Ellery’s: making the most of the West Coast

By Merv Robertson February 14, 2012 Retail Icon

This issue’s iconic retailer embodies many of the qualities of New Zealand’s rugged West Coast and its people that we have come to know and love. Merv Robertson tells the story of Ellery’s Appliances.

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

Hands up those, especially North Islanders, who have travelled overseas but have never visited the West Coast of the South Island, right here at home. This is a stunning part of the planet!

The Coast was originally called Te Tai O Poutini and early Maori traded Pounamu (greenstone or jade). Of course once the Europeans came along, the region prospered from gold, coal and timber. It’s one of the longest strips of land in New Zealand, over 500km with mountains to the east and the sea to the west.

Coasters have been described as strong and pioneering, as rugged as the landscape. In 2006, just 31,326 people lived on the West Coast and you can bet that any census count will include a fair share by the name of Ellery.

This is not a travelogue so we will leave you to Google “West Coast NZ” and see for yourself just what a spectacular place it is. This yarn is about a business that started way back in 1947, a business we know today as 100% Ellery’s.

 

GREYMOUTH BORN & BRED

Alan Ellery (from now we’ll call him Barney because everyone else did) was born in Greymouth in 1911 and grew up as West Coast as they come. Lake and Mount Ellery in South Westland were named after his grandfather, who explored the region on behalf of the National Geographic Society back in the 1870s.

Barney had a mate with a plumbing business in the town and, while this mate was serving in World War 2, Barney ran the show for him, having suffered a fractured spine which prevented him from serving as well. In 1947 he decided to have a crack on his own and set himself up as a plumber, working out of his garage in Karoro, a south west suburb of Greymouth.

Barney’s son, Neil Ellery, was working in the local branch of the National Bank after leaving school and in 1957 was asked to transfer away. Neil was madly in love at the time, courting it was called back then, and didn’t want to go. After some discussion, he joined the business and A Ellery & Son was born. They added sheet metal work and roofing to complement the plumbing.

“To get the expanded business off the ground, we needed cash and we had none,” says Neil. “A chap across the road had always said that if I ever needed a money to get started in business he would lend it to me so I paid him a visit. ‘Follow me’ he said. He led me down a corridor and half way down was a floor to ceiling wardrobe, 12-foot stud by the way so it was a big wardrobe.

“When he opened the door a flood of bank notes spilled completely across the passage and he invited me to help myself. I took £600 [$27,298.36 today, using the Reserve Bank cumulative inflation calculator] and he never checked it. Within six months we paid back the loan in full. Turned out the guy was a bookie and couldn’t declare his money so he stashed it in the wardrobe.

“Not long before this, my dad bought his first refrigerator and I remember he told me the price, more than £100 [$4,550]; that was three months’ wages for the average worker. A decent size fridge-freezer these days can be bought for under $600, which is only a week or two’s wages for even low income earners.”

 

1960s: MOVING INTO TOWN, APPLIANCES

By 1960, Barney’s back injury prevented him from plumbing so he concentrated on the sheet metal work. Another son, Brian Ellery, joined up. Brian was a registered electrician so electrical contracting became the third arm of the business and, when Keith Honey and Bob Boote came on board, there were five people working out of the garage.

A Ellery & Son was now A Ellery & Sons. Keith Honey is still there as a foreman after more than 50 years’ service and Bob Boote is not long retired, having also given 50 years.

By then, as you can imagine, the garage was way too small and in 1965 Ellery’s “came into town”, taking over premises previously occupied by W Greenhill & Co at 151 Mackay Street, Greymouth. The business flourished and a year later they expanded into the building next door, formerly home to Westland Refrigeration, from whom they purchased the Frigidaire franchise in 1967.

At this point also, A Ellery & Sons started out in home appliance retailing with Neil’s wife, Judith Ellery, acting as credit controller, a position she held until the mid-1980s.

Although black & white TV transmissions started in 1960 for Auckland, it was 1968 before the signal in Greymouth was good enough, by means of translators, to really excite the locals. Neil remembers well: “We started out with AWA and added Autocrat and La Gloria soon after.

“I recall that Brian had gone to Australia on holiday just before our first day selling TV. Well, we were run off our feet and I had sold 23 AWA sets before lunch. The standard 23-inch consolette was £123, but the ADA [Appliance Dealer Association] had just started, probably the first dealer organised group, and we had an exclusive ‘special’ called President at £119 [$5,414]. Goodness me, now we can sell 32-inch flat screens for under $600!

“Back then, the population of Greymouth was only 10,000, yet there were 21 outlets selling TV sets – department stores, stock and station suppliers, appliance specialists and a few others. We reckoned we consistently had a 60% share, largely because we had our own service department.

“After a year or so we got Pye. Ken Thomas was our rep. Ken would always come and say, ‘Do you believe in the hereafter?’ and of course we would have to say ‘yes’, knowing that his next line was, ‘Well that’s good because hereafter I will get an order.’ A very affable chap was Ken and he helped us a lot.”

1970s: MORTGAGED TO THE HILT

1968 saw a signal shift towards becoming a bigger scale operation. Ashby Bergh was a Christchurch-based wholesale & retail ironmonger and hardware business with a branch in Greymouth. When it closed, Lane Walker Rudkin leased the place with plans to shift to purpose built premises elsewhere in town. This happened in late 1968 and the Ellerys bought the two-storey Ashby Bergh building, mortgaging everything they could lay their hands on to do so, and completely renovating the building from top to bottom.

By now 20 people were working for the company, even though the plumbing side had been discontinued. The electrical business had its entrance in Mackay Street, as did the retail showroom, while roofing fronted Mawhera Quay. Big plans were afoot to expand the roofing activity and fully fledged refrigeration and TV servicing departments were added to the electrical contracting.

Ellery’s is still in this building today, with retail trading as 100% Ellery’s. The roofing division and electrical contracting arm also remain with roofing accounting for about a third of the company’s total turnover.

This major relocation saw the local newspaper, the Greymouth Evening Star, run a feature on the company – editorial, ads and supplier funded advertising. One of the latter featured AWA, then a major player in brown goods. In the feature radiogram retail prices range from $130 for the spindly legged Operetta [$2,009 today], to the top-of-the-range Crescendo at $440 [$6,799]. By this time Ellery’s was doing big business with Champion stoves and auto washers and Bruce Irving, a Champion rep based in Christchurch, was instrumental in the growth of the brand on the Coast.

Neil Ellery describes the arrival of colour TV in 1973 as “A big change in our lives, one of the biggest game changers we have ever had. The excitement was massive. Not long before colour came on we finally succeeded in getting Philips, thanks to its South Island manager, Dave Hewitt. And thank goodness we did, because the Philips K9 was one of the most sought after products in our history, maybe the most sought after. Most brands were on allocation but many customers would go on a long waiting list to get a K9 rather than buy another brand.”

As an aside, your author became National Sales Manager for Philips in 1981; soon after, demand for colour TV took off again and we were back on allocation! By this time the late Gordon Flint was my South Island Area Manager and from time to time he would call me to say that on a certain Air New Zealand flight there was a parcel for me. Often it was a kilo of West Coast whitebait, secured from – wouldn’t you know it? – Neil Ellery. I’m sure I never succumbed to such blatant bribes…

 

1980s: FRIGIDAIRE TO FISHER & PAYKEL

Back to the Ellery’s story… Although Frigidaire was a very good brand name, a major quality problem with the Jetamatic auto washer caused retailers all over the country great grief in that they were extremely unstable, leaping all over the laundry. Neil Ellery describes them as “A nightmare to service.”

But Frigidaire led to F&P: “Fisher & Paykel took over Frigidaire around 1982-83, as I recall. And, because of all that trouble with Jetamatic, we fought really hard to get the full Fisher & Paykel franchise. Tony Haack was the local rep and Bill Pellett called on us for Shacklock. Both these gentlemen backed us to the hilt and finally the transition to F&P went very smoothly. We had Kelvinator refrigeration and Whiteway laundry.”

Neil Ellery pauses here to reflect on Maurice Paykel and his concern for, and interest in, the F&P dealer network. “Maurice was a director at a saw mill in Ross, a little town just outside Hokitika and he was in Ross bi-monthly for board meetings. I was in Auckland for an F&P conference shortly after we were appointed and he came up to me to say that he had just been down there and after dinner had taken a taxi ride up to Greymouth to look at our shop. He said he had peered in the window and complimented me on how good the shop looked. He had taxied 67km each way just to take a look at a new dealer in a small town! I thought that was amazing, a mark of the man.”

The share market crash of 1987 brought anguish across the world and of course little old West Coast was not immune. However, it also proved to be an expansion opportunity for Ellery’s. Neil takes up the story: “The Kelvinator Centre in Hokitika was owned by Bruce Smith, who was a local personality. With the crash having such a dramatic effect on the whole economy, we negotiated to buy all the stock, opening our new Ellery’s shop on Wednesday 2 September with my elder son, Tony Ellery, as manager.” Tony had joined the company as a salesman in 1986.

Another example of how much prices have plummeted from those days can be seen in the opening advertising, a National 650W microwave oven as an opening special – $699 [$1,355 today], save $136 [$263]. These days an 1100W equivalent is under $200…

 

1988: HERE COME THE FLOODS

Neil’s younger son, Clark Ellery, joined the family business in 1982 as an apprentice electrician and recalls two calamitous events in Greymouth which are still etched in his memory today. “In 1988 we had two ‘100-year’ floods inside five months. The first flood inundated the town in May when the Grey River burst its banks. Our showroom and workshop both had water swirling through and of course the whole town was flooded. Carpets were lifted, equipment stripped and dried and in just over four months we were back to normal.”

But then a second flood hit in September, just two weeks after the new carpet had been laid. Clark continues: “This was a biggie! We had over a metre of filthy water rushing through the place. Stock was floating around all over the shop and Neil, myself and two staff members were trapped inside for around six hours.

“Our main concern was that the surging water would cause the front windows to blow out. If that happened we would see our stock go floating down the river, so Neil and I periodically had to open and close the door to relieve the pressure on the windows, whilst making sure our invoice stock books and merchandise did not escape outside. Eventually we were rescued by a local jet boat operator in the early evening after spending over six hours in waist-deep water. It was a long day!”

“Resilience” is a word often associated with people who come through crises and it was certainly required after the flood. Greymouth was coated with a foot of dirty, smelly silt and the clean-up was a total community effort. Ellery’s re-opened for business just 2½ days later, albeit in atrocious conditions, thanks to the tremendous support of all staff members.

In 1990, a secure flood wall, referred to locally as “The Great Wall of Greymouth” was completed. This protects the town from the whims of the mighty Grey River and provides tourists with a pleasant walk as they take in the sights.

 

1990s: AIMING TO BE WEST COAST-WIDE

A more widespread hurdle for businesses around New Zealand came in the early 1990s with the “credit squeeze” or the “Savings & Loans Crisis” as it was more formally known. Lending institutions moved into new areas of business and made unwise loans. Sound familiar?

Neil Ellery has vivid memories of this traumatic time: “There was an ad in the paper saying that Crown Finance had money available for retailers to increase their stock holding at low interest rates so we went in and borrowed $100,000 [$158,945] for stock. A month later we received a letter from Crown giving us a week to repay the money we had just borrowed. We panicked a bit and that made us have our first ever appliance sale. We met the deadline but it was pretty scary stuff.”

But, come August 1996, it was time to expand once more. Greenwood’s Appliances in Westport was owned by the Greenwood and Dellaca families, trading as Greenwood’s Retravision with Murray Anderson as Manager. Ellery’s bought the popular Retravision outlet and renamed it as Ellery’s Home Appliance Centre. Murray and his staff would stay on.

Clark Ellery said at the time that the acquisition was designed to strengthen Ellery’s position on the Coast and all three stores would be part of New Zealand’s largest appliance buying group, Fapay, which back then was purported to be as big as Farmers, Smiths City and Noel Leeming combined, in terms of consumer appliances and electronics. Murray Anderson stayed on until 2007, replaced by local Justine Sampson, who was in the position for three years. David Fielding is now the Manager at Westport.

As Clark Ellery says: “The Westport project meant that we became a truly West Coast-wide company and significantly grew our business.”

 

2000s: FROM BROWN GOODS INTO “TECHNOLOGY”

Into the new millennium and the next really major event for the company came about in 2002 when Neil retired and the business was bought by sons Tony and Clark and daughter, Adele. These days Tony manages Hokitika, Clark has Greymouth, Anne Ellery, Tony’s wife, looks after group administration and Adele is credit controller.

Ellery’s has invested heavily in technology to enhance the internal infrastructure and retail sales. Vodafone is a huge part of the activity, computers are big and new technology in general has taken the whole business to a new level. This ongoing technological evolution has meant that all concerned have had to upskill themselves considerably in order to provide customers with knowledge and service befitting today’s discerning clientele. “Solution selling” and “connectivity” are the new buzz words.

I wondered how this new era of technology had enhanced Ellery’s and its approach to retail. Clark Ellery: “It has really given us the ability to become a fun shop for the younger generation to come into. For an independent it would be easy to remain a ‘Ma & Pa’ store full of boring white boxes, but that would be a recipe for disaster.

“We will never forget our roots -– laundry, refrigeration, cookware etc – but with so much technology right across the board now, we are catering for an incredibly diverse customer base of all ages and interests. We also basically gut our shops and re-fit them approximately every five years so they are always bright, modern and vibrant.”

No doubt about it, Ellery’s is a genuine West Coast icon. Plumbing started it all; sheet metal and roofing enhanced the business; electrical contracting led into retail; and now 100% Ellery’s is an outstanding performer in the consumer appliance & electronics industry.

No story about the West Coast would be complete without mention of the Pike River Mine tragedy of 19 November 2010 in which 29 miners lost their lives. Everyone knows everyone in Greymouth. The victims and their families were and are customers, relatives, mates and fellow proud Coasters to the directors of 100% Ellery’s.

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