Chain-store pioneer and philanthropist.
A new biography of Sutherland, Benjamin appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Benjamin Sutherland was born on 22 October 1873 at Seaward Bush, Invercargill, and was the son of John Sutherland, a farmer, and of Mary, née Sutherland. He was educated at South School, Invercargill, and after completing his formal studies became a school teacher. In 1890, however, he joined the New Zealand Railways as a clerical cadet and was stationed for various periods in Canterbury, Southland, and Wellington. Following a serious illness in 1904 he became a telegraphic instructor at the Head Office in Wellington, where he remained until he resigned in 1922. During the First World War he served prominently in several patriotic movements.
In 1921, because he was alarmed about the rising prices consumers had to pay for goods, Sutherland began to organise a cooperative shop among the Railways Department staff. At first he experienced difficulty in attracting shareholders to his scheme and this, together with the enmity of certain wholesalers who brought political pressure to bear against him, induced him to resign from the Railways Department to continue his scheme privately. Sutherland's Self Help Cooperative Ltd., which was founded in Wellington on 27 October 1922, proved popular from the outset. A year later there were seven Self Help stores in Wellington and, by December 1926, there were 18. When he organised his cooperative, Sutherland sought to sell groceries to his customers at the lowest possible retail price. With this in view he endeavoured to keep normal working expenses to the minimum and he stipulated that his shop should allow no goods to be purchased on credit, should not deliver goods, and should not be party to any attempts to fix prices. In 1926 his success in Self Help led merchants, manufacturers, retail grocers, and chemists to form the “Proprietary Articles Trade Association” in an effort to enforce uniform prices for their lines. In March 1927 Sutherland successfully challenged the legality of price fixing in Court. By 1931 there were 100 Self Help shops in New Zealand and, in the following years, many more were added. The Court case did not end the merchants' and retailers' hostility to his organisation and, in May 1931, Sutherland had to fight the “Traders' Welfare Association” – an offshoot of the earlier Proprietary Articles Trade Association”.
From the commencement of his business career Sutherland put his own enlightened ideas about staff relations into effect. In October 1932, to mark the tenth anniversary of Self Help, he inaugurated a liberal staff benefit fund. This was followed in May 1941 by a £10,000 Fighting Services Trust, which was founded to help to rehabilitate Self Help staff members serving overseas. In July of the same year his son, Arthur, established the Sutherland Self Help Trust and, in December 1944, the Arthur Sutherland Self Help Staff Fund was founded to provide superannuation and life assurance for their employees. In January 1946 a female marriage bonus and educational bursary scheme was inaugurated.
For many years Sutherland was a prominent member of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce and of the Wellington Employers' Association. He was president of the latter in 1936–37. He also played an active part in the affairs of the New Zealand Employers' Federation, being its representative at the I.L.O. conference in New York in 1941. In addition to his business interests he was an executive member of the Wellington Amateur Athletic Association for many years. On 12 March 1906, in Wellington, he married Lucy Nicholas, daughter of James Edward Humphries, and, by her, he had two sons and one daughter. Sutherland died at Lewisham Hospital, Wellington, on 1 January 1949, as the result of an accident.
Although he did not enter the business world until he was 50 years old, Ben Sutherland saw his Self Help Cooperative grow from humble beginnings into a chain-store organisation having 200 shops in all parts of New Zealand. This was indeed a remarkable achievement for a man whose railway staff card is said to have borne the words “a man with no initiative”.