Colin Chester

Colin Chester has a lot to be proud of – a strong family, playing hockey for New Zealand, a career as a musician, giving back to the community. The 67-year-old has run the Silverdale branch of the family business, Chesters Plumbing and Bathroom Supplies, since it opened 30 years ago. He even has a road named in his honour, Colin Chester Drive. He spoke with Terry Moore about what can be gained from humble beginnings.

We had great parenting. We were a poor family and knew from a young age that we would not receive any money from our parents and had to work for our pocket money with things like paper rounds. It taught us the value of money. There were five of us and we grew up with our parents in my grandparents’ two- bedroom house in Mt Roskill; my grandparents lived in a cottage on the property. Nine of us with a single bathroom! My sisters shared a bedroom, my parents another and my two brothers and I shared the lounge. It teaches you tolerance. My father was in the drapery trade. Lots of families were like that, living on the breadline. Looking back, we don’t know how my mother managed – with no automatic washing machine or other mod cons.

Initially I did an apprenticeship in photolithography, part of the pre-press process, and worked for printers. It was a growing trade at the time. I have always been involved with playing keyboards in bands, so for about 15 years I was a professional musician, as a solo performer and with a band called the Colin Chester Trio. We had a regular gig playing dance and background music at Waipuna Lodge, which gave me the days free to spend with my three kids when they were young. The highlight was being resident band on a Russian cruise-liner, which took us on a complete circumnavigation of the world. My wife Rosie came along too. We went down to the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn. In places in South America, like Rio, we saw huge extremes of wealth and poverty – it was in your face. We were lucky to see so much of the world, and get paid to do it.

I last played music, with my youngest son, James, 10 years ago at the funeral of my sister-in-law, Sharon, who was a wonderful woman. My son wants me to get back into music but I haven’t had the urge and it’s really because that last performance was perfect – although quite honestly our rehearsals were rubbish. We played Bridge over Troubled Water and Song for Guy. Our friend George was on drums, James played piano and I was on keyboard and vocals. Song for Guy was fine, as we’d played it many times before, but we just could not get Bridge over Troubled Water right – we were using the Oslo Gospel Choir’s arrangement that I found on YouTube. However, on the day, it came together and we knew we’d done it justice for Sharon. I still don’t know how we did it. There must have been plenty of prayers at the time.

My older brother Grant started the family business in 1973 in a garage in New Lynn. At first it was called Franklin Plumbing, because to get the funds to start up he went into partnership with Peter Smith of Franklin Plumbing. It was a one-man band and after 10 years Grant bought Peter out and changed the name to Chesters. The company now has more than 200 employees in 16 branches across the North Island and in Dunedin. We are the biggest privately owned plumbing merchant business in the country. The key has been Grant’s hands-on approach. His mobile number is in the diary we give all our customers and employees. You can go straight to the guy at the top if you have any issues. We are not perfect or ‘holier than thou’ but a family-run business has a better insight into the needs of its customers than a corporate one. I opened the Silverdale branch 30 years ago with Ross Good and Graham Sainty in a small building. Over the last seven years, to the end of 2018, I had 20 students from local colleges through here to learn under the Gateway programme and found apprenticeships for 14 of those with plumbers who use our branch. This year there is one who I hope will come and work for Chesters. Students come here for a plumbing apprenticeship but there is a real pathway through a business such as ours too – from inwards goods to sales, running the warehouses or becoming a rep or branch manager.

Although my children have chosen other occupations, my brother and sister have children in the family business and it is in good hands for the next generation.

I like and follow all sports but my father played hockey and we grew up with a love of the game. I played seven tests for New Zealand at the Masters hockey tournament in South Korea, have managed the NZ Men’s Over 50 team and am on the Hibiscus Hockey Trust. I have an injury at the moment, but hope to play in the NZ Men’s Over 65 team at the World Masters tournament next year in Japan. Hockey can be expensive to play, as there is quite a lot of gear, and growing the game in areas that struggle to afford it has been a passion of mine since 2012. I was at Levin at a Masters tournament and was told that around there schools were short of gear. I figured I could help, so I worked with Hockey NZ on recycling old gear, which is donated. I do the old sticks up and we supply them to places such as Kaikohe, Gisborne and Northland. Last year my brother Grant and I started a new initiative called Grow the Game of Hockey in NZ, with Hockey NZ and Kookaburra Sport. We acquired a lot of Kookaburra’s surplus gear, including 1000 sticks, shin pads and mouthguards and offered them to every hockey association in the country, if they could tell us how they are going to grow the game in their area. We had 11 responses. In one case, Waikato, their plan was just to get the game up and running in the King Country – it’s Colin Meads’ rugby territory down there and hockey is not played. Darfield in Canterbury was another one where they wanted to grow the game in local schools, so with help from various companies, we got a pallet of gear down there. At the moment we have quite a lot of hockey gear stored at home. When my wife Rosie couldn’t get her car into the garage because of all the hockey stuff, instead of complaining she said, “Your father would be so proud of what you are doing to promote the game he loved and taught you both to play”.

A couple of years ago I had a road, Colin Chester Drive in Silverdale, named after me. It borders some land that I have owned for 30 years and the name was the idea of local developer Clayton Reid. It’s quite unusual to have a road named after a person who is still living and it was a long process including a full police check, consultation with iwi and the local board. I am sorry that neither of my parents was alive to see the road name unveiled. They would have been amazed.