The Children's Library of Upper Riccarton

Sir John McKenzie

Few New Zealander over 35 years old will fail to remember "McKenzies", the chain store which, along with an almost identical "Woolworths" (often in the same block) dominated budget shopping in New Zealand during the middle of last century. The founder of this chain was Australian born John McKenzie, a horse trooper in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) who after being wounded and invalided home set up shop with his 16 year old sister, selling "fancy goods" in Melbourne. Within 12 months he had two shops operating.

In 1908 his main competitor made an attractive offer to buy him out, with possession to take place in a month. John McKenzie's "closing down sale" was such a huge success he was going back to the wholesaler to get more "last stock" - his competitor/purchaser was so annoyed he tried to make McKenzie close before the agreed date!

John McKenzie had discovered the value of small mark-ups on high turn-over goods. Subsequently he established shops in Sydney and Tasmania. Visiting New Zealand, for a holiday tour in 1909, he saw good opportunities and decided to move base, opening his first "McKenzies" shop in Dunedin in 1910. Over the years further shops were added. On a buying trip to the USA in 1928, he studied the "five and dime" department stores, converting all the currently owned 22 shops to the same principles on return. By the time the chain was bought out (and dismantled) in 1980, long after his death, it had 75 large stores and 1,800 employees.

McKenzie was a hard taskmaster, an astute businessman but his deepest satisfaction appear to have come from his belief in public service and his readiness to support others making an effort even in difficult circumstances. From 1910 onwards he set a third of his profits aside and in 1938 established the J. R. McKenzie Youth Education Fund, (originally to help poor children stay at school longer) and then, in 1940, the J. R. McKenzieTrust with a huge capital base of 100,000 pounds. He also did many spontaneous acts of personal generosity - buying a specially modified car for an amputee, an electric wheelchair for another, paying for a blind bowler and associates to tour New Zealand and teach it to blind New Zealanders, included.

In his life-time and even more so since his death John McKenzie has been one of New Zealand's greatest benefactors. At year 2000 over $50 million dollars has been distributed by the Trust, chaired for many years by one of his sons Roy [later Sir Roy] McKenzie. The only other son, Donald, an air force officer, and his co pilot, Jack de Villiers were lost without trace over the sea near Lake Grassmere whilst on a low level training flight during WWII. Roydon Lodge Stud, named for those two sons, from 1928 Sir John's home at Yaldhurst, became world renown for breeding of top harness racers. Subsequently gifted to the Education Department, by Sir Roy McKenzie (himself a generous benefactor in his own right) it is now the McKenzie Residential School.

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