Briscoes: From gold rush to housewares

By Merv Robertson April 09, 2013 Retail Icon

The latest instalment in our Retail Icon series is Briscoes. Now half way through its second centenary in New Zealand, Briscoes developed from being an icon in ironmongery to arguably the king of homewares. 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.

Briscoes was founded in 1781 in Wolverhampton in England’s West Midlands. Aged just 22, young William Briscoe opened an ironmongery business called William Briscoe.

In 1818, William’s son George became a partner and the company name changed to William Briscoe & Son. William retired seven years later, aged 66, leaving George in charge of an expanded operation including an overseas branch in Jamaica. George in turn retired in 1851, with his son Richard taking the reins.

In that same year, gold was found in Ballarat, Victoria. As a result, Melbourne’s population rocketed to 123,000 souls and Edward Blyth, a Briscoes employee in Jamaica, rushed to Melbourne to set up shop on his own, drawing hardware and other stock from Briscoes in England.

But Blyth went bankrupt, so the Briscoes took over in 1853 and installed a tough manager, one Robert McDougal, to head up the new wholly owned foreign branch, Briscoe & Co. He was joined in 1860 by Hugh MacNeil to assist with the development in Melbourne.  


Key Briscoes people through the years:

  1. George Briscoe (1792-1866), son of founder William.
  2. Richard Holt Briscoe (1823-1909), William’s grandson.
  3. Hugh MacNeil, 1832-1900 (courtesy Gow Family Papers, Hocken Collections), was instrumental in setting up the Australasian operations.
  4. William Briscoe (1860-1934) was responsible for ensuring the company’s survival during the Great Depression.
  5. Jack Gregg was NZ Managing Director 1969-1982, and drove the move out of hardware.
  6. Rod Duke today (courtesy Nigel Gardiner).


There’s gold in them thar hills

Across the Tasman, the discovery of gold in Central Otago in May 1861 caught the attention of Briscoes management. With an eye for the main chance, Hugh MacNeil travelled to Dunedin and found the burgeoning town gripped by gold fever.

MacNeil filed a report detailing the exciting developments and head office, now based in London, gave McDougal permission to open a branch in Dunedin as a Melbourne subsidiary, with Hugh MacNeil as the inaugural manager.

The first Kiwi store opened on George Street, Dunedin, in 1862. Yes, Briscoes New Zealand is in its 151st year. The original Dunedin premises comprised a warehouse and a retail store, stocking picks, shovels and sledgehammers, sheet iron, billies and blacksmith’s bellows, not to mention construction materials and explosives – all a far cry from the range carried today!

Of course the residents of Dunedin also required crockery, cutlery and other day to day household items and, some years later, sporting equipment was added. The new enterprise was called Arthur Briscoe & Co, Arthur Briscoe (William’s other grandson and Richard’s brother) being a major contributor to the firm’s Australasian development. In the mid 1880s, Hugh MacNeil finally returned to Melbourne, from where he ran the whole Australasian operation as a full Partner.

By the end of its first decade, Briscoes had outgrown the Dunedin site, opening a two-storey building on the corner of Princes and Jetty Streets in 1872. Catering for both retail and wholesale it is here we find the first recorded stocking of appliances, namely stoves, washing machines and a new invention, lawn mowers.

But, within a few years, these premises were also too small and a hotel at the rear was bought and demolished so Briscoes could add a three-storey extension. Various other sites were also purchased and housed other business units as the Briscoes empire in Dunedin expanded. Then, in 1907, a flagship headquarters opened in Crawford Street. That year Briscoes also had electric lighting installed.

Considerable success in local and central Government tendering helped deliver three decades of prodigious growth and Briscoes became an integral part of society during those heady years.


Briscoes breaks out of Dunedin

In 1893 Briscoes in New Zealand really started to spread its wings with a wholesale branch opening on Esk Street in Invercargill. That same year, an eye-catching Briscoes branch opened on the corner of Victoria and Harris Streets on reclaimed land in Wellington.

Hugh MacNeil retired as an active partner in 1895 and died in August 1900, aged 70. Apart from the energy and vision he displayed at Briscoes, he was a Founding Partner of the Union Steamship Company, serving for many years as a Director. His holding in the group went to his sons, Alexander and Hugh Junior.

Briscoes’ first foray into Auckland was a small hardware store on Commerce Street which opened in 1898. Two years later a hurriedly erected store opened for business on Beach Road at the same time as a striking new four-storey building was commissioned for the corner of Customs and Commerce Streets. This became operational in 1902 and remained the Auckland headquarters until 1960 trading as Briscoe MacNeil & Co.

Although a tiny branch was established in Christchurch in 1882, it was 1908 before the first “real” store opened in the city, followed by Timaru in 1912 and so on until Briscoes was virtually a national chain. Surprisingly it did not come to Palmerston North until 1952, Hamilton in 1972 and Rotorua in 1974.


Great Depression follows Great War

World War I and its immediate aftermath were challenging but Briscoes was soon back to full speed. Business increased, more branches opened and in 1925 coal ranges were superseded by the revolutionary new Shacklock electric range and electric irons and heaters were also added around that time.

Then, in 1930, the world stopped. Wall Street had collapsed in October 1929 and the Great Depression had begun worldwide. For Briscoes dramatic cost reductions had to be made. Everyone took pay cuts, married staff were given every second week off (without pay) and all single employees were let go. WA Briscoe, great grandson of the founder and now the world boss, visited in 1932 to supervise stock reductions and other measures to ensure the business survived.

Then came World War II but this event didn’t bring with it anything like the go-slow effects of the Great War when Briscoes were almost totally reliant on imported goods from the UK. This time, the split between New Zealand-made products and imports was about 50-50. So Atlas stoves out of Christchurch (in production since 1931) now sat alongside Shacklock.


Starting in the 1960s size matters

In the 1950s Briscoes in London was facing what proved to be insurmountable financial difficulties and management was transferred to Melbourne in 1958. In November Briscoes was listed on the Australian Stock Exchange with the Briscoe and MacNeil families taking up most of the shares. 177 year-old Briscoes was now Australian-registered.

By then the vast majority of products on sale here were NZ-sourced, including Shacklock’s electric stoves and Masport motor and hand mowers. A Masport Lawn Sprite Motor Mower set you back £39.15 ($1,675 in today’s money) and a Masport Service 14” Hand Mower was £6.10.6 ($263). A range of portable appliances and valve radios were also offered.

Briscoes’ Auckland branch relocated from Customs Street to Augusta Terrace in Parnell in 1968 and Christchurch moved to Salisbury Street the next year. At this stage, Briscoes was still predominantly a wholesaler and supplier to the building and hardware industries. Retail was secondary and the relocations were largely to accommodate trade customers who were tired of navigating congested inner city streets. By this time stoves and mowers had disappeared from the Briscoes line-up.

In the late 1960s in the UK and then Australia, a trend quickly developed for big retail groups with plenty of buying power to bypass wholesalers and buy direct from manufacturers. So, in Australia, Briscoes’ flagging wholesale business was sold to Merbank for $2,000,000 in 1970 ($29.9m today).

By then, the Briscoes Board, still working out of London, only had buildings in Australia, the UK subsidiary and the New Zealand wing (which was doing OK). Finally, in 1973, the Briscoe family parted company with the business after 192 years and Merbank acquired the rest of it, including the New Zealand operation.


Hot potato hot potato

Jack Gregg was Managing Director of New Zealand and his vision was to move Briscoes out of hardware and building supplies and into self-service wholesaling of consumer lines. The first new format outlet opened on the Christchurch site in 1975.

1976 was a very tough year for Briscoes. Budgets were missed more often than not and in 1977, the New Zealand operation was sold to Hagemeyer out of the Netherlands.

At the end of 1981, a new self-service warehouse and head office was constructed on Taylors Road, St Lukes in Auckland and these premises remain Briscoes’ headquarters today. However, as the decade developed, Hagemeyer itself got into strife and sold 20% of its holdings to the American retail giant Sears Roebuck. This transaction saw Briscoes NZ becoming 51% owned by Sears World Trade. But this organisation also failed and little over a year later Hagemeyer again had control of Briscoes.

Talking of controlling interests, David Lange headed up a new Labour Government in 1984 which quickly passed legislation that would change the face of our economy forever. Briscoes was caught between a rock and a hard place, neither a true wholesaler (removing import licence restrictions meant retailers were by now buying direct from manufacturers or importing merchandise on their own account) nor an out-and-out retailer.

The business was losing money so Hagemeyer moved to sell Briscoes as quickly as possible. Enter Rod Duke. The son of an Adelaide accountant and weekend bookie, he began his retail career as a 16 year-old salesman in a shoe shop and became Manager after just two years. Aged 19 he joined Canberra Television Services as a door to door TV salesman working out of a VW Kombi.

In 1973 Duke was recruited by department store John Martin & Co as Major Appliances Buyer and in 1980 he moved to Sydney, eventually taking up a management role with Grace Brothers. This landmark institution having been bought by Coles Myer, Duke accepted a role at Norman Ross, the original chain started by the now renowned Gerry Harvey.

Harvey had earlier sold the business to the Cooke family but by 1986 it was losing $40m a year. Rod Duke’s task as Managing Director was to right the ship and then find a buyer. Both objectives were met within two years and he was ready for something new.

It was proposed that Duke move to New Zealand to take up a similar role with Briscoes. He refused but then agreed to tour the country, visit the Briscoes branches and then write a report, for a fee of course. What he found left him aghast.

Toys were found between coal buckets and paint, cheap coffee mugs shared display space with expensive crystal and so on – each store was left to display goods wherever and however they wanted. Bizarre retail layouts were in a “pretend” wholesale environment and several stores well away from mainstream shopping areas, in commercial or industrial zoned locations.

This was 1988 and, after submitting his report, Rod Duke visited Hagemeyer in Holland to meet with the Chairman and the Merchandise Director. They outlined their requirements for the Briscoes sale and were obviously very keen for him to “do a Norman Ross” for them.

By the end of the meeting an agreement was reached for a three-year contract and Rod Duke moved to Auckland in September that year, where he faced a massive challenge.


Taking up the kiwi challenge

All 13 Briscoes Branch Managers plus a small group of head office people were brought to Taylors Road for their first “Rod Duke experience” when a “shape up or ship out” message was delivered.

Today, Rod Duke explains: “Briscoes was on the brink of insolvency. We had to change radically and fast. I explained what my ideas were for the group going forward and how I wanted to achieve our objectives and I like to think that most people in that room left pretty excited.

“The plan was to specialise in the broad category of homewares. We would phase out hammers, nails, chisels and the like, as well as toys, coal buckets and paint and I was confident that all key staff would buy into the strategies I put up. It was simple to my mind that the changes would be more likely than less likely to be successful. To make it happen we needed to be number one or two in every category.”

Another priority was to change the Briscoes image to a fresh, customer-friendly perception with location a major element in this process. Briscoes was to become a destination for housewares, setting out to excel in portable appliances, glassware, dining, luggage and manchester.

A full suite of brands already existed in the target categories and in portable appliances they retained Sunbeam, Black & Decker, Kenwood and Philips. Through Rod Duke’s personal relationship with John O’Brien and Bill Starr in Australia, Breville was also introduced into the mix.

Recalling that period, Rod Duke makes special mention of a Kiwi who would become a close friend. “Noel Robinson, now Sir Noel of course, had Hitachi and he was keen to supply us. I was broke, had the arse out of my pants and Noel said: ‘You leave that to me, I’ll figure it out. Take us on and I’ll give you the credit you need.’ Hitachi came on and, thanks to Sir Noel’s support, it was a very good partnership.”



Sunday bloody Sunday

After 15 months of hard slog and tough decisions, Briscoes gained momentum and was winning the hearts and minds of Kiwi shoppers. And Rod Duke made a decision on his future – he would prepare Briscoes for sale as contracted, but why not buy it himself?

Long-time friend and mentor Bob Toone, who was heading up Email, the Duke family and Briscoes’ Chief Financial Officer, Alaister Wall, listened to Rod Duke’s ideas and were all entirely supportive, as was the ANZ Bank. Encouraged, Duke put a proposal to the Hagemeyer board in late 1989, the deal was done and on 1 February 1990, he became the sole owner of Briscoes NZ.

How did that feel? Were there any self-doubts? “No! There was absolutely no thought other than it would be highly successful. I was not yet 40, I had been a retailer since I was 16 and this opportunity just smelled like the best I had ever come across in my entire working life. To be fair, in the 18 months or so I had been with the Hagemeyer organisation, we had posted some very significant increases, so why wouldn’t it pay off?”

Rod Duke and his enthusiastic team had made Kiwi shoppers sit up and take notice. Saturday shopping had been phased in earlier but, leading up to Xmas 1989, Sunday trading was still illegal and there was a $1,000 Labour Department fine waiting for retail outlets daring to contravene. The Unions didn’t like the idea either.

But Briscoes management took a collective deep breath and decided to take the punt. Four weeks out, at 5pm on a Friday, staff were invited to work the Sunday if they wished, while TV adverts on the Saturday night told the nation that Briscoes would be open for business the next morning. This audacious move was a spectacular success, some stores even reporting queues waiting for the doors to open.

Alaister Wall: “I couldn’t believe the crowds. My wife and I worked the tills in the Hamilton store and it took until late afternoon before we got to close the doors.”

Rod Duke: “To be brutally honest, Sunday trading was the single most important thing in the early success of this company. It was a ground breaking event. It wasn’t just about revenue and being noticed by everyone in the community. The biggest effect was the confidence given to our people, that as a company we were able to succeed in doing significant, different things together.”

Sales to December 1988 had resulted in a $1.5m loss but at December 1989, revenue had jumped 20% to $28m with a profit in excess of $400,000.


Sprats to catch mackerels

As the 1990s began, Rod Duke had maintained good relationships with his Aussie business contacts and just a month or so after assuming control of Briscoes, he had a call from Tim Burkett of Sunbeam Australia, who had 800 microwave ovens which he needed to quit.

“Another deal, another promotion, another opportunity to put the Briscoes name up in lights. Trouble was, I had no money. So, once we agreed on an all-up into-store price of $195, I asked Tim how long it would be before he got into trouble if I hadn’t paid. He reckoned he had 120 days so I promised I would settle the account one day before that.”

In those days, branded microwaves started at $399 retail ($663 today), although a cheap “no name” could be found at $299. Duke continues: “We had these ovens in the shops quickly and they were completely sold through in a week at $199.99. We made $4.99 per unit but this deal was not about margin, it was about cash flow and we generated $160,000, effectively an interest free loan for four months at a time when banks were charging 15%.” 

The following year Rod Duke received a phone call from Bob Toone, asking a big favour. Email (Simpson, Kelvinator and Westinghouse) was struggling in Hawkes Bay so Duke agreed to range his products and promote them “at a ridiculously low price” for three months, at the end of which time the problem was sorted. Other similar opportunities included two containers of Rover branded motor mowers and Ryobi drill-sets.

By now, Rod Duke’s formula for success was working big time and through the 1990s Briscoes became a preferred destination for homeware bargain seekers. The “face” of Briscoes’ promotions, Tammy Wells, was instantly associated with the brand and the company had become a trusted place to shop for a good deal and the catalogues screamed value for money.


New millennium, new look

Business was strong but, come the year 2000, research showed that the Briscoes “look” was outdated. A new look was actioned with blues and yellows incorporated into the interior decor and a new logo designed, the one now so familiar, including the little stylised house.

A brand new store in Nelson was the first to adopt the new style, opening in August 2000, and the concept worked a treat! Nelson registered a 30% increase in turnover and this trend was repeated around the country as each makeover was completed.

Rod Duke bought the New Zealand Rebel Sport franchise in 1996, the relevance of which is that, when the decision was made to take the company public in 2001, the group had a total of 39 profitable outlets.

The plan was to float on 21 September 2001 but, just 10 days prior, 9/11 happened. International economies got the jitters, the New Zealand share market dropped 10 points and Briscoes delayed its float until 14 December with an offering of 40 million $1 shares.

The $40m capital injection was used, among other things, to upgrade the remaining Briscoes stores and start off Rebel Sport’s expansion. Group sales at 31 March 2002 had reached $253m, a 26% increase over the previous 12 months. In 2006, Briscoes Group purchased the nine Living & Giving stores from Pacific Retail Group for $1m.

The following year, the first rumblings of recession were heard, and by 2010 it was biting worldwide. Briscoes Chief Operating Officer, Pete Burilin, tells us how the group coped: “The recession made value more important than ever so we improved and increased the range of products we imported directly which allowed us to pass on savings to our customers. Every department in the business reviewed their costs with major restructures in marketing and operations contributing to a large reduction in overhead costs, ensuring Briscoes came through trying times.”

The last word appropriately goes to Rod Duke. “It’s been a fabulous ride but it’s not over yet. Exhilarating doesn’t seem like a big enough word. It’s been the biggest thrill of my life. It’s been the centre of my life. It’s been knife-edge at times but, well, it’s been outstanding. You know, I love to catch fish and hit golf balls but I’ll tell you, it’s a load of fun sitting in this chair. I reckon I have the best job in the world.” 


Wares acknowledges that the source material for this article came from: Briscoes 150 years in New Zealand, by Ian Hunter, Hunter Publishing, Auckland, 2012.

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