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.
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