Magness Benrow: from speedway to appliances

By Merv Robertson February 08, 2011 Retail Icon

With a track record that accounts for more than three quarters of a century in sound and PA systems, through refrigeration and into retailing, Merv Robertson’s latest iconic retail brand is Magness Benrow.

Roly Magness was something of a whizzkid when it came to sound / PA systems and in 1935 – aged just 15 – he went it alone, founding Magness Sound. He designed and built his own amplifiers and loudspeakers which were in demand. Rental was the main source of income but he also quickly diversified into servicing refrigeration.

A further springboard for growth was the relationship with Western Springs Speedway. The first meeting was in November 1929 but the venue took off in December 1935 when the first midget car event was staged, just months after Magness Sound was founded. In fact, Roly and Bill Mudgway, the renowned commentator at The Springs, became firm friends and Mudgway still visits the shop today.

Magness Sound grew to leadership proportions over time and remains a major player today, with Peter Magness, one of Roly’s three sons, still at the helm. As an indication of the staying power of the Magness business, notable contracts currently held by Magness Sound are the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints, Auckland’s annual Round the Bays run and the Auckland Trotting Club, a contract that has lasted 57 years to date. When the Auckland Roman Catholic Cathedral was restored recently, Magness Sound won the $12.8 million contract to design and commission a comprehensive sound system.

 

THE WARE AND REFRIGERATION

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  When war broke out in 1939, Roly Magness found himself conscripted, not for active service in fact, but to oversee maintenance of the refrigeration units on visiting American war ships! With the ships spending such long periods at sea, it was critical that foodstuffs, especially meat, were kept fresh and Roly Magness was seen as the best in the business!

In 1945 he decided it was time to expand and get into retail. The first shop was at 71 New North Road in the Auckland suburb of Eden Terrace. Sound systems were still a major part of the business but run separately from the retail business, which specialised in radios, laundry and refrigeration.

After only a couple of years, Magness bought the shop next door, doubling the store’s size. At the back of the building a factory and service department grew to a stage where 24 men were employed. Magness-branded open unit refrigerators went into production here in 1947, to be replaced by sealed unit models the year after. These products were in competition with the likes of Fisher & Paykel, McAlpine and MacDonald.

In 1948 Magness Sound introduced New Zealand to radio telephones and installed the first one into the company’s Ford V8 truck.

The year 1950 very nearly brought about Roly’s demise. Son John Magness, the current Managing Director of Magness Benrow, takes up the story: “The old man was fighting import controls and he decided to drive to Wellington to take his case to the relevant Minister. He and Barry Miller, who was a Magness serviceman, took off in a brand new Austin A70 van. It was a filthy Friday night and before they left, Dad took out a £500 life insurance.

“They got to Te Kuiti, where they wanted to overnight, but the hotel couldn’t take them so they decided to go on to Taumarunui. Barry drove and Dad went to sleep in the passenger seat. A few minutes later the van crashed into a power pole and split cleanly down the middle. We were never told whether it was driver error or a vehicle problem, but Dad was tossed out, bounced off the road and rolled down a bank into the river.

“He spent a few days in the Taumarunui Hospital but was so badly injured that the authorities considered it a waste of money sending an ambulance to take him back to Auckland as [they thought] he wasn’t going to survive. They made him as comfortable as possible in the guard’s wagon of a train and sent him back in that! But survive he did, the tough bugger!

“They surgically reconstructed his horrifically damaged left arm by means of bone and skin grafts which left it several inches shorter than his right one. He suffered a fractured skull and his face and jaw were reconstructed as well. After a little time in the Hospice, doctors decided he might just live. He was told he would be 90% physically disabled for the rest of his life, but after the ‘remodelling’ and three years in and out of the Mater Hospital, he returned to his old self and never looked back. Barry Miller escaped the crash without a scratch.”  

 

GREEN MEANS GO – MORE STORES OPEN

After 16 successful years, the RJ Magness retail business had outgrown the Eden Terrace site. Traffic lights had been installed nearby and customer car parking had become a nightmare.

Given these two factors, a bold move to the central city took place in 1961, to 24 Wyndham Street to be precise. A branch was also opened in Richardson Road in Mount Roskill in 1963 but met with mixed success and closed three years later. The Richardson Road store was a full Fisher & Paykel franchised outlet but Wyndham Street was not; this gave the company the best of both worlds, for three years anyway, before Wyndham Street went F&P too, around 1975.

In 1962, RJ Magness took on a major promotion for Philips Hilversum radios. The Hilversum was a big, pushbutton table model radio boasting AM, FM and two Short Wave bands with “HiZ” sound output. Extensive newspaper ads trumpeted the headline: “ZING! BANG! BONG!” and saturation radio advertising on 1ZB made sure the promo was a big success.

The Hilversum sold for 50 guineas (£52-10-00 or maybe around $1,700 in today’s terms). With two years of black and white TV trading behind them, the Magness team promoted TV hard with Pye being championed in a billboard and press campaign.

Howick, one of Auckland’s most affluent suburbs, was also seen as having great potential so a branch was opened in 1966, only to close in under three years. So much for a sure fire thing: in fact 90% of the company’s bad debts were incurred in the Howick shop and John Magness sold the business which was reopened as a book shop.

NEW HANDS ON THE STEERING WHEEL

John Magness took on the role of heading the retail arm of the business in 1969, although his father kept a firm hand on the purse strings for some years after that. “Dad was so heavily involved in public life, along with the other divisions of RJ Magness, that it became vital that retail had a full time, hands-on driver. I had joined the company in 1957 as a part timer and went full time in 1963. By watching closely how the old man operated, I learned a lot and by the time I took over, I was ready.”

John had his moments as a young man entering the family business but looks back on them with amusement now.

“I was picking up a big Bendix G washer for service, by myself. The customer wasn’t home, so I backed the van up to a porch and moved the Bendix across the porch to the back of the van so I could slide it inside. Bugger! I had left the vehicle in neutral without the handbrake on and as I got the washer halfway into the van, the front wheels leaped off the ground, the van took off across the section, I went flat on my bum and the Bendix finished up in a bed of hydrangeas.

“Fortunately I managed to get the washer aboard and I was off. We cleaned it up, did the service and had it back in the customer’s home, no problems.” YouTube would have loved that one…

“Another time I was delivering an HMV refrigerator. It was pelting with rain and the trolley it was on slipped off the side of the driveway and the fridge slid down a grass bank. It wasn’t damaged, thank goodness, and again, I managed to clean it up, all ship shape before I fronted at the customer’s door.”

 

LEAVING WYNDHAM FOR ALBERT

In the meantime, Wyndham Street has been good for the company and the big jump to the city had paid off! However in 1976 another move was forced on the firm when the owners decided to develop the site. Next stop was Albert Street which RJ Magness occupied for eight years before yet another shift, this time just across the road.

Adrienne Harrison (now world famous for her part in the “John & Adrienne” radio ads), joined RJ Magness in 1978 and recalls a hilarious incident which could have had disastrous consequences: “We had a group of stray cats which somehow got into the original Albert Street shop at nights and the place got infested with fleas. I got Council permission to let off a number of flea bombs overnight on the basis I put signs on the doors warning people.

“I did this, but forgot to tell the guys upstairs in the Fourth Estate Club. They got pretty drunk evidently and one of them staggered into the loo, copping the flea bomb fumes which had drifted up through the floorboards. He was an asthmatic and ended up in hospital. Thank heavens he was OK!”

The first large scale indoor shopping mall in New Zealand opened in Saint Lukes in Mount Albert in 1971 and RJ Magness was one of the first to sign up. The concept of mall shopping grew rapidly and in 1974 Magness opened in Henderson Square in West Auckland, followed by Shore City on Auckland’s North Shore later the same year.

But, says John Magness, the mall’s success became a negative: “Mall operators, in my opinion got greedy and the cost of renting space became very expensive. So, as margins were beginning to tighten in the 1980s, we had to rethink. We closed Shore City in 1977 because of real car parking issues and sold Henderson Square to Ken Prime around 1982. Finally we pulled out of Saint Lukes in 1986 after 15 good years.” RJ Magness Limited was again a one-shop operation.

 

WHEN MAGNESS MET BENROW

Benrow Appliances had for a long time been viewed as a “smart” F&P dealer and offered the public all sorts of creative deals during a period when discounting went against the grain – especially if you were a Fisher & Paykel dealer.

In 1987, Benrow principal Roly Collins decided to call it quits and after some negotiation RJ Magness purchased the business. Benrow’s second Albert Street shop was closed after a four-year tenure and its shop at 117 Great South Road in Green Lane became Magness Benrow on 1 April 1988.

Today, Tony James, a buyer and one of Benrow’s original employees, has chalked up over 20 years’ service with the firm. Andrew Magness has a management role; he’s responsible for pricing and stock control, not to mention the endless task of negotiating price changes with suppliers, especially in TV and other technology products. Peter Healey, retired General Manager of Farmers, has been a consultant with the Magness retail team for over 20 years and is also an integral part of the decision making.

In 1999 John Magness bought a competing business, located in Highland Park, from Mark Campbell; Magness’ daughter, Catherine, was appointed manager. But this shopping strip went into decline as malls and destination shopping took control so in 2004 the Highland Park activity was moved to The Hub in Botany Downs. The HomeZone in Mairangi Bay on Auckland’s North Shore opened in 2006 and is managed by Gerry MacDonald.

 

GOING STRONG AT 76 YEARS YOUNG

Buying groups have been part of the Magness way of life for around 30 years, firstly as part of The Dirty Dozen then The Home Team, which was a group within FAPAY when F&P set that up in 1983.

When FAPAY became Appliance Connexion in 1998, the store became an “identified” 100% YES dealer before going “unidentified” (but remaining an ACL member) and marketing itself simply as Magness Benrow from 2004.

So here we are, 66 years down the track – actually 76 years if you include the original sound and service business. To quote the sign-off for the “John & Adrienne” radio ads: “Magness Benrow: three different stores Auckland wide. Great South Road Green Lane, The Hub Botany Downs and Constellation Drive North Shore.”

John Magness says there have been three significant events which have all enhanced the company. Adopting radio advertising was one of them. “Then there was the arrival of Adrienne Harrison in 1978. Adrienne has had a profound positive effect on our business and continues to do so. Our kids joining in the late 90s was important and of course this is the third generation.”

He looks back with pride, nostalgia and not a little emotion as he recalls a multitude of great times, some tough times and some stressful times. Still, asked if he would he do it all over again, he responds “You bet I would!” 



THE “JOHN & ADRIENNE” SHOW

John Magness picks out starting radio advertising as one of the three most significant events in the company’s recent history: “In 1972 we made the decision to put all our advertising eggs in the radio basket. This was a biggie as we had spent a fortune on press advertising through the 60s. It was just a matter of cost effectiveness.

“We met up with Tim Bickerstaff and forged a relationship with him, first on Radio i and later on Radio Pacific. Tim worked with us right up to his retirement about 20 years later.”

Radio remains the major thrust of Magness Benrow’s advertising – which brings us back to the “John & Adrienne” ads. To say these adverts have been controversial is an understatement! They appear somewhat muddled, amateurish even, but they undoubtedly work – big-time.

It all started 17 years ago with a 1ZB consultant who was there to discuss a new ad campaign. Adrienne Harrison recalls: “At that stage sometimes John would do the ads and at others I would. This guy said: ‘You don’t need me. You have a great rapport, so just do it yourselves, as a duo.’ We took his advice and have been doing [the adverts] ever since.”

Nowadays, Harrison and a copywriter at NewsTalk ZB do the scripts. She and John Magness visit the recording studio every Thursday and record five new ads which go to air throughout the next week. The ads are deliberately a bit wacky, topical and humorous, but they rate right up with the Mad Butcher ads in terms of recall and effectiveness. Adrienne also does a live spot on the Leighton Smith show.



NOTHING THAT CAN’T BE DONE...

Roly Magness, who started all this, died on 26 January 2003, age 83. He had a wonderful life, a colourful life, not only in the industry but in community service as well.

He sat on the Auckland Regional Authority for 20 years, the Auckland Harbour Board for 12. He was Deputy Mayor of the Mount Albert Borough Council for 15 years and was appointed as the youngest ever Justice of the Peace after during the infamous 151 day wharfies’ strike which began in February 1951.

Roly Magness was an innovator. He had vision and could see potential. Magness Benrow introduced a FreeCall 0800 number into the business circa 1990. He believed “There is nothing that can’t be done, if you really want it done.”

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