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Story: Smith, Helen Hay

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Smith, Helen Hay


Clothing manufacturer and retailer, businesswoman

This biography, written by Maida Barlow, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Helen Hay Smith was born at McMaster's Flat, South Otago, on 29 August 1873, a daughter of Jessie Haigie and her husband, James Smith, a farmer who had come to New Zealand from Ayr, Scotland. Helen was educated at Waihola and by 1894 was working for James McWilliams, a hosiery manufacturer in Dunedin. Her brother John, born in 1881, also worked there, first as an errand boy and later in senior positions.

In April 1900 Helen and John moved to Invercargill to set up business as H. & J. Smith. In the smallest shop in town and with little money they set to work with two employees, manufacturing and selling children's and adults' clothing. They had a vision of the future and a policy of lower prices, better service, guaranteed refunds if purchases were not satisfactory and standard prices for all customers. By 1905 they had taken over the adjoining premises and had a staff of 10. John moved to Gore and opened a store there while Helen headed the firm's Invercargill operations. There were 14 hosiery and sewing machines in the Invercargill factory by 1905.

By 1910 there were 22 employees and a new branch at Riverton. The firm ran a mail-order service and imported all kinds of clothing, from combinations to corsets, hosiery to hats. In spacious, eye-catching layout, daily advertisements appeared in the Southland Times. These were not mere lists of garments and prices; Helen Smith knew the grip of the short sharp sentence, the value of the in-phrase. Her advertisements reflect the earnestness and honesty of this hard-working businesswoman: 'Success means Effort…Every day we strive to reach the greatest number of people in the shortest space of time. We want to impress you, to drive it right home and then clinch the truth that we are the largest underclothing manufacturers in the Dominion serving the people direct from our own Factory.'

A new shop and factory were built in 1910, and the businessmen present at the opening commented on 'the pluck and enterprise that had been shown by Miss Smith'. The adjoining factory contained machine- and storerooms, a laundry, and an employees' dining-room. The two-storeyed shop was 'a distinct gain to the architectural beauty of Tay Street' and had many innovative and imported features: well-lit workrooms, bright lighting and gas heating throughout, glass counters, a cash service working 'on the latest gravitation principle', a carpeted showroom and a large heated rest room supplied with reading material for country clients waiting for trains. The business boomed. In 1912 the firm became a limited liability company, and a new shop was built in Gore. By 1915 turnover was six times that of 1900 and 35 staff were employed.

Of Helen Smith's private life there is little record. Dark-haired, petite and elegant, on 9 August 1915 at Kelburn Presbyterian Church in Wellington she married Alfred Evans Broad; Helen was 41 and Alfred a 39-year-old widower with three children. The marriage may have taken place in Wellington to avoid undue attention in Invercargill. Alfred worked in Broad Small and Company, timber merchants, sawmillers, ironmongers and furniture manufacturers. When his brother Charles, the firm's founder, retired in 1918, Alfred became its general manager. His sister Amelia and family servants had helped with Alfred's children since their mother's death in 1911, and this arrangement apparently did not change, for Helen continued to manage H. & J. Smith.

On a visit to Oamaru in November 1918 Helen Broad contracted influenza. She died on 17 November and was buried at Oamaru. Her death was a serious blow to the business, for she was a woman of outstanding ability, astute and energetic and with a kindly interest in her staff. Her stepchildren later recalled her kindness and their sense of loss at her death. Alfred Broad remarried, and died in June 1959.

Ambitious and innovative, Helen Broad never lost sight of that early vision of success through service to the community. The price of success was vigilance and attention to detail, and she carried her staff with her in pursuing her vision. The poignancy of her death, just as her personal life was flowering, strengthened the firm's links with those other Southland families who lost loved ones in the influenza epidemic. It engendered a sympathy for the firm which smoothed the transition to the new management.

John Smith assumed control of the company. Astute and gregarious, he further expanded the business, and in later years so arranged matters that the directorate rather than the family retained administrative control. A son, and later a grandson, succeeded him as managing director. The company's influence extended beyond the boardroom as it encouraged senior staff to seek election to local bodies and financial institutions.

One by one, the competitors against whom Helen and John Smith had pitted their wits, quietly disappeared or succumbed to liquidation or takeover. H. & J. Smith, however, remained firmly woven into the fabric of Southland's society and economy, buttressed by links with nationwide groups and international companies.

How to cite this page:

Maida Barlow. 'Smith, Helen Hay', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3s26/smith-helen-hay (accessed 22 February 2024)