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Enjoying the ride . . . McDiarmids owner Grant McDiarmid with the shoe store's famous tram. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD

A family business hitting the 125-year milestone is quite an achievement. This year, Oamaru business McDiarmids is doing just that and celebrating its long association with the footwear trade. McDiarmids owner Grant McDiarmid speaks to reporter Daniel Birchfield about the business and its legacy.

Grant McDiarmid did not plan to get involved with the family business at first, but in the end it proved a pretty good fit.

Not too many family-owned businesses survive as long as McDiarmids has and it is fair to say not even the founder of the business, James McDiarmid, would have thought the Thames St shoe retailer would still be going strong today.

Owner Grant McDiarmid, James’ great-grandson, said the 125th anniversary of the business was not specifically related to the retail trade.

“We say 1893 because officially that was the time my great-grandfather James McDiarmid, who was our founder, went into partnership with Samuel McDonald to form McDiarmid and McDonald. That partnership carried on for about four or five years and on the toss of a coin Samuel went to Invercargill and James stayed here, so we take that as the concept as McDiarmids as such.

“In fact, James started his apprenticeship three years earlier with a fellow called John Allan, who had a manufacturing business pretty much beside where St John is now [lower Thames St]. On the building it’s named Macallan House, for McDiarmid, McDonald and Allan.”

It is believed James and Mr McDonald took over the business when Mr Allan died.

At one point, the business had branches in Waimate, Timaru and Ashburton and employed 40 staff.

All of the footwear manufactured in Oamaru was finished by hand, until manufacturing ceased in 1916.

James bought out Mr McDonald in 1899 and the current premises were constructed in 1928 by James’ son, Ewart, Grant’s grandfather.

Grant, who took over the business from brother Ross in the mid-1980s, said originally he was not too interested in becoming invested with the family business.

“No, I wasn’t. I’m a production engineer by trade. But, when your family’s been involved in the business you have always got some form of association – whether you’ve got shares or whatever, there’s still some ownership there. I don’t think anyone encourages you to go down that path. They generally want you to find your own path rather than force you to come into the family business because that’s not always for the best reasons.”

He said there were several reasons the business had survived and was still profitable.

“Just consistency, I suppose. I think you get that through family businesses. They also say that after the second or third generation the business can struggle, but we’ve been lucky not to have gone through that. You build up a trust with your customers and that’s important. We live in a small rural area and building that trust is important. It’s a combination of things, I suppose, consistency and a good product . . . but we’re very lucky to have had that loyal support from our North Otago customer base.”

hen you walk into any shoe store, you are met with walls and walls of shoes.

However, McDiarmids is a little bit different.

The store’s famous tram, which dated back to 1967 and once served as a functioning bench for shoe fitting, takes pride of place in the children’s department and is still a firm favourite with both young and old.

“They love the tram .. people can still affectionately remember it.”

Another more quirky piece of equipment that was once used at the store was its X-ray fitting machine, now on display at Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, dating from the 1950s.

Grant said he remembers it “vividly” from his childhood, and at the time could not work out why his father would not allow it to be turned on.

“The idea behind it was you stepped up on to this device and you put your foot in there and it showed an X-ray image of the bones and the structure of the foot. The salesperson and anyone else could view it through this viewfinder. But, of course, they were banned by the health department because there was no shielding from the X-ray. People still come in and talk about that.”

The store also has a functioning magnetic advertiser that was close to 100 years old.

It features a small mannequin that lifts out plates with advertisements on them, which are held up for the public to see.

hile footwear was a lot different and more practical today than it once was, Grant said one thing had not changed over the years – women generally loved buying shoes and men did not.

“There’s different habits, of course, between men and women. Women feel more emotionally attached to their footwear, whereas men don’t. For men, it’s something they’ve got to wear and they need a push from their partner or an event to say ‘I need to get shoes’, or ‘it’s wet and I’m sick of having wet socks’.”

As far as the industry itself was concerned, Grant said there was one decision about 30 years ago that would end up having far-reaching consequences for the country’s footwear manufacturing industry, that he believed did not necessarily turn out to be a bad thing.

“The biggest change is probably moving away from tariffs for import licence and that of course meant the end of the apparel and footwear industry in New Zealand as we know it in the late ’80s. That also meant the importation of much cheaper footwear coming in from China. It’s certainly kept prices down and it’s also meant more choice for customers.”

Grant, who has no children of his own, said the when he eventually departed the business, the family link would cease.

“It won’t move on from me. I will be the last. I don’t think you can be emotionally attached to a business. A business is what it is. A business will always continue regardless of whose name is at the top of the door.”

For now, it was business as usual.

“I think we’ll just carry on, as we’ve always done.”