Grocery king loves front line

FAMILY BUSINESS: Timaru New World owner operator Howard Smith and his daughter Caroline Hall.
FAMILY BUSINESS: Timaru New World owner operator Howard Smith and his daughter Caroline Hall.

He started with a corner store and added seven more before starting up Highfield New World. Business reporter Emma Bailey talks to Howard Smith about 42 years in the grocery trade.

Where had you previously worked?

After I left school I went and worked for my cousin at his grocery store on King St. While I was there Mum and Dad bought a grocery store on Stafford St, about where South Canterbury Toyota is now. I worked there for five years with my Mum. Dad helped out but didn't really work there as he had an earthmoving business. After five years Mum said she was going to sell it so I bought it. I probably paid about $5000. I was 21 years old and it was a lot of money. I had a $2000 bank loan. I married Kerry soon after and she worked with me. We ran that for about nine years then the old South Canterbury Wholesale Groceries came up for sale, which we bought. They had stores in Dee St, Temuka, Morgans Rd, Evans St and King St. They were just small supermarkets, about the size of a dairy. We called them Smith's Wholesale Groceries. In 1986 we added Pleasant Point and Waimate. We were running seven supermarkets.

Then we sold off King St, Evans St and Morgans Rd. During that time the first big supermarkets opened with Supervalue and later Woolworths.

How did you become the owners of New World?

Eighteen years ago we re-branded Dee St to New World. We had to buy in and become a shareholder. We also re-branded Temuka and Waimate and sold Pleasant Point, and that became a Four Square. We were at Dee St until 1996 and sold Temuka after that and moved to Highfield (formerly Supervalue) and kept Waimate. My daughter and son in-law, Caroline and Jason Hall, ran Waimate for five years until we sold it three years ago and before that my son ran it for seven years, until he bought Oamaru New World.

We opened the new store (at Highfield) on December 8, three years ago. Caroline and Jason run the store now, I just get in everyone's way - stack shelves, talk to the customers and pack at checkout. I still have a bit of a say. In a couple of years I will retire.

What are the biggest changes you have noticed in supermarkets?

The size of the stores. They are a one-stop shop now. When I first started we had a butchery shop next door and there were 130 members in the South Canterbury Grocery Association.

The bigger supermarkets like Pak 'n Save and Countdown really killed off most of the small grocery stores, butchers and fruit and vege shops. There used to be 13 fruit and vege shops on the main street once upon a time.

The technology changes have been huge. When I first started we used to use a pencil and paper to add up, then we got an adding machine.

Prices have changed, especially for dairy and red meat. Chicken hasn't changed that much - it used to be really expensive but has just remained the same.

What other organisations are you involved in?

I have been made a life member of South Canterbury Chamber of Commerce and I was on the board of Aoraki Development Business and Tourism. I'm the chairman of New Zealand Pet Foods and on the board of Trust Aoraki and work with Opihi Wines.

Could you work for another person?

I suppose I could, I have never tried. I have mellowed in my old age though.

What are the toughest aspects of your business?

The actual running is pretty cruisy. I still find dishonesty the hardest, be it a shoplifter or staff. In the old days we had no security so we had no idea what was going out the door. Security and technology now balance out what stock we have lost. We probably catch a shoplifter once a week.

What have been the highlights?

How we have grown from one corner store to an award- winning supermarket. I still get a buzz when I walk into the new store.

How many staff do you employ?

Around 150.

How many hours a week do you work?

I used to leave home when it was dark and get home when it was dark. I was probably working about 80 hours. Now I just work part-time, about 40 hours a week or less.

Where to from here?

The pension probably. Caroline and Jason will take over the business completely and I will head for the hills.

The Timaru Herald