that are still operating three quarters of a century on. This issue Merv Robertson tells the story of iconic retail brand LV Martin & Son.

To view a PDF of the complete feature as it appeared in Wares magazine, click the download button at the bottom of this page.

“If it’s not right, we’ll put it right and it’s the putting right that counts!” That’s the statement made famous by the late great Alan Martin, one of the appliance industry’s most charismatic and respected retailers. LV Martin & Son is for sure, one of our most iconic retail brands, but it didn’t start with Alan.

Leo Vincent Martin was a Nelsonian who moved to Dunedin when he left school to train as a piano tuner. This skill, along with a high degree of business acumen eventually saw him appointed Branch Manager for the Bristol Piano Company in Hamilton. He moved from there to Wellington, taking over the stock of the firm when it closed its Wellington operation.

In fact, Leoopened his first store at 228 Lambton Quay in August 1934. Initially a music shop it wasn’t long before the business was selling and servicing radios. Leowas Wellington’s first Philips dealer starting out with light bulbs but adding radios soon after.

When war broke out in 1939, Leobought up every reasonable second hand piano he could find and, through the terrible war years, managed to hold his own. Those pianos, along with service work, sheet music and records (remember them?), enabled the business to survive during a period when radios & appliances were just about unprocurable.

Towards the end of the war in 1944, Leorelocated to larger premises just four doors up the street at 236 Lambton Quay – the Gresham Hotel building (see above). From the outset, he set in stone a philosophy that endured through the years: “LV Martin is a company operating as specialists, providing back-up service for the products we sell.”

He was proud of the fact that many customers became friends. He would tell them: “If you’re not happy, bring it back.” He carried his own Hire Purchase and was one of the first in the industry to offer a 12-month guarantee, with same day service.

Leo Vincent Martin died on the very eve of his 90th birthday but just three years earlier he was quoted in an interview, saying: “Service before sales has always been my motto.”

 

SAME NAME, DIFFERENT STROKES

Alan Martin was just three years old when father Leoopened his shop and at age 18 he started a radio-servicing apprenticeship before joining his dad’s business. Over the next 10 years Alan Martin developed remarkable retail skills and grew frustrated at his father’s reluctance to take on board the ideas he came up with – such as a wider variety of stock, more stock, a new approach, marketing.

Eventually his father got sick of it and suggested that if he wasn’t happy then he should clear out and do his own thing. Alan stomped out of the shop and did just that. In those days Courtenay Place was not considered an ideal retail location but he found an available shop at number 45 and secured it by using the £5,000 he and his wife, Shirley, had saved to buy a house…

I caught up with Shirley Martin recently and asked her how she reacted to the news that the new house was on hold. “I had married Alan in April 1954 and by August we were looking forward to buying a house. Then, one Friday, just after lunch, he called me from a phone box in Courtenay Place and told me what he had done.

“I was stunned! I was pregnant so was I happy? No, I certainly was not! However, I had learned to know that whatever Alan set out to do, it had a wonderful future, so I lived with it and never had cause for regret. He was always so strong in looking forward.”

And so it happened. Alan Martin opened that Courtenay Place shop in 1954. Originally in opposition to his father, although later they would advertise jointly. Alan sold radios and appliances, trading as LV Martin & Son after his father generously offered the use of the name.

So now there were two shops in competition with each other but trading with the same name. Included in Alan Martin’s portfolio was a PSIS discount mail order catalogue, but he became uncomfortable offering people discounts just because they were members of an organisation. So he withdrew but not before he had become adept in mail order himself.

Still, servicing the merchandise they sold became a real focus for both Martins and in 1956 Alan opened a dedicated service department in Tory Street, separate from the shops.

In 1958 Leo called it quits and retired, aged 62. Alan moved back to Lambton Quay and appointed a manager to look after Courtenay Place. A united LV Martin & Son was about to take off.

 

ABOUT MAKING PERSONAL PROMISES

Alan Martin developed a unique format for his press advertising. It was scoffed at by competitors and doubted by suppliers but worked a treat. LV Martin’s full page newspaper ads had not a single product photo in sight, just small line drawings of the items advertised and one of Alan.

Almost two thirds of an entire column was devoted to Alan Martin’s personal promises. The rest of the space was packed with information about the products and the various payment options. Did the ads work? They sure did – even after his retirement, the format was retained with the only change being the face at the top.

An integral part of these ads was the Alan Martin statement, “It’s the putting right that counts”. This was reinforced by his promise to make himself personally available, to “put it right” if necessary. He even published his home phone number!

The publication of the home telephone number inevitably meant that Shirley got involved. She recalls an example: “It was in the early 1960s when we took a call at home one evening, from a young mother with young twins. Her washing machine had broken down. In those days we didn’t have enough technicians and Alan was doing a lot of servicing himself.

“Alan was beside himself as he simply couldn’t attend to it. The poor woman was distraught so I went over the next morning, picked up her washing and did it at our place, delivering it back the same afternoon.” This exercise was repeated for other customers from time to time over the next 10 years or so…

Black & white television came to Wellington in 1961. Again, Shirley Martin remembers. “Television came to dominate people’s lives and the world came to an end if the TV broke down. But, Alan had promised to ‘put it right’ and if he wasn’t home when the call came in, I would hop into the car and deliver a little portable set on loan.

“The kids helped with this once they had driving licences. As a family, we just had to help fulfil Alan’s personal promise.”

 

TELEVISION AND NEW PREMISES

In 1963, TVNZ started broadcasting commercials. The following year, Alan Martin decided that television was a perfect vehicle to support his now famous press advertisements and he stepped right out of the square by deciding to front them himself.

Alan arrived home one evening, loudly dumping his briefcase on the floor – a sure sign to Shirley that he had been to visit his parents and that some sort of disagreement had taken place. “I asked him what was up. He had dropped into his parent’s place to tell them he was going on TV. His mother said ‘Do you think that’s the right thing to do?’ Alan said ‘No, I don’t think it is, and that’s why I’m doing it.’ Leo thought it was a bad idea but Alan went ahead anyway.”

Misgivings apart, the “It’s the putting right that counts” TV commercials were brilliantly successful and certainly took the business to new levels. Alan’s persona was that of a man who genuinely cared about the satisfaction of his customers, which of course, he did.

In 1963, steady growth saw a new branch in Porirua, followed in 1973 by another in Lower Hutt. The Lambton Quay store had its third home in February 1975 when it moved to Pastoral House.

Shirley Martin: “Lambton Quay was described as the ‘Golden Mile’ of Wellington shopping and 236 was a beautiful building. I was very sad to see the place go, because that was where his father was. The decision to demolish was understandable though. You could actually see light between the bricks so it just had to be pulled down.”

The Giant Paints factory occupied a high profile site near the bottom of Ngauranga Gorge and in 1978 LV Martin & Son bought it and converted it into a large distribution and service complex. In October the following year a retail showroom opened on the premises with specialised whiteware and brown goods departments, along with a comprehensive range of small and portable appliances.

THE “THREE LIEUTENANTS”

Alan’s son, Neil Martin, joined in 1979 and developed what was to become a highly successful nationwide mail order business, also operating out of Ngauranga. By the early 1980s, he, along with Alvin Relph (General Manager) and Trevor Douthett (Finance Director) had formed a close-knit management team, affectionately known from the outside as Alan Martin’s three “trusty lieutenants”.

Relph joined in 1968 as an accountant and departed in 1990, having left an indelible mark on the business. He is still involved in importing and distribution, as well as property investment and management in Wellington.

Neil Martin left in 2002 and has spent the last several years in Europe, working on some major high rise property developments in Gibraltar. He is currently contemplating his next move whilst enjoying life in Arrowtown. Trevor Douthett commenced in an accounting role and remains at LV Martin as Chief Executive.

Douthett recalls two other staff members who both contributed mightily for more than 25 years and who were widely known and respected throughout the entire industry. John Lammerton started his career at LV Martin in December 1978 as a salesman at the Lambton Quay store. He finished in December 2006, by which time he was General Manager Retail. He then went to the Harvey Norman group, becoming a proprietor at Norman Ross in Lower Hutt and is now living in the Hawkes Bay and working part time for 100% Duckworths Appliances.

The second major LV Martin contributor, Pat Cortese, started as a serviceman then moved into sales before managing the Lambton Quay branch for many years. His last few years were spent as Divisional Manager for mail order. In 2002 he branched out on his own account and is now MD of Kizan Marketing, an importing / wholesaling / product development company. 

In 1990 Alan Martin retired from full time day to day involvement, aged 64, and Neil Martin, the third generation, became the face of LV Martin & Son, both on TV and in the print media. He and Trevor Douthett, who came on board in 1977, became joint Chief Executives.

 

MAIL ORDER AND MALLS

Mall shopping grew rapidly from the early 1970s. In November 1969, Coastlands Shopping Centre had opened in Paraparaumu but it wasn’t until 1996 that LV Martin made the move to set up shop there. The new branch was a large format store and, although it was not located in the covered mall, it was adjacent to it along with other large format shops.

As the new millennium approached, it was decided that, with the growing presence of off-shore-based retailers with huge stores and matching product offerings, LV Martin needed a truly “destination” superstore to compete.

So, for several months in the year 2000, the Ngauranga retail site led a double life. By day it was business as usual but at night the stock was moved out of the way as tradesmen completely transformed the store. In August 2000, this wonderful retail facility was re-launched and is still amongst the finest in the land.

The mail order catalogue and direct marketing business had flourished – TV infomercials fronted by Neil were a critical marketing tool. However, in a major TVNZ restructure, infomercials were excised from TV1.

The heart of LV Martin’s direct marketing was ripped out at a stroke, so in February 2002 this part of the business was sold. Neil Martin had stepped aside as Joint Chief Executive in order to manage the sale and once the process was completed he left the company to pursue his own interests, leaving Trevor Douthett as CEO.

In December 2004 a branch was opened in the Porirua MegaCentre and the next month LV Martin finally said goodbye to Lambton Quay and relocated the city store to Willis Street, right in the centre of Wellington’s CBD.

With Alan Martin’s health failing, the Martin family sold its shareholding in November 2004. Christchurch-based Smiths City purchased 80% while Trevor Douthett took the remaining 20% and stayed on as CEO. Smiths subsequently took a 100% holding.

 

SHARING KNOWLEDGE AROUND

Alan Martin was a remarkable man. He could be a ruthless businessman but, above all, he was a team player. He was The Boss, sure, but a boss who went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that staff were happy and felt productive. He would ask if they were happy, how happy and what would make them even happier?

He shared information on the company’s performance with all staff on a regular basis, with suppliers as well to be fair. All this information went out as in-depth monthly newsletters. Alan realised that they could be dry reading at times and had Harry Williamsone of his long-time employees from the early years – lighten them up with cartoons. Williams worked in the Lambton Quay shop and was an acclaimed cartoonist, winning several international awards under his pen name Nig Nog.

Alan Martin set very high standards for customer service, first and foremost for himself, but also for everyone who worked in his company. He had firm expectations of everyone, from senior managers to salespeople; from branch managers to delivery personnel; from admin to servicing.

To ensure he attracted quality people, LV Martin’s recruitment ads told a story; they stood out in the crowd. After initial interviews a shortlist was established and he put these final applicants through a series of appraisals (psychometric tests in today-speak). Once he fully understood how these tests worked, he dispensed with expensive consultants and ran them in-house. 

 

REMEMBERING WHERE YOU’RE FROM

Alan Douglas Martin (ONZOM) died in Wellington on 30 May 2007. Trevor Douthett remembers: “For his time, Alan was light years ahead of the pack. He was an absolute visionary. His focus was clearly on achieving the very best results for people, not only his customers but also the team around him. He had an absolute understanding of the type, the calibre of people he needed to do every job to make the business succeed; selling, servicing, delivering, admin, whatever. He had a holistic view of how to do that.

“It was testament to the esteem with which he was held, that there was a huge turn-out at his funeral. Almost like a staff reunion of those who had worked for LV Martin & Son over the decades.”

Douthett remains at the helm of LV Martin today and apart from the Ngauranga flagship store, branches are located on Adelaide Road in Wellington City, at the Coastlands Shopping Centre in Paraparaumu and in the Harvey Norman Centre in Lower Hutt.

LV Martin today is a vibrant, modern appliance & electronics retail organisation, but it gives more than a nod to its origins and founders: “We live by Alan’s original statement that ‘It’s the putting right that counts’. We do everything in our power to do it right first time, but we know that in life things can go wrong. I want to make it clear that if they do, we are absolutely committed to putting it right.

“Alan’s whole philosophy on customer service, teamwork, the company’s responsibilities to suppliers and customers alike, the issues of staff selection. These are still as strongly held in the business as they were so many years ago.”



THE “UNKNOWN” LV MARTIN...

There are some aspects of LV Martin & Son which are not widely known. There was a bed shop for a time, situated beside the main store in Ngauranga Gorge (above). This opened in the mid-1980s and closed in 2002.

LV Martin also imported gold jewellery for a number of years. The man responsible for this activity was Mike Sheering, a fully qualified jeweller. This was part of Shirleen Enterprises, a subsidiary named after Shirley Martin.

Once this activity was up and running, Alan Martin encouraged Sheering to go out on his own. He did and 25 years later the business is still going strong.

LV Martin also went far into left field to manufacture and sell Go Karts (LV Martin Karts) and in fact some staff members actually raced these things. Actually this all started as an export incentive opportunity from within the management team. Neil Martin then ran it from Napier. The enterprise opened in 1978 and closed about seven years later.

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