Store on track for future generations

TAMLYN STEWART
Last updated 08:36 08/12/2012

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Michael and Andrew Blackwell break off mid-interview to greet a customer by name as he enters the shop. Handshakes and a fair bit of ribbing later and Michael helpfully points out that the pair of socks the customer has picked up are not his size. The customer grins, shakes his head and goes back to choose another pair.

That's the sort of customer relationship that has kept Blackwell's department store going since it first started in Kaiapoi in 1871, originally on the site of Jacob's bakery in Kaiapoi.

In 1921, the family bought its current site on the corner of Williams St and Raven Quay - transforming an old pub and boarding house into a department store. In 1951 the family built an extension behind the building and in 1971 purchased an additional site.

Brothers Andrew and Michael Blackwell are both directors in the business, the fifth generation of the family to run the department store.

Is it difficult working alongside your brother?

Michael laughs out loud.

"Nothing's difficult after the earthquakes."

The September 2010 quake damaged the oldest part of the building, built in 1921.

Next followed six months of limbo, working with insurers and assessors over whether to restore the damaged portion or demolish it.

"February took that argument away," Michael said.

The business managed to reopen two weeks after the September quake by leasing two temporary premises in Kaiapoi.

The Blackwells did not have business interruption insurance but did have "additional cost incurred" cover.

"But really we didn't lose more than two weeks' worth of trade," Michael said.

"We went like the clappers."

They squeezed menswear, womenswear, haberdashery, schoolwear, manchester and fishing into a site on the corner of Williams St and Hilton Rd, leased from owner Dave Kimber who helpfully gave them a one-year lease, instead of requiring a multi- year lease, Andrew said. They sold home furnishings and bedding from a warehouse on Ohoka Rd.

Part of the original building had been assessed as safe and reopened in time for Show Week.

"Our business pattern went from one premises, to two, to three."

"It was a logistical nightmare," Michael said.

Parents David and Jean Blackwell are still directors in the business and had provided "sage knowledge and advice" after the earthquake.

Customers had given enormous support and Blackwell's was able to keep all its staff.

The store is now back under one roof at what remains of its original site, albeit with a 60 per cent smaller footprint than previously.

Now the rebuilding of the demolished corner portion of Blackwell's is under way.

The firm did have some insurance cover for the rebuild but would "definitely need to dip into the back pocket".

They had enough reserves to do the job without resorting to a loan, but an overdraft facility was available if there was a budget blow-out, Michael said.

The firm aims to reopen in September 2013.

"From the first day of the quake we have said we are not going anywhere."

Reluctant to put a price on the rebuild, the brothers would only say it was a multi- million-dollar investment. "So our challenge is to ensure that the returns are there," Michael said.

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"The underlying strength of the department store is it's 10 different stores . . . and at any one time in the year each one will have its purple patch."

And that helps cashflow, and "cashflow is king", Michael said.

The new building will have 550 square metres of commercial space on the first floor and it will lease that, providing another income stream for the business.

A corner space had been earmarked to be leased to a coffee shop.

Michael said his role was that of a caretaker. "We're fifth generation. If I can pass that mantle on then I've achieved what I wanted to."

- The Press

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