ONE DOOR CLOSES BUT ANOTHER QUICKLY OPENS

By Wares September 21, 2016 Where are they now?

Our latest “Where are they now” is racing driver turned savvy retailer, Greg Lancaster. Merv Robertson reports.

(Above: It's Pukekohe in 1976 and Greg Lancaster leads the way in a Vauxhall Victor. The car was written off and nearly Greg along with it, at Manfeild in 1976. Photo: Ross Cammick)

Greg Lancaster was a charismatic figure during his years in our industry but his early career reveals little of what was to follow.

His first job was as a clerk at the Ministry of Works in Auckland, followed by three years in the Works Registrar’s office at Auckland University.

Greg soon developed a great interest in motorsport, racing Humber 80s and Ford Anglias at club level and in fact the great Jim Richards, his good friend to this day, had his first start in the same club event in which Greg debuted.

Jim Richards went on to win Bathurst seven times and became four-time V8 champion, while Greg’s racing career was sadly cut short.

But back to the beginning…

While most of his peers were using various automotive businesses to finance their motor racing, Greg Lancaster was paying for his passion from tax paid income!

That needed to change however so he took over a troubled South Auckland Caltex gas station and auto repair business.

“I worked hard, built it up and ran it for five years before selling for a healthy capital gain!” says Greg today.

By this time he was racing a “fearsome thing” called a Vauxhall Victor V8 and competing seriously at tracks around the country against Kiwi racing legends the likes of Leo Leonard, Paul Fahey and Jack Nazer.

“Unfortunately,” he recalls, “that ended in tears when I had a major accident at Manfield in 1976 which saw me hospitalised with a compression fracture of the spine.”

See the aftermath of another accident below...

It’s 1975 and Greg (centre, tall with glasses) and supporters gather round his Vauxhall Victor after he pranged it in 1975. His son Steve (back left, with mullet and mutton chops) played for the Crusaders 1996-2000 followed by six years as High Performance Manager. He has just been appointed as Head of Provincial Rugby, reporting to Steve Tew. (Photo: Ross Cammick)

(Above: A pranged Victor, Pukekohe 1975. Greg is the lanky guy with glasses and a rueful look on his face.)

 

Sanyo and seminal relationships

It was at that time that Greg Lancaster joined “our” industry for the first time, as Credit Manager and Head Office Accountant at Autocrat Radio (later to become Autocrat Sanyo, then Sanyo).

After a couple of years he was headhunted by Fountain Marketing for the Credit Manager role.

Because he wanted to better understand the industry and its players, Greg spent a lot of time out on the road, “often with reps but sometimes alone so I could speak with dealers on their own patches rather than just sit in an office sending out letters to delinquent debtors.

“It was mainly independents in those days and by building relationships, I found we went up the pecking order when it came to paying the bills.”

Meanwhile changes were afoot at Autocrat. The Japanese secured a financial stake and after two years at Fountain, Greg was coaxed back to Autocrat Sanyo as Manager of TV Rentals where he developed a programme which enabled the dealer network to process rental contracts, acting as Sanyo agents.

Around 1978 he succeeded George Marra as Sales & Marketing Manager, at the same time retaining responsibility for rentals.

The most aggressive Sanyo dealer was Noel Leeming in Christchurch and the pair soon established a strong personal and working relationship.

Says Greg today: “I remember that Noel had bust up with his founding partner and was struggling financially, but it was easy to see he was becoming a force.

“So, with a handshake, I agreed to assist him financially by means of extended credit over time until he found his feet. As a result he maintained a strong preference for Sanyo.”

 

Back to racing and cars

Greg continued to mix work and play with motorsport still very much in his blood until a spectacular, crash at Pukekohe (thankfully without injury) saw his driving put on hold.

“My car had Sanyo plastered all over it and with the New Zealand Herald publishing a rather graphic photograph, MD Ray Walker suggested I should either choose to pursue a career with Sanyo, or move on and concentrate on motor racing…”

Reluctantly Greg gave driving away but not the sport. Instead, he became a team owner and built a four door Datsun Bluebird with which the team won the ShellSport New Zealand Saloon Car Championship.

“The year was 1985, Warren Steele was my driver and we won 15 of the 16 races which made up the championship.”

When Autocrat founders Ray Walker and Percy Wills sold the bulk of their stake in the business to Sanyo, part of the deal saw Sanyo install one of its own as Managing Director.

There was a falling out at that point and Greg headed back into the automotive industry with Volvo which at the time had separate distribution entities for cars, trucks & buses and marine engines.

On Greg’s watch all these elements were pulled together under one roof.

Working with Volvo also gave Greg the opportunity to rebuild his connection with motorsport as a driver by importing a Volvo Sports Sedan which he raced for a couple of years, thoroughly enjoying being back behind the wheel.

(Above: Another mishap, at Pukekohe in 1983 in a Datsun 1600 - in the background sporting Sanyo sponsorship!) 

 

Backing a dark horse

With the new Volvo organisation operating smoothly, Greg received yet another phone call from Sanyo.

“Effectively Sanyo paid me to come back on board as Deputy Managing Director with a licence to ‘run the cutter’.

“My job was made easier by the fact I was already well known in the industry and we had a pretty good standing with most of the main independents as well as Farmers who were big players.”

Discounting was largely taboo back then but the owner of small electronics retailer Sound Plus, a certain Roger Bhatnagar, wasn’t playing the same game at all – “We discount everything” was the store’s slogan in fact.

Greg Lancaster recalls that in 1984 Bhatnagar was “struggling to get suppliers” because of the pressure exerted on them by other dealers, so he approached Sanyo.

Says Greg: “My attitude was that his way would be the way of the future and Roger would succeed so it was best we got alongside him.”

(Above: With Greg as Managing Director, Sanyo sponsored the Rally of New Zealand in 1983 and 1984.) 

 

Joining Noel Leeming

Battling cancer, during the late 1980s Noel Leeming was becoming progressively weaker. He was also determined to have Greg join his organisation but the latter resisted on the basis that their “two egos could never fit in the same room”.

However Smiths City, which had bought a majority shareholding in Leemings back in 1983, finally acquired full ownership in 1990 when Noel’s health forced him to sell the remainder of his shares in the company bearing his name.

Craig Boyce, Chairman of Smiths City then as now, approached Greg the following year with an offer to join the group as MD of Noel Leeming Appliances.

After considerable soul-searching, Greg accepted and the move to Christchurch was made with no knowledge of the threatening clouds which were gathering.

“I had only been in the chair 10 days when, returning from Auckland, I was met at Christchurch Airport by John Maynard [who had been employed by Noel Leeming as General Manager in 1973 and remained in that role after the Smiths City takeover].

“This was 10 o’clock at night and he informed me that the Receiver was waiting to see me. Smiths had gone into receivership!”

(Above: Greg at Lady Wigram in 1989, on his way to winning the NZ TraNZam champs, driving a Sanyo-sponsored Ford Sierra Cosworth.) 

 

The end of one era, the start of another

Greg reflects: “Suddenly it seemed my move hadn’t exactly been career enhancing but, by two in the morning, I had convinced the Receiver that Noel’s was viable and should be allowed to continue trading, exclusive from whatever was happening at Smiths City.”

Of course to do this Greg needed supplier backing but thankfully every one of them pledged support so his team “just got on with the job” although Greg reported to the Smiths City Receiver for the next wee while.

Part of the recovery plan for Smiths City was to divest itself of Noel Leeming so Greg contacted Roger Bhatnagar to see if he was interested.

“Of course he was delighted to have the opportunity,” says Greg today. So, after negotiations with the Receiver and, with the backing of Fisher & Paykel Finance, they raised the necessary capital.

But the sale certainly didn’t run smoothly, Greg remembers: “In fact with a third party trying to thwart the process via a court injunction, we operated in a highly strung environment until the injunction failed and the deal went through.”

Noel Leeming would succumb to cancer on 28 March 1992, the same year Roger and Greg opened the first Noel Leeming Megastore, in Wairau Park on the North Shore

(Above: At the Noel Leeming Wairau Park Megastore opening in 1992 [L-R]: Diane & Greg Lancaster with Dee & Roger Bhatnagar.)

 

Hopelessly devoted (to motorsport)

During those Noel Leeming years, motorsport still occupied a great deal of Greg’s private time but motorsport in New Zealand was in serious financial trouble.

In an endeavour to facilitate a recovery he took up the post of Chairman of Motor Race NZ, a new organisation formed to represent the interests of those owning the various circuits around the country.

The group was strapped to the extent that it couldn’t pay TV3 for the coverage of events which had already gone to air but Greg was able to convince TV3 to bear with them and the organisation was able to trade its way out of debt.

At the same time he was driving a Cosworth Sierra TraNZam GTS owned by Mark Petch and won the New Zealand Championship (see photo below). His next project was to build his own fleet of TraNZam cars which for a time was the major category in New Zealand.

In the first year Greg engaged top of the line drivers like Jim Richards, Dick Johnson, Peter Brock, Paul Radisich and Kane Scott to drive for the team.

“I have to say,” Greg admits, “I won more championships as a team owner than as a driver.”

After three years of big bangers, Greg saw the need for a more affordable category and wrote the technical rules for a new class called TraNZam Lite which was the second tier.

He organised sponsorship from Mastertrade and had two cars built for himself. This class became the predominant choice before eventually the V8s as we know them today came on the scene with the legendary Holden-Ford rivalry.

In recognition of how hard he’d worked for the sport he loves, in 1996, Greg Lancaster received the Distinguished Service Award from MotorSport New Zealand.

 (Above: Pukekohe circa 1993, driving a Ford Mustang with Noel Leeming sponsorship.)

 

From NL to HR and beyond

Bhatnagar and Lancaster’s tenure at Noel Leeming ended in 1998, the year after Murray International had taken a controlling interest.

Greg then took up an independent directorship with New Zealand internet-based human resource information company, PayGlobal.

“PayGlobal focussed on the 500-5,000 employee sector of the market and our software was deployed across over 400 organisations including several leading retail groups in Australasia including David Jones, The Warehouse, Noel Leeming and more, encompassing about half a million staff across the board.”

When PayGlobal ran into financial strife, Greg was appointed Executive Chairman and for several years was in the driving seat, charged with turning its fortunes around, which he did.

In 2012 he appointed a CEO prior to selling the company to MYOB on behalf of investors in 2014, a two-year process which saw him distribute the last of the proceeds to those investors in August this year.

 

Thoughts of retirement – really?

Since 2003 Greg (see photo today) and wife Diane have lived in Timaru where Diane owns the Comfort Hotel Benvenue (www.benvenuehotel.co.nz).

With the hotel undergoing expansion, Greg will be kept busy helping with that and his ongoing motor racing interests through a partnership with Peter Cunliffe in Christchurch-based company Autotek, which provides consultancy services to drivers and teams across Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

Looking back, Greg tells me he sometimes feels his career has been about performing triage on a series of organisations but he has lots of happy memories from his time in the appliance industry and he made many good friends.

Still, he picks out Wares Hall of Famer, Gary Paykel, for special mention. Initially a competitor and later a financier, Greg describes Gary as “the person in the industry I most respected”.

Greg Lancaster is a famously energetic person so it was with some surprise that over a few drinks when he turned 70 on 7 June this year he announced his “retirement plan”...

“June 7th, 2031 is a Saturday and that night, my 85th will be my retirement party.

“Well, I can’t go on working forever can I?”

 

(For more on motor racing back in the day, visit NZ website The Roaring Season, which you'll find is full of photographer Ross Cammick's tremendous photos.)

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