Past Employees of PDC Department Store
Interview 13 April 2018
Interviewees: Brian Yaxley, Royden Williams, Barbara Woodward, Vern Lumley, Alan Maw
Interviewer: Simon Johnson
Transcribed by: Leanne Hickman
Brian: I presume, Simon knows that PDC was the Premier Drapery Company before?
SJ: Yes it was yeah. Ive got a theres lots of good photographs in the library here of that because it goes back to the 20s I think. Lets talk about change because most of you are long-serving staff, what are the changes that stand out for you in your working careers, from the point where you started to the point at which you either retired or PDC closed.
Brian: I think the biggest change that I can remember is when some of these other bigger department stores or it might be home appliance stores and they were starting to give cash discounts and we still had the Co-op tickets. And in the end you couldnt compete with ones giving an instant discount. So reluctantly there were a few changes made, probably not quite soon enough. But that was a huge change for the Co-op and for PDC.
SJ: What were the changes you made in response to the discounting with other stores.
Brian: I wasnt really involved in it, at that stage I was just in the Manchester Department, but in the Home Appliance and Furnishings were probably the two biggest ones for that. And I think the department manager had the right to negotiate prices, is that right? I dont think any staff member could.
Vern: Yes, but within very strict, fairly rigid limits. You know they didnt have a completely open hand like Noel Leemings appear to. Mind you in that day and age when these folk were Buyers, there was a comparatively small mark-up on goods compared to today where two or three hundred percent are quite common. So you can take 50% off something and oh wonderful. But the price wouldnt be anything near in comparison to what it would have been back then because the law in New Zealand was at one stage, when I had a hardware business, for example, that you could import goods and only put 25% on landed cost. That was the law, right across. You could buy if you were a retailer, you could buy and only put 33 and a third % on and that was the law. And so that was a pretty tight sort of thing.
SJ: What period are we talking about Vern?
Vern: Talking the, how was I I was 27 when I bought the hardware shop, 1950 mid 1950s. Yeah, that was still quite common.
SJ: Because the rules were very strict tariffs on products I believe. And overseas products only came at certain times of the year.
Vern: Course way back then, people had to have overseas funds to buy a car for example.
SJ: And I imagine with a lot of your appliances and the like, they would have in fact have been made in New Zealand for that very reason. Whereas and obviously because the rates that you pay your workers in New Zealand to make a fridge or a washing machine or whatever, theres going to be less of a mark-up possible over one thats perhaps bought, as we do now, from countries where there are not really any labour laws or anything like that.
Vern: On a slightly different note, I think one of the biggest things was at the time I joined, about 1968, the Co-op itself was having massive expansion. Theyd bought grocery shop after grocery shop, theyd bought the Izadium on the corner of the block we were talking about. Theyd expanded on either side of the building. Theyd bought those properties, demolished the things and bought new ones. Took a block where the Sports Department was in Fitzherbert Avenue, that joined up with the PDC at the back and that was an old building pulled down and a new building built. It was massive expansion going on all the time. And that meant tremendous change for all the people working there because things kept changing around, you know.
SJ: What underpinned all this expansion? Was it, obviously financial success or was it
Vern: That yes, yes. It was a very successful organisation, the whole Co-op. Its hard to talk about the PDC without talking about the Co-op.
SJ: No, I understand that and thats actually an important part of the equation and Ill be talking about that a bit later. But would you say that the 60s was the heyday of the Co-op movement. I mean Ive recently read some research that somebody did and I think that it was something like about two-thirds of everybody in Palmerston North was a member of the Co-op.
Vern: Oh absolutely.
SJ: So was this in your understanding be what underpinned all this expansion.
Royden: They virtually ran their own bank, where you could invest and, when I first started, you probably got a half to one percent interest better than the bank, so a huge number of shareholders invested their savings in the Co-op.
SJ: Who managed the Co-op bank.
SJ: Oh right Gordon Brown. So, because
Brian: No Ross Hilton wasnt it, the accountant.
Vern: Ross was the accountant, no it was that bloke from what was from Shannon of all places. Big man, cant think of his name. He took over the bank, you know the share office and the bank. I cant think of his name.
Royden: Eventually the Co-op sold that side of the business too. The Trustbank, was it? Trustbank? Who then got bought out by Westpac?
Vern: Yeah I think youre right.
SJ: Did the bank and in your knowledge, did the bank have any problems. Because obviously the function of the bank is investing money all round the place in order to give the proceeds to its members, you know, the interest. So, did that seem to work well enough under Gordon Brown and the people he appointed?
Vern: I was saying, you know, up until the bitter end, seemed to go very well indeed. You know, as Royden points out, most of Palmerston North banked there.
SJ: Right. So was the bank still going at the point that PDC became PDC Plaza.
Royden: No. But theyd sold that section to the Trustbank at that oh probably three or four years prior to then.
SJ: So, that was in the 80s sometime? Maybe?
Royden: Oh I would say even in the late 70s.
SJ: Yep. Ok. No, cause thats interesting, these are all incredibly important things because I know a little bit about the Co-op movement, but these details are completely new to me. And it gives a good picture of how strong and wide-reaching the Co-op movement was, of which PDC was a part obviously.
Barbara: They were in other towns too, like Bulls and Feilding and Levin etc.
Royden: Every shareholder had a passport which
SJ: So, how did that function, if you were a member of the Co-op and you come into the shop to say to buy a washing machine, or a lounge suite, how did the actual mechanics of it work, in terms of their being a member and a shareholder of the shop that they were in?
Royden: The customer retained their receipt and at the end of the financial year
Vern: They sat at home for all night and all day adding up all of their little receipts, five shillings and four pence, until they had this great long list and they would take it into the share office and say: theres my
and that was where the rebate comes from what you have spent directly related to what you have spent. Now thats not the same thing as banking.
SJ: No, no, so did that then form a discount you could then use to spend in the shop, a little bit like well I mean say you have bought three or four hundred pounds worth of products during the year and for the sake of argument, that gives you a credit of say thirty pounds say, was that only available to you to spend in the Co-op shop?
Royden: No you got a cheque.
SJ: You actually got the money.
Vern: Oh yes, you could pay the rates with it.
SJ: Because, you were a shareholder?
Barbara: You could take the children on holiday just about, depending on what you had spent.
Royden: It was a dividend based on purchase.
SJ: So again, were looking at a model that is really like basically, being a shareholder in a company, so at the end of the year, you get your dividends and its whatever you like to do with it. I mean Im going though this because in 20-30 years hence this will be quite new to the people listening to the tape. Was the staff in PDC unionised at all? Members of any kind of a union?
Brian: Yep, Shopworkers Union. And to start off you had to be. As compulsory.
Vern: The bike shop was the Engineers Union. You know, the butchery people had their, yeah they were.
Barbara: We had a liquor store as well didnt we, with Jim Ryan.
Vern: And we got on the company got on extremely well with the union officials.
SJ: So, did that mainly, that work that way most of the time, or were there sticking points at any time? Because you said before that you dont get paid a great deal.
Vern: However, one of the systems they did operate was an annual assessment which eventually became the basis of whether you got an increase that year or you didnt, you know, sort of thing. And how big the increase might be. And the union came in and inspected that with a fine-toothed comb and said this is wonderful. Everybody in New Zealand should be doing this!
SJ: How did the annual assessment work? Because its interesting, in my working career, I began at a time when no one did such things, but from about the 80s onwards it was very much a part of working lives, so did you have annual assessments from Day 1? Or was it something that came in?
Brian: I dont think it was from Day 1. Not from 72. It was probably five years into it.
Vern: I was the cheeky bugger who brought it in you see. People said it was just to keep me busy. But no, it seemed to work out reasonably well.
SJ: Can you remember the year, Vern, that it was brought in roughly?
Vern: Not with precision, no, my guess is early 70s. 74-75 something like that.
Brian: Yeah I started 72 and it would have been at least 3-5 years later.
Vern: Youve got a better memory than me.
SJ: But who conducted these reviews? Was it your immediate manager, say the person who was the head of your department, or was it someone like yourself Vern?
Vern: Largely me, in close connection with the Buyer of the department and if there was any other member of the executive team who had something important to say about this individuals improvement or whatever, theyd let me know about it and that could influence the assessments.
SJ: So when you were doing assessments were you you were obviously looking at what maybe hadnt gone well during the year, but you were presumably also looking at what help the staff member needed to improve in certain areas. Was that how it worked?
Vern: To a degree. Mainly it was based on past performance for the previous 12 months. Including things like punctuality and customer service and a whole range of jolly things. Depending on what the job was the you were accessing. You know, if you were dealing with a bike mechanic, he didnt really need a hell of a lot of personnel skills, you know. There were differences around the place, there had to be.
SJ: So the interviews were managed around the responsibilities of that person.
SJ: And how did you go, when you guys were being assessed. What are your experiences of that annual assessment? Do you remember it, Alan, at all.
Alan: I may have been upstairs to see, it was either you Vern or Mr Goodwin, up on the or Colin. And discussed progress through the year and thats all I recall Im afraid.
SJ: You know, its something I remember strongly from my own working life because it began to bulk very large in the later years of my working life so there were even reviews that took place every four or even six months. And, quite a formal approach that youd be talking to someone for maybe one or two hours. Were your interviews anything like that sort of length?
Vern: Not for one or two hours no.
Brian: I dont remember, until I was a Buyer, I dont remember having an assessment. But Les Goodwin was really clever, he set everyone a budget, you had so much money each month to spend, or for six months, and you had to manage that money that you had to spend. If your department was performing at above, you got a percentage of that to spend more to spend, if it was performing below, you got that taken off your spending power. And it was all sort of pretty and it also had gauged on stock turn, profitability
Royden: Mark downs.
Brian: Mark downs yeah. Which happened to profitability really.
Royden: Basically the Buyers got paid on the profit their department was making.
SJ: So you were a Buyer, your salary could be influenced by how successful you were.
SJ: What about if your were a shop assistant, basically in the front line of customer service, were their salaries affected in any way by that kind of dynamic, the sales or lack of sales?
Vern: Certainly had no relation to the profitability of the department, but their connection with the public, their demeanour, that sort of thing. But let me say the whole assessment basis was initially based on a minimum of what the award said. You couldnt pay anyone below what the award said. But this was the award plus this for that attribute you have and this much and so on.
SJ: Right, so youd get a bit of a bonus for if you were really good at your job and it was obvious to all that you were top of your game and you were working in menswear say, just as an assistant, there would be some kind of a bonus could come out of the annual interview, that youve done well or not well as the case may be.
Royden: The Buyers of the department would be very keen to hang on to that person so therefore theyd use their influence on Vern, or whoever else. Youre going to have to pay this fellow a bit more.
Brian: It was an increase in hourly rate that you got, not a bonus. And to be fair, they were fairly minimal increases. You know, a department store, especially how it was run, you couldnt afford to pay anyone too much. So, any it was more the thrill of being told you were doing a good job and youre getting a little bit extra.
SJ: Well, that sounds remarkably like the performance reviews that we used to have when I was working.
Royden: Going back to the changes, when I first arrived, 1964, we hand priced everything in the Boys Department. We had school uniforms and we probably bought I would say maybe, 200 dozen pair of school socks, for the beginning of school year. These were all hand priced which included a cost price on the ticket which was written in a code, it was a ten letter word, thunder bay t was 1, h was 2, u was 3 and it was six monthly, and we had a date code. But prior to arriving, the code was written in hieroglyphics and there was still some old stock there when I was there that had hieroglyphics. But that was many, many years that we got a marking room and they had automated pricing and eliminated the cost. But you could look at an article and you knew exactly how much it cost and if someone had drilled a hole through it you knew how much you could mark it down to without losing any money.
Barbara: I think that one of the biggest changes that happened during our time there, was the trading hours. Because Saturday mornings came in, then Saturday afternoons and then Sundays. So, we were all at this big meeting at the Opera House, wasnt it?
Royden: Yeah the start of the decline was for me two reasons: 1. The introduction of Saturday trading and the introduction of credit cards. Up till that point we virtually ran our own accounts so everyone could charge to a monthly account, once credit cards were freely available, means you could shop anywhere on tick. And on Saturday shopping, we lost the number of customers we drew on a Friday night where we had the parking, people knew we had the stock, come Saturday shopping, they could spend their morning looking around and really it was probably the beginning of the end.
Brian: It definitely was. And in actual fact I was asked I was a buyer at that stage and was asked by management would I be the Union delegate. Because we were going to have strikes and try and stop the Saturday trading. We got dozens of signatures from people out on the streets. But it made no difference anyway.
Barbara: We didnt want it.
Brian: No, we didnt want it. And, you know, I still think its even though its ok to go Sunday and Saturday shopping, I dont do a lot of it, but I still think we lost a lot in lifestyle when Saturday trading came in.
SJ: I, I mean, I personally agree. Probably my age, I find it very convenient to go shopping on a Saturday or even a Sunday but the argument that was made at the time that New Zealand be like other countries and the tourists would laugh and say we visited New Zealand and it was closed. That that was actually a load of rubbish, because in a lot of European countries they do not open on a Sunday. I mean Saturday morning was a start, and possibly slightly justifiable, but the business of Sunday trading and then trading on national holidays, that came after and you will not find that in most European countries. And so if youre a tourist from one of the other countries you will not expect necessarily to be able to get what you want on a Sunday but thats by the by. So, just a bit more about the it was a big change and Id forgotten and am glad you brought it up. How did the rest of you find that, those that havent mentioned it the advent of Saturday trading? I mean, did it cast a shadow over your working lives at all?
Alan: Well, it certainly changed life at home really. Because you were used to doing things with your family. In fact didnt we used to do out stocktakes on Saturday in the 70s.
Vern: We did.
Alan: Yeah, the annual stocktake. Thats when we used to get high school people in.
Barbara: It was only once a year.
Alan: Well once a year, thats right.
Barbara: But I found the Saturday trading did affect my lifestyle, because when youve got children in sport, even though theyre teenagers by this stage, I mean you feel youve got to support them, you want to be there to support them and that did affect it did affect me.
Brian: Yeah I remember theres a couple of girls in the office said: oh what are you moaning about? I said: well once you get Saturday morning trading in, you will then get Saturday afternoon trading in, and the next thing you know it will be Sunday. Oh there will never be Sunday trading, stop moaning. And it wasnt that much longer.
Barbara: We voted against it in actual fact and we went out on strike didnt we.
Brian: Yep, and then
Royden: We got paid.
Barbara: Yes, how long did we go on strike for? I think a couple of days?
Royden: Oh I cant remember now.
SJ: Was this all the PDC staff.
Brian: Yep, we got paid for it. And then
Royden: The management were in favour of strike action.
SJ: Thats a very interesting thing for you to say Royden, because there wouldnt be many working situations where the management would be on the same side as the working people in that situation. So, from where you were sitting Vern, how did that pan out, that situation.
Vern: Well it all came to a sticky end as we know. But it did show once again, how different the management of a Co-op was to those whose business existed solely to make maximum profit, regardless of how to get it. And, I think it helped even further with good staff relationships you know, the fact that management was on their side.
Brian: Yeah, unfortunately we copped a lot of flak from shareholders and
yeah and they thought it was terrible and they were horrified that we were paid.
SJ: So, when you say that management was onside, this was at this stage was this still a Co-op movement as such, or was it just PDC?
Vern: Oh yes, the PDC was inescapably was a very important part of the Co-op.
SJ: Yes, so did the strike action affect the whole Co-op or just the PDC part of it.
Vern: to the best of my recollection, all the groceries and everything, all the butcheries
Brian: I cant remember, I thought it was mainly just PDC.
Vern: You could be right. My memory is getting a bit hazy now.
SJ: Who was the head honcho at the time Vern, who would have okd it. There was the head of the whole, say the Co-op.
Vern: Arthur Bartlett? Yes Arthur Bartlett had already taken over from Gordon.
SJ: So he was ok with the strike action?
Brian: Yeah, Gordon Brown never would have been.
Vern: No. But
Brian: Arthur Bartlett was a nice guy, I liken him to Bill Clinton.
Barbara: Yes, he was a nice guy.
SJ: But hopefully without the sort of the bad behaviour problems.
Barbara: Well yes probably.
Brian: Well he didnt have bad behaviour problems but he certainly had an eye for the women and the likes of Barbara had an eye for him.
Barbara: No I didnt! Not like that. But he was a nice looking man. I knew his wife too.
Royden: The other change came along in my time was from pounds, shilling and pence to decimal currency and we had months and months and months of staff training on dollars and cents. Anyway the day that it happened it was a non-event really.
Vern: Yeah, went as smooth as anything.
SJ: The fourth of July. Next year.
Barbara: 67 was it?
SJ: I think it was yes.
Barbara: I wasnt working there then.
Vern: I was working with Unilever thats right and because Gordon Brown and the Co-op had lots of money invested in Watties, a local firm at that point in time, no other product was allowed on the shelves in the groceries. So, there was no Oak, no Crest and that sort of stuff and here was I in a company selling Crest and Oak and all that sort of stuff you see. And I was the first bloke to get into the Co-op. And I also was invited by Gordon Brown with Les Goodwins ok to run shop training sessions from the Unilever training team came in and did it up in the staff area on the top floor. So there was that connection back there too. Gosh it was funny.
SJ: Did you find that your working day I suppose it would depend on the seasons that your working day had a particular rhythm to it in terms of business and time to kick back a bit, that sort of thing.
Brian: Certain times of the year were different. We used to have something called Homemakers Week which from memory ran for a month and was anything in the Furniture and Home Appliances department, maybe one or two others, they got double rebate. And they were chaotic times so there were different and Christmas of course and school holidays and back to school.
Vern: Yeah, then it was change of seasons for the ladies departments, you know.
Barbara: Tuesday. Tuesday, when we used to change over the school uniforms and things like that to winter uniforms. That was the busiest day of the year, the Tuesday.
SJ: Thats when you went from the shoes and socks to roman sandals.
Barbara: Yes from all those.
Vern: I think at that time the PDC had the biggest and best display department. And people would build up the change of season and all the windows would be blacked out and behind them was all this activity going on with the new clothing. Thered be queues of people lining up in the morning as the curtains all came down, it was quite interesting.
Barbara: Gosh it was hectic on those days. We used to have street sales sometimes, remember Ive got photos of us. We used to have special days to get rid of ends of lines of goods and a bit of fun.
Vern: That was when I happened to be President of the Central City Business Association and we did all those street days right around town you know.
Royden: All full time staff had an hour for lunch, 10 minutes which extended to probably 15 most days for morning and afternoon tea.
Barbara: Well we had to go right up to the top floor and back down again.
Royden: There was travel time involved.
SJ: So, you had a staff tearoom where everybody went presumably, all levels of staff.
Royden: The men did sit with each other and the women would sit together. But, you did tend to go about the same time as your friends. But if you got held up you ended with some other group. It didnt make any difference.
SJ: I guess it was governed also by the need to keep the customer service stations manned. Did you go in batches to have your morning and afternoon tea.
SJ: And what do you remember about the tearoom, the of look of it, the smells, the socialising. Just give me a picture.
Barbara: We used to have a tea lady when I first started.
Vern: That right yeah we did, we even had a lift lady. First floor, ladies
Barbara: It went through a lot of changes over the years. The morning tea room went through different phases.
Brian: The smell that I could remember, there was a Smith and Waldings lunch bar sort of thing. Well you could get full meals there couldnt you? And that was just off the tea rooms, so often you would go and grab a sandwich or something. You would have to pay for it of course. But Smith and Waldings cooking was never good smells, it was quite overpowering wasnt it.
Vern: Would you excuse me, while I go and stick some more money in my parking. I thought that two hours would be enough, but it wasnt.
SJ: Yes I can do that Vern. What well do is we can