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Choices History Story: Robert Laidlaw  © Jenny Jenkins 2015            https://sites.google.com/site/valueslessons  

(Show Image 1) In 1904 Robert Laidlaw's father bought a kit-set car, the first car in Dunedin, New Zealand. Excitedly the Laidlaw's opened the box and began unpacking the parts. Putting the car together was easy for this mechanically minded family. The trouble was, no one knew how to drive it. 


“I’ll do it,” volunteered eighteen-year-old Robert. He studied the instructions and filled the petrol tank. After several jerky starts he was off, driving slowly down the road 

in a cloud of dust. The next few days were spent chugging around the streets of Dunedin, dodging buggies and causing horses to bolt.
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The following Saturday was a perfect day for a picnic. The car ha
d no roof so Robert wore a cap and goggles to keep off the dust as he drove the family to the beach. After a relaxing afternoon in the sun, they climbed into the car for the trip home. Robert’s father, who sat up the front, was observing Robert carefully. Halfway home he made a choice, “That looks easy Robert. I’ll drive it from here.”

Robert stopped and nervously changed places with his father. With a bump and a jerk, they were off, slowly at first, but gradually gaining speed and confidence. With surprising speed, the car motored up a steep hill and over the top. Soon they were hurtling down the other side.
“Quick, son,” his father yelled. “How do I stop?” but it was too late. The car swerved off the road into a ditch, tossing the terrified travellers, screaming and shrieking, into some spiky gorse bushes.
Then, silence. The dust was settling as they scrambled out to survey the damage. Apart from scratches and bruises, everyone was okay. But not the car. It had broken apart. Its body had flown right off the wheels and chassis. Carefully they lifted it back on, and got their screwdrivers from the toolbox. Before long they were motoring home, a little slower, with Robert at the wheel.

Robert worked in a Dunedin hardware shop. He sold everything from tools and nails, to paint and pails. He sold machines with cogs and collars for dogs. In fact, if you can’t eat it and you don’t wear it, he probably sold it. Robert was their top salesman. Customers liked him because he was always so friendly and helpful.

One day his boss called him into his office. “Robert,” he said. “I’m offering you a promotion. My travelling salesman is leaving and I want you to take his job.” Robert couldn’t believe it. Here he was, just 19, and being offered the best job in the business. A travelling salesman journeyed around the countryside by train, visiting small towns and taking orders for hardware from country stores and blacksmith shops. He felt a thrill of excitement. What a great opportunity.
“Thank you sir. I’ll think about it,” said Robert. He didn't like to rush into things. It was important to make a careful choice. He talked it through with his parents and accepted.
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A few days later Robert ran into Bill Bright, the travelling salesman he was replacing. Bright was annoyed that his important job was being given to a lad who looked like a schoolboy!
“Laidlaw!” he yelled. Robert spun around. “I hear you’ve got my job.” Robert nodded. “You don’t drink, do you boy.”
“No sir, I've chosen not to.” Robert answered politely.
“When you get an order, the customer expects you to buy them a drink. What will you say to Bates the blacksmith, when he heads for the bar, orders his drink and waits for you to pay? What will you do then, boy? Ha ha ha ha ha!” He strode off, laughing furiously.
What would Robert do? He chose not to drink alcohol because he could see the trouble that it caused. It often took men away from their families, and sometimes made them violent. Drinking too much alcohol could damage a mans brain and harm his liver. Robert didn’t want alcohol to harm his body, and he didn’t want to hurt families by buying drinks for customers, but everyone would expect it. Then he had an idea; he'd give his customers a gift instead.

Robert bought himself a season rail ticket and headed off on his round. In his pocket he carried some fine pocketknives. He gave one to each of his customers, instead of taking them to the hotel bar. They liked them, too. But a fortnight later, when he got to Bates the burly blacksmith, he didn’t even get the chance to offer one.
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Bates was a huge man, probably about fifty. He had a bushy beard and was covered in dirt and sweat. He swore loudly as he struggled to shoe an enormous Clydesdale stallion. The horse got shoed just once a year, and hated it. As Bates held a horseshoe against its huge hoof, it fought and kicked. Bates cursed when the shoe didn’t fit and took it back to the fire.

Robert introduced himself politely. “I don’t hear you swearing young fellow,” Bates boomed, pumping air onto the scorching fire with the bellows.

“No, Mr. Bates.”

Bates drew the smoking horseshoe out of the fire. “Do you smoke?” he asked.

“No Mr. Bates. I've chosen not to smoke,” Robert answered nervously. Bates slammed the red-hot shoe down onto the anvil. Robert said bravely, “You are old enough to be my father, Mr. Bates. It’s hard on me that you pick out all my faults on my first call. You ask me if I swear and I say, no I don’t swear. You ask me if I smoke and I say, no I've chosen not to smoke. In a minute you will ask me if I drink and I will say, ‘No, Mr. Bates, I don’t drink.’”

Mr. Bates froze. His right hand held the heavy hammer, raised ready to come crashing down on the red hot shoe. Slowly he lowered the hammer. He turned and looked at Robert. It had taken a lot of courage for Robert to be so open about his personal choices. Mr Bates laid a huge hand on Robert’s shoulder, squeezed it and smiled. “Stick to it, laddie,” his deep voice rumbled. “Stick to it.”

While the other travelling salesmen spent their evenings in the hotel bar drinking, swearing and telling rude jokes, Robert chose to spent his spare time in hotel reading rooms. It was there he found an American mail order catalogue, and he got excited. A mail order company would do well in New Zealand. It would be a lot cheaper for people to buy their goods from a catalogue. When salesmen like Robert sold goods to stores, the stores often doubled the price when selling to their customers. If he could offer goods much cheaper, surely farmers would buy from a catalogue instead? He bought books on how to set up a mail order company. He studied advertisements, collecting the good ones in a file. Robert dreamed of one day owning his own mail-order business.

But Robert’s dream would have to wait. In 1907 his family shifted to Auckland, where Robert again took a job as a hardware salesman. This time he travelled by steamboat to remote ports like Gisborne, Tauranga and Whangarei. (Show Image 5) He rode to small towns on horseback, gathering orders from shopkeepers. In winter the dusty roads turned to muddy swamps. Robert had to ford dangerous rivers, and some nights he slept under haystacks. Often he would ride along with farmers on their way to town. When he talked to them about a mail-order company, the farmers were enthusiastic.
 “Those country stores are cheating us with their high prices,” they’d say. Again, Robert chose to work hard and cheerfully, so shopkeepers gave him big orders. His boss doubled his pay, and Robert carefully saved his money. When he had enough, he quit his job.

Robert had a dream. He’d prepared, he’d saved; he was ready. He set up an office in a spare room at home and designed New Zealand’s first mail-order catalogue. He skillfully drew the advertisements, using the examples he had collected in his file. Robert knew what items the farmers liked to buy. He visited wholesale warehouses around Auckland and arranged to buy the goods from them, to resell to the farmers ordering from his catalogue.

Though he was 23 years old, Robert looked a lot younger. His slim body, neatly combed hair and boyish face caused businessmen around town to ridicule him. “You look like a schoolboy,” they mocked, “and yet you’re trying to do something never done before in New Zealand.” Robert chose not to be discouraged.
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When it was finished, Robert’s catalogue had over a hundred pages of things for sale. He posted out copies to five thousand farmers and rented a tiny one-roomed warehouse in downtown Auckland. Business boomed. Robert and his brother Jack were soon working all day and every second night as well. Before long, they had to employ another young man to help. In the first month they got ten orders a day. The second month brought in twenty. By the third month, thirty orders came in every day’s mail. By then their building was too small. They rented another, four times bigger, and employed more staff.

At one year old the business received more than eighty orders a day and they had to move again. Four stories high, Robert’s new warehouse was seven times bigger, and he now employed 122 workers. Three months later he had to rent the twin warehouse next door.

Robert now had many different departments in his building: clothing, groceries, boots, saddles, furniture, and hardware. He chose twelve keen young managers to work under him, and he taught them this proverb: ‘To earn more, learn more.’ He tutored them through a business course, and gave them all his management books to read. He chose to help them become successful too.

Robert employed three cart drivers to transport the customers’ orders to the wharf, where they could be shipped to farmers around New Zealand.
(Show Image 7) The drivers union went on strike and told their members to stop work and demand more pay, but these three loyal men decided to keep working. They liked Robert and didn’t want to let him down. Robert knew that if they didn’t stop work, the other strikers would try to beat them up, so he told them to strike. But he still needed to get the orders to the wharf. His customers had paid their money and were waiting for their goods to arrive. He didn’t want to put anyone else in danger. What could he do? Taking off his jacket, Robert mounted the cart and drove the load to the wharf himself. When he arrived at the wharf gates, angry strikers crowded around his cart, waving their placards, shouting, and trying to stop him. Robert heard whistles blowing, and a group of policemen came running up. They escorted him safely through to the wharf, where his goods were loaded onto the ships. He chose to repeat this dangerous journey every day for several weeks until the strike ended.

After three years Robert had again outgrown his warehouses. This time he bought land and built his own five-story building. 
(Show Image 8) Standing high on a hill in Auckland, it was more than twice the size of his previous warehouse. You may have visited it; it’s called Farmers. Robert’s business continued to grow and he began buying shops in other towns. Today Farmers is one of New Zealand’s largest chain of stores. When you next visit a Farmers store, remember the choices that helped young Robert Laidlaw, the ‘schoolboy businessman,’ to become a success.

Discussion Questions

1. What choice did Robert's father make that put his family in danger?
2. What choices did Robert make at work that helped him get promoted?
3. What personal choices did Robert make that caused Bates the blacksmith to respect him?
4. How did Robert's choice not to spend his evenings drinking in the hotel bar change his life?
5. What proverb did Robert teach his managers? (‘To earn more, learn more.') Why?
5. What choices did Robert make that you also want to make? (Write them down and share them in pairs.) Good choices can change your life!

Visual Aid
Print out the images, or make a powerpoint presentation from them, to help your students to visualise the story. 
Reference: Man for our Time by Ian Hunter