Page 1: Biography
Abel, Erwin Leonard Guy
Grocer, businessman, athlete, racehorse owner
This biography, written by Lynette J. Williams, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Erwin Leonard Guy Abel was born on 23 October 1911 at Ohakune, the second of four children of Leonard Guy Abel, a bush contractor and farm worker, and his wife, Rosa Hunt. Known as Wynn, he spent his school years in Waikato and the King Country, apart from a few months on Banks Peninsula. Leaving school at 14, he worked as a grocery assistant at the Farmers’ Trading Company store in Cambridge for eight years.
Wynn Abel married Jean Winifred Keene in Auckland on 16 March 1933; they were to have four daughters and a son. Shortly after his marriage he was transferred to the Whangarei branch of Farmers to manage their grocery department. His drive for self-improvement showed even at this young age: he studied bookkeeping, grocery retailing and business management, and took a second job selling correspondence classes to earn more money.
Soon after receiving a diploma in management from the London-based Fern Business Institute in 1936, Abel bought a grocery business, Wellworth While Stores, in central Whangarei. His philosophy of combining the lowest prices with the highest standards of personal service helped to ensure its success. The catch phrase ‘If Abels hasn’t got it … nobody has!’ epitomised his commitment to service. During the Second World War his family even made and packaged a number of their own products (such as cream biscuits, pickled onions and bottled jam). In the 1950s Abel bought a second shop in Whangarei, which his son Len managed.
The Abels were in the forefront of the grocery field, claiming to be the first to take the backs out of their shop windows and to provide self-service. In 1953 Wynn won a research trip to North America and Europe to study grocery retailing and wholesaling, as well as the new supermarkets. As a result, father and son decided to open a supermarket, and chose Hamilton as the site. On 29 November 1961, Abel’s Supermarket opened in the suburb of Hillcrest; it was one of New Zealand’s earliest supermarkets, and Hamilton’s first. It soon became a great success and the following year the Abels built four shops adjoining it.
On 8 October 1969 they opened Abel’s Big ‘A’ Plaza at Glenview, another fast-developing Hamilton suburb. This was New Zealand’s first shopping mall, another new concept in retailing, and the Abels opened three new businesses themselves: a supermarket, a juvenile boutique and an electrical appliance shop. The buying, developing and selling of businesses continued with the purchase (by a company comprising Wynn, his wife Jean and son Len) of the Tauranga supermarket, two grocery discount stores and property in Hamilton and Rotorua, and a company to manufacture hardware and household cleansers. Wynn served on the board of directors of Foodstuffs (Auckland) Limited from 1958 to 1961, and again from 1970 until 1982, when he was influential in the development of the Pak ’n Save grocery chain.
In 1968 Jean and Wynn Abel shifted from their Hillcrest home to a 26-acre property, Malabar Farm, at Tamahere. They began breeding thoroughbred racehorses and owned several winners, the most notable being Van der Hum, who won the Melbourne Cup in 1976. Abel was a keen sportsman throughout his life, but his main interests were in cross-country and marathon running. He ran his first marathon in 1965. In 1981, at the age of 70, he won four different events (over 400, 800, 1,500 and 5,000 metres) at the New Zealand veterans’ championships, and in 1983 he won the 1,500-metre gold medal for the 70–74 age group at the All-American Championships in Texas.
In 1982 the Abels sold their two remaining businesses, the Hillcrest and Glenview supermarkets, a decision based on Len’s poor health (he died in 1982). In retirement Wynn continued with competitive running and breeding thoroughbreds. He was also a keen organic gardener and a member of the Soil and Health Association of New Zealand. He practised yoga for relaxation. Jean and Wynn sold Malabar Farm in 1989 and bought a villa in the Alandale retirement village in Hamilton. Wynn Abel died at Waikato Hospital, Hamilton, on 1 May 1995; he had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for 12 years. He was survived by Jean (who died in 1997) and his daughters.
Wynn Abel’s astuteness, business acumen and drive made him very successful in his field, and the communities he served held him in high regard. He is remembered as a modest and enthusiastically friendly man whose personal philosophy was to work hard, keep fit and have a positive attitude to life and business.