KEEP­ING TIME

WHEN QUARTZ TURNED THE WATCH IN­DUS­TRY UP­SIDE DOWN, JOHN FARREN-PRICE WAS READY TO QUIT – SO HIS WIFE, KRYSTEN, BOUGHT HIM OUT. NOW IN HER 80S, SHE LOVES THE JOB, AND WORK­ING WITH HER SON, JU­LIAN, TOO MUCH TO RE­TIRE.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - NEW WATCHES - STORY DAVID MEAGHER K POR­TRAIT NICK CUBBIN

Te­na­cious. That’s one word that comes up sev­eral times when talk­ing to Krysten and Ju­lian Farren-Price, the mother-and­son team be­hind one of Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful watch and jew­ellery re­tail­ers. This year the fam­ily-owned busi­ness cel­e­brates 75 years in the watch trade, which would un­ques­tion­ably make them one of the coun­try’s most suc­cess­ful re­tail­ers. You’d be for­given for think­ing that Krysten Farren-Price, as an oc­to­ge­nar­ian, would be ready to fully hand over the reins of the com­pany to her son and re­tire com­fort­ably – but she has no plans to do so, such are her tenac­ity and de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed.

“I know I should be re­tired but I just love my busi­ness so much,” she says. “I don’t serve the clients now, I don’t know the stock the way I used to. But I over­see where our busi­ness is head­ing and it’s very im­por­tant for me to know what’s go­ing on – and I love work­ing with my son. So there’s no need for me to re­tire.” The spec­tre of re­tire­ment first popped up for Krysten more than 40 years ago and she wasn’t in­ter­ested in it then, ei­ther. After join­ing the com­pany in 1952 as a sec­re­tary she even­tu­ally fell in love with the com­pany’s founder, John Farren-Price, and the cou­ple mar­ried in 1960. “He was some­what older than me,” she says.

When the quartz cri­sis hit in the 1970s the Swiss watch­mak­ing in­dus­try was dec­i­mated, with many brands and sup­pli­ers go­ing out of busi­ness. At that time J Far­renPrice had about 150 stores all over the coun­try sell­ing only me­chan­i­cal watches and clocks (to­day there is only one store, in Castlereagh Street in Syd­ney) and with no in­ter­est in sell­ing quartz move­ment watches. So the Farren-Prices de­cided to sell up and re­tire.

“But I just wasn’t ready to re­tire so I bought my hus­band out of the busi­ness,” says Krysten. “We had a store in the old St James build­ing and when it was pulled down in the late 1960s they of­fered us first choice of a shop when it was re­built. When they told me the build­ing was nearly fin­ished, I said to my hus­band, I think I will take a small shop on the corner and start a busi­ness again. And then I took other shops as they went out of busi­ness and ex­tended, and we’ve been here ever since 1972.”

Con­ser­va­tive is an­other word that Krysten and Ju­lian Farren-Price keep com­ing back to when asked about their longevity in a no­to­ri­ously tough busi­ness. They’ve learned to be con­ser­va­tive in busi­ness, they say, in good times and bad. And there have been plenty of bad times in the last 75 years, from the quartz cri­sis, to the stock mar­ket crash of 1987, the Asian fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 1997, the GFC, cur­rency changes and gold price rises and falls – all have taught the Farren-Prices in­valu­able busi­ness lessons. “They’ve taught us to be care­ful with the stock that we buy and to be con­ser­va­tive,” says Krysten. “I’ve been through some hor­ri­ble times. I used to think, ‘God I’m go­ing to end up a bag woman if I don’t hang on!’ I just knew I had one child to look after, and I thought no one will look after me, so I have to look after my­self [John died in 2001]. It was just that feel­ing that you’re here and alone and you’ve got to sur­vive; that sur­vival in­stinct is very prom­i­nent for me.”

“In re­tail, you’re only as good as your last two weeks,” says Ju­lian. If you’ve had two bad weeks you think a recession is com­ing and if you’ve had two good weeks it’s happy days. It’s a very up and down busi­ness in that way. We’re lucky we’re a ma­ture busi­ness.”

Krysten says hav­ing 150 stores took a toll on her hus­band as he trav­elled the coun­try to stay on top of his busi­ness. “There is only Ju­lian and my­self in the busi­ness to­day – we don’t have share­hold­ers and we de­ter­mined a long time ago that this was enough. Ju­lian has two daugh­ters and I never wanted him to have a life like the

one my hus­band had with shops all over Aus­tralia and be­ing away all the time.”

Ju­lian puts the com­pany’s stay­ing power down to three things: “We’ve been te­na­cious, we’ve been well man­aged and we’ve had a bit of luck,” he says. ‘We’ve al­ways been a very con­ser­va­tive busi­ness and we’ve grown at a pace we can han­dle. We haven’t lived a high life­style our­selves, we’ve rein­vested in the busi­ness and built it to have the finest stock of watches and jew­ellery in any lo­ca­tion Aus­tralia.” The prod­uct as­sort­ment is where the luck comes into it, he says. In 1977 the com­pany per­suaded Patek Philippe to re-en­ter the Aus­tralian mar­ket (the brand had been pre­vi­ously stocked with Prouds) and or­dered 20 watches – a con­sid­er­able in­vest­ment and some­thing of a gam­ble.

“When we brought Patek back into the mar­ket it was prac­ti­cally un­heard of here, but that brand has grown and grown since and we have grown with its pop­u­lar­ity. And also with Rolex, which we have rep­re­sented since the 1950s – it’s a brand that is very pop­u­lar. We’ve ben­e­fited from be­ing agents for those brands. We have in­vested in them and they have in­vested in us.”

In the past few years new watch brands have looked to en­ter the Aus­tralian mar­ket and, Ju­lian says, of­ten ap­proach the com­pany to stock them. “I’m more fo­cused on be­ing loyal to the brands that have been loyal to us,” he says. “We don’t have any in­ter­est in in­creas­ing our range; we be­lieve we have the right se­lec­tion for our clien­tele. As I’ve said many times now, we’re a con­ser­va­tive com­pany. In the last 10 years we have only taken on one new brand and that was IWC in 2012.”

Whether J Farren-Price re­mains a fam­ily busi­ness for an­other 75 years rests with Ju­lian’s two teenage daugh­ters, but he in­sists there is no pres­sure for them to work in the com­pany. “Who knows what the fu­ture will bring – I’m not push­ing them to be in­volved,” he says. “It’s a lovely busi­ness if they choose to come that way. If it ends up that they come into the busi­ness I will be de­lighted, and if they don’t, that’s their de­ci­sion.”

Krysten says she never pushed her son, who trained and worked as an ac­coun­tant, to join her ei­ther. “He picked me up from the air­port one day when I was com­ing back from the watch fair in Switzer­land and said ‘Mum, I’ve quit my job”. I said ‘What are you go­ing to do?’ and he said ‘Well, I’m com­ing in with you’. I said ‘I never planned that’ – he says to this day that I did.”

“We’ve rein­vested in the busi­ness and built it to have the finest stock of watches and jew­ellery in Aus­tralia.”

Clock­wise from top left: Krysten Farren-Price with Alan Ban­bery, Patek Philippe’s sales di­rec­tor, in 1977; Krysten and John Farren-Price; the Grace Broth­ers Bondi store in 1955; an ad­ver­tise­ment from 1981

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