Robert Laidlaw, founder of Farmers

Robert A. C. Laidlaw was one of the most famous, visionary New Zealand businessmen of the 20th Century. He was born in 1885 in Scotland, and his parents emigrated to New Zealand with him a year later in 1886. Robert started in work as a very successful commercial traveller. In 1909 he founded his own mail-order company called Laidlaw Leeds. He produced a mail-order catalogue with beautiful illustrations, with products such as furniture, wallpaper, children’s toys, and sewing machines. The cover of Issue 1 of the catalogue included the company’s inspirational motto: “Stern old-fashioned unfailing honesty.”

Robert was an active Christian. In 1906 he made an agreement with God to give a percentage of his income to God and his work, starting at 10% and as God blessed him with higher and higher levels of income going up to 25% of his income.1

In November 1911 Robert started a company magazine called The Optimist, for which he wrote inspirational articles about great businessmen and also about topics like virtue, honour and his Christian beliefs. This helped him to communicate personally with his increasing number of staff.

In 1912 Robert wrote his vision for the business:
“Our Aim, to build the greatest business in New Zealand; to serve the farmers in the best possible manner, with the best possible merchandise; to simplify every detail of the transaction; to absolutely satisfy every customer with every purchase; to eliminate all delays; to sell only goods it will pay our customer to buy; to treat our comrades with kindness and our competitors with respect; to work as a co-operative whole because all at it, always at it, wins success.” 2

In 1914 Robert wrote a booklet called The Reason Why, to explain his Christian beliefs to his staff. The Reason Why has been translated into over 30 languages and it has been estimated that over 50 million copies have been printed.3 It has become the most widely printed Christian Gospel tract of all time.4

Laidlaw Leeds merged with a farmers’ co-operative called the Farmers Union Trading Company in 1918. The merged Farmers Union Trading Company opened its famous Hobson Street store in 1920. This was a seven story building, with magnificent tearooms which were popular with 1920s socialites.

In 1921 Robert and some other Christian businessmen and a Baptist Minister, the Reverend Joseph Kemp opened the first New Zealand Bible Training Institute (BTI). In 1927 a new building was opened especially for BTI at the top of Auckland’s most famous street, Queen St.5  Later called the Bible College of New Zealand, it shifted to Henderson in West Auckland. BTI changed its name in 2008 to Laidlaw College, to honour its founder.6

In 1922 Robert started the first free bus service in New Zealand, from Auckland’s main shopping area in Queen Street up the steep hill to the Farmers building in Hobson Street.7 In 1922 he also opened a much-loved rooftop playground in the Hobson Street store for children, which had toy cars that they could ride in, scooters and tricycles.

Starting in 1934, the Farmers Trading Company started its famous yearly Farmers Christmas Parade, with colourful floats and cute children’s characters. In 1935 Robert  and another Christian man had been thinking about buying a campsite for Auckland young people. Walking to the top of Rangitoto Island, they were excited when they saw an ideal site at Eastern Beach. The purchase of this beachfront property was settled in 1936.8 Now called Willow Park Christian Camp & Convention Centre, it is still running fun camps today.

The Farmers Trading Company was later renamed simply Farmers, and the company continues in business in New Zealand under this name to this day.

1 Robert Laidlaw, Man for our Time, Ian Hunter, Hunter Publishing, 2011, p45.
2 Ibid, p87.
3 The Reason Why, Robert Laidlaw, Castle Publishing Limited, Castle NZ edition with text revision by Andrew Killick, 2002, back cover.
4 Hunter, op cit., p341.
5 Hunter, op cit., pp.198 - 199.
6 Hunter, op cit., p7.
7 Hunter, op cit., p181.
8 Hunter, op cit., pp. 237 – 238