By NZHJ October 17, 2017 Retailing News

There aren't many small independent hardware stores that have lasted 150 years, let alone stayed in the family all that time.

But this one – Read Brothers of Thames – is exceptional and can trace its lineage back to 1867 in fact, a feat which it celebrated in September.

Read Bros goes back to when Sir George Grey was Governor, Te Kooti was still in the hills and Otago University was still a twinkle in Thomas Burns’ eye.

1867 was also the year that 30 year-old John Read arrived in Thames, a town seething with activity, thanks to the discovery of the goldfields the previous year.

Over the next 55 years, John established himself as a timber merchant and ironmonger and became something of an advocate for the town and the district.

On John’s death in 1922 aged 84, his sons Charles and Arthur continued the business. When Charles passed away in 1934, Arthur took the family business on alone but stuck to his father’s recipe of a wide range of goods.

Arthur died in 1970, leaving son Alan to continue the business. Back from the second great war and with the business somewhat diminished, Alan had set about redeveloping Read Bros into a modern retailer.

In 1972, Alan’s 20 year-old son Stuart joined the business and worked alongside his father until Alan’s death in 1979.

Stuart then set about revamping Read Bros with an improved layout and more stock. And trade grew again, with Read Bros becoming a member of the Lucerne Wholesale Society buying group in 1982.

Early into technology, Stuart introduced a computerised stock control and accounting system in 1985 and the business continued to grow, to the point in 1996 where it expanded into the site next door.

After almost 130 years, Read Bros adopted a new identity, becoming a Hammer Hardware, with Stuart a Board Member and later Chairman, a position he held for 12 years.

In 2003, John Read’s great great grandson joined the family business when Stuart’s son John, aged 22, became the 5th generation to become involved.

By 2014, John was Store Manager and Read Bros withdrew from Hammer Hardware.

Typically candid, he says today: “We had good rapport with suppliers and our customers didn’t seem too bothered what [sign] we had above the shop, so to say, so the decision was made that we could probably make better use of what we were paying to be in the group.”

What does John think is the secret of Read Bros’ longevity?

“A lot of it comes down to service – the guys behind the counter just have a good knowledge base – and adapting to how the market changes through over 100 years.

“We’ve always been prominent on new developments. We’ve invested a lot in technology over the years but it pays dividends in keeping up to date with stock management and accounting.”

The irony is that, from the outside, Read Bros appears to be just a quaint old fashioned hardware store.

And Read Bros is still also all about good old fashioned service.

“Every new staff member that comes in, which doesn’t happen that often because we have good retention of staff, it just seems to flow on to them whether it’s natural to them or not. We work really hard at continuing that but it is genuine.”

What one thing has John taken away from September’s celebrations?

“The community involvement,” he says immediately. “All the positive feedback has really reassured me that we are doing the right thing.

“That community attachment to the family and the family business has really been emphasised over the last couple of weeks.”

John’s father Stuart and mother Jocelyn remain active in the business to this day, in which respect, tentatively we ask about the family’s succession plan.

“Dad has been here for 45 years but to get him to actually have a day off is still pretty hard,” quips John.

“But seriously, they have both been very open and helping and willing to step aside and let me take over and run the business how I want to run it.

“They’re in the background to help and assist and mentor when needed, which is nice, because I know a lot of businesses don’t have succession plans or they have plans that fail because a party’s not willing to let it go.”

And in terms of carrying on the dynasty with the next generation, with his own son Jacob, who is nearly five?

“Well Jacob loves coming in the shop,” says John, emphasising that neither he nor his father were ever “forced” into the business.

“It was sort of a natural transition...”

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