Family first in busy life

PAT VELTKAMP SMITH
Last updated 05:00 30/08/2012

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When Jock Smith, founding son of H & J Smith's city and southern retail business, died at the age of nearly 95 at his retirement base in Nelson, his family brought him home to make their farewells.

It was an oddly moving service, led by the Rev Richard Johnson at All Saints Church on Holywood Tce not far from the imposing home still called the H & J Smith's house where Jock Smith had lived.

Born in October 1917, christened Lester Walker but always known as Jock, he was the last surviving of six children born to John Smith, who, with his sister Helen, 112 years ago, founded the store that still commemorates their names in the initials H & J.

He started work at the age of 12 as Santa's helper in the store.

His death on August 18 while still a director of the family holding company ended 82 years of continuous involvement with H & Js, whose story and successes are synonymous with those of Southland.

His son Acton and grandsons Jason and Jeremy, all involved with the family business, spoke with love of their dad and granddad who illustrated in a highly productive life how to combine the complex world of a burgeoning business with the needs of his family.

The youngest of three sons, Jock was recognised as the natural family leader.

A keen sportsman, he was a middle-distance runner who was training for the 1940 or 1944 Olympics, he held the Southland 440-yard record and it was 20 years before it was finally broken.

When war broke out, he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force and, although he had poor vision in his right eye, qualified for his flight sergeant wings by memorising the eye charts.

His memory was great as was his eye for detail, staff recalling him going through the store and being able to spot a 500 thread count in bed linen or the percentage of pure wool in suiting as he passed.

Many H & J staff from earlier times came to say goodbye, among them Jock's first secretary, Ngaire (Mrs Ron Walker) winkled away from her first job at the Public Trust office to join him at H & Js.

They were a good team, the young PA knitting for her boss's wife Mollie, expecting their first baby, Acton, who was followed in time by sisters Nellie and Jacqueline, Jay.

Jock and Mollie married as war ended, returning to Invercargill to live in 1945. In 1948, when J W Smith died, Jock became chairman and deputy managing director.

But, says his son, it was not until 1962 when Jock became managing director that the company grew substantially, with ideas and trends observed overseas being implemented here.

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“Dad didn't forget his children when he went away," Acton said, recalling their first taste of Coca Cola, first sounds from a transistor radio.

Southland boomed with H & Js which gave Invercargill its first parking building and the south's first escalator.

H & Js was the first New Zealand company to install NCR 280 electronic cash registers.

It set up Hide Shops in tourist centres, invested in factories that made knitwear, orchards that grew oranges (the staff got them free, regularly) and had stores the length of the land until concentrating, as now, more heavily on the southern lakes and Southland while sharing buying with similar businesses.

Jock and Mollie retired to Nelson but made many visits south and always holidayed with their family at Wanaka, long a favourite base for them all.

For all his sophistication, business acumen and lifelong experience, Jock Smith remained a family man, welcoming a generation of new little people into his life, rating a burnt sausage smothered in "train smash” and wrapped in a slice of white bread, a feast for a king - especially when he'd done the barbecuing.

His death leaves his widow Mollie in Nelson, Acton in Invercargill, daughters Nellie Gillies in Silverstream, Wellington, and Jacqueline Just in Masterton.

With eight grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, the family, like the firm, look set to survive, to succeed.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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