My father bought the company that he did his apprenticeship with and sold the same company when he retired. He missed the Second World War by a year or so and another recession just after he sold and retired, Lucky? Perhaps. He was born in 1929 and is still kicking around having outlived all his mates so he’s had every chance to live out his three-score and ten, plus a bit for what it’s worth. The main thing I remember about Dad and his business – he always paid his bills. Throw in a few old-school values as well and you’ve got a story. Grab that cuppa and listen up!
E. R. Warburton & Co Ltd was known as Warbies to the trade. Dad refused to change it although toyed with the possibility of modernisation once. I think the relatively minimal costs of rebranding would have been his deciding factor against the change, although we all liked the idea of going where the market was already but, no. So E R Warburton & Co was what they all got when they phoned us, even though it was “Warbies this” and “Warbies that” everywhere else around town.
Dad had a monopoly for the supply of watchmakers’ and jewellers’ tools within New Zealand – not obtained by force, but just by doing the honourable thing – day after day, year after year and decades after decade. Others would dabble, come and go but Warbies just kept on going on and on, getting stronger and smarter by the day. Too numerous are the stories I could tell. Dad taught me much … well only one thing really. “Son!” he said one day, “You don’t have to be that good to be better than the rest!” New Zealand, 1974 from a man who had been in business half a lifetime by then – I guess that was profound.
He wasn’t a natural teacher and most other things I learned in business was what NOT to do! My grizzles and complaints about his miserliness and skin flinting were shut up once and for all when his retiring accountant pulled me aside one day and told me quietly, and secretively, “Dennis, your father’s business is THE most profitable business that we’ve got on the books – actually ever”. Hmmm, that shut me up for a while didn’t it?
I learned that biggest is not the best.
I learned that if you don’t want growth because you know you can’t handle it, you just run out of stock of the most popular items in the middle of the peak season, take back orders and repeat and rinse the next year! Yeah tell me about it! Sounds crazy to a get-up-‘n’-go guy like me but hey if it works for ya!
So as a ‘good’ son I utterly ignored his life wisdom that 95% of life is pure drudgery and 5% is fun. I’ve inverted that ratio deliberately. If I don’t want to, I don’t! Sure I may not have the cleanest house as a result but VICTUSINAMBITUS rules the day around my place and life is surely fun!
I learned that when you run a special selling off gazillions of old stock items and make a killing when the old man went overseas for a holiday that the shock factor hit the trade like a Tsunami, “Warbies” and “Sale” did not compute to those who had been around the block as couple of times. Poor Dad! When he returned the bank balance was up, the crappy stock had all gone and he had heaps of happy punters wanting to know when Warbies was going to do the next one. I think he worked out that saying, “What sale?” wasn’t wisdom and he took the compliments on board no matter!
Dad’s ethics went to pricing too – one of his strengths. A Jewish guy once said to me, “Dennis we Jews know how to make money!” and went on to explain that they did this when they bought, not when they sold. Same thing with Dad. He would scour the newspaper wrappings of a file for example supplied by a Swiss supplier only to find that the newspaper was printed in say Spain, or that boxes of pliers had Pakistani writing on them. Translating and old school detective work would open up direct supply channels in the age where standard distribution systems that feathered the nest of a global supply chain, Dad got things at ridiculous prices because he did the hard yards and then went direct. Good on ‘im eh?
His markups and pricing changes too were “old school”. Amortising costs is not common now but it is the ethical way of dealing with price increases. Imagine that you buy a dozen items at $10.00 a pop. You sell ten at $20.00 a pop and then the next ones cost you $15.00 each. Nowadays we’re used to watching prices (like petrol) just go up across the board, so you’d be selling them all for $30.00 and squeezing the market for the additional two items bought at the lower price. Not so Dad. He’d amortise the pricing ‘honestly’ and sell them all for say $28.00 being the correct markup that he had established was fair, or right, Nowadays you tend to sell something for whatever the market can stand, Dad’s profit remained the same no matter the ups and downs. It didn’t work as well with precious metals but many times he would be offering tools for sale retail at a lesser price than the opposition could buy them for!
And woe betide ye Molley Yupee if you didn’t pay your bills on time!
There was that drawer – my favourite. It was half way down in a tall filing cabinet on the left of his office called, “Idiots & Optimists”. These were the people that wrote to us on a Thursday, posted their letter on a Friday and asked for delivery of something important that they could use to make something for a present for a wedding that Saturday. Dad would reply on the Monday suggesting that if they paid him last week then he would deliver it personally to say Blenheim. We were Auckland based!
Or the people who wanted some form of skyhook or mindreading or some other crazy thing. Half the time it was the old man’s dry wit replies that made us crack up as much as the crazy stuff inbound,
Or who can forget the quintessential watchmaker in a hurry who on Friday night had raced in from South Auckland to buy the spare parts so that he could fix the watch as promised to his client by the weekend only to find Dad walking down the stairs on his way home. “Sorry we closed at 4:15!” Or some dude who had flown up from the South Island thinking that he could spend a gazillion bucks on a Saturday when Dad was closing and reopening again on Monday morning! What a crack-up!
Then the answerphone that went clonk and worked all throughout lunchtime, only when Dad was there of course. Many an overseas guest, sometimes a privileged local would watch Dad turn around, pick up the phone, whack that old tin can onto the headset and say his spiel with a deadpan face, “This is the E. R Warburton and Company answerphone service. This answerphone does not record a message but if you call back after 1.15 when our staff have returned from their lunchbreak we will be pleased to attend to your requirements!” Click. He’d then turn back and carry on eating his lunch or reading while the honoured guest would look on – often mouth wide open and speechless.
You might get a, “Well it works!” from the old man if he knew you were watching properly and we’d all have to play along. “Oh you don’t have these answerphones in Germany, Switzerland or the United States?” we would ask innocently. “They work really well you know!” Most of all though they were cheap!
Yeah and cheap too was the name of the game for Dad, if we’re honest about it! A few stories about downunder went up to the European vendors I can tell you! Kiwi’s have a can do attitude. We’ll take someone else’s reject items and use them. Dad took this to extremes, rifling through everyone else’s rubbish to save cardboard boxes, for his customers . . . spending only 3 cents on postage because it will get there “soon enough” rather than 4 cents even though the customer had especially asked for the urgency. “Oh he’ll only on-charge that anyway, and I hate wastage!”
“But Dad the customer … !” meant diddly squat to a man on a mission to scrimp and save and do the honourable thing – to him.
“I guess that being brought up in wartime does that to you. We used to have to make do with … [and the stories flowed]” , he later admitted!
I’ve painted a picture of a skinflint but an honest old-school businessman, the likes of which seem to have become rarer than hen’s teeth. This is true but Dad also loved a good fight, like me, and especially with the bureaucrats in government. How many times we would be subjected to his ongoing battles with Her Majesties beancounters who would try to weasel an extra buck or two from the old man because the import duty was based on a description in Clause 1357b when Dad said it was actually an item better described in Clause 98765a! Spare me days . . . I think the smartest Customs Officers saw him arrive on his Vespa scooter and walk in with his motorcycle helmet in one hand and chequebook in the other and simply asked Mr Smith how much he wanted to pay them today. The others paid a high price for arguing!
So it’s been great to reminisce a little but where’s this all going?
I have a two thoughts to share with you from the above, one directly from Dad and the big picture with the application of it all back to Scripture.
The bible first – logically there is good and bad, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. We might not be able to identify it in any given situation but it does exist. The government may control the law but it can never set the moral rules. Where I live prostitution and homosexuality is now legal. If there is a Maker to whom we are all eventually accountable, Jacinda will be unable to help us if we use the laws to guide us in morality. Dad lived by the old-school rules. He paid his bills. Good on him! Many don’t.
My father told me that, “You don’t have to be THAT good in business to be better than the rest!” That’s a piece of wisdom from a man who had earned the right to speak it to me when I first started working for Dad when I left school at the age of 16. Thank you sir!
So will you do the honourable thing in business too, now?