Forlongs: Still growing, like any family

By Merv Robertson June 12, 2012 Retail Icon

Our latest Retail Icon is Forlongs of Frankton, Hamilton. This unique family-owned & run retailer is 66 years young in August. Merv Robertson reports.

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

Forlongs of Frankton! Back in the day that was a positioning statement in its own right and nothing much has changed, except that this mighty company, still registered as Forlongs Furnishings Ltd, simply trades as Forlongs. It is probably the largest privately owned retail organisation in New Zealand and it all started some 66 years ago.

The Forlongs were a farming family based in the tiny Waikato town of Kiwitahi, Waterworks Road to be exact, just out of Morrinsville. Ralph and Evelyn Forlong had two farms, the Top Farm, which was sheep, and the Bottom Farm for cattle. Son Neville was the dairy man while his brother Ivan worked the sheep.

In 1946, Ralph and Evelyn decided to make the move into the bright lights of Hamilton and the boys were given the choice of staying on the farm or moving to town with mum and dad. 17 year-old Ivan chose to move and the sheep farm was sold, but Neville stayed put.

It seems odd that a farmer would suddenly uproot home and start a furnishing business, but the inspiration came in fact from Ralph’s brother, Malcolm Forlong, who had a successful shop in Taumaranui, called Forlongs Furnishings. This was more profitable than the sheep farm, so Ralph decided to try the retail game too.

The family took over Newby Bros, a furniture store in the Hamilton suburb of Frankton. The date was 15 August 1946, the shop was just 278m2 and the staff numbered five: Ralph; Evelyn; and Ivan; plus the previous owner; Frank Newby; with Anita Zanovich in the office. 


The 1940s: Tough beginnings

During the company’s 50th jubilee in 1996, Ivan Forlong recalled it was “Pretty tough at the beginning”. The shop started with a sales target of £40 a day ($3,103 now, according to the Reserve Bank inflation calculator). Rent was £8 per week ($621) and wages ranged from £3 ($233) a week to £10 ($776) for a manager. Forlongs also secured a motor vehicle auctioneer’s licence and for a short time auctioned cars on the street outside the shop to supplement its retail income.

The Forlongs knew absolutely nothing about furniture & furnishings but Frank Newby had decades of experience and was happy to train the new owners. In 1948 they hired Frank Terry, a transport contractor from Horotiu (a suburb between Frankton & Ngaruawahia), as a delivery resource and Frank’s 16 year-old daughter Beryl (now Beryl Joli, in her 80s) often drove the delivery men on their rounds.

Ralph Forlong paid for a canopy to be built over the tray of Frank’s truck, both to keep the weather off stock and so they could use the sides for advertising. A year or two later, Forlongs purchased its own new Chevrolet truck, painting it fire engine red, the company colour back then. It was the talk of the town.

It turns out Forlong patriarch Ralph had a bent for wheeling and dealing and loved it! He would buy in used furniture and auction it off, thriving on the cut and thrust, whereas son Ivan didn’t relish this sort of thing at all and brought in new furniture at the first possible opportunity.

Ivan’s role during the first couple of years was predominantly as delivery man. He made free home deliveries using the family car – a 1939 Ford and a trailer. Banking was done daily in Hamilton, on a push bike.

But things would improve in the decade following World War 2, when Frankton was a thriving town with an emphasis on railways and farming. The local stockyards were always busy and a stock sale was a real event – the locals saw a stock sale as an opportunity to celebrate and a good reason to make a trip into town and this of course was greatly helpful to the fledgling business known as R Forlong & Son.


The 1950s & 60s: Tornados and tellies

Around two years after Forlongs opened, a terrible tornado swept through Frankton, wrecking 150 homes, 50 businesses and taking the lives of three people. The suburb’s repair and clean-up bill was around £1 million or $80 million today, but the shop, although stock was damaged and the site inundated with debris, reopened after two days of frenzied cleaning.

Shortly afterwards, the first ever Forlongs sale was held under the banner of “Tornado Sale”. Whilst the tornado was a tragic event, the big sale brought widespread public awareness for Forlongs and in the early 1950s the search was on for bigger premises. This resulted in a move to the other side of Commerce Street and this location is still central to the business today.

With more space (nearly 500m2!), the store’s product range expanded and business took off. Ivan himself developed as an ideas man and was brimming with great ideas for expansion. But, not being able to implement them, he eventually decided to leave, only to be brought back into the fold at the last minute by Ralph who had opened a shop in Huntly and made Ivan Branch Manager. Huntly however never really got going and after four years it was closed. So Ivan moved back to Commerce Street, this time with additional responsibilities.

When black & white television first hit the Waikato in 1961, Terry Forlong, son of Ivan, was a 13 year-old schoolboy and TV, which clearly was going to be in big demand, was attached to the lounge department (no appliance department at this time!).

Ivan remembers: “We never had a TV at home until maybe 1964 and most nights I would get home from school, do my homework and cycle down to the shop to join dozens of others watching through the window and listening to the sound from a speaker mounted outside until about 9.30pm. I was transfixed.”

In those days Forlongs stocked brands such as Pye, Autocrat, Bell and La Gloria (but not Philips, of which more anon). One of the very first TV sales made was to a Mr and Mrs Stephens and 20 years later, Mrs Stephens would return and trade that set in on a brand new colour TV, which was personally delivered by Ivan and Terry.


The 1970s: About the broader “family”

The Forlongs story isn’t just about the family. John Morgan for example: he was a character! “Mad if you don’t” and “Little short of delightful” were his two trade-mark sayings, especially over a drink or two. Ivan Forlong often referred to John as his “right hand man” relating to the fact that it was Morgan who was tasked by Forlong to establish a full blown appliance department in 1972, with the prospect of colour TV launching in 18 months’ time.

John Morgan had started with the company in 1971 as a hardware salesman but very quickly established himself as something special in sales. TV had been a runaway success and it was logical that whiteware, heating, audio and a comprehensive range of small appliances were added to promote a complete kitchen, laundry and home entertainment package.

Prestcold was the first whiteware brand, sourced from McAlpines and this new, dynamic appliance department quickly gained momentum to rate as one of the best in the Waikato. John Morgan had drive, personality to burn and an extraordinarily sharp sales instinct. His time with Forlongs ended after another stint back in hardware in the late 1970s.

Kevin Akroyd joined Forlongs after the appliance department had become well established, having been recruited as a salesman by John Morgan over a beer in the famous Hamilton Cosmopolitan Club. He would later succeed Morgan as Appliance Manager.

Shortly before that, Howard Forlong had come into the department before moving to furniture when his brother Terry came in from the farm. Akroyd recalls that some of their most popular promotions in the late 1970s featured Selwyn Toogood in conjunction with Ultimate.

By 1976, it became obvious that, in the best interests of both Forlongs and Fisher & Paykel, the two institutions should do business. So, about two years later, the deal was done and it was on to a full Fisher & Paykel franchise. Back then it was Leonard refrigeration and Washrite laundry, before changing to Kelvinator and Whiteway and of course today, it’s the Fisher & Paykel brand which still dominates Forlongs’ whiteware business.


The 1980s: Enter the next generation

On leaving school, Ivan’s son, Terry, was keen to do his own thing and went dairy farming in Kerikeri for two years before being offered a position on the Forlongs development farm in Taupiri. This was exciting stuff for a young man, creating a farm out of wasteland full of scrub, ti trees and rocks. But after 10 years it was sold as a going concern.

Terry was coaxed into joining Forlongs of Frankton as an appliance salesman, eventually becoming Appliance Department Manager in 1978 when Kevin Akroyd finished up. “Colour TV was very big for us and so was stereo. I can remember particularly that I wanted a stereo range that was distinctively Forlongs. We had Pye, Philips and all the popular brands but then Kenwood came out and I had the opportunity to sell something different, a flagship brand.

Charlie Unwin was the rep and he showed me the range which was impressive. He recommended models in the $399-699 bracket and mentioned they had a top-end model at $5,999 (around $35,000 today). Charlie reckoned we could never sell a stereo at that price in Frankton. I bought one, really just to have on the showroom floor, in the front, with these huge speakers.

“The first day we had this model on display, a couple came in and were admiring it. I went up, hoping to make a demonstration, but the lady said she didn’t need one and that the speakers were the perfect height for some pot plants she had. She looked at the price card, checked with her husband and bought it on the spot. A $5,999 stereo to set her pot plants on! No discount asked for, none offered. Charlie gave us great support; [he was] a laid back character and the only rep whoever came into the shop and rolled his own.”

Paul Meecham came on the scene in 1980 and his skills saw him take over brown goods buying with Terry continuing with whites as he also learned more about the wider Forlongs business. Tony Smith is the major appliances department manager these days.

Born in 1900 in Wanganui, Forlong patriarch Ralph Gordon Forlong passed away in 1987 but he was still coming in and showing great interest until well into his 80s. Ivan Forlong had by then succeeded his father as Managing Director.


The 1990s: New era, same values

In 1991, well-known Tauranga department store Greerton Furnishings went into receivership. Forlongs bought all the stock and opened a branch on the Greerton site, retaining the existing staff. Terry Forlong was lifted out of Frankton and thrown in at the deep end as Tauranga Branch Manager.

“The first year was fantastic,” says Terry, “But in 1992 we saw the big Kiwifruit crash and our sales dropped to a third of previous levels. We were financing all our own Hire Purchase and the big downturn in sales had a negative effect on our working capital so we closed Tauranga and consolidated all our energies into the home base of Frankton.”

Still, for the next 2-3 years Forlongs put on free buses to take its Tauranga customers to Frankton, as well as still offering free deliveries! Some of the Greerton staff were even hired to drive the buses.

“We put all the Tauranga stock into the shop in Frankton and the money we generated meant that, in one year, we doubled the size of our shop. I had been against the closure but, in hindsight, my dad was right. He made a typically good choice and Forlongs of Frankton grew enormously.”

Despite his acumen for new business, it took Ivan Forlong a long time to come to grips with the computer age. After a false start, the business itself was fully computerised in 1994. As the task progressed, Bruce Fullerton, who worked in home appliances, suggested that Forlongs get into computer retailing but Terry wasn’t interested, having been burned with early games systems.

However, he did agree to buy in five units which Bruce could try to sell so long as it didn’t get in the way of the job he was actually paid for. The five went on the first day, another five were bought and sold next day and, after three successful weeks, Bruce became a full time computer salesman, taking over as manager of the department once Terry was happy this category actually had a future.

Within a short period of time, Forlongs was shifting 60+ computers a month and Bruce Fullerton is still with the company as Manager of the department.

From the outset, the Forlong family emphasised traditional ethics & values, running the business in what Ivan Forlong once described as “A Christian way”. “Our family believes in honouring God,” he has said, “And so we don’t open on Sundays”.

Today, Terry Forlong, now Managing Director, says: “Nothing has changed. Honesty and integrity are just as important now as they ever were and as far as we are concerned, they always will be.” Even today, Forlongs does not open on Sundays and in fact, on Saturdays the doors shut at 4pm.

But this didn’t stop the company growing. In 1996, Forlongs’ 50th year, its total retail space was just under 7,000m2. Today, its retail space exceeds 12,300m2 and the warehouse alone spans 2,000m2.

Alan Mathieson joined Forlongs in 1992, worked in hardware & gifts for a little while and has now been Small Appliances Department Manager for 18 years. “When I first came into this department we basically just ticked along,” he says. “Now, on a pretty average month, we do triple that turnover and very often quadruple from an area of 450m2.” With only Alan and Anne Holmes working the department full time these days, “busy” does not aptly describe their days.

Another new category came with the inclusion of sporting goods into Forlongs’ mix. This came about very suddenly with an impulse decision made by Ivan in 1997 to take over John Valois’ sports goods business in Commerce. The deal was done on Thursday night and and Forlongs was in the sporting goods business on Monday morning. “I thought it was a silly idea but it turned out to be a stroke of genius,” says Terry. This was classic Ivan Forlong.


The 2000s: Keeping it in the family

It would not be entirely correct to say there was a specific point in time when Ivan Forlong actually retired. He’s still avidly interested in what’s going on, although health issues prevent him from getting out and about as often as he would like.

Terry Forlong became Managing Director in 2002. His daughter, Jeanine, having completed a marketing degree at University was soon given a project by the new MD – to approach Levi’s and secure an agency which would be the only one in town. In due course someone from Levi’s came to see Forlongs. “We don’t sell our jeans in a furniture store,” he said, adding that Forlongs needed to create “the right environment” which was to line the walls with empty beer crates and stuff the Levi jeans into them like pigeon holes.

“Being a Christian family this was uncomfortable for us – beer crates! – but we did it, laid plywood over the carpet and pinned some scrim around to give it a barn-like appearance and off we went selling jeans. We were selling these jeans for $150-200 and couldn’t get enough. Just over a year later the New Zealand Sales Manager came down to see us and said we were selling more Levis than anyone else in the country!”

Forlongs then bought out Hamilton sports clothing store Retro Clothing and later went into shoes as well, Terry Forlong having spotted someone doing very well selling home-made leather shoes during Frankton’s Saturday morning market on the footpath outside the store. The shoemaker was invited into Forlongs’ jeans area to sell his shoes, along with other brands and so all of a sudden Forlongs had a footwear department.

“We enjoyed some very successful years of this and then moved both the jeans and shoes to a separate shop just up the road,” says Terry. This proved to be a mistake however as customers didn’t take to going somewhere else to shop. By this time too, he says, the chains had come along with cut price jeans and shoes so eventually Forlongs “gave it away” around 2007.


2012: Into its second half century

Forlongs is still as diverse a retailer as any to this day. Terry Forlong explains the 2012 model: “Our operation is virtually a series of shops within a shop and in fact, most departments are further segmented into groups of smaller speciality shops.”

Forlongs covers home appliances, a diverse computer department , hardware (watches, bikes, lawn mowers, chain saws, tools, log fires & barbeques!), furniture bis “immense” comprising separate divisions for dining, lounge and outdoor furniture, all managed by Terry’s brother, Howard.

Then there’s a new bedding department run by John Knaap that measures 2,300m2; flooring; furnishings; a comprehensive range of nursery products; and lastly, a sports department. “Oh yes, we have a big second hand shop as well, selling all our trade-in and repossessed stock plus house lots that people bring in from time to time.”

The “shop within a shop” organisation is immediately obvious to anyone entering the store and is no better illustrated by brown goods and small appliances: TV is way removed from audio which is well away from whiteware; computers are in a world of their own, small appliances have their own “shop” and so on. There is even an excellent customer cafe called Café Roma.

Expansion in Commerce Street over the years has seen this unique independent retailer operating out of premises that now cover two entire blocks and dominate the Frankton retail landscape.

Terry Forlong is a 3rd generation Managing Director and 4th generation family are also numbered among the staff. A roll call of Forlong family members currently working in the business tells its own story – Terry, Howard, Helen, Kimberly, Christine, Fletcher (home appliances) and Leanne.

The family owns the business and this family culture rubs off – there are even some 4th generation customers! People just keep coming back not only because they are loyal, but also because they are treated like family. They know they will always be respected no matter how big or small their next purchase may be.


The start of a beautiful relationship

A story involving Ivan Forlong and your author bears telling, because it characterises the Forlongs business and the family’s outlook to a tee.

In July 1972, a Dutch expat by the name of John Knaap joined the Forlongs team as a carpet salesman before moving into the appliance department in 1974. He’s still with the company nearly 40 years later, and has been a furniture buyer since 1978, now concentrating on bedding.

But he remembers his years selling appliances and consumer electronics with enthusiasm, particularly selling the hot new colour TVs: “It was so exciting! Everyone wanted the Philips K9 but there were just not enough to go around,” he says.

However, without a couple of meetings that took place early in 1973, only months before colour TV was launched, John Knaap would not have had any Philips K9 TVs to sell!

I (Merv Robertson) transferred from Dunedin to Auckland as Philips’ senior rep just after Christmas 1972 with colour TV set to be launched the following year. Philips had poor distribution in Auckland and the Waikato so my task was to open several key dealers who were not stocking the brand: Hill & Stewart, Farmers, Irvin & Stern, Smith & Brown, Wrightsons – and Forlongs.

My brief on Forlongs was to get alongside the buyer John Morgan and after a few visits bring stocking Philips into the discussions. But John and I got along like a house on fire and after my first call I walked out with an order for 35 black & white TVs. On my next trip, two weeks later, there were no Philips sets on the floor and I was expecting another big order. Instead, John and I were summoned to Ivan Forlong’s office.

Ivan had been overseas when John gave me Forlongs’ order and on his first day back in the shop he spotted all these Philips TV sets coming into the storeroom. He ordered them to remain there, chewed John’s ear and called for a meeting. I vividly remember that discussion unfolding but will give you a potted version.

Ivan told me how when Forlongs started selling small appliances, he decided to try the new valve radios as well. So he approached Philips. “They arrogantly refused to supply me because our company was too small,” said Ivan. “I told them that one day we would be the biggest in town and that they would come calling on me. I vowed I would never stock a Philips product in my store and I never have.”

Ivan then invited me to give him some good reasons why he should start now. I explained how Philips’ distribution policy in the past had been all wrong; how I had declined a job with them two years ago because of it; how Selwyn Atkinson had come on board as Sales Manager and cleaned the show up; that he had made the right call those many years ago; and that all I asked for now, was a chance!

Mr Forlong considered, leaned forward, looked me in the eye and said: “Mr Philips, you have your chance, now don’t let me down.” From that day on, Ivan only ever called me “Mr Philips” and the relationship between Forlongs and Philips grew to be exceptionally strong for years to come.

Like very few other influential people in the industry, Ivan Forlong’s handshake was worth more than any signature on a trading arrangement. His word was his bond. 

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