John McKenzie left school at the age of 13 to deliver newspapers. When he died, he was reputed to be one of New Zealand's wealthiest men. He contributed in excess of £1 million to New Zealand charities in his lifetime; a further £160,000 was bequeathed on his death.
John Robert Hugh McKenzie was born in Yarrawalla, northern Victoria, Australia, on 5 August 1876, one of seven children of Hugh McKenzie, a customs officer, and his wife, Susan Smiley. McKenzie's career in retailing began when at the age of 14 he was employed, in Melbourne, by Jacob Hart and Company. At the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 he enlisted in the 3rd Victorian (Bushmen) Contingent; he was wounded in 1901. After convalescing he returned to retailing in Melbourne. By 1905 he had saved £100, and with his sister, Ella, opened his first shop, selling 'fancy goods'.
Less than a month after the business had been established the building and most of the stock were destroyed by fire. The McKenzies held a fire sale which was such a success that John was forced to purchase extra stock. He learned that good prices led to a rapid turnover and that making a small profit on a large number of items was sound business practice. Within 12 months the McKenzies had not only re-established the first store but had opened a second. During this period Ella married John McKenzie's accountant, George Carter. Until his death in 1935 Carter was a close friend and business associate. After selling his Melbourne shops to a competitor, McKenzie established businesses in Tasmania and Sydney.
In 1909 John McKenzie came to New Zealand on a motorcycling holiday. He was so impressed with the country and the opportunities it offered that he decided to relocate his businesses. The first McKenzies store was opened in Dunedin in 1910. A branch in Christchurch followed, with a third store being opened in Wellington in 1912. McKenzie travelled extensively abroad on stock-buying tours. In 1928 on a visit to America he observed the development of the 'five and dime' department store. Within two years, all 22 of his New Zealand stores had been relocated and converted to the new model, which became the pattern for much of New Zealand retailing. McKenzies eventually had over 70 stores throughout New Zealand employing more than 1,800 people. The company was acquired by L. D. Nathan and Company in 1980.
McKenzie believed that a firm should share its prosperity with those who had helped to make it prosperous. In 1938 he established the J. R. McKenzie Youth Education Fund with a gift of £10,000, and in 1940 the J. R. McKenzie Trust was established with an initial capital base of £300,000, making it one of the largest philanthropic trusts in the southern hemisphere. He set up a staff superannuation fund and in 1954 established the McKenzies Staff Provident Association with shares valued at £100,000.
McKenzie also actively supported numerous charities and voluntary organisations and had a particular concern for education and the needs of under-privileged children and returned servicemen. In 1923 he was invited to join the Rotary Club of Wellington. He was later to credit Rotary with having a profound influence on his life, and he made Rotary clubs the main agents for the allocation of funds in the trusts.
John McKenzie had married Annie May Wrigley at Wellington on 24 July 1918. The couple had two sons, Don and Roy. Don enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Air Force at the outbreak of the Second World War and was lost at sea on a training mission near Lake Grassmere in 1942. Roy eventually took over his father's business and philanthropic interests.
In 1927 the McKenzie family moved to Christchurch and purchased a homestead and land on Yaldhurst Road, Riccarton. Here McKenzie established the Roydon Lodge Stud (named after his two sons). He began importing bloodstock from America in the late 1920s and built up the reputation of the stud as one of the country's leading breeders and trainers of pacers and trotters. McKenzie himself trained horses and drove at some events. As a young man in Victoria he had won cycle races; in New Zealand he enjoyed golf, riding, hunting, fishing, and, later in life, bowls.
John McKenzie built up one of New Zealand's most successful retailing organisations. In spite of his success in business, however, he believed that the true value of life lay in service to others. In support of this belief, he became perhaps the country's most generous private benefactor. While in the course of an extensive trip with his wife, he died at London on 26 August 1955; Annie McKenzie died at Christchurch in 1956. McKenzie had been made a KBE in 1950 for his contribution to public welfare. In 1954 a group of businessmen commissioned a painting of him by the distinguished portraitist Edward Halliday; it was later presented to the National Art Gallery. The Riccarton homestead was donated to the Department of Education in 1970 and now houses the McKenzie Residential School.