Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 9, May 1968
THE STORY OF AKRAD RADIO CORPORATION LTD.
By R.E. SKINNER
In Journal 7 Mr. L. Horton stated that the "Radio Section of the Waihi Museum" was first envisaged as a Memorial to the late Keith Wrigley. The following article will elaborate on the reason for this, and the far-reaching consequences of what may have seemed an inauspicious beginning. (Ed.)
The history of this company over the first fourteen years of its existence must largely revolve around a young man whose vision, drive and energy was the mainspring of its evolution until his untimely death early in 1946.
This young man was the late Keith Marsden Wrigley, a Waihi boy and eldest of two sons of Mr. J. M. Wrigley, reporter and writer on the staff of the 'Waihi Telegraph'. In September 1932, Keith, who was only 18, started a radio sales and repair shop in the premises now occupied by the fruit shop in A. J. Dean's building located in lower Seddon Street. His capital was fifty-two pounds. He had just obtained his Radio Serviceman's certificate and terminated his employment with Johns Ltd., Auckland where he had worked since leaving high school.
His knowledge of electricity was in the main obtained from the Waihi School of Mines and he later obtained his technical knowledge of radio through correspondence schools. The radio trade then was in its infancy, there being but a handful of radios in Waihi, many of then being homemade by enthusiastic amateurs. At that time while it was recognised that radio had a tremendous future none realised the rapid advancement that was to occur in the immediate years ahead.
When the business first opened as 'Radio Service' the stock consisted of one mantel radio and a handful of radio parts. Instruments consisted of one test meter, which Keith had built, and a valve tester which he had purchased secondhand in Auckland. Keith had painted the inside and front of the shop, done the signwriting, built counters, benches and shelves himself.
Despite the depression looming the business prospered and by the end of 1933 was employing two of a staff. It was about this time that Keith decided he could build radios cheaper than he could buy them and commenced his first production run of twelve radios. Money and plant were still short however and bare steel chassis were bought with only the large holes punched. The balance of the holes were drilled by hand and the chassis finally painted with a homemade spraygun, the air supply coming from a hand operated car pump.
With the commencement of even this small quantity of radios, space became really short and it was found necessary to shift to new premises which the Waihi Dry Cleaning Company currently occupy. A large lean-to extension was built on the back of these premises by Keith and his staff and while it was being built a borough councillor called in and asked if they had a building permit. This was rather a bombshell as no-one had any idea such a thing was required. The building was duly completed nevertheless under a benevolent smile from the council. One big advantage of the new site was the laying on of compressed air over the back fence from N. F. Morton's garage which at that time was located in Moresby Avenue at the rear of the Waihi Hardware Company's premises.
Now that extra room was available it was decided to manufacture components, such as radio frequency coils and transformers which meant a further increase in staff and the building of winding machines. These machines were designed and built after work, very often into the early hours of the morning, by Ernie Hands. It should be said that Keith's enthusiasm was infectious and was not only felt by his staff who worked long hours when overtime payment was unheard of, but was also felt by others such as garage owners who allowed their lathes and machinery to be used to make many of the original machines used by Akrad.
Many people have wondered how the name Akrad came into being. This is an abbreviation of Auckland Radio and was originally used as a simple and easy-to-remember trademark or brand name for radio components. Radio brand names used in these early years were 'Futura', 'Luxor' and 'Everest'.
The pattern set in these formative years was largely followed up to the beginning of the war, there being two more shifts, the first to the premises in Rosemont Road, next door to E. A. Clark's and the next to those now occupied by 'Macs Trading Post'. Staff increased in this period to nearly 50 and further building extensions were made. Radios and components were being sold all over the North Island although most of the business was done in the Auckland area. Other lines were developed with some success during this period, such as battery chargers, pokerwork machines and electric fences. The first electric fence which was developed and operated as a "trial horse" electrocuted a farmer's dog which meant it had to be quickly recalled for further development.
As the war progressed many problems arose. Key personnel went into the Forces leaving a tremendous load on those left. In 1943 Government decreed that the manufacture of domestic radios must cease and while contracts for defence equipment were in the offing there was an immediate hiatus which was barely filled by the manufacture of Morse keys, buzzers, signal lamps and sirens suitable for local defence and Home Guard use. Eventually defence contracts were procured and once more new premises were required. This resulted in the purchase for £600 in 1943 of the 'Kings Hall' in Haszard Street which is still occupied by Akrad. Equipment made for the Services included radio frequency coils, Morse buzzers, valve boxes and communication radios. During this period, until the war ended in 1945, the staff level increased to 90.
Towards the latter part of the war, Keith realised that Akrad could be in serious difficulties when hostilities ceased, as the firm had now doubled in size and he was not sure that he could obtain radio components quickly to maintain factory loading, nor was he sure that he could sell the output should he obtain the parts. He met these problems in two ways - First by introducing a new line of goods in the form of children's tricycles for which he could obtain raw materials and which he was also sure would have a ready market. His second move was to arrange for a separate marketing organisation to sell the new enlarged factory output.
Both of these moves were successful, the tricycle meeting ready market acceptance with the factory straining to change over from wartime production to meet this new challenge, as well as redevelop its domestic radio manufacturing activities, with the new marketing organisation playing a full and essential part in distributing and selling these goods. Unfortunately, these new arrangements had hardly begun when Keith Wrigley died suddenly on New Years Day 1946. As will be seen this ended a definite period of development in the life of Akrad, where over the previous 14 years Keith and a loyal band of workers had, virtually on a shoestring, developed a small radio shop into a large manufacturing organisation employing over 90 people.
A new era for Akrad had now commenced. During the war Keith Wrigley became closely associated with George A. Wooller, Senior Project Officer to the Controller of Radio Production. George Wooller had previously been production manager at Radio Ltd., Auckland and had been seconded to this position for the duration of the war. This association led to George Wooller forming G. A. Wooller and Co., distributing company for Akrad manufactured products and this in turn has had a profound effect on the post-war growth of Akrad. Under Keith Wrigley's will a company was formed under the direction of the Public Trustee, G. A. Wooller, W. Leitch and W. Meiklejohn. At this stage it was in considerable financial difficulties through having to meet death duties and income tax. As the Public Trustee had no knowledge of radio manufacturing, they called on George Wooller to manage Akrad through this difficult period until the appointment of T.J.F. Spencer in February 1947. On April 1st of that year the business was formed into a limited liability company with a capital of £30,000 and this resulted in its financial affairs being put on a proper footing. George Wooller was now able to devote his main effort to the selling side while Tom Spencer proved an efficient manager at Akrad.
Although radio production remained Akrad's principal interest, the company also utilised its machine shop for the introduction of other lines. Tricycle production which was begun in 1946 reached a peak in 1947 when three-quarters of the total staff were engaged in it. It still continues. To date, the company has turned out over 180,000 tricycles for which only the spokes, ball bearings and steel are imported.
A number of prototype motor scooters were also produced by the company and one of them was ridden by Mr. Spencer and Mr. Ernie Hands on an extended proving trial from Waihi through Rotorua, Taupo, Napier, Wellington and back to Waihi via Palmerston North, Wanganui and New Plymouth. The only imported components used were the motor, tyres, chains and, of course the steel.
The company also made a trial production run of rotary lawn mowers, these being the first of their type to be manufactured in New Zealand. Fifty were made and sold readily. However, the directors of the day considered neither the motor scooter nor mower projects were in line with the company's primary objectives in the field of radio so they were shelved.
Rapid strides were being made with the introduction of a complete range of domestic radios from portables to large cabinet models. And a chain of dealers to sell the products was being steadily built up by G. A. Wooller and Co. Ltd., who still marketed all Akrad's products. It should be noted that from the date of the incorporation of the new company in 1947 Akrad has always made profits. How this has sustained the growth of the business can best be appreciated when it is realised that approximately £2,300 of capital has to be provided for each employee added to the payroll. It has been found that this figure has varied very little during the life of the company and to-day's growth has been made possible only by ploughing back a very large proportion of past profits.
In 1949 television's rapid worldwide growth convinced the directors that it would be best for Akrad to associate itself with a major overseas organisation to prepare for its introduction to New Zealand. Subsequently an approach was made to Pye Ltd., of Cambridge, England, and its chairman, Mr. C.O. Stanley visited New Zealand for negotiations. As a result, Pye (N.Z.) Ltd. was set up in 1951, with Pye Ltd. of England having a substantial shareholding. Mr. Wooller became chairman and managing director of the new company and also on the board were Mr. Spencer and Mr. A.M. Cooper, managing director of Green and Cooper Ltd. of Wellington, which had been Pye Telecommunications' agent in New Zealand from the time it installed the first radio telephones in Auckland in 1947.
Pye (N.Z.) Ltd. acquired a controlling interest in Akrad and the Waihi factory embarked on the production of Pye domestic radios as well as the already established brands, Pacific, Regent and Five Star, which continued to be marketed by G A. Wooller and Co. Ltd. Pye radios were an immediate success on the New Zealand market and the need for greater output at Waihi brought further expansion in plant and staff until in 1958 the area of the Haszard Street premises had been extended from its original 17,000 sq. feet to 40,000 sq. feet, and more than 200 people worked there.
In the intervening years Akrad had also undertaken the manufacture of additional products. Mobile radio telephones and related telecommunications equipment have been made in Waihi since 1958. New Zealand's first single-cabinet stereograms were developed and rushed into production there in the space of only two months in the same year. Other 'firsts' were transistorised radios and the manufacture and use of printed circuits. And now, of course, a television assembly line is a major unit of the new factory and has to date manufactured over 130,000 T.V. sets.
When the Queen visited New Zealand in 1953-54, Pye brought to New Zealand a complete television transmitting station which for several years remained the only demonstration unit of its kind in the country. Waihi's Rugby Park was the scene of New Zealand's first outside television broadcast, which Akrad engineers staged for a Harlequins versus Barbarians Rugby match in 1954. The telecast, complete with commentary on play, was viewed by hundreds on Pye sets placed around the field, in the Waihi hospital and several private homes.
Later an exhibition studio was built to house the equipment as a feature of the 1954 Auckland Easter Show, from which telecasts were made to Pye sets specially installed in Green Lane Hospital and several private homes in Auckland. Akrad provided engineers to run and supervise this equipment. In 1955 a further reconstruction of the Pye Group in New Zealand took place when G.A. Wooller and Co. Ltd. and Green and Cooper Ltd. were both absorbed and the company changed its name to Pye Ltd., Akrad remaining the group's principal manufacturing unit.
The new £160,000 factory of 56,000 sq. ft. in Moresby Avenue built four years ago brings the total investment in Waihi to date to over £900,000 and expansion of its activities in the town and district is by no means ended yet. There is a small factory in Paeroa specialising in transformers, coil winding and miniaturised components for transistor portables, and a modern research laboratory employing 20 engineers and technicians in Waihi. The laboratory supports the activities of the whole Pye group and in addition to the development of items for the domestic market has designed much equipment for Government departments. The two Waihi factories at present employ over 370 men and women and the Paeroa factory a further 75. Output represents two-thirds of Pye's annual New Zealand turnover of more than £5,000,000 which has increased ten times in the last fifteen years. In production value and wages for the towns-people, Pye's already surpass annual returns from former goldmines to which Waihi owes its existence.
Waihi is still only an infant where radio and electronics is concerned. But with research backed by the parent company in England, is well-equipped to manufacture equipment in whatever form growing New Zealand markets night need. And while Akrad has at its disposal all the world-wide Pye Group's accumulated experience, it is the parent company's policy to conduct its business through the nationals of each country in which it operates. So Pye Ltd., New Zealand, and Akrad are run by New Zealanders.