History long but eyes on road ahead

Cooke Howlison managing director John Marsh at Cooke Howlison BMW in Andersons Bay Rd. Photo by...
Cooke Howlison managing director John Marsh at Cooke Howlison BMW in Andersons Bay Rd. Photo by Christine O'Connor.
Cooke Howlison's Great King St premises in about 1970. Photos by The Evening Star.
Cooke Howlison's Great King St premises in about 1970. Photos by The Evening Star.
The workshop in about 1970.
The workshop in about 1970.
Cars competing in the Christchurch-Dunedin-Christchurch reliability run leave Cooke Howlison's...
Cars competing in the Christchurch-Dunedin-Christchurch reliability run leave Cooke Howlison's garage on December 30, 1907. Photo by Otago Witness.

Dunedin-based Cooke Howlison celebrates its 120th year in business this year. Business reporter Sally Rae talks to managing director John Marsh about looking to the future, rather than dwelling on the past.

John Marsh doesn't spend much time looking in the proverbial rear-vision mirror.

Cooke Howlison might be 120 years old, but, instead of reflecting on the past, as managing director he needed to be forward-focused about the company, he said.

Still, it is remarkable how a small bicycle shop morphed into a large business and employer in Dunedin, with just two family owners in its more than a century of existence.

In 1895, Frederick Cooke and Edward Howlison opened a bicycle shop in Great King St, manufacturing their own brand of bicycle, the Record, from imported BSA parts.

Mr Cooke, an engineer, worked for a bicycle-making company in Christchurch before heading south, while Mr Howlison was a champion cyclist, and involved in light engineering and sales for the Dunedin City Council.

Ironically, Mr Howlison, who looked after the financial side of the business, never learned to drive a car.

In 1903, Cooke Howlison became Otago's first manufacturer of motorised bicycles.

Four years later, the company's focus changed and it became a motor vehicle dealer, importing and selling new and used vehicles and offering a parts and repair service.

The first car it imported, a single-cylinder 8hp Rover, was sold to Dr Robert Valpy Fulton.

In 1963, Eric and Graeme Marsh bought the business from the Cooke family and it is part of the Oakwood Motor Group, which has 10 dealerships in Otago and Canterbury.

Changing the name of the business to reflect the new ownership was not an option.

With such heritage and recognition in the community, it ''would have been crazy to throw that away'', John Marsh said.

John Marsh - Graeme's son - has been managing the business for about 25 years. His background was as a design engineer and he joined the business in his late 20s, starting in the sales department.

With such a long history, Mr Marsh acknowledged there was a certain sense of responsibility that came with the role.

Cooke Howlison has the Toyota, Holden, Hyundai, BMW and Isuzu franchises, while staff number about 115 including 10 apprentices.

Associated companies under the Oakwood Motor Group umbrella are Blackwells Holden, Blackwells Mazda, Blackwells Commercials and Arthur Burke Ltd in Canterbury, and Campbells Toyota in Balclutha. In total, staff number about 330.

Dunedin's car market had not seen the growth apparent in Christchurch and Auckland this year, but it was still in a healthy state, tending not to experience the peaks and troughs of other markets, Mr Marsh said.

He thought that might be due to the more conservative nature of Otago.

In 2008, with the global financial crisis, the vehicle market slumped 20% and it had been rebuilding ever since.

Growth had been good this year, Cooke Howlison's sales this year numbering about 1900 new and used cars, which was up 45% on five years ago.

The luxury vehicle market was still going well and it had been a good year for heavy trucks, suggesting the local economy was in good shape.

Low dairy prices had affected vehicle sales but things were improving, Mr Marsh said.

Having a spread of vehicles covering every sector, along with the various franchises, meant when one sector was down, another was usually up, so the mix worked well for the business.

There was a trend away from the traditional four-door sedan towards SUV-type vehicles, which were particularly suited to the southern lifestyle, and a preference for smaller-engined turbo-charged vehicles as they used less fuel, performed better and had lower emissions.

Toyota hybrids were gaining in popularity and the dealership had sold plug-in electric BMWs, but it would still be some time before full electric vehicles gained mass-market acceptance.

The ute market was also very strong, the trend being towards double-cabs with automatic transmissions which could double as family vehicles. Motoring was an exciting sector to be in as changes were happening all the time, some of which had been massive.

Modern cars had benefited greatly from computerisation in terms of safety, servicing, performance and economy, while there had also been the influence of the internet on car buying behaviour.

About 80% of buyers had done research on the internet before looking at a vehicle and they were ''very well informed''.

That meant the market has become very transparent, which kept pricing relatively consistent throughout New Zealand.

Safety had improved enormously, and deaths on New Zealand roads were decreasing.

While there had been comment for years that the future for vehicle dealerships was ''pretty cloudy'', he did not see it that way, Mr Marsh said.

He believed there was a big future for dealerships, run along modern lines, and the company was still investing in new showrooms and facilities.

Cooke Howlison was maintaining a reasonably low-key approach to this year's 120th anniversary milestone, preferring to keep it ''quietly in the background''.

''I'm not quite sure that focusing on the past really resonates with customers. [They] really want to know what's happening today and tomorrow,'' Mr Marsh said.

But the fact remained that the business ''must do things reasonably well or we wouldn't be here'' in such a competitive industry, and it gave people confidence it was going to be around a long time.

He was interested in the history of the business and relevant material had been archived.

Being so long-established, the company sold vehicles to families who had been dealing with the company since the turn of the century.

He believed a large part of the secret to Cooke Howlison's success was repeat business. Looking after customers was rewarded with high repeat-business rates.

The company took community responsibility seriously, supporting a variety of charities and sponsorships.

It also operated a free community van, used extensively by community groups, sports teams and schools.

''Our business is a community partnership. We have a huge loyal customer base and, in return, we enjoy giving back to many great local community groups and charities,'' he said.

The company's board of directors included Mr Marsh's siblings, as well as his father, and also outside directors.

He was proud of his father's achievements, he said.

Graeme Marsh, who received the University of Otago's inaugural honorary doctor of commerce degree last year, was 82 but still went to work most days.

Staff turnover was quite low, some employees having notched up 50 years' service.

Cooke Howlison worked with Otago Polytechnic, creating opportunities for young people.

He believed there was probably more recognition of the opportunities that existed in the trades; it was a good career path, provided a good income and there was a guarantee of work.

There had been some big challenges in recent years with the two Christchurch dealership premises having been destroyed in the earthquakes.

Temporarily relocating to a truck workshop meant staff had to work ''under some pretty tough conditions'', but that was nearly resolved with new premises being built.

The group's business in Christchurch was larger than that of Dunedin but the group had a strong affinity for Dunedin and would always be Dunedin based.

''We enjoy doing business in Dunedin,'' Mr Marsh said.


The journey

1895 - Frederick Cooke and Edward Howlison establish Cooke Howlison as a bicycle shop.

1903 - Cooke Howlison begins manufacturing Record motorcycles.

1907 - Cooke Howlison imports its first car, a Rover, sold from the Hanover St premises.

1938 - Record total of 370 Chevrolets sold by Cooke Howlison.

1955 - First Holden sold by Cooke Howlison.

1963 - Marsh families purchase Cooke Howlison.

1966 - Andersons Bay branch opened.

1977 - Purchases Wrightscars Vauxhall-Bedford.

1979 - G. J. Marsh family purchases Blackwell Motors Holden Christchurch.

1980 - Opens Dunedin's largest specialist truck workshop.

1986 - All operations moved to redeveloped Andersons Bay Rd site.

1989 - Purchases Wrightcars Toyota (Dunedin and Mosgiel).

1992 - Toyota dealership relocates to Andersons Bay Rd site, Holden dealership to Princes St.

1994 - New truck dealership in Teviot St.

1995 - Holden/BMW start at new dealership in Andersons Bay Rd.

2003 - New exclusive BMW dealership opens in Andersons Bay Rd.

2009 - Hyundai dealership opens in Colston St.

2014 - Campbells Toyota in Balclutha purchased.

2015 - 120 years in business.

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