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John Stewart

When in 1975 my father asked me, at the age of 19, if I would be interested in joining him in setting up a business as commission sales agents, I very naively said yes and had absolutely no idea where this journey was going to take me.

One of our first agencies was for a Christchurch company called Colonial Distributors Ltd and their main focus was the manufacturing of ladies hand bags under the ‘Bond Street’ brand. However, as were the vagaries of the time, they also had a small amount of toy import licence. So dad ended up selling handbags and I ended up selling toys.

It was very obvious to see the opportunities if you could obtain import licence so I applied relentlessly until we were granted a small amount a few years later. With the introduction of licence tendering and then the abolition of import licencing altogether, we were able to expand the business into a fully-fledged importer and distributor of toys.

The first international agency we secured was that of American company Safari Ltd. and that set us on the path of specialising in educational toys and our company policy of only stocking non-violent products.

Dad continued to be my partner and mentor until his retirement in 1998 and his death during the Spring Gift Fair of 2009. I will always remember his best advice, ‘there is no such thing as a good business, only good business people.’

Times have not always been good and one of the most difficult periods for the business came after the share market crash of 1987. We had recently purchased our own warehouse, my wife Lesley and I had just purchased a new house and our second child was on the way. All of a sudden we had debts that far exceeded the assets that secured them. It was certainly a very stressful time but needless to say we survived. It also instilled in me the need for strict budgeting and realistic cash flows that you stick to.

One of the proudest moments of my business career was moving into our purpose built warehouse in Wigram in 2004. Times move on and we have now opted to contract out our warehousing and distribution to a 3PL (third party logistics company) however after the Christchurch earthquakes that warehouse has become a very valuable asset.

As a strong supporter of the New Zealand Gift Fairs, it was about the same time that I was approached by Bill Spillane to join the committee of the NZ Gift Trade Association to represent the toy industry. I was the ‘young buck’ amongst a group of very experienced and successful business people and to say that I learnt a lot would be an understatement. Bill was an excellent, if reluctant, chairman and he can take great credit from what that group achieved.

The toy industry is certainly a fun industry and I have meet some wonderful people over the years, both customers and suppliers alike, and many have become close friends. You can never achieve success alone and I am also indebted to my family, including sister Jill, and the wonderful team that have worked so hard for the business over the years. Again many of these team members have become close friends.
There is a few good years left in the ‘old dog’ yet however and I still have plans in place and goals to achieve before I hand over the reins.
If I were to offer any advice to someone entering the industry today, it would to be aware of constant and relentless change. Do not fear it, rather embrace it.

f1Ph: 09 976 8310
f2Fax: 09 379 3358
f3Email: NZGTA@NZGTA.org.nz