In 2018, a new crop of Foodstuffs North Island supermarket owners gatecrashed the annual NBR Rich List.
With their wealth estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, most of them had worked their way up from the ground floor, from delivery boy or shelf stacker to owning a supermarket with turnover of millions of dollars a week.
But a few years later, as talk intensified of supermarkets as money making machines, they had disappeared from the NBR list. One had left the industry altogether.
While people could get onto the list in 2018 with $50 million, by 2021 the lowest entrant came in at $100m, My Food Bag co-founders Cecilia and James Robinson who in 2019 had been worth just $2m.
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The Commerce Commission found that the two supermarket giants could be making $430 million a year in excess profits, following its investigation into the $22 billion groceries industry.
The Government has said the industry was not competitive enough and shoppers were not getting a fair deal.
How did they do make it to the list?
Foodstuffs only allows the ownership of one supermarket at a time. The co-op holds onto the land and buildings, while the franchisee owns everything inside and pays rent. Foodstuffs also guaranteed loans for members, totalling about $650m across both North Island and South Island co-ops.
The most successful owners were the ones who owned the best supermarkets, but they also owned property, and had stakes in other businesses.
No-one from Countdown has made the rich list. Australian owner Woolworths keeps ownership of the Countdown supermarkets, but it does franchise out the SuperValue and FreshChoice supermarkets.
Also absent from the list are people from mahogany row, such as Foodstuffs North Island chief executive Chris Quin, and Woolworths Group’s New Zealand board member and soon to be chairperson, Scott Perkins.
Lot of risk, lot of reward
Only a handful of top supermarkets in the country are big enough and lucrative enough to qualify as the most profitable, said Brett Ashley, a former senior Woolworths New Zealand executive.
There was a huge variation in supermarket size, with turnover ranging from as low as $50,000 a week to more than $2 million a week.
He estimated there were no more than 20 top supermarkets across both Woolworths and Foodstuffs.
“If you’ve got the ability to own a significant business of that size, you’ve had to have some money behind you to do that,” he said, speaking from a personal point of view.
“Somebody’s had the money to invest in it, or has figured out how to invest in it or has borrowed heavily, and maybe has other assets in other places,” he said.
There was a lot of risk and a lot of capital involved in owning supermarkets, which he said were making profit of less than 5 cents in the dollar.
“You make mistakes at that level, you lose big, but if you’re successful at that level you win big. Why is that a problem?”
Tim Hazledine, emeritus professor economics, said it was “grotesque” that a single supermarket could generate enough profit for someone to reach the rich list.
A Countdown supermarket’s profitability would be similar to Foodstuffs’ stores, but the company did not have to share the profits, he said.
It was understood a Countdown store manager would earn between $110,000 and $160,000.
The advantage of franchising a business was it gave the person in charge a real motive to run it well, rather than just paying them a salary with occasional bonuses, Hazledine said.
“So that’s always the trade-off. There’s pros and cons of allowing someone else to pocket the surplus, while generating more surplus for the ultimate owner.”
Property development remained one of the most successful ways to create wealth in New Zealand, Hazledine said.
“Some very good property developers like the Manson family, they just really do create good new property, and you’ve got to admire them for that.
“But it does seem that some of the people who get rich out of [property], it’d be hard to prove that they add more to the wealth of the country than they take.”
Ted Manson founded the Auckland construction company Mansons TCLM and the Manson family were on the NBR list worth $1.1b.
A former Pak ‘n Save owner, Glen Taylor, said while some supermarket owners do make a profit, in other instances owners had lost everything.
“There’s no doubt about it, the sales are very good. And certainly when you’re in a large format store, you’re doing a lot of business and a lot of volume.
“Making a profit out of those sales is very, very difficult.”
Margins were tight, and it could take a decade to pay off a smaller store before buying a more lucrative one. Owners also invested millions of dollars into store improvement, and contributed money to their local communities, Taylor said.
Foodstuffs managed the sales processes, and it was not an open market where the owner could choose the best price.
“Because Foodstuffs are guaranteeing the loans they’ve got a fair chunk on the line as well, and they need to make sure they’re backing the right operators.”
Information below is from public records. It does not include debt, which can be significant.
In business together
In 2019, the top-ranked supermarket owners on the Rich List were Gary Baker and Ian Hong, who jointly owned New World Wellington City, more commonly known as Chaffers New World.
The pair had an estimated worth in 2018 of $75m, which grew to $80m the following year.
Both owned a mixture of residential and commercial properties, including a property worth an estimated $9.5m in Queenstown.
Baker owned two small retail properties in Greytown with a combined capital value (CV) of $1.2m, while Hong’s property investment company owned a Placemakers in Kilbirnie with a CV of $17m.
Baker’s residential properties had an estimated value of $20.1m, according to Homes.co.nz, while Hong’s properties had a $25m value.
Baker was also a shareholder in a helicopter charter company, shareholder in several commercial property rental and investment companies, and shareholder in job finding service MegaJobs.
Jayde Cunliffe started in supermarkets at 16 and now owns her own store.
Originally from Invercargill, Brian Galt built up his Wellington supermarket career to the pinnacle of owning Pak ‘n Save Kilbirnie, now owned by his son Dean Galt.
Thanks also to commercial property assets built up by Brian, the Galts were listed together as worth $70m in 2018, and $75m a year later.
Companies under both their names owned a number of properties in central Wellington including 79 Boulcott St, with a CV of $14.4m, and 49 Tory St with a CV of $61.7m.
Dean Galt said the level of scrutiny on the industry was taking its toll.
“All we’re trying to do is provide the cheapest bloody groceries to our community. I care about the community, I’ve lived here for 46 years.
“I’m not going to rip off my community, we try and give back what we can, whenever we can.”
Supermarket owners were stuck fronting up in a situation where everyone’s costs were going up, he said.
“Every supplier that we deal with is giving us price increases of 10%, 20%, 30%. And we’re getting blamed for it all when it’s their cost of wages, it’s their labour, power, fuel, that’s pushing all the prices of the groceries that we on-sell.
“We’re not making excess margins, if anything our margins are dropping because all our costs are going up as well.”
The owner of one of Auckland’s biggest Pak ‘n Saves, Glen Innes, was worth $65m in 2018 which grew to $70m by 2019.
In 1987 he bought his first supermarket, the Cut Price Store in Taumarunui, followed by New Worlds in Hamilton and Auckland.
He owns properties in Auckland and Omaha with an estimated value of $20m.
Redwood is a director and shareholder in Tahua Partners, owner of Burger King, Hannahs and Number One Shoes.
In 2018 the owner of Lincoln Rd Pak ’n Save in west Auckland was worth was an estimated $65m, which grew by $5m over the following year.
A former director of Foodstuffs North Island between 1997 and 2012, Cotterill joined Foodstuffs in 1992 when he bought New World Te Puke. He went on to buy Pak ‘n Save Whakatane and another in Tauranga.
He owns two properties in Auckland and one in Mt Maunganui, worth an estimated $19.9m, and a commercial property in Ponsonby worth $8.2m.
Cotterill is also a director and shareholder in GCC Aviation, business management service Burncott Property Group, and a shareholder and director in Milton Innovations, the designer of a reusable drink container lid.
On the board of Foodstuffs North Island, Witehira is one of a handful of Māori major supermarket owners, and in 2015 won the Outstanding Māori Business Leaders Award.
On 2018’s rich list he was worth $60m, which was unchanged in 2019.
Starting out in 1998 as owner of New World Taumarunui, he bought the flagship New World Victoria Park supermarket in 2010. He sold that and bought Albany Pak ‘n Save from fellow rich listers Paul and Liz Blackwell in 2021.
Like many fellow owners, he began at the very bottom, stacking shelves at a New World in Rotorua.
He was an owner of property with an estimated value of nearly $10m. He was also involved in agribusiness, as a shareholder in the Miro blueberry growing partnership and a director of seafood company Moana New Zealand.
From butcher to supermarket owner
Quintin Proctor, owner of the busy Wairau Park Pak ‘n Save on Auckland’s North Shore, was worth an estimated $55m in 2018, and had added another $5m the following year.
A qualified butcher, he worked at a number of New World supermarkets before becoming an owner-operator.
He and his wife owned properties from north of Auckland to Christchurch worth an estimated $22m.
Paul and Liz Blackwell left the industry after selling Pak ‘n Save Albany. Paul entered the rich list in 2014 worth an estimated $50m, which had grown to $65m by 2019. The couple was involved in publishing, had a stake in the New Zealand Breakers professional basketball team, and were associated with companies worth about an estimated $25m.
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