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In 1906 Joseph Willis opened the doors of what would soon become one of Christchurch’s most iconic stores – McKenzie & Willis. With humble beginnings servicing the Canterbury Plains as a real estate agency, auction house and the selling of second-hand furniture, the company has evolved into an interior delight offering everything from flooring to window coverings, wallpaper, furniture, beds, linens and more. Yet one aspect that has remained unchanged over the years is that the store is still 100 per cent family owned and now has Joseph’s great-grandsons Bill and Tim Willis at the helm.

Passionate about Christchurch, the Willis family is quick to recognise that this is the historical home of McKenzie & Willis, and that despite having five showrooms located across the South Island, and a recent expansion into the north, Christchurch is, and always will be home. ‘We strongly believe we are Canterbury people, who are supporting Canterbury people and will always remain so,’ shares Bill. ‘After over 100 years in this ever-changing industry we feel that we know and understand Christchurch and the South Island, and believe we are best focusing on delivering the products and services our loyal customers in these areas demand.’

In the aftermath of the 4 September 2010 earthquake, Bill and Tim knew they would eventually be able to get back into their building and were relieved to do so, despite some parts of the building being off limits. However, the earthquake on 22 February 2011 put heed to that, destroying the beautiful and instantly recognisable structure beyond repair.

‘We were not caught in the “can it or can’t it be repaired” seesaw,’ explains Bill. ‘We had certainty in an environment where most businesses didn’t, and we were able to move quickly to ensure we were back up and running as soon as possible. In fact the earthquake occurred on a Tuesday and we had found our new premises at 181 Blenheim Road by Sunday.’

Not able to recover anything from the damaged building, it was with support from their suppliers and the dedication of loyal staff that saw them reopen within weeks of the quake. ‘We felt very lucky to have been in a position that enabled us to quickly set about creating our new showroom, and be able to take care of our customers as soon as they needed us. Plus it was really wonderful to be able to offer certainty to our staff in such uncertain times.’

Hand-picking their ranges from top local and international brands, the cousins have built on the legacy of their great-grandfather. ‘We aren’t a department store built around components of the home,’ explains Bill. ‘We are a fully-fledged interior offering.’

An integral part of their ongoing success is the team of design consultants found in each of their beautiful showrooms.

‘Our team are incredibly passionate about what they do,’ he enthuses. ‘They immerse themselves in a project, taking the time to learn about each client before developing a dynamic, thoughtful solution that is right for them.’

Describing the process as a collaborative one, they set out to define new spaces and redefine old ones. ‘Style is a very individual thing,’ continues Bill, ‘which is why we take a very individual approach. Our design consultants don’t start with a style in mind, they start with a goal: to understand your dream and bring it to life. Half the fun is in the journey – inspiring our clients with new ideas, and having them inspire us with theirs.’

For many, renovating or building is an overwhelming process, jam-packed with decisions. And it is a process that this innovative company is aiming to take the challenge out of. ‘By working with one interior design consultant throughout, our clients have the comfort of knowing their designer is able to hold their hand across all aspects of their project – from flooring, curtains, paint, wallpaper and fabric, right down to the finishing touches of bed linen and accessories. We want to have a long-term relationship with our customers and being able to offer “everything interior” is essential to that.’

With each project, they aim to deliver a bespoke solution that stands the test of time. A modern take on the age-old ‘simple elegance’. And perhaps it is this classical beauty that keeps people from all over New Zealand coming back for more. Time and time again.

Looking forward, Bill and Tim are excited about the redevelopment of their current site. ‘After the February 22 earthquake we took an eight-year lease on Blenheim Road and now that eight years is up, so we had to look at what would be next.’

Securing a tenancy of the size they wanted with car parking in central Christchurch ‘simply wasn’t feasible’ and so an agreement was reached with their current landlord to redevelop the Blenheim Road store. ‘Part of the success of McKenzie & Willis is our ability to evolve and adapt; and we are continuing to do this,’ explains Bill.

With renovations underway already, the redevelopment is set to continue through summer and be finished by late autumn. ‘Our intention is to make our current store spectacular – and occupy this space for another eight years.’ With the addition of a café, a second floor to the showroom, a new entranceway and a new interiors area set to be the largest in Canterbury, there is no doubt it will exceed their intention to be just that: spectacular.

[ WORDS Lucinda Diack, IMAGES Kate Claridge ]