Ted Van Arkel: Super Marketing Man Talks Shop: When Progressive Enterprises' Managing Director Ted Van Arkel Finally Won the Tough Battle to Bring Woolworths into the PEL Fold, He Was Linking Two Strands of His Own History in New Zealand Retailing

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Ted van Arkel's career history seems almost inextricably woven with that of supermarket retailing in New Zealand--and both go back nearly half a century.

In the same year that van Arkel, then a 15-year-old Dutch immigrant, was getting his first taste of the retail industry selling Christmas cards at Woolworths, Tom Ah Chee and Norman Kent opened New Zealand's first supermarket at Otahuhu.

"That was in 1958 and I can clearly remember what an amazing store it was--how good an operation," says van Arkel.

This first Foodtown store proved so successful that a second was opened in Takanini just three years later--trumpeting such specials as a box of Weetbix for just 19 cents. By then van Arkel had abandoned notions of further tertiary education in favour of the cadet training scheme at Woolies.

"Much to the horror of my parents, I was talked out of being a teacher and got involved in business at a very basic level. But it was an excellent training scheme and I learned to do the basics very well. I've always maintained that if you do the basics well, then the rest will follow."

What followed for van Arkel was some 20 years with Woolworths during which he worked his way up the management ladder to take on senior roles both in New Zealand and Australia before leaving the company in 1980 to venture first into wholesaling then timber, it was a further 18 years before a series of coincidences returned him to grocery retailing.

Meanwhile, the Foodtown supermarkets founded by Tom Ah Chee and partners had segued into Progressive Enterprises (PEL)--the company that in 1998 took Ted van Arkel on as its deputy CEO. The rest, as he says, is history.

However, it does seem very apt that van Arkel was at the helm when Progressive finally made it through a veritable minefield of legal obstacles to acquire Woolworths--thus putting him in charge of the company that had introduced him to retailing 44 years earlier.

It also gave him a chance to meet up with one of his career mentors--Tom Ah Chee (who died just a couple of years ago aged 72).

"I'd heard a lot about Tom in days gone by and tried not only to meet up with him--which I had the privilege of doing a couple of times--but to bring back some of his philosophy into the business. He was a visionary who had the ability to listen and talk to people at all levels in the company. And that is something I've tried to do.

"When you're sitting at the top of the tree--whether as store manager or CEO you can never underestimate the power of people in your organisation. If they can trust you and you can bring them on board in terms of your thinking and direction then that starts to create a major force."

He describes his management style as participative. "I like talking issues through with the team and being very upfront. But once agreement has been reached and it's been signed oft; there has to be a pretty good reason why we would change an agreed direction."

And one of the management lessons he'd like to pass on is the value of a mentor. "I think any young executive looking to move forward should try and select someone to look up to, who can inspire your own actions and direction."

Someone who inspired much of his own attitude both toward business and life was the late American preacher and author Norman Vincent Peale (of The Power of Positive Thinking fame) who's been called an "apostle of the positive".

"I used to run the Woolworths annual conferences and one I remember well included a film in which Peale was talking about having a positive mind and sense of commitment. And those two things have certainly been drivers in my personal career path.

"It's easy to be negative these days but there is always opportunity to get through difficult issues or when there are differences of opinion to find resolution. You just have to keep working at it rather than getting stuck in a stalemate. …