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Thomas's Department Store

The Thomas’s story in Marlborough began in 1912, when John Emlyn Thomas and his new wife Kathleen bought an empty shop in Blenheim and moved to a new life on the Wairau Plains.

The first Thomas’s store was one of four situated on the west side of Market Street South between Wynen and Charles Streets. Trading conditions were tough in a small town that seemed already to have too many shops, add to this the fact that 100 years ago the main shopping area of town was around Lower Alfred Street and Market Street North and this was a challenging environment for a new small business owner in a new town. However, John Thomas proved to be an astute retailer, and his skills, coupled with ample support from Kathleen, helped the fledgling Thomas’s store to steadily improve their market share.

John had come to New Zealand from the North of Wales, where he was born in 1880. Realising that opportunities for employment in his homeland were diminishing, he first moved to London where he worked for several years in drapery retailing before setting forth to a new life on the other side of the world. Arriving in Wellington in 1910, John spent several months acquainting himself with his new environment, eventually accepting a position at a small drapery shop in Otaki.

During one of his regular trips to Wellington, John met Kathleen who shared his interest and skills in retailing and was employed at the time at Kirkcaldie & Stains. The move to Blenheim followed not long after, but that trip in itself was to be marked by catastrophe, as all of their worldly possessions were burnt to a cinder when the shed at Queens Wharf in which they were stored was consumed by fire.

Thus, the beginnings of Thomas’s in Blenheim delivered a few moments of adversity for the young couple, but they built their name in business, their customer base and their product range steadily over the years.

In the mid-twenties Ferry Jewellers, an adjoining business to Thomas’s, closed down, and the retiring Mr Ferry sold his building to John, who rebuilt it to connect with his building. This increased Thomas’s retail floor space by 50%. Around ten years later the process was repeated when the remaining two shops on the same street frontage were sold to John by retiring owners, and torn down to make way for a new building.

It was around this time that John and Kathleen’s son, Terence, who had spent 4 years at secondary school in Auckland and the following 3 in Wellington, returned to Blenheim to work at Thomas’s, anticipating the retirement of his father. Starting on two pounds and ten shillings per week, Terence soon got stuck into the family business, discovering the Sundry Debtors Ledger and setting about recovering some of the large amounts of money the business was owed by some customers.

One example listed the wife of a well known professional in town as owing 250 pounds, a prodigious sum for the day, which was 5 years overdue. Terence took the initiative and went to visit the lady, leaving in the end with a cheque which he proudly handed to his father 10 minutes later.

John was full of praise for his son’s initiative, but cooled on the idea after Terence began approaching friends of his, and was advised to back off. At any rate, Thomas’s in Blenheim had found some new momentum – just in time for the business, the retail sector and the world to be faced with some serious adversity.

Firstly, the retail industry in New Zealand was thrown into pandemonium by the Labour government of 1938 when strict import controls were imposed. The next year, the business was to face a major challenge when founder John Thomas was struck down with a serious attack of pneumonia, dying one week later. Given this, Terence attempted to persuade brother-in-law Austin Andrews to leave The National Bank and join Thomas’s.

"Impossible,” he declared, "my career is in banking;” two weeks later, he resigned.

Austin’s wife Ellie and Terence’s sister Patricia also joined the team, and plans were made for a vibrant, innovative and profitable future. All these plans were scuppered soon after however, when World War Two was declared in September 1939. Thomas’s had 6 male members of staff at the time, 3 of whom served overseas during the war.

In the mid-nineties, Terence Thomas recalled it as a ‘time of awful apprehension,’ with shortages of all kinds, immense difficulties in obtaining stock and new, inexperienced management in place, he gave credit however for the survival of the store to his mother and sisters, as well as staff members Mrs Lillian Healy and Mr E Duffy.

Due to a lack of goods, it was a long time after World War Two before the business returned to any sort of normality. This lack did give the Thomas’s team time for planning though, in 1956 Terence and his wife traveled to London and returned convinced that the major part of the store’s future was in fashion apparel. Some time later, Thomas’s entered a nationwide window dressing competition, and the display produced by Display Manager Neville Vercoe won first prize. Terence and Neville traveled to Wellington to be presented with a silver tray, and, as Terence recalled in 1994, ‘we were on our way!’

By 1958, Thomas’s were constantly looking to utilise more floor space, and the opportunity to make a move came about when Miller McKay Ltd, hardware retailers on Thomas’s northern boundary, came up for sale. The building owners drove a hard bargain however, and it took three trips to Wellington to negotiate before a deal was struck, with Thomas’s eventually bowing to the seller’s terms.

However, the new building added a great deal to the potential of Thomas’s, and after 12 months of work which included building a common roof over the two buildings, Thomas’s had a shop layout of such size and quality that without this move, Terence reckoned they would never have survived the next 20 years in business.

In the mid-sixties, Terence became an elected member of the Board of the NZ Retailers Federation for 3 years, making contacts with many large and important retailers. It was at this stage too that the focus for the business became upgrading the fashion image of their merchandise. Importing fashion apparel from England held a great deal of appeal, but import licences in those days were difficult to acquire. However, persistence paid off in this regard and Terence made his first trip of many to London to buy ladies’ apparel.

After going up against the indifference many English manufacturers held towards a retailer from New Zealand, Terence’s persistence managed to open a few doors. He obtained access to several well known names that were to become vital to Thomas’s operation, as demand for their high quality apparel began to extend beyond the boundaries of Marlborough.

Then, in a case of history repeating itself in 1964, Terence’s son Michael joined the team at Thomas’s. Michael had spent a year working for James Smith Ltd in Wellington and two working for public accountancy firm after finishing his secondary school years there. His arrival coincided with an extended period of consolidation and planning.

In the early seventies, having seen that the growth and modernisation of the ladies apparel section had not been matched in the rest of the store, a major restructuring job was undertaken. Indeed, renovations and the constant refreshment of displays, layouts and presentations became a habit for Thomas’s over these years, as presenting a fashion image to customers was a prime consideration, as was providing a premier shopping experience for people to enjoy.

The next major hurdle for Thomas’s to overcome though was the revolution in the retail market that was wrought through the deregulation of the mid-eighties. It changed the whole way retailing worked; before deregulation, tight import controls meant that no retailers could establish a real point of difference from their competition, with the same products on shelves across the country.

Deregulation changed all that, and it was immediately obvious to the Thomas’s team that establishing a point of difference for their store was an objective of paramount importance. Pushing the envelope though was nothing new for Thomas’s, as Michael Thomas points out, his father established a tradition of innovation by obtaining import licences in the sixties, and this was a chance for that to carry on.

"We made the decision to re-build part of the store,” he says, "and move into a more fashionable and exclusive part of the market, rather than get involved in price wars with department stores. A lot of our customers were looking for something different, and so this is what we sought to provide.”

And while some customers were lost in the short term, and Thomas’s new reputation took 2 or 3 years to re-establish in the local market – the changes can be seen in hindsight as a resounding success, as it is still totally owned and operated by the Thomas’s family, which is a very rare situation in this day and age.

The nineties though, also brought some new faces from the family into management positions at Thomas’s. In 1995 Kim Andrews bought his father out of the business and allowed him to retire. Kim’s innovative ideas and intuition in retailing have served the business well ever since. He has also been joined by Michael’s two sons, Hamish and Tim Thomas. Hamish joined for the first time in 1992 after leaving school, he returned 4 or 5 years later with valuable experience and the retailing skills and flair that are a Thomas family trait. The same is true for Tim Thomas, who came into the business more recently. Michael admits to being ’surprised’ when Tim called him from London to say that he wanted to come on board, but he too has a range of skills and provides a great balance working with Kim and Hamish, and so was welcomed in with open arms.

"The ownership of Thomas’s is now in the hands of the next generation,” Michael says, "and we’re in the situation now where we would be one of the few businesses 100 years old to still be owned and operated by members of the same family since its beginnings.”

Surely this is something well worth celebrating, a very special centennial marking the start of another chapter in an already rich history, punctuated by innovation, dedication and a focus on delivering excellent shopping experiences for their valued customers – and long may it continue.