Page 1: Biography
Ah Chee, Thomas Henry
Supermarket and takeaways entrepreneur
This biography, written by Helene Wong, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019, and updated in January, 2020.
Tom Ah Chee was the driving force behind the Foodtown supermarket empire, which accelerated the societal shift from the era of local grocery stores to one of large-scale supermarket chains. The son of a successful family of Chinese produce merchants, he and his business partners established the first Foodtown in Ōtāhuhu in 1958. He co-founded Progressive Enterprises in 1961, which spread Foodtown branches across Auckland and launched the Georgie Pie fast food restaurant chain in 1977.
Thomas Henry Ah Chee was born in Auckland on 4 January 1928, the son of Clement Calliope Ah Chee and his second wife, May Yuk Doo. New Zealand-born Clement married May Yuk in Canton (Guangzhou), China, in 1921, and brought his bride home to Auckland. Their daughter Betty was born in 1922, followed by Tom six years later.
Tom’s grandfather was Chan Dah Chee, one of Auckland’s pioneer Chinese entrepreneurs. Arriving from China in 1867 at the age of 16, Ah Chee, as he was known, started out hawking vegetables and built up a business that included market gardens, fruit shops and dining rooms, the importing of bananas and ginger and exporting dried fungus and rabbit skins. Ah Chee and Company was described in 1921 as ‘the largest trading concern of its kind in Auckland, if not in the whole Dominion.’1 Clement, the third of Ah Chee’s four sons, took over the business with his brother William. The Depression, however, brought the Ah Chee business empire to an end, and Clement and May Yuk took their children back to China in 1931. There the children received a traditional Chinese education.
The family returned to Auckland in 1939, virtually penniless. The Japanese had occupied Canton and Clement lost all his assets. He started afresh by opening a produce shop at 512 Broadway in Newmarket and another at the nearby junction of Manukau and Great South Roads. Family life revolved around hard work and the shops.
Education and the family business
Tom had no English when he returned to New Zealand, and his first 15 months at Remuera Primary School were spent getting to grips with the new language. Once he mastered this, however, his natural intelligence and outgoing personality saw him progress to head prefect and acquire many Pākehā friends. He attended Seddon Memorial Technical College in Wellesley Street, Auckland, studying industrial science and bookkeeping while continuing to work in the shop.
Tom enrolled at Auckland University College to study architecture, but when his father died in 1951 he abandoned his studies to take charge of the shop, which had expanded into wholesaling. Fruit retailing required forward planning and fast, flexible decision-making; Tom considered it ‘the best training for business’ and ‘the foundation for my later success’.2
Tom married Molly Gee, the daughter of Masterton fruiterers Gee Ching Dong (Herbert) and Wong Yuk Lan (Lily), at St Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Remuera on 25 September 1954. Tom and Molly had four daughters – Bonita, Louise, Debbie and Julie.
The first Foodtown
Tom Ah Chee was among the first entrepreneurs to recognise that the spread of car ownership and use was changing the way people shopped. The Ah Chee produce shop at the junction of Great South and Manukau Roads proved profitable, and Tom noticed that shoppers were prepared to bypass the congested Newmarket shopping centre to shop somewhere they could easily park. He trebled the shop’s floor space, and a successful move into general grocery demonstrated that people were willing to buy a variety of items from a convenient single store rather than specialised individual stores. Kerbside parking meters were soon installed nearby, and Tom realised he would not be able to further expand his business at its current site. He began to contemplate establishing a large grocery business at a location away from an established shopping precinct, with abundant parking.
Tom researched the supermarkets which were booming in the United States, where shoppers could purchase a wide variety of fresh produce, groceries, and meat under a single roof. Most grocery shopping to that time involved one-on-one service, and though a self-service model existed at several stores there were none in New Zealand comparable in scale or selection to what an American supermarket offered – or which catered so explicitly to the needs of motorists.
In 1956 Tom pooled his resources with two other fruiterers, Norman Kent and John Brown. Together they purchased a 1.1-hectare site at 628 Great South Road, Ōtāhuhu, and began to build a supermarket there. Tom sold his shop, car, and home to finance the venture, and he and his family lived on the site while he and his partners built the supermarket which Tom himself had designed. Foodtown, as it would be known, was sited strategically on an arterial route adjacent to the growing Auckland suburbs of Ōtāhuhu, Papatoetoe and Ōtara.
The Ōtāhuhu Foodtown opened on 18 June 1958, with Tom as its managing director. It was an immediate success, with 4000 shoppers besieging the store and blocking the street with their cars. Customers entered the air-conditioned store through automatic doors, loading their chromium trolleys with a wide variety of groceries, fresh produce, and meat selected from a 14-metre-long chiller. A staff of 30 packed groceries into boxes and transported them from the checkout to a loading bay at the rear of the store, where customers could bring their cars. The unprecedented success of opening day heralded a major change to the grocery shopping experience in New Zealand.
The Ōtāhuhu Foodtown was successful from the outset, and Tom and his partners were soon planning additional stores. Tom recognised that while he had enormous energy and drive, he had little experience of finance or administration. In 1961 he and his partners formed a fresh partnership with Brian Picot, a former director of grocery wholesaler Bond and Bond, who brought a significant injection of capital and organisational knowledge. He and Tom would henceforth be joint managing directors of a new holding company, Progressive Enterprises. Brian Picot’s skills complemented Tom’s: Brian was the planner and financier, Tom the operational doer.
The second Foodtown opened at Papakura in August 1961; where the Ōtāhuhu store had 118 car parks, the Papakura store had 2000. Rapid expansion followed over the next two decades. Progressive Enterprises was listed on the New Zealand Stock Exchange in 1971, and by 1973 it had 12 supermarkets across Auckland. That year the company opened a massive distribution centre in Māngere, utilising computers to manage its warehousing and payroll. Progressive’s staff had climbed to 2000 by 1977. Road transport restrictions hampered expansion outside Auckland city, although Progressive had opened a Hamilton supermarket by the time Tom retired.
Tom, who became Progressive’s president in 1968, closely monitored international developments in the supermarket industry and regularly sent staff to the United States on research trips. His entrepreneurial drive was fuelled by an optimistic outlook, and he was a devotee of the American positive-thinking advocate Norman Vincent Peale. He endeavoured to make his supermarkets ‘bright and friendly’, believing that New Zealanders wanted good service as well as low prices.3
Tom and Brian hoped to diversify Progressive Enterprises by pursuing other businesses which, like supermarkets, capitalised on Auckland’s growing dependence on cars. They investigated the possibility of starting a motel chain, and made an unsuccessful bid for the New Zealand rights to the McDonald’s fast food chain in the early 1970s. They decided instead to establish their own fast food restaurants. They settled upon Georgie Pie, a chain selling pies – one of Tom’s favourite foods – with both traditional and innovative fillings.
The first Georgie Pie restaurant opened in Kelston in 1977, and is thought to be the first restaurant to feature a drive-through service. By 1982 restaurants had been opened at Highland Park, Papatoetoe, Papakura and Greenlane. Progressive ran Georgie Pie and Foodtown in tandem, with Foodtown mass-producing the pies at its own bakery and managing Georgie Pie’s finances.
Tom resigned as chief executive of Foodtown in 1980 and retired in 1982, when Progressive Enterprises was earning $200 million revenue a year. He sold his shares in 1986–7. Foodtown and Georgie Pie expanded during the deregulated 1980s, with Georgie Pie numbering 32 restaurants at its peak. Financial difficulties saw the chain sold to McDonald’s in 1996 and cease production two years later, though a nostalgic ‘Bring Back Georgie Pie’ campaign saw its reappearance on the McDonald’s menu in 2013. In 2008, 50 years after it began, there were more than 30 Foodtown supermarkets across the country. By 2011, however, all had been rebranded as Countdowns and the Foodtown brand had come to an end.
In retirement, Tom Ah Chee stayed busy and continued to generate ideas. His achievements derived from a winning combination of family influences and personal characteristics. Entrepreneurial spirit, business acumen, warm sociability, resilience and the confidence to overcome adversity through the example of his father; pragmatic Chinese values and insatiable energy for hard work from his mother. Although comfortably Westernised and untroubled by racism, he remained proud of his ancestry, and in retirement mentored others in the Chinese community.
Tom died in Auckland on 18 March 2000 at the age of 72, after a four-year battle with liver cancer. He was survived by Molly and their daughters. The funeral service took place at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Parnell, and he was buried at Purewa Cemetery in Meadowbank, Auckland. He was posthumously inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame and the Manukau Business Hall of Fame in 2002, and into the New Zealand Retail Hall of Fame in 2009.