McKay’s Electrical: From bright spark to retail destination

By Merv Robertson October 09, 2012 Retail Icon

The story of electrical contracting and retailing that is McKay’s Electrical started way before the first store ever opened. Merv Robertson reports.

To view a PDF of the complete feature as it appeared in Wares magazine, click the download button at the bottom of this page.

This is the story of Thomas Wilford (Tom) McKay (1907-2010) and the evolution of his iconic Dargaville business, McKay’s Electrical. Tom’s family were keen that he write a book on his life and businesses but this never happened. However, during the late 1990s he recorded some audio tapes, which are being transcribed, so some of the content you read here is taken directly from his spoken word.

I am also indebted to Joe Faithfull, of MacKay Electrical in Whangarei, who was able to provide much relevant information about McKay the man and McKay’s the business.

In 1907, Enrico Caruso featured on the US Billboard charts for 7 weeks with his recording of Vesti La Giubba; the movie Tom Sawyer was released; Lion Pale Beer (now Lion Red) was first brewed; on 26 September the Colony of New Zealand ceased to exist and we became a Dominion within the British Empire and, on 2 July, Tom McKay was born in Lower Hutt.

Tom’s father, David Alexander McKay, was a ganger working for New Zealand Railways in Lower Hutt. The family shifted to Napier in 1911, a move which soon saw his parents separate when McKay senior walked away from the marriage and left his wife Elizabeth (Betsy) to bring up four boys on her own – Bill, Ernie, David Junior and Tom, who was four.

Betsy worked half days washing and cleaning at the local maternity hospital, earning around four shillings ($6.32 in today’s money) a time. Life was tough. But through his school years Tom was extremely industrious and helped supplement the family income. Before school he would deliver milk, just getting home in time to clean up and go to his classes. His pay was six shillings (about $8 today) a week. After school off he went to tailors Ringland Bros, where he swept floors and made deliveries until 5.30pm for another 10 shillings ($13) a week.

 

Lighting the spark and coping with the quake

As soon as he was old enough, Tom McKay was apprenticed to an electrician. Young Tom soon passed his electrical exam and gained his wiring licence aged 18. That was in 1925 when the power in Napier was generated from a coal fired gas plant. Tom soon helped install the very first refrigerator and washing machine sold in the city. He really enjoyed his work and aged 19 was in charge of a gang of eight men.

Five years later, the world crumbled – literally – for the folk of Hawkes Bay. The time was 10.47am on 3 February 1931. Tom and his team were part way through wiring a palatial home being built for a Mr Nelson Smith when the house started to rattle, the ground heaved violently and the expansive tile roof fell to the ground.

Tom McKay ran for his life, had to circumnavigate several collapsed bridges and eventually made it home, worried sick about his mother. His tapes recall that Betsy greeted him, calm as ever, and simply said: “Your wireless is bust.”

Napier was busy for years as the rebuild progressed. Tom and his 26 workmates were working 80-hour weeks with no overtime. Tom volunteered to approach the boss for more reward and, on being given no joy, handed in his notice, determined to start his own electrical business.

He had £15 to his name ($1,500 today) and a newly purchased Model T Ford. Despite having no business experience, before long Tom had 15 new buildings on contract and one apprentice, Frank Pidd. The business thrived and soon he had a staff of six.

Serious courting became an important facet of Tom’s life when, around 1933 he met a Gisborne girl, Mona Chapman, who was working in Napier. They married in December 1934. Tom and Mona took a trip up north to Dargaville in 1936. Staying in the Northern Wairoa Hotel, they met up with a local plumber, Jim Robertson. It was a meeting which would change their lives.

Electricity was arriving in the Far North later that year and Robertson suggested a working relationship in which he would do all the plumbing in town and Tom would take all the electrical work. Good idea! The deal was done, the McKays made a quick trip back to Napier and, after selling half the business to a Mr Quigley, packed up and shifted to Dargaville.

The original plan was try things out for six months but, sadly, Mona became unwell and died on 26 August that same year, just 18 months after the wedding. Mona was buried in Gisborne. On the way home Tom called into Napier and sold the other half of his Hawkes Bay business to Quigley. This gave him a welcome injection of capital and now, his connection with Napier over, he was committed to Dargaville.

 

From the Bay to Dargaville

Dargaville! Famous for the Kauri gum and timber trades and, briefly, New Zealand’s most populated town, these days Dargaville is famous for two things – it’s not only the Kumara Capital of New Zealand but it is also home to 100% McKay’s Electrical.

When electricity came to Dargaville, priority was given to wiring up the businesses and, with retail closed on Wednesday afternoons, good progress was made. By now Tom McKay was driving a snappy Plymouth Coupe and had a goodly staff comprising Ruth Kirton, Bob Nicol, Joe Shucksmith, Dan McGlone, Jim Sellars, Fred Berry, John Goodwin and George Hall.

The first home of McKay’s Electrical was on the corner of Victoria and Poto Streets. Tom McKay leased this two-storey building for £2.10.00 a week (a touch under $1,300 today). This housed both retail and the workshop and upstairs rooms were rented out to McKay’s staff, recovering £2 weekly.

In a photo of this building at the time (see page 32), looking out the top left window, we see two children, one of them being Jackie McKay, Tom’s niece. (In later life, Jackie married Nelson Norman [Joe] Faithfull, who had joined Tom’s company as an apprentice in 1944. There will be more of Joe later…)

Now 82, local Terry Curel remembers going to the opening of this amazing new electrical shop with his mother at age seven: “Everything was gas operated around the north and mother was fascinated to see these electric stoves which stood on spindly legs.”

After Mona’s death, Tom threw everything into his work, formally registering McKay’s Electrical on 11 February 1938. He became a contractor for the local power board and household wiring became the backbone of the fledgling business. Payment was 75% up-front with the balance on completion and final inspection.

Pre-war, Tom McKay also made his first foray into retail, selling Pilot branded wireless radios, as well as toasters, irons, jugs and bedside lamps. But supply of these products and contracting both virtually dried up during the war, at which time Tom was manpowered into the Air Force and put in charge of wiring military camps in the North Island.

Around this time, Tom fell in love with a local girl, Jean Gordon, who was in charge of the office at Wairoa Stores and, on 2 December 1939, they married. In her youth Jean had worked for a Rotorua lawyer and was not only an accomplished shorthand typist, but an intelligent well organised administrator as well. Although she was essentially a “back room girl”, her contribution to the business was never underestimated.

 

Post-war, radios and retailing

After his tour of duty, Tom set about rebuilding the retail operation, starting with radios. He purchased parts and cabinets, had the chassis made at a local workshop and had his team assemble them. These radios were sold under the Regent brand. Next were refrigerators; the 5ft3 and 7ft3 cabinets came from Masterton while the units (Kirby or Westinghouse) were brought in from Australia. These took just a couple of hours to assemble, 12 at a time in a rented store, and wore the Hostess and McKay brands. Later McKay’s imported Thor automatic washing machines from the UK.

But electrical work was still a mainstay and Tom McKay recalled that his first house wiring job was for the Wearmouth family who were Exclusive Brethren. The project was to wire lights, plugs, a stove, a water heater and a milking machine. Mr Wearmouth had a big farm and drove a Chevy. Tom asked where the power point in the lounge should go and was queried by Wearmouth as to what this would be used for. Tom replied, “The wireless.” Wearmouth said he had no need for a wireless, as “The Lord had no wireless.” “No,” said Tom, “but he had no Chevy or a milking machine either.” We presume the power point went in.

Still, the people of Dargaville were not generally quick to embrace electricity and selling appliances proved tough. In the early days, McKay’s bought most of the retail stock from NEECO. Tom’s tapes reveal that an electric iron cost 13 shillings ($13.50 today) and an electric stove was £26.15.00 ($2,800). “In those days, there were thirteen radio dealers in Dargaville,” recalled Tom.

 

Whangarei beckons and retail blossoms

Tom’s expansion started when he opened in Vine Street, Whangarei. Nev Barnaby owned an electrical business in the city but sold it to McKay as he was joining the Armed Services. On 23 December 1943, a new company was formed as McKay Electrical Whangarei (as distinct from McKay’s Electrical in Dargaville) and this place would be managed by Peter Walker, a pre-war McKay apprentice who flew Spitfires.

In the following years branches were opened in Kaikohe and Kaitaia. Frank Pidd had been Tom’s first apprentice in Napier and on moving north he was appointed Manager of the Kaikohe operation. Some years down the track, retail had grown significantly so, to accommodate the introduction of a bigger range, electrical contracting and the refrigeration service department were relocated .

Today, Joe Faithfull is 84 years old but, together with son Lindsay, still owns McKay Electrical in Whangarei and goes into work each day. In 1950 Joe left for Australia to seek his fortune but, about five years later, at the request of Tom McKay he returned to Dargaville as a 1/3 shareholder and took the position of Contracts Manager.

Soon after, the Dargaville and Kaikohe shops were granted Fisher & Paykel franchises with Leonard refrigeration and Savaday laundry. This decision did not go down too well with another Dargaville retailer, Clarke & Parker, which was already an F&P dealer and more was to be heard of this just a few years later...

The story goes that Tom and Joe were working in Kaikohe and the then Dargaville manager changed the window display, including some Hoover product (this was well before Fisher & Paykel took the Hoover agency). The F&P rep called by, spotted the offending display and before long Tom McKay was looking for alternative whiteware brands. McDonald and Frigidaire filled the refrigeration gap and the reliable Beatty washing machines proved to be more than adequate replacements for Savaday.

Boom times in the 1960s with TV – and oil!

The early 1960s saw two major events which had dramatic, positive impacts on business. In 1960 black & white TV arrived in New Zealand. Two years later, construction began on the Marsden Point Oil Refinery which opened in 1964.

To prepare for these two opportunities, Tom McKay and Joe Faithfull travelled to Sydney to do a recce. Says Joe: “Great excitement surrounded the arrival of TV and with the refinery on the horizon. All this meant massive opportunities for our contracting and the big influx of families into the region saw a big boost for retail.” Staff shot up from 20 to 50.

Tom and Joe visited the Shell refinery and also picked the brains of a contractor who had lots of experience working on big installations. At the same time they visited TV dealers up to 80 miles out of Sydney and learned the tricks to aerial installations with low signal strength.

Says Joe Faithfull: “Back then a TV licence cost the customer £4 [$169 today] and we found that to get a picture, they had to outlay about £1 [$42] per every foot of aerial. The aerials we installed were anything up to 100ft high and the TVs averaged say £150 [$6,300], so watching pictures in the lounge at home was an expensive exercise! Reception was pretty poor at first but when some of us retailers banded together to finance a repeater on Mt Parahaki, we were able to give our customers a reasonable picture.”

In 1965 there was a potentially ruinous fire at the Dargaville site when a burglar trashed the office and set the workshop and store office alight. Meanwhile in Whangarei, it became more and more difficult to coordinate three thriving activities at separate locations and this led to a purpose-built building in Water Street, taking over the old gas works site. This was 1967.

Joe Faithfull again: “In retrospect it seems that once started, we were always expanding and by 1970 we had 20 vehicles and a bike operating out of that building which still looks the same today. This was a major project for us and we borrowed big money to make it happen.”

In the summer of 1967 McKay Electrical conducted a major promotion on MacDonald chest freezers, labelling them “High Speed Foamwall Freezers”. They were promoted as having 50% more foam insulation than any other freezer and that the cooling was fan assisted to cope with Northland’s humid conditions. The 5½ft3 model retailed at £92.10.00 ($3,715 these days), while the top of the range 30ft3 model was £220.00.00 ($8,875!).

 

Whangarei and Dargaville separate

In 1972 McKay Electrical opened a small retail shop in Kamo, just north of the city, with Arthur Hood as manager. Around 1980 the store moved to a bigger building on the corner of Kamo and Station Roads, later incorporating a video library. It was around this time that Tom McKay decided he would sell his shares in the very successful Whangarei operation and, in 1982, Joe Faithfull became sole owner of McKay Electrical Whangarei, all divisions included.

Today, this company is an “integrated solution provider” for the electrical industry, carrying out design, automation, manufacture, installation and maintenance. It operates throughout NZ, has branches in the USA and the UAE but retains its roots through an appliance servicing company. At that time Tom McKay and his family bought the remaining Dargaville shares back from Joe, regaining full ownership of the original business.

Joe Faithfull rounds off the retail side of McKay Electrical Whangarei: “In 1988 we acquired the Garnet Keene shops in Whangarei and Kawakawa. Bruce Rogers was looking after GK at the time and he came across to us until we shut both shops in order to consolidate the McKay position. Bruce, along with Richard Papworth and Ray Sergeant of F&P, was very instrumental in helping me put the deal together and I think it was around that time when Tom got his F&P franchise back in Dargaville.”

But the new Kamo store proved to be on the fringe of the traffic flow and in 1990 they moved back into central Kamo. In 1993 the Kamo store closed altogether allowing the operation to concentrate on Water Street.

Joe continues: “In 1999 Fisher & Paykel approached us to see if we would consider selling the retail part of our business to an undisclosed buyer. Lindsay and I gave this much thought and in the end decided that we were much more comfortable with contracting so we agreed to sell. The buyer turned out to be Warren Huband and we were fine with that. I think Warren wanted Dargaville as well but Tom was not interested.”

April 1999 saw the Wairoa River burst its banks once again and a flash flood inundated the town. McKay Electrical, along with several other businesses in the town suffered substantial stock damage when flood water rushed in one door and out the other, taking product, paperwork and shop fittings with it. Thankfully, no-one was injured and within a few days it was business as normal.

 

100% about Dargaville today

The site of today’s Dargaville operation, 100% McKay’s Electrical, was originally occupied by a blacksmith called Drake. Access was from Victoria Street and only two other shops were neighbours, Dalbeth Shoe Shop, and tearooms which were never completed, finishing up as McGinty’s Fabric Shop.

Marion Lawrie (née McKay) had 11 years working for her dad, Tom, before stepping aside to raise a family but has been back these last 15 years overseeing the business. Her late husband, Gil Lawrie, was Contracts Manager at Dargaville for 50 years.

“Early in 2010 we heard that the whiteware EDA was to be terminated at the end of June and we knew our showroom needed a decent refurbishment to take advantage of the opportunities this would bring with alternative brands, a wider range. As expected, dad had his tuppence-worth to say when we started the planning but, sadly, he was not able to see the results and left us in September that year.”

Grant Heathcote remembers Tom McKay very well: “Back in the day I was a young rep for Union Carbide. My first territory was up north and Tom was on my calling schedule. Our policy was to distribute solely through wholesalers but we called on retailers as well, to make sure point of sale material was being used well.

“At one stage we had these great counter display stands which were sold as a package deal including batteries and a range of torches. By hook or by crook Tom wanted one but he wanted to buy it direct. ‘Against policy,’ I told him. He didn’t care much for policy and after some haggling I sold him a package and he wrote out a cheque. He always treated reps well and certainly I always felt welcome in his shop.”

Tom McKay became a very well-known and popular character in Dargaville. He would go on to serve on the Borough Council for 27 years, spend 1977 as Deputy Mayor and have around 70 years in Rotary. He had stints as President of both the Dargaville and Northland Chambers of Commerce and in 2008 was the first inductee into the Far North Business Hall of Fame, aged 100. It was only shortly after this event, with failing eyesight preventing him from driving, that he had to stop going into work each day.

One of Joe Faithfull’s memories of his old boss, mentor, business partner and friend is his stubbornness and his inability to sense when he was overdoing things. “Ill health dogged Tom on occasions. He would get migraines, bilious attacks and I would have to drive him home. You know, we would be out on a job and suddenly he would say, ‘Joe, take me home’.

“I remember Frank Pidd telling him once that we always knew when he was about to get crook. Tom growled, ‘Well, why don’t you tell me then?’ Frank looked at him and said, ‘Tom, when you are getting crook, nobody can tell you anything.’ That was so true but Tom’s spirit epitomised his determination to succeed, to get the job done.”

Thomas Wilford McKay was a genuine legend in his own lifetime, to the extent that it seemed the whole town of Dargaville celebrated his 100th birthday on 2 July 2007. Some 140 guests attended the birthday party and family travelled from near and far. At a special luncheon, speakers included MP John Carter and Kaipara Mayor Peter King as well as representatives from Rotary.

In reply Tom spoke without notes and closed by saying, “My wife Jean, her continual help and support are the reasons I am standing here today. I really mean that.” When Tom died, Jean was 99 not out and had no wish to be apart from her great love. With a century beckoning, Jean passed, just short of the mark but reunited with her man forever. 

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