Tom Edwards was the driving force of the company when it experienced huge growth
Tom Edwards was the driving force of the company when it experienced huge growth Rob Williams

RT Edwards: Farewell to a beloved retail icon

LIKE many people, I was shocked and saddened this week to hear about the closure of the R.T.Edwards stores across the state.

It brings to an end a story that began back in 1931, and resulted in a company that was proud to be a part of the Ipswich community, which went on to huge success.

I worked at 'RT's' (as we all knew it) for over 13 years. Back in the mid-90s', electrical retailing was at its most competitive and it was an exciting industry to be a part of.

Consumers were spoilt for choice, with RT's part of the massive RetraVision electrical chain, while there was also the likes of The Good Guys, Bi-Rite, Harvey Norman, Betta, Myer, David Jones all competing for a share of the white and brown goods market.

The likes of BigW and K-Mart would never dream of selling toasters or TV's, because product knowledge was king when it came to selling electrical products, and you needed to know your stuff.

 

Andrew Stevens at the RT Edwards Booval store which is currently being renovated.
Photo: Sarah Harvey/ The Queensland Times
Andrew Stevens at the Booval store which will close in a matter of weeks Sarah Harvey

RT's started when Roy Edwards rode his bike around Ipswich doing electrical work. He turned that small business into a retail outlet, and over time it became an icon of Ipswich.

When his son Tom Edwards took over running the business, at its peak it consisted of 13 stores around South East Queensland, a warehouse and delivery division, electrical repairs, air conditioning installations, an electrical installation division, furniture, carpet and second-hand store which was all run from 62-66 East Street.

Tom Edwards employed all four of his children in the company, with son Paul running the mechanical division which serviced the companies' multiple vehicles, while his other children Gary, Ann-Maree and Suzanne all worked behind the scenes.

All of them are good people, and you'd be hard pushed to find a family that looked after its staff better.

There were things about RT's that you just don't see today. Some staff had been at the company their whole working lives, and it wasn't unusual to see staff celebrate 30, 40 and 50 year anniversaries.

The shops were busy, especially on a Thursday night or a Saturday morning (back in the days before seven-day trading) as people would make the effort to go out and shop, not do it all on a screen at home.

 

Cooking demonstration at a display stand of RT Edwards at the 1957 Ipswich Show.
Cooking demonstration at a display stand of RT Edwards at the 1957 Ipswich Show. Whitehead Studios collection, Pi

One of the things that always amazed me about Tom Edwards was how he remembered all his customers. Many a time he'd be sitting in his office, and see a customer, many of whom had shopped at the store their whole lives.

The Managing Director of the company would get up from his chair, and personally say g'day to that customer, and every time would remember their name. It still to this day makes me wonder how he did it, as I'm flat out remembering what day of the week it is.

Name me a CEO or MD who would do that these days? It's the reason why the company thrived for so long and got such loyalty from the Ipswich community.

 

Ron Rohan and Tom Edwards sit in the new discount furniture shop called Tom's Clearance Centre on East Street in Ipswich CBD. The shop is named after iconic Ipswich retailer Tom Edwards of RT Edwards. The shop offers discount new and used furniture, bedding, and electrical products. Photo: Claudia Baxter / The Queensland Times
Ron Rohan and Tom Edwards at the opening of Tom's Clearance Centre in 2011 Claudia Baxter

On the company's 70th Anniversary in 2001, the Edwards family hired the Brisbane Convention Centre, and treated every single staff member, along with their partners to a glitzy dinner and dance as a thank you for their service. Most companies these days would never dream of such an expensive exercise, but it made every staff member there feel wanted.

In my 13 years at the company I came to realise the best thing about working at RT's all came down to two things.

One, you felt a part of something. Here was a family company that started in Ipswich from a bicycle, and went on to be the single biggest member of the RetraVision group in the country, which in itself became the biggest electrical retailer in the entire nation. Hard work meant that if the company grew, we all went along for the ride together.

Secondly, Tom Edwards made a habit of leaving his door open. This was his policy. No matter who you were, and what your problem, the MD's door was always open to his staff, and his customers. You would be given a hearing, and he would express his opinion in a fair way. It's the reason he is so widely regarded not only by anyone who worked there but by the entire electrical industry.

 

ed16b: RT Edwards staff supporting Red Nose day. Pictured from left, Daniel Hobbs and Angela Pomerenke.
Photo: David Nielsen JN1510DM
Daniel Hobbs and Angela Pomerenke show their support for Red Nose Day in 2010.

When Tom sold the company to the South Australian Radio Rentals group in 2008, things changed.

Gone was the open-door policy and in came a corporate juggernaut with a new culture.

The loyalty shown by Ipswich to the company under Tom Edwards was remarkable, and it was because from the top the instruction was to treat the customer like a king or queen. Yes, there was a time when 'The Customer Is Always Right'.

These days we live in a corporate world where staff and customers alike are treated like a number. It's 'Shape up or ship out'.

The average time that people spend in a job in 2019, is just over two years. That never happened at R.T.Edwards, people stayed. Why? They wanted to.

Once Tom sold up, the loss of the business to the RetraVision group was devastating, reducing their buying power and after just four years it collapsed and pretty much signalled the end of the family-owned electrical retailer.

Today you can count the number of electrical retailers on one hand. Some may say it's good for your hip pocket to have just a few companies stocking the products you want, but personally I'd rather go to a shop where someone remembers my name and who's knowledge and experience I can trust.

 

Ipswich businessman Tom Edwards is preparing to carry the Queen's Baton across the David Trumpy Bridge.
Tom Edwards was chosen to carry the Queen's Baton when it passed through Ipswich in 2018 Hayden Johnson

To this day, after almost 20 years in the industry, I'm very particular about what brands I buy, and that's from my own experience.

With the news that RT's will be no more, it means one of the biggest success stories in Ipswich history will come to an end.

My heart goes out to the staff who now have to find a new job in a retail environment that has never been tougher and will continue to face new challenges against online shopping and massive companies moving in from overseas.

R.T.Edwards represented everything that was great, exciting and rewarding about retail, and I like many people, are sad to see it go.

They were good, challenging, exciting times, and we will never see anything like it in Ipswich again.