RETAILING AND SOUTHLAND’S “SILVER FOX”

By Merv Robertson June 13, 2017 Where are they now?

It’s more than 60 years since Dennis O’Brien joined our industry – what’s his story?

(Above: Dennis O'Brien today, aged 78, with another premium trout from the Mataura River.)

 

When I wrote about Noel Leeming Appliances in our Retail Icon series, I described Noel himself as a "legend".

Now I’m privileged to profile a man who I consider equally worthy of that mantle.

The Rice family dynasty in Invercargill can be traced back to 1895 when Oswald Rice emigrated there from England and opened a confectionery factory in Dee Street, succeeded by his sons Percy, Ossie and Cyril when he retired in 1920.

The new company, Rice Brothers, thrived but when the Second World War brought severe sugar rationing, they changed direction and made ice cream instead. Ossie’s sons, Bruce and Robin Rice would eventually become the firm’s Principals. 

The ice cream project started a long and happy relationship with Fisher & Paykel when F&P-sourced commercial freezers were installed and this continued when a small home appliance business called Rice Refrigeration opened in Cambridge Place with a Fisher & Paykel franchise.

Registered with the New Zealand Companies Office on 11 October 1951, they sold Whiteway standard wringer washers for £59-10-0 or £64-10-0 for the timer model (nearly $3,600 and $3,900 respectively in today’s terms).

With Fisher & Paykel’s whiteware Kelvinator, Whiteway and then Bendix brands, the company grew steadily with in-house service becoming a major asset and in 1966 a young man called Dennis O’Brien (aka the "Silver Fox") started out in our industry, joining Rices as an Apprentice Refrigeration Engineer.

(Above: A TV turned into a fish tank and a priceless photo opp was just one of Dennis O'Brien's clever ways to attract media attention.)

 

Cool ideas from Canada

Rice Refrigeration gave Dennis O’Brien (sometimes called "Din") his start but, after a couple of years, aged 19, he took himself off to Vancouver where he was to have completed his apprenticeship with Nash-Kelvinator.

He arrived on the good ship Orcades with no return ticket, but was was informed on arrival that a major strike had begun and that the promised job was not available until the strike was over.

With only $200 to his name, he found himself stranded halfway around the world in the middle of winter, out of work and living in digs for a dollar a night.

Getting employment was the obvious priority and after browsing in the appliance department of Eatons Department Store one day, he made an enquiry as to prospects for work.

With the economy looking shabby, the best he could be offered was a commission-only job selling new warranties door-to-door to Eaton’s customers whose original warranties were expiring.

Perhaps it was at that point that the personality, creativity and selling skills which would later manifest themselves so decisively back home came to the fore.

“I was able to survive on commissions until I secured a position with a large, exciting and diverse commercial refrigeration company at which I finished my apprenticeship,” the 78 year-old recalls today.

“I returned to Invercargill in 1960 on a leave of absence but went back to Rices in a dual role capacity, combining showroom sales with time on the road as a Commercial Sales Rep. I never looked back!”

On his return, Dennis showed Bruce Rice some 35mm colour slides of products he had been working on in Canada and Bruce tasked him to introduce similar lines for new commercial customers.

These were single phase 40, 60, 90 and 200 cubic foot portable freezer rooms which Dennis arranged for Emslies in Dunedin to manufacture and the farmers just couldn’t get enough.

This enterprise was followed by the securing of a major contract to supply viewable bottle coolers for DB hotels throughout Otago and Southland.

The introduction of fibreglass for spa pools and other imaginative sales wins followed.

(Above: From December 2002, the F&P Tavern Club's 18th Annual Dinner.)

 

Should I stay or should I go?

To this day, Dennis loves cruising and in 1962, during a cruise to Tahiti, he met the Managing Director of a large American Pharmaceutical company and was offered a PR position based in Melbourne.

“After giving this offer due consideration, I thought, ‘why not’ and on returning to work I tendered my resignation to Bruce.

"Next day he came to me, saying that he and his wife wanted to move to Melbourne and suggested that our enthusiastic, long term accountant, my good friend Allan Baxter and I buy him out – he goes, we stay – and so it happened.”

The pair then became Directors with Dennis adopting the position of Sales Manager and taking charge of advertising.

Later they bought the balance of shares from Robin thus taking full ownership and changing the name to "Rices – Southland’s Home Appliance Specialists".

After 37 remarkable years in charge, in 1999 it was time to call it a day and the highly successful O’Brien/Baxter business partnership came to an end when Rices was sold to Smiths City and rebranded as Rices Powerestore.

Dennis continues to live in Invercargill, as does Allan and wife Flo.

(Above: Dennis on the Orient Express, circa 2001.)

 

Some personal landmarks

That then, is very much as a snapshot of the appliance industry career of Dennis John O’Brien, but I’ll now take you beyond that, bringing to mind just some of the ideas, exploits and philosophies which made this guy so good, unique even. 

Dennis O’Brien has always had an eye for the main chance and he was happy to tell me of some "side ventures" he had initiated over the years.

First there was the introduction of the sale of party ice through Cosbie’s Garage after spotting this activity on Bondi Beach (who else would think of selling ice in Invercargill?) and a chimney cleaning enterprise with the catchy byline, "Up your flue for 1 and 2" (from the English term "one shilling & tuppence").

There was a franchise for Greek three-wheeled motorcycles for which he did a deal with Datsun NZ, a jet-boat concession in Queenstown, the importation of original oil paintings from China, sheepskin exporting and domestic ceiling insulation.

His story could not be told without the inclusion of what was the most important event of all, his marriage to Patricia Prentice – Trish.

Dennis describes Trish, herself with a successful career in nursing as “special”.

They married in Fiji in 1973 and many reading this article will recall social occasions in Invercargill at which Din and Trish were extraordinary hosts.

Come 1976, the couple celebrated the birth of son Prentice (a qualified helicopter pilot – above left) and today he and wife Claire have five children of their own.

Tragically Trish developed cancer and Dennis was devastated when in July 2003, she passed away.

Her motto in life had been: “I want to become all that I am capable of becoming.”

Indeed, she tamed Dennis so it looks like she exceeded her own goals...

 

Spectacular, subversive promos

The successes and accolades heaped on Dennis and his team over the years are too numerous to list but we can certainly take note of a few of the more spectacular.

In the early days of microwave ovens, prices were out of reach for many. But in the mid-1980s with realistic pricing now in place, Dennis saw an opportunity to "own" the category and Rices mounted a four day campaign which resulted in 643 ovens being sold.

Trade-in promotions from left field were an O’Brien specialty and some became almost industry folklore.

For instance, the "Trade-in Your Husband" in which Rices offered 50 Cents per kilo of hubby-weight (stand-ins and rocks in the pockets not acceptable) as a trade-in discount on a new Panasonic microwave oven.

Then there was the promo offering $200 trade on anything that cut grass when buying a Masport Easystart motor mower.

True story: a farmer brought in a live goat, the trade was accepted and amazingly, both TV 1 and TV 3 sent camera crews to Rices and the occasion featured on both channels' 6 O’clock news that night, providing advertising that money could not buy.

At another time $100 was offered on any shaving device on a new electric shaver – a standalone razorblade made the cut.

Watches too came with trade-ins and Dennis, on a trip to Japan with Sanyo, bought a full run of 2,300 Sanyo watches and offered customers $40 trade on their old watch, working or not. In short order all were sold.

The local jewellers hated that and banded together to advertise that customers shouldn’t buy a lemon from an appliance dealer.

Our man responded by including a bunch of grapes in his next ad with copy proclaiming that "Rices didn’t sell sour grapes, but we do sell the same watches as jewellers, but at a better price".

Seemingly, Dennis had a virtual open line to a local radio station.

He would have a brainwave, ring the station and at the first available moment be put to air – at a cost of course – and here’s a tale which I first heard some time ago from another dealer but which Dennis also brought it up in our recent discussion. 

The owner of our then largest chain was visiting Invercargill and saw that Rices were advertising video tapes at $9.99.

He dropped into the Mersey Street store and proceeded to advise Dennis to up his prices as he was getting $14.99 for the same item.

The gentleman left, Din picked up the phone, dialled the radio station and proceeded to tell Southland what had transpired, no names no pack drill.

Naturally the punch line was along the lines of, “So come into Rices. If you’re paying more than $9.99, you’re paying too much.”

(Above: It's 1996 and Dennis kicks off another Rices promotion featuring his very own Ford Model T Race-about.)

 

Everyone loves an Expo

Rices was Dealer of the Year on a number of occasions, some of which come quickly to mind, especially Sanyo in 1988 when the award was presented in New Orleans.

There was Melco in 1995 and in 1997 Philips made a special presentation to mark the fact that Rices had sold thje most 29” Matchline TV’s of any independent dealer.

The list goes on. 

Of course there were some "bad buys" along the way but, as Dennis muses today: “You learn from these” and cites one in particular.

“Let me tell you about the manual ice slicers. They took us four years to quit and became collector’s items,” he reveals...

First and foremost though, Dennis O’Brien and Rices are fabled for initiating the Expo phenomenon which swept independent New Zealand through most of the 1980s and 1990s.

Once the incredible successes down south became widely known, several dealers from all over the country would visit Rices to see for themselves and learn from the maestro himself, who was happy to advise and then starting their own Expo programmes back home.

It was in 1983 that the first Rices Expo hit the Invercargill scene at Ascot Park Hotel and, by the time the curtain came down on Rices, 25 Expos had been completed, around seven of them supplementary events at Croydon Lodge in Gore and every one a gem.

Turnover grew to just over $3 million dollars in a three day weekend show, mostly incremental business, and who can forget the tireless Dennis pacing throughout the venue all day each day, microphone in hand exhorting the customers to buy?

I asked Dennis about that first show.

“It was not really so much about selling as showing Southlanders that their local dealer had all these wonderful new products, some like they had not seen before.

"We had amazing video recorders, hand-held calculators, Masport cultivators, TVs housed in attractive cabinets – some even with doors on the front – the latest automatic washing machines and lots more.

"Suppliers loved it, customers loved it and over the years we were able to introduce new products at exciting yet profitable prices which was fantastic for my guaranteed trade-in offers.”

 

Trade-ins better than price cuts

We also spend a little time comparing dealer advertising now to how it used to be.

“It seemed to me right back when I took over Rices' promotions, and it’s even more so today,” opines Dennis, “that the ‘Big Boys’ all basically advertised the same – 'Monster Sale', 'Hot Price', 'Interest Free' etc.

"But I perceived that we are a nation of hoarders with a ‘might come in handy one day’ attitude and that’s why instead of advertising price-off, I gave customers the opportunity to clear the junk by offering to take it as a trade-in on a new model.

"That was our point of difference and I really believed that paying cash deserved some recognition.

"For instance, if someone paid cash for a washing machine, Rices would give them a year’s supply of laundry detergent in recognition. A cash purchase of a dishwasher would earn a 20-piece dinner set and so on.”

 

Still smiling and cruising

Dennis has for a long time been investing in residential real estate and since the sale of the business, this has been both a hobby and a handy source of income.

Travel is another passion and he and Trish had been abroad on numerous occasions, often courtesy of suppliers.

In this context, he mentions the Seoul Olympics with Samsung, a trip on the Orient Express with Whirlpool, a cruise on the River Nile with Monaco, a Rugby World Cup experience with Philips and dealer trips to Japan with Panasonic (see above, from 1987), Toshiba and Sanyo so it’s no surprise to learn that he continues to see the world, invariably aboard a cruise ship.

Dennis doesn’t shy away from two personal life changing experiences.

The first came around 1997 when he figured he was enjoying the festivities around copious industry events too much and resolved to do something about it.

He gave alcohol away, hasn’t had alcohol since, doesn’t miss it and reckons he says “thank you” to himself every day.

Then, in November 2007, his world tumbled and as he puts it: “I had a change of priorities.”

Dennis was diagnosed with cancer of the liver, having originally assumed his extreme discomfort was just appendicitis.

He endured four operations in Christchurch after which the surgeon informed him that it would be too dangerous to try again should the cancer return.

Well, return it did, a year later.

The Surgeon shook his head but Dennis told him: “I’ve just purchased 10 helicopters and I haven’t sold any yet. You have to try again.”

With nothing to lose, they tried again.

A year later Dennis sent the Surgeon and his family a large remote controlled helicopter with an accompanying note which said" “Only nine to go.”

Is he out of the woods now?

“Well, I’m still smiling and still cruising thanks to massive daily doses of vitamin C, the equivalent of eating 30 oranges each day,” he replies.

(Above: Dennis landed this "whopper" in Fiji after a 30 minute tussle. He thought it was a Marlin.)

 

“When you believe you can – you can"

After a conversation with Dennis O’Brien, you find yourself in a much more positive frame of mind.

He trots out a variety of adages from time to time, like: “You never fail until you stop trying”, “We miss 100% of the orders we don’t ask for” and “If you want to see light at the end of the tunnel, go light it yourself".

His personal favourite is: “When you believe you can – you can”.

I ask him to help me draw his remarkable story to a conclusion, perhaps with some memories and I quote:

“I could imagine several books on hilarious times (mainly after dark) with special friends I have made along the way and each will understand – enough said."

For example:

  • How To Dig For Toheroa On Oreti Beach by Richard Papworth, Vaughan Simon & Bill Pallet.
  • Magic by Ian Calderwood.
  • Step One Hypnotism by Graham Lockery.
  • Yankee Religions I have Known by Merv Robertson.
  • Octopus Hunting by Richard Blundell.

Several more well-known names cropped up during my several chats with Dennis but they’ll go largely unmentioned here lest we forget someone, but there were three people in particular who really made a difference.

“Definitely my wonderful parents, Rex and Alma,” he says. “They taught me and my two brothers the values of life.

"And, so far as the industry is concerned, I must especially mention Roly Gillett of Fisher & Paykel.

Roly was the supreme Sales Manager and knew exactly how to motivate both his staff and his dealers.”

(Above: Greg Lancaster presents Dennis with the Sanyo Dealer of the Year Award in New Orleans.)

 

Signing off – just for now

I didn’t ask Dennis to single out further career highlights because to do so would be inviting an odyssey JR Tolkien might be proud to write.

I’m thinking that Dennis’ whole career was a highlight but an occasion which deserves special mention occurred in when he was invited to deliver a lecture at the Kapi'olani Community College of the University of Hawaii.

Entitled "Marketing Down Under", the focus of Dennis' lecture was on the differences between retail marketing in New Zealand and the USA, with an emphasis on activities such as trade-in campaigns and the Expos, giving examples of the innovations Rices was renowned for.

The Americans found it hard to comprehend that, in a catchment of around 57,000 people, a small, privately owned retailer – tiny by American standards – could sell over $3 million dollars' worth of appliances and consumer electronics in just three days!

From the time Rice Refrigeration open its doors in 1951 to 1999, when Dennis and Allan retired from Rices, the business was a Southland company, owned and operated by Southlanders, for Southlanders.

The Silver Fox signs off his story thus far: “How blessed we all are to have been involved in the exciting, competitive and ever-changing appliance industry. I believe no other career or industry has so many dedicated, humorous and mostly intelligent personalities.”

Dennis O’Brien – legend!

(Above: Dennis underselling himself, circa 2014.)

 


You can read other tales from our "Where are they now" series here.

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