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Bob Law: A $65m Investment[1]

- he sold insurance to the next-door bank staff. 

Robert Gilmore[2]

Bob Law's only voiced regret on quitting National Mutual [3] after 45 years is that not until too late did he think of including a small swimming pool in the piazza in the now-finishing National Mutual Centre in Shortland St. "It's a late pipedream. I don't know why I didn't think of it before. I should have thought of it long ago after watching outdoor ice-skating in Rockefeller Cen­tre. Imagine what a pleasant amenity a pool would be for people in the building — and what a pleasant spectacle for passers-by. My successor could yet decide to do it."

National Mutual Auckland manager since 1958, Bob Law won his employer's approval for the investing of $65 million in policyholders' funds in more than 60 com­mercial buildings.

The Shortland St centre is costing $10 million ("My main direction to the archi­tects was to get away from raw concrete and to create a plaza children would enjoy").

$11 m stake

National Mutual's stake in the Wiri shopping centre, biggest in New Zealand and part of the Manukau, city centre, is $11 million.

The big spender of others' money was born poor.

"I was born in Pollokshaws then a village outside Glasgow, now a suburb. Shaws means forest. Men and women from the village founded the settlement of Pollok on the Manukau[4].

My early memories are of a village where the only males were boys and old men. Almost all the men of the village had been killed in World War I in one regiment the Cameronians. My father was one of them — killed at Ypres.

"My mother raised her family of three sons on a war widow's pension of £2 10s 2d a week, augmented a bit by my grandmother, on an old age pension of 10s 6d a week, living with us.

“I was never conscious of actual shortage. But I was always conscious of the effort my mother had to put into feeding us and clothing us.

"My mother was dedicated to the education of her sons. She put me into an excellent Scottish State school where I stayed from primers to university entrance. Shawland's Academy[5] was the name. The atmosphere was keen, competitive and stimu­lating — year after year.

''Things were so tough in the twenties that, like most boys, I'd have had to go to work at 14 had I not won a scholarship for the next two years.

“After getting the local equivalent of UE and leav­ing, in 1928, I spent a desperate summer trying to get a job.

''One day, Scottish Temperance, a life insurance society which then charged less on premiums for teetotalers – in the now abandoned belief that teetotalers live longer and more healthily – advertised for a student actuary at £25 a year paid monthly.

“Thanks to good maths marks in UE I got the job. There were 30 applicants.

“Low though the pay, one was expected to look the part. Bowler hat, tightly rolled umbrella, yellow chamois gloves and dark suit. On Saturdays, if you were dashing, you could wear flannels and a tweed jacket to the office.

"I liked insurance and I liked Scottish Temperance, now Scottish Mutual. Another "student" there who later migrated to New Zealand was Jim Doig[6].

"When my mother died in 1930 I found my pay would not support me and my young brothers, I wrote to an uncle[7] in New Zealand who, although unemployed, sponsored us for assisted passage.

"So, when I was 19, I brought my two brothers to Wellington by ship.

"The Depression in New Zealand seemed even worse than in Scotland. Second mortgages were being called up and house auctions were advertised every day. My uncle was on relief work at 15s 2d a week.

“"I had the good luck to get a job with the National Mutual At £75 a year the pay was much better than in Scotland. But it wasn't enough to feed three.

"While at work — on the monumental job of chasing up overdue premiums when the policyholders had no money -— I had noticed that, between paydays, cash was handed out to some of the staff.

"I asked what went on. The cash handouts were commissions on selling life insurance in one's spare-time. Anybody could be in.

"I decided to be right in. I had the handicap, from a selling viewpoint, of a Glasgow accent — like Dr Finlay's[8] — but the advantage of being well-dressed.

"'Before leaving Glasgow I had bought a Montague Burton[9] suit with two pairs of pants. It would have cost 30s or so. I still buy Monatague Burton - when. passing through Britain. But the one I'm wearing today cost about £45.

First client

“As there wasn’t much money about in the suburb where I lived Haitaitai and as I didn’t have any transport I decided to try spare-time selling right in town.

“National Mutual was next door to the Bank of New Zealand head office. The bank staff had enviable security. I decided to sell insurance to them.

"I entered the lunchtime, eyed the first teller on the right named Reid, and waited for a slack moment, I introduced myself and asked could I have an appointment after work. He agreed. He eventually bought six policies.

The first contact in any group becomes a nucleus. He gives you the names of likely people.

“I’m sure that never before or since has the National Mutual had a busier spare-time representative than me. From that time no Law missed a meal. I was getting £75 in salary and averaging £150 in commission.

“When in 1933 a rep in the Wairarapa whom I knew to average £1200 a year died I asked for the job. But they wouldn’t give it to me.”

Turned down for overseas service in World War II Bob Law spent the war years as an executive odd job man. He was an acting manager of agencies and established the superannuation department.

In 1945 he was appointed chief executive for Otago and Southland, based in Dunedin.

"Business and representation were at rock bottom because of the war. Up was the only way we could move.

“The Otago landscape excited me. So did the people. I could often tell by ear where in Scotland a third generation Otagoan's grandparents had come from.

"And in that landscape I was able to take up archaeology again. My interest in archaeology started through my mother's coming from John O'Groats[10]. All that coast is littered in Pictish remains. On an aunt's farm[11] is a Pictish broch — a tower.

"I used to find it exciting to handle at John O'Groats pottery and copper things that, for all I knew, were last handled 1500 years ago. My maternal uncle, Simon Bremner[12], well-known Scottish antiquarian, used to tell me what was what.

''And in Glasgow my mother used to take us on walks through a park where there were the remains of a Roman wall, I used to finger the masonry — and think.

Saxon pots

"In the corn[13] and oats fields behind our place in Glasgow I used to fossick and find early Saxon pots.

"Until being posted to Dunedin my main outdoor activity in New Zealand had been the Tararua Tramping Club — where I found the girl whom I married.

“But I got cracking again in archaeology in Otago. Hundreds of Maori arte­facts in the Otago Museum were dug up by me. My richest sources were the Waitaki and Catlins rivers.

"I can hear now one of the museum staff saying: 'Nae mare moa bones'. They couldn't take any more. Because of that, 1 have at home a femur from a thick-set moa. Picked it up at Black Jacks Point[14], on the Waitaki River.

''My archaeology thing has opened up new worlds for our kids. It seems infectious. "My daughter Helen — Mrs Peter Devlin — was assistant editor of the Jour­nal of the Polynesian Society.

"My son Garry, a civil engineer picked up so many moa gizzard stones at the Otau dam site, at Hunua that he became sick of them. He's an active committee member of the archaeology association, of which I was a founder.

"My younger boy, Craig, is a geologist.

National Mutual house newspaper reports that Bob Law's 13 years in Dunedin were notable apart from a prodigious increase in busi­ness, for such innovations as a pioneer mortgage repay­ment scheme devised with the Southland Building Society[15] — "a wonderful source of future business for the office".

From Dunedin to the managership of National Mutual's biggest territory, Auckland.

"I liked from the day I came the financial atmosphere of Auckland. A place of venture capital.

"Before I'd been long in Auckland the building contractor Rex McCracken, suggested to me that National Mutual provide finance for homebuilders' sections — repayable over 15 years at 6%.

"This led, through what we called the 'leased land' system, to our facilitating the building of 10,000 Auck­land houses in 12 years.

Recruit

"Through Bill Subritzky[16] we facilitated the building of a large part of Mt Roskill. Ellis Ave there is named after our New Zealand manager, Stavely Ellis, whom I recruited in my first year in the firm. He was 2-i-c overdues at New Zealand head office under me.

“We got Ron Neil[17] off the ground. Ron Archer[18] got in on the scheme, as did the Onehunga Timber Co.

"The scheme ended in 1970 — killed by inflation[19] and the price of sections.

"I think the Government should move in where we left off Rather than build State houses it should pro­vide interest-free loans for sections for people building a house for the first time.

"Our first purchase-lease deal in Auckland, a local milestone, was the fine Ceramco[20] building at New Lynn. We own the land, we had Neville Price[21] design the building, which we built and which we lease to Tom Clark[22]

"National Mutual is now one of Auckland's biggest owners of property."

While the string of National Mutual investment properties in Auckland reflects the Melbourne-based association's local status (one-third of all life insurance business in Auckland and Auckland premium income of $2 million a year), does runaway inflation not make life insurance a poor buy — and cloud the future? 

"Even more in time of inflation than in normal times, life insurance is the only way to protect a family against loss of the breadwinner.

"To cope with 'normal' inflation — not the kind we have at the moment, — National Mutual introduced a growth policy designed for 4% inflation. Its face value increased 5% a year, as did the premium. This was a painless, effective method.

"The only way of coping fully with inflation at the 1976 rate is to combine per­manent with temporary or 'term' — insurance. [Term insurance provides cover for only a specified period, say five or 10 years.]

In retirement Bob Law will enjoy the pleasures o£ virtually a private park close to town — a half-acre in Waiata Ave, off Victoria Ave.

Maori trout

"My wife being a good botanist, we have what you could call a knowledgeable landscaped garden that even has a stream in which I see kokopu, Maori trout, up to nine inches long.

"We have the Chinese tree idesia polycarpa, a nice gordonia, three rhododendrons, seven magnolias, and a very good persimmon.

"I’ll have time now to browse through a collection of 500 early New Zealand books — mostly on Maori; and on the early days.

For 55 years now I’ve fished for trout – in Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand. I fish — rewardingly - for trout 40 minutes' drive from Auckland, in the lagoons near Waiuku.

“Robert Bremner, a Scottish uncle who migrated to New Zealand, was a first-class cabinetmaker [23], who used to take me round in Scotland and show me furniture dovetailing and veneering that he admired. I've got a workshop and in making furniture I try in a modest way to emulate my uncle [24]

"Robert Bremner was a painter too, who exhibited at the Scottish Academy. I have three of his oil landscapes[25].

"But our two best pictures — each impressionist[26] — are by a second cousin, William Gunn[27], who had a considerable reputation in Scotland 50 years ago and who won the Prix de Rome[28].

“I am taking home from my office three[29] Stanley-Palmer prints — one of Mount Moehau, one of Kohukohu and one of an inlet near Hokianga. I also take home from the office an Alison Pickmere oil of Shortland St.

"Another interest I can devote some time to in retirement is pot lids.

"I'm one of two New Zealand members — the other is a doctor's wife in Christchurch — of the Pot Lid Circle[30], in the UK.

“'Pot lids were used as covers on bear-grease jars. They were under-glaze colour prints on pottery with themes ranging from fox hunting to battle scenes from the Crimean War.

For virility

"Bear grease was used in late Regency, and early Victorian times as hair pomade which was supposed to promote virility — through the head.

"Pot lids were used as wall decorations in the ser­vants' hall.

"My collection of about 60 has mostly been picked up in New Zealand.

“Bear grease was used in New Zealand.

“When the National Mutual Shortland St development started, with the knocking down of the Gourmet restaurant[31] and neighbouring buildings for our parking building, a fine pot lid, now mine was found on the Gourmet site.

“But not one Maori thing was found in Shortland St. Just old broken clay pipes and bottles.”

 



[1] Auckland Star, April 24. 1976 – transcription and notes – Garry Law: 2008.

[2] Brief obituary http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=224582

[3] Later absorbed into Axa Insurance.

[4] Walker, W.L. 1970. The far away land – the story of Pollok settlement. Privately printed. The settlement was based on a community of non-conformists lead by Rev James Milne Smith who had visited New Zealand in the early 1860s and encouraged a group to follow him here in 1863.  They were to form a self-sufficient community, with Smith as teacher and pastor.  It failed as a community with many not staying, and those who did eventually preferring a conventional Presbyterian church and a state aligned school.

[5] http://www.shawlandsacademy.glasgow.sch.uk/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shawlands_Academy

[6] Later Sir James - See http://www.businesshalloffame.co.nz/doig-james-nimmo-crawford/

[7] Robert Bremner – a maternal uncle.

[8] A reference to a Scottish television programme shown in New Zealand – “Dr Finlay’s Casebook”.

[9] A firm of tailors with high street outlets. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montague_Burton 

[10] Caithness

[11] Johan (Jo) Bremner = Robert MacKay

[12] A corresponding member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

[13] ie. wheat

[14] Now under Lake Benmore.

[15] Now SBS.

[16] Universal Homes. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Subritzky

[17] Neil Homes – no longer in existence.

[18] Another house building company.

[19] There are several references to inflation. In NZ it was over 6% p.a. from 1971- 1990.

[20] Now defunct conglomerate formed by Tom Clark out of brick and ceramic companies.

[21] Architect – still practicing – see http://www.nevilleprice.com/index.html

[22] Later Sir Tom. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entrepreneurship/news/article.cfm?c_id=190&objectid=10112108

[23] He returned to Scotland and was in business cabinetmaking and making mattresses. His son Harry was the founder of Vogue Furniture which was still in the ownership of his descendants until sold in the late 2000s.  http://www.voguefurniture.co.uk/getPage.aspx?pageId=2

[24] Furniture making was more intent than achievement.

[25] GL: I know of only one – a picture of a mill and mill pond – now with the Devlin family.

[26] GL: They were landscapes in Scottish colourist style. I asked my mother about them once what happened to them and she said they had been taken back to Scotland on one of their trips and given to Robert Bremner. They are now in the ownership of Harry's youngest daughter Julie. Harry's widow Sheila advises they are of Wick.

[27] Sir Herbert James Gunn is a well known artist, but William not. I do not have a family tree for the Gunns so can’t elucidate this.

[28] An art scholarship awarded through competition by the French Government http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prix_de_Rome

[29] GL: Only two I think.

[30]http://www.thepotlidcircle.co.uk/

[31] In Shortland St – the first licenced restaurant in Auckland.