CHARLIE UNWIN: “TIMING IS EVERYTHING”

By Merv Robertson October 27, 2017 Where are they now?

From AWA to Radiola, Charlie Unwin enjoyed a quarter century in our industry. Merv Robertson looks back on Charlie's career.

Here’s what three of Charlie Unwin’s former Radiola colleagues had to say about him when I contacted them recently.

George Young, Sales Rep: “The Radiola days were great ones! We had a top team and Charlie was one of the best. He was humorous, knowledgeable, driven for results. It was good to be in his company and you always felt like a winner.”

Steve Maguiness, General Manager Sales & Marketing: “Charlie is an outstanding individual who had immeasurable impact on the success of AWA/Radiola, but more importantly on the people he worked with, many of whom are key figures in the Appliance Industry today. It was my absolute privilege to have worked with him.”

Brent Albiston, Managing Director: “Charlie joined the company, then AWA in the late 80s intending to stay only long enough to get another job but then he wouldn’t leave! He was one of the real characters in the industry and in my view very much underrated by our competitors. He led a very good team of sales reps, and together with Steve Maguiness had a major hand in building the Samsung brand into a leading force by the time we sold the business in 2003.”

Charlie Unwin left West Auckland’s Kelston Boy’s High School in 1973 and after a few years working construction sites the 19 year-old took himself off to Australia where he had three years and about 30 jobs as he toured around.

Returning in 1979 he took up a Sales Cadet position with Caxton Printing Works before starting on the road as a Rep, selling into the FMCG sector before being promoted to Area Manager.

 

Starting with Cubes and (Black) Diamonds

Charlie joined our industry as a Key Account Rep with Melco in 1986.

“When I came on the scene we had two big products in the Mitsubishi Cube microwave and Black Diamond videos. Rentals were a major part of our business, especially through Total Rentals and Visionhire and the chains were mainly regional rather than national and that’s where I was first introduced to the concept of road shows.

“We would load up the cars, drive to the first venue and set up, release the new product then drink with the dealers until one or two in the morning before grabbing a few hours’ sleep. Then it was an early start, drive to the next town and do it all again, three or four nights in a row. Looking back, that was the introduction to how I spent my next 26 years, living out of a suitcase.”

Charlie was head-hunted by a Ceramco Group subsidiary, CEI which had the New Zealand distributorships for NEC, JVC and Samsung. Each brand had its own dedicated sales team and, as Charlie tells it, NEC had three people including him, JVC had two and Samsung was a one-man band with its dealer base mainly “non-traditional” outlets such as Maximart and Kmart.

However, Ceramco divested itself of CE and the business was closed after a couple of years with all staff becoming redundant.

Then Charlie accepted a contract at AWA New Zealand, a subsidiary of the multi-faceted Australian electronics manufacturer. Based in the Auckland branch office this position was pitched as a three month short term role as Northern Region Sales Manager but things didn’t quite go to script and he ended up staying 20 years.

At this point of our catch-up, I learned that, like Bill Belton (read his story from August last year here), Charlie’s an accomplished musician and for many years has played guitar and harmonica, as well as doing vocals with well-known Auckland band, Four on the Floor (see the photo above with Charlie second from the right and check them out on YouTube here).

“When I joined the company we had just picked up the Kenwood HiFi agency and as I was very passionate about music, HiFi was a really good fit for me.”

At AWA, Charlie developed a strong relationship with Brent Albiston and Steve Maguiness (Managing Director and Marketing Manager respectively) and in 1990 Brent instigated a management buy-out from the Australians.

Radiola Corporation was born.

 

Fast track from AWA to Radiola

From Charlie’s perspective this was an exciting prospect although not without some major personal and family decisions having to be taken in order to raise the necessary investment capital. The boat was sold and a second mortgage on the family property was put in place.

But, he was ready to go, he became National Sales Manager and he recalls those frantic early days very well.

“With limited budgets we knew we had to be smart and different. We drove leased second-hand vehicles and our offices were modest. We took our product launch roadshows to every region you could think of, big and small to make sure we covered everyone. On those trips and at conferences we shared rooms to keep costs down.

“Unlike the multi-nationals we couldn’t afford big dealer trips overseas so instead, we would charter a de Havilland aircraft and ferry customers to Great Barrier Island where we combined fishing and fun with business.

“The dealers loved it and the relationships we formed with our customers got us over the line, all on the smell of an oily rag. I can really say that the company took on a culture of its own, born out of necessity in a way.

“One of our priorities was to look at the overall audio market. When we bought AWA we had some very good brands to get started with. There was AWA of course, Hitachi, Kenwood, KEF and Thorens.

“Kenwood was our main brand and that was a crucial part of our history as we rode the wave of component hi-fi, the introduction of Compact Disc followed by midi systems then minis, some TV and of course all the way through there was car audio which was very strong for us. Added to that we had Hitachi and AWA TV so overall, we had a comprehensive package.”

At its inception, Radiola Corporation put in place a policy that once the business was sustainably profitable, 50% of profits were invested back into the company and 50% returned to shareholders.

It’s testament to how this tight group of Kiwis went about their business that, after just a half dozen years, all investments had been repaid and Charlie went out and bought himself a “bloody good boat”!

The famed Clipper Cup offshore yacht racing series, conducted by the Royal Hawaiian Ocean Racing Club, became the Kenwood Cup in 1989, sponsored of course by Kenwood until support was withdrawn after the 2001 event.

This became a favourite dealer destination for Radiola with incentive-based trips taking in the racing and a variety of social events (see photo from 2000 below).

Charlie’s pretty sure that some reading this will remember the fire which broke out in the wee hours, in a certain room on the 22nd floor of the hotel one year but otherwise, it’s a matter of what goes on tour stays on the tour.   

 

Looking for something extra with Samsung

With Hitachi struggling to be competitive and AWA an OEM product, the Radiola team went on the search for a TV brand which could be brought in to complement the audio business.

They came up with Samsung, an internationally strong name, a brand of the future and after some intense negotiations distribution rights were signed over to Radiola in 1993.

“There was no luck in that,” Charlie states. “First there was the foresight of Brent and Steve to identify the brand, then the building of a compelling business case and the negotiations. It was hard work but we got there in the end.”

Gaining the Samsung brand was a big deal for Radiola because the package included whiteware and microwaves, but Charlie and his team would still have to battle the odds to gain trade confidence.

Samsung was a virtually unknown brand and was joining around 15 other well-known TV brands on the scene while the whiteware categories were dominated by Fisher & Paykel with the Electrolux group taking a big chunk of what was left.

“We needed a point of difference,” recalls Charlie, “and so, introduced a 5-year warranty which of course was before the days they were sold as an add-on. This gave us the distribution we needed and a point of difference to promote.”

The arrival of projection TV around 1997 proved to be a watershed event with Samsung offering some very fine options. At 10 grand a pop the dollar margins were attractive, the success of these models encouraged dealers to then stock a larger range of Samsung and suddenly they had traction.

A similar story applied in whiteware when the first Samsung double-door refrigerators were launched ahead of all competitors. Dealers wanted a slice of the action with additional models riding on the coat tails.

So it was that Samsung came of age and, coupled with the ongoing popularity of Kenwood, the longevity of Radiola as a significant supplier seemed assured.

 

Changes afoot at Radiola, Samsung takes over

Aquiline Holdings out of Napier had a variety of commercial interests and in 2003 made a bid to buy Radiola.

Brent and Steve led the negotiations, agreement was reached and ownership changed hands with Radiola shareholders well rewarded for their collective efforts.

At that stage Brent left the company when Aquiline installed a new CEO and board but in the field, it was business as usual with Radiola and its brands continuing to thrive.

Soon however, the parent company started to flounder and in 2005 Radiola Corporation, as a wholly owned subsidiary of Aquiline Holdings, was sold to ANZ as part of a major restructuring exercise.

Charlie was unphased: “Yep, suddenly we were owned by a bank. Grant McKavanagh came on board as CEO and we went through some really big growth with world leading products coming on stream. We had broad distribution and our team was second to none in my view.

“Our head office moved from Porirua to the North Shore, we had new company cars and the growth was phenomenal. With support from Samsung and using their global experience we knew what new products were coming two years out so we were planning budgets two to three years ahead, huge budgets.

“I’m talking doubling our sales, maybe even tripling. When we put the targets in front of the Reps they were shocked, couldn’t get their heads around the numbers but they happened and we achieved our targets every time. We took Samsung from nowhere to somewhere.”

It was always expected that eventually Samsung would want to establish its own presence in New Zealand and take the brand directly to market.

Consumer electronics and appliances were not exactly core activities for a bank either and at the end of February 2010 ANZ transferred the Radiola assets to Samsung and liquidated the company. Senior management weren’t required and took redundancy.

Charlie reflects: “So it was all coming to an end. For 20 years Steve and I had worked together. We were a solid team, good mates and along, with Vaughan Eustace, Chris Hadley and Paul Smith, we were there on day one and there when the doors closed.

“Radiola operated for 20 years and I like to think we left our mark on the industry. To be honest, after a total of 26 years in the industry, I had never imagined a day when I wouldn’t be part of it. I just didn’t see it coming.”

 

Timing is everything

Next stop for Charlie was DVD distributor Magna Pacific where he was Country Manager for just under three years but when that came to an end it was time to look outside the square.

“I saw the building industry was expanding in a big way so joined up with a couple of mates and worked for 18 months as a hammer hand, learning the ropes.

“In 2015 I began contracting to Santa Fe Shutters which designs and manufactures interior and exterior aluminium shutters and that’s where I am today. There’s a strong sales element which I like and I have the satisfaction of selling and then doing the installations, seeing the job through.

I’m enjoying it and with a current penetration of only 5%, the potential is enormous. I see awesome $10-20 miollion homes and beach shacks in Omaha and I’m at the tip of something that’s going to explode in New Zealand – timing is everything.”

Selling runs in the Unwin blood it seems with son Kent currently the Electrical Prop at Harvey Norman Henderson.

As for the man himself, away from work the 59 year-old still plays competitive football, still plays in Four on the Floor and still lives life to the full.

It’s obvious though, that a big part of him misses the appliance industry.

He says with feeling, “I feel I had the best 26 years of my life in Consumer Electronics and I also think I had the best years to be in it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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