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cooke howlison e20s

Dunedin firm's 125 years looking forward

The Cooke Howlison dealership has gone through wars, Spanish flu, the Depression and the GFC and is still looking firmly to the future despite the impact of Covid-19. (Photo: Edward Cooke and Frederick Howlison - the company's founders.)

When the Cooke Howlison dealership showrooms locked their doors in March/April to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it was the first time that business had been suspended in the Dunedin company’s 125 years of trading history.

Cooke Howlison is one of 11 dealerships in the Oakwood Motor Group. Managing Director John Marsh says “Our loyal and talented staff are our greatest asset and we are very focused on protecting their future employment as much as possible during this difficult time.

“Cooke Howlison went through two World Wars, the Depression and the GFC without closing.” It also weathered the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Another of the Oakwood Motor Group dealerships, trading under the Blackwell Motors brand, had two sites badly damaged in the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. “But we got them up and running the next day from temporary facilities, so this type of closure was a new experience,” John says.

Cooke Howlison was founded by Frederick Cooke and Edward Howlison in 1895, and was one of the first businesses to join the new national Garage Proprietors’ Association (later MTA) when it was set up in 1917. The company was bought in 1963 by brothers Graeme and Eric Marsh and became part of the Marsh family-owned Oakwood Motor Group. Graeme’s son John has been the Group’s managing director for 30 years and says while the history of Cooke Howlison is important to the company, his focus is very much on the future.

The Covid-19 pandemic came as a double whammy

“Holden made its announcement in February that it was pulling out of vehicle sales in New Zealand and then a month or so later the Level 4 national lockdown was put in place,” says John. The Oakwood Motor Group has five sites with Holden franchises. “Cookies” as it is known to many Dunedinites, sold its first Holden back in 1955.

John says, “The combination of the Holden announcement and the impact of Covid-19 means we have to look closely at our overheads. This will include downsizing and potentially bringing in replacement franchises for Holden (there are several options in the pipeline).

The Holden service and parts business will continue for the next 10 years. At this stage we are not planning to close dealerships – rather, we will match resources to demand.” He says Holden’s decision wasn’t totally unexpected but it was disappointing and created a lot of uncertainty for staff. “On the other hand, the compensation package is fair and there is good pricing for the sale-down of Holden stock.”

Covid challenge

The Group’s truck workshops kept operating for essential services during the lockdown, while the management team stayed busy planning and working on strategies for their response to the changing environment. Staff were encouraged to take up online training during this period and most staff returned to work at Level 3. “Having dedicated health and safety managers in Christchurch and Dunedin worked well for us as we put protocols in place for contactless service.”

John says that now the doors are open, there’s a positive vibe among staff. While the company is expecting to take a serious hit on its new and used sales until at least the end of the year, fixed operations have remained strong, and the Oakwood Motor Group is in a good financial position to weather the storm. “We have a very strong balance sheet; we own all our own sites, so we have a solid asset base.” The company has taken up the government wage subsidy and this has given staff the comfort of knowing their jobs are safe until at least the end of the subsidy period.