A different life
Tony Anselmi grew up on the family farm in the King Country, and although he loved farming alongside his father and two older brothers, it just wasn’t stimulating enough for him. When he was twelve, his father inadvertently became the owner of three country shoe stores. Over the next four years, his Friday evenings were spent in the store, attaching heel and toe plates by hand to leather shoes and learning as much as he could about footwear. Tony soon developed a keen interest in the business side of things too. Once he passed School Certificate at the age of sixteen, Tony left school and joined his sister running the family shoe stores.
Learning the shoe trade
Driven and passionate by nature, Tony and his sister challenged themselves to grow and evolve the business. They joined the Auckland Provincial Retailers Association and attended seminars and lectures to learn as much as they could. When Tony was still only eighteen years old, his sister moved to Australia and he took over the management of the business, also persuading their father to purchase another store. When he was nineteen, Tony found the woman who would become his wife; he met Deirdre in Auckland and it wasn’t long before they wed and settled in Te Kuiti to raise a family. Around this time, he persuaded his father to lend him the money he needed to buy the business from him, and was so successful that Tony paid back the full purchase (plus interest) by the time he was twenty-seven.
Deciding it was time for a fresh challenge, Tony purchased an agency to sell New Zealand made women’s footwear and began undertaking two sales trips a year. In and out of the factory making this footwear, he became fascinated by manufacturing (perhaps influenced from those early days plating shoes) and learned as much as he could. He also learned that New Zealand was getting a progressive new development, never seen before on our shores; a “shopping centre” was about to open in New Lynn. Sensing the winds of change, Tony was granted a lease and the centre opened in 1963. A store on the iconic Karangahape Road was opened, followed by St Lukes (the second shopping centre in the country) and other Auckland stores.
During this time Tony still lived in the bustling rural hub of Te Kuiti. He loved living there and it was the perfect place to raise a family. His wife Deirdre was dedicated mother and an enormous support (at one point in time they even had four children under five). Tony was away from home a lot and she would hold down the fort. He knew there had to be something he could do that would enable him to spend more time in Te Kuiti. Tony was still yearning to open a manufacturing business, and also wanted to create employment opportunities for the Te Kuiti community. So he formed a business with some partners, purchased a section and they built their own factory. In February 1966, with a team of 6 women, they began manufacturing slippers for the first time. He knew nothing about slipper manufacturing but learned fast; they were so successful that a year later they had to double the size of our factory. It wasn’t long before Tony bought out his partners and owned the whole business outright. His stores were also still going from strength to strength, and they opened more throughout Auckland. Although it was booming, the only problem with being in the slipper business was seasonal; no one needed slippers in summer. But Tony soon realised they could provide something the customer did need – sandals! So they began making hand-lasted leather sandals, even employing the talents of a footwear designer from England. Soon these sandals were so successful that they outgrew their slipper business entirely.
A fresh challenge
Tony soon realised they would need to pivot and evolve the business again. They needed to start manufacturing closed leather shoes, but didn’t have the expensive machinery needed. Some other factories had shut down, so they were luckily able to purchase lasting equipment second hand. His closed footwear became such a hit that they were able to buy brand new equipment from Italy to meet the demand. Although there were over a hundred footwear manufacturers in New Zealand at that time, Te Kuiti had no manufacturing whatsoever. Tony knew that for his factory to thrive and provide jobs, he needed to get knowledge fast – so he visited England and brought highly skilled supervisors back to New Zealand for each department. He even employed refugees from the Vietnam War; they lived in a house he purchased and did excellent work for the business for many years. During this period, the factory had had the best machines, the best people and even its own maintenance shop; they were manufacturing 1800 pairs of fashion footwear a day!
The wave of imports
Since the Great Depression, New Zealand had been protected by import licensing. It’s what allowed small businesses to thrive and local manufacturers to supply 95% of the market’s needs. But this was all to change - drastically. The government changed regulations around licensing making it finally profitable (and easy) to import large quantities of cheap shoes. A flood of imports followed. Soon after, duties were also lowered and it became impossible for local manufacturers to compete. Determined to survive, Tony downsized his factory twice, but eventually had to close. This new business model and relaxed importing paved the way for different kinds of retailing. By now, his son Shane Anselmi had joined the retail trade (already a proud family tradition) and opened an upmarket concept store called Overland. Tony says that any success he may have had was only because of the support, love and encouragement of his late wife Deirdre.
Tony with Deirdre and daughter Antonia at Auckland airport.