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Former head of iconic Southland retail stores recognised with Institute of Directors’ highest accolade

Media release
By Institute of Directors
10 Nov 2021
read time
2 min to read
Acton Smith profile picture

Respected Wanaka director Acton Smith ONZM, a former Managing Director of iconic southern retail business H&J Smith, has been named a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute of Directors.

Mr Smith lives in Wanaka but spent most of his working life in Invercargill.  He stood down as H&J Smith Managing Director in 2012 after 30 years at the helm, handing over to his eldest son, Jason,

Acton Smith has diverse directorship experience and knowledge across the retail, banking and charitable sectors.

The Distinguished Fellow Award is the IoD’s highest accolade and is awarded to IoD members who have had a prominent and distinguished career as a director, and have contributed positively to business and society.

The Smith family business was founded as a drapery store in Invercargill in 1900 by siblings Helen and John Smith.  Acton was the third generation to be involved with the family business. Speaking at the time of his retirement, he said highlights of his tenure had included surviving through the uncertainty of Rogernomics and the 1987 sharemarket crash, which had hit the store's rural customer base hard.

"My grandfather used to have a saying: look after the company first and then the company can look after you, and that's the way we've lived," he said.

What started as a small store on Invercargill’s Dee Street has grown to be one of New Zealand’s largest privately owned retail companies.  The group now encompasses department stores in Invercargill, Queenstown and Gore, Mitre 10 Mega stores in Invercargill and Queenstown, Armoury Fashion Boutique in both these markets, and an Outdoor store in Invercargill.

Mr Smith was Chair of the Southland Building Society for 18 years and helped prevent the sale of SBS to Westpac in 1991, bringing together a group of passionate local business leaders who were focussed on SBS remaining in local hands. He led the push for bank registration as a mutual in 2008, then merger with the Hastings Building Society before guiding the company through the transition from a building society to a bank.

He has also made significant governance contributions to the communities of Southland and Otago.  Mr Smith was a director of Mitre 10 NZ for 17 years, and very involved in the creation of the Mitre 10 Mega store programme.  In the 1970s he was also a founding director of Foveaux Radio, Invercargill’s first private radio station. Later that decade he was involved with gaining the necessary resource consents for Cardrona Skifield.  He was appointed a director of H&J Smith in 1972 and remains actively involved in the family business.

Since 1996, Mr Smith has been involved with the Southland Indoor Leisure Centre Charitable Trust that established the Stadium Southland in 2000, including New Zealand’s first indoor velodrome.  Mr Smith was Chair of the Stadium Southland Charitable Trust at the time of the roof collapse in 2010 following heavy snowfall, and was involved in the fundraising efforts for the rebuild.

In 2013, Mr Smith became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to business and the community.

Recognising Mr Smith’s contributions to governance excellence, IoD Chief Executive Kirsten Patterson said, “We are extremely grateful to Acton for generously giving his time to support development of the governance community, particularly in Southland over many years.

“This accolade carries substantial prestige and exists to recognise outstanding individuals, who over an extended period of time have contributed in leadership governance roles, to the development of significant and successful businesses in New Zealand.”

Otago Southland Branch chair Trish Oakley said:  “Acton is a deserving recipient, having made an outstanding contribution to the organisations he has served, and the wider Otago-Southland community.”

Mr Smith will be recognised by the Otago Southland branch of the IoD at a branch event in the coming months.


For more information, and to request interviews or images, please contact:

Mark Russell
Communications Consultant IoD
027 297 0178