He kept his promise - and then some
Martin Lowe used the harsh words from his school principal as a motivating force to create and own his own business in Gisborne. The Business Applications company director shares his story with Matai O’Connor . . .
Martin left school at the age of 15 as he was told he would never get School Certificate back then, and the majority of the fifth form class he was in would not achieve and make the grade. That was the advice he got back in the 1960s.
He made a promise to himself that, one day, he would own his own company . . . and so his life began. He bit the bullet and left school in 1965 at the start of that year.
With the push from his father, he applied for a job at Eric Upton and Son, a locally- owned and operated typewriter and cash register shop owned by Murray Upton on Gladstone Road where Enterprise Cars now stands.
Martin started an apprenticeship, had a three-month trial and trained to be a qualified office equipment technician.
In those days, working as an apprentice in the Instrument and Coach Builder trade required training in mechanical and electrical qualifications for five years — 10,000 hours.
“I started at the age of 15”, earning only 4 pounds 15 shillings a week back then.
“Yes, you read it right — that was $8.75 per week,” Martin said.
He thought that was a long sentence to commit to an employer to come out as a qualified technician.
“In those days that was expected when taking on a trade. One was reminded to spend and commit a further three years after qualifying to allow your employer to recuperate some of the costs that were spent on you as an apprentice — something that is now overlooked these days. This was a verbal promise that was to be kept to.”
During his apprenticeship, he worked on old mechanical equipment and then electro-mechanical products and finally early electronic equipment in the Upton Shop.
Mr Upton made sure Martin was looked after with good pay rises when due, as he didn't take long to become a sought-after technician with companies from Auckland and Wellington hearing of his technical ability.
Martin was offered many jobs in those five years and then after his apprenticeship, he was being headhunted by even more aggressive businesses in the cities.
Martin decided to make Gisborne his home and stay with people he grew up with.
“I had a great team of good honest reliable friends from all walks of life.”
Martin's hobbies were always something to do with cars. He started the Gisborne Slot Car Club with some of his friends. Martin made a scale-electric track that could be dismantled and taken around to school gala days to promote the newly-formed club. They gave the profits made back to the schools. This was a monthly occasion for several years.
“Nearly all schools in Gisborne benefited from these efforts.”
Back in the slot car days, he and his committee grew the club to over 180 members. Eventually the club moved to fixed premises and built several tracks situated above the old Mark-‘n-Pak building.
“Most of us may remember it as the Barwick's Building where McDonald's is now.”
Martin committed many years to helping the club and also spent many hours with the Gisborne Car Club as an active member, and then on the committee.
“We organised trials, gymkhanas, hill climbs, quarter-mile sprints, local and international rallies (Rothmans) and a couple of car shows.”
He became president and was the instigator of bringing the famous TV show Knight Rider “Kitt Car” to Gisborne and the “Street Hawk” Motorbike. Along with other events, they raised funds for the Car Club to build and freehold their own clubrooms.
Martin retired as president after 10 years and was made a life member.
Changes happened — Eric Upton was sold to Beechey and Underwood of Auckland, then the company was taken over by Armstrong and Springhall just after decimal currency was introduced into New Zealand.
So from 1965 to about 1970, Martin worked for the same company with Mr Upton, his original boss.
He always remembers calling him Mr Upton.
“No one ever called their boss of senior age by their first name back then, and even customers were addressed as Mr, Mrs or Miss.
“Calling them by their first name would have been a total insult and considered cheeky. Wow, how things have changed.”
Martin did not enjoy working in Gisborne for the big Armstrong and Springhall company. His good weekly wage dwindled away every time there was a general wage increase.
This was done by the powers of the Wellington-based firm to entice Martin to get out of Gisborne by hanging a bigger carrot in front of him if he moved to head office in Wellington.
Incidentally, Martin was clever and made a smart move — “head office did not like this at all”.
He was the only one in New Zealand who knew how to repair a certain expensive electronic printing calculator which had hundreds of problems, costing the company thousands of dollars and a lot of embarrassment, he said.
Head office and all other branches had to send these products to “little old Gisborne to be repaired”.
“You can imagine what that did for a national company's ego — having to get work done in Gisborne. This was one of many reasons why they wanted me in head office.”
Eventually, things came to a head and Murray Upton moved on and re-started Te Rau Press Office Equipment with Max Stephens, the then owner.
Martin was invited to go there, which he did, with the promise to purchase the business machine division at some stage.
“On leaving the big company, my managers and directors told me I would never succeed, never afford to travel and I was making a very big mistake.”
This was not the case — Martin soon proved these so-called experts wrong with simple hard work and determination.
He spent several years working there with Murray and his son Kevin. Leaving Murray behind, Martin and Kevin eventually left and started up Business Applications Limited in 1980.
Within six months, the Office Equipment Division of Te Rau Press was sold to the new company and they moved back from the original starting shop on the corner of Palmerston Road and Derby Street to 32 Peel Street. Six months later they split the shop through lack of space, to 1 Peel Street for computers and cash registers and 32 Peel Street for typewriters and photocopiers.
“This double shop was hard to manage with sales staff and service split into two so a decision was to move the business to where it is now.
“Later Paul Benge, current co-owner, and Martin bought the building.”
Meanwhile, Martin could not get motorsport out of his blood.
During the growth of the new company, Martin became good business friends with Derek Johnstone and two Allen brothers, Les and Dick of Allen Brothers and Johnstone (AB & J) through buying several cars from them.
He was invited to buy into the company, which, in those days, was the Hillman, Humber and Dodge dealerships of Todd Motors.
Martin was ecstatic because he had always had a passion for cars . . . but he decided to “stick to his knitting” and stay in the office equipment industry.
AB &J was eventually sold and the new sole owner Ed and Robyn White offered Martin a division of the business to take on the Honda agency.
In his wisdom, once again he decided to stay within his trade and keep the loyal clients he had built up over the years.
Martin was welcomed in the Turanga Lions in the 1970s and 80s where he spent many weekends and hours working on community projects.
He still had a passion for cars and motorsport and started driving Speedway, enjoying several years at the wheel of his trusty little 1973 Holden Torana.
“Every weekend during the season, I could not wait to get out and blast around Gisborne's track.”
He never became involved with committee work for the Speedway club but today his company sponsors the club as much as they can.
For the past 34 years, Martin has been teamed up with business partner Paul Benge who is as dedicated as he is. They run “a company with 12 of the best full-time staff”.
Martin and Paul have travelled to over 20 countries and won countless supplier awards.
“We even topped New Zealand's sales many times through dedication and by making sure our customers get the best bang for their buck and they are looked after as if the product is one of their own.”
Over his working career, some very special people have mentored and supported him.
In no order of favouritism are: his dear parents Anne and Frank Lowe; Murray Upton, his original boss; Peter O'Sullivan, a great friend and original photocopier supplier/importer for his company; his sister and brother-in-law Judith and Joe Hackel; his long-time business partner Paul Benge and his two sons, Karl, who now manages Blueprint Imaging and Kieran, who is currently living in Spain; not forgetting his dedicated loyal staff, customers and suppliers, past and present alike, as without these people his journey would not have been as exciting and eventful.
“Retirement, well . . .” he said.
“Statistics say the average person passes on approximately six years after retirement and I don't want to be in that space.
“There is far too much to do before I leave this planet,” he said. “You only get one shot — there is no trial run.”