Bowes, Alistair William Interview
It’s 29th May 2019, and I have with me Alistair Bowes, well-known Hawke’s Bay man. He has been involved with Wattie’s over the years. Alastair, good morning.
I’d like you to give me your working life, and when your parents first came to New Zealand and a little bit of the background; and then on to you.
Sure. My maternal grandparents were descended from people who arrived in one of the first five ships to Christchurch; obviously landed at Lyttelton, came over the bridle path, and settled eventually at a farm called Shepherd’s Hill, which is on the west coast road between Darfield and Springfield. Her maiden name was Butterfield and they were people who were good Catholic stock.
And my father … his father, my grandfather … came from a village called Egremont near Carlisle, [United Kingdom] and he came out to get work because the mine where he was in Egremont closed. He became involved in the West Coast coal mining business, and it wasn’t long before he became the secretary of the Miners’ Co-op. [Co-operative] He was a very political man and was a socialist, but stopped short of being a communist.
My father was a first day pupil at Greymouth Technical High School and he joined the bank after spending the first year of his life after school fossicking for gold, mainly in Moonlight Creek which is just out of Blackball on the West Coast; runs down from the Paparoa Ranges. He finished his schooling at [in] about 1929, and that was the Great Depression. My father and mother met when my mother was engaged to a [an] appropriate farming sort of boy.
But my grandfather was the manager of the West Coast Miners’ Co-op which had a bit of money, and no doubt was a very attractive account to have; and probably might’ve arranged a job for my father in the Commercial Bank of Australia. And so that was a reasonably nomadic sort of life.
I was born in Christchurch along with a brother and a sister, and we shifted to Motueka where my father was the accountant of the branch there. I started school firstly in Christchurch at the Addington School, and then to Motueka District High School. Interestingly enough, people I met in later life were also Motueka people, and that was the Goodman family, famous for being involved in the bread and flour milling business.
From Motueka we went back to Christchurch for a short time and then to Greymouth, and my primary schooling was finished at Grey Main Primary School. My big thrill there was the fact that one of the Greymouth people won the Melbourne Cup with a horse called Delray, and all over the West Coast people drank out of the Melbourne Cup; and I did as one of the three or four hundred kids that drank out of it at the Grey Main School.
Following Grey Main I went to Greymouth Technical High School, where I went into what was the professional class. The third form also had a ‘B’ stream, and then a class for metalworking and a class for carpentry … woodworking; and the ladies had a home science form and a secretarial type of form so there were about six third forms. I was in the First XV in my fifth form; I was a prefect in sixth form; and in the seventh form I was involved in just about everything that happened at the school.
As a kid in Greymouth growing up we were a bit naughty, because when the whitebait was running my dad and I would go – he’d drop me off – on a very favoured place on the riverbank, where you had to tie a rope onto one of the posts on the railway line so you could climb down a cliff to get onto a rock to catch whitebait. And if the whitebait were running I would stay the whole day there, and if it was really good I’d get into trouble with my mother because I’d tie knots in my jersey and fill it with whitebait.
But it was a great place to grow up because on Saturday I played rugby in the morning for the school team; in the afternoon I played for the Blackball soccer team ‘cause they were a bit short of [on] numbers; on Sunday morning I used to run in the Harrier Club and in the afternoon I played rugby league. But in those days you couldn’t play rugby and rugby league, so I had an assumed name for the rugby league team, and that was ‘Alan Barnes’. And it was something of an embarrassment when Alan Barnes was picked for the rep [representative] team to represent West Coast Rugby League in an underage team – I think it was an Under-20 team. And I was one of the first people in the West Coast League scene to dive fast; and that wasn’t because I was particularly skilled, but it was a fairly brutal game and I got rid of the ball as quickly as I could.
However, after Greymouth I went to Canterbury Varsity, [University] because I was very convinced by my parents who said that a good education would be the best thing that I could do for myself if I wanted to get the most out of life. And that’s good advice.
I went to Canterbury although my parents at that stage were living in Foxton because I wanted to do a BA, [Bachelor of Arts] and Canterbury was the only place where you could do a BA without doing a foreign language. And at school, the only disadvantage the school had was no one could take French beyond the fourth form.
At varsity I did a BA in History, and I went to Teachers’ College ‘cause I thought I might be a school teacher, but I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy teaching. I taught for a while, on section, at St Andrew’s College, which was one of the top schools in Christchurch. And it was wonderful, I enjoyed … with the boys, and I coached, and I did a bit as a Houseman; stayed at the college which meant that board was pretty cheap. But I could see that to get a position of responsibility you had to be [there] about twenty years. In the section of the school I was in, which was English and History, there were two brothers, Dowlings; one of them was the father of the captain of the New Zealand Cricket team; and they were always going to be ahead of any young person like me.
And so I looked for other options; and I thought accounting would be a way that I could get up the middle of a firm fairly quickly. So I did a BComm [Bachelor of Commerce] and I became a qualified accountant, and passed Auditing at my first sitting. The year that I passed Auditing the pass rate was thirteen percent, and I believe it was a means of the Accounting Society to limit people getting into the profession, to make it a bit more valuable for those who were already in it. It was pretty unfair.
I was lucky that I had done all of my accounting part time so I had plenty of experience; and I was in a firm that was also a sharebroker firm, Bird & Co. [Company] At the end of my fourth year when I was just coming up being qualified, I was offered a partnership in this firm which had three partners; one of whom was a top accounting guy who was trained in Scotland. And he told me that he thought the other partners were crooks, so he left the partnership, and I also announced my retirement. And in due course the remaining partners were found guilty of using inappropriately a client’s money, and they went to jail. So I was very pleased to have the good advice.
And I left, and I was very fortunate to work for a company called Freightways, and the managing director of Freightways was a fantastic guy, Russell Pettigrew … lately dead. But he was a fine man, and he made a special effort with me. He’d come into the office where I was the first qualified accountant that the Freightways branch had had, and he’d make me feel really special. The local manager was a Mr Guthrie who was later Mayor of Christchurch; he was the Mayor at a [an] Anzac Day parade where Vietnamese War protestors came along to try and get the Vietnamese War dead honoured as well as the New Zealand war dead. I was so outraged that when I ceased work at Wattie’s I wrote a novel centred on that occasion which is unpublished as yet; I ought to get it done.
So after working there for a number of years, I married a lady who I’d met through a beach dance when I was at home in the holidays at Foxton; and her name was Fiona Newman. She was a member of the well-known Nelson family that had coaches. Her own father had died, and so when we got married her Uncle Jack Newman … Sir Jack … was the man that gave her away. And he was also a director of Freightways; and I felt that I didn’t want to be seen as getting favours so I started looking for a job.
When we got married we had a child, Stephanie; and it would’ve been nice to’ve had family closer, so I had a talk to my dad. And my dad knew Sir James Wattie because the Commercial Bank of Australia was one of the banks that was involved in supporting Wattie Canneries. My father exaggerated my ability as an accountant, and so I was appointed to Wattie Canneries as what was gloriously known as an administrative assistant; and at the same time another young graduate was appointed to the company, called Tony Dallimore. Tony was on the operational side; I was on the administration side, and it was a wonderful opportunity for me because I had some abilities that Wattie Canneries wanted. These were more on the external relationships rather than running a factory – Tony Dallimore was the expert on running the factory, and I was put in the role of external relations. That involved various things, but one of the first things that I did that got me known to Sir James was the marketing department was about to launch a product called Jubilee Vegetables. And because when I arrived at Wattie’s the Executive were just so busy, they didn’t have a lot of time to sort of teach me, or sort of supervise work. So I’d read the files on the contracts that Wattie’s had, which was you know, very good background, and amongst it was talk about trademarks. I checked with the marketing department and they had not done any work on seeing whether ‘Jubilee’ was available as a trademark. Well sure enough, it was already the trademark of someone else – it was the Gear Meat Company – and so the marketing manager and I had to go and see Sir James who was running the company, to say we were in a bit of a hole because we didn’t have the right to the name. And Sir James was a bit crabby, and looked to me to do something about it. Fortunately the Gear Meat Company were very nice about it, and we got a Registered User Agreement which enabled us to use the Jubilee brand; and so what was really down to the nice people at Gear Meat reflected well on me, although I’d contributed very little other than probably asking quite nicely.
And the next time I met Sir James face to face was when we were taking over a company called Food Processors. That was centred on – of all places, Studholme Junction; I had to look it up on a map to find out where it was. And I was to go down there and finalise the takeover, and I was to go with the South Island manager of Wattie’s; but he was crook, so I went down on my own. I was set up in a [an] office in Dunedin, and I remember they had the auditors, the accountants, the lawyers … who knows? Quite a few people on the other side of the desk, and it was just me on one side of it. And because I wasn’t considered important enough Cliff [?] didn’t come to it; and we hammered out an agreement. And the next thing I heard about it was Sir James asked me to go into his office, and he told me that the vendor had complained that I had bullied the other people. And I thought, ‘It’s a bit odd that a young guy had bullied half a dozen other people’; and that he wasn’t accepting the deal that I had negotiated. And Sir James said, “Well what do you think I should do about it?” And I thought he was about to fire me, and by that stage I had two or three kids. He said, “Well I’ll tell you what I’m going to do – I’m going to send you down there again.” And so I went down again and being a bit flighty I gave them some extra money; but it was on the distribution side which Wattie Canneries didn’t have to pay for, but General Foods did. So I was looked at as a bit of a hero for being a bit protective of Wattie Canneries.
Soon after that Wattie Canneries was made into a separate operating division, and Wattie Industries was formed. And Wattie Industries had, you know, the big boys, and the top people like Arnold Smith; and Gordon Wattie was the managing director because Sir James retired. The leftovers like me were made part of Wattie Canneries; and I was the secretary of Wattie Canneries, which was a good job because I worked with Ray Wattie who I admired, and who saw in me ways of getting out of the tremendous amount of work that he had to do. So I basically represented Wattie Canneries to the outside world. That timing was about 1975, and so we went on merrily together. And Ray was a fantastic boss – hard working; but I could do the things that took a lot of time but needed to be done.
At that stage Marshall was the Prime Minister and he was very keen to establish a development plan for the country, and so the big companies like Wattie’s and Fletchers and so on were called to meetings in Wellington for what was going to be a planning session for future growth. And it was very flattering for me that I was with people that were real lions, whereas I was just a nobody really from Hawke’s Bay. But they were good people to mix with, and I was able to talk a bit about the opportunities in Hawke’s Bay as well as the opportunities for Wattie’s. And at that stage I was already becoming a [an] absolute wine nut, and I saw in Hawke’s Bay – apart from wonderful opportunities for Wattie’s – an opportunity for a range of other products. And Wattie Canneries at that stage was growing because we had a plant at Christchurch, one at Gisborne and a big one at Hastings. We bought the Timaru plant that was owned by Dalgety’s, and we also had the Studholme Junction plant which we didn’t use for processing, but we used it as storage.
At that time we were very fortunate, because there was a drought in Europe … this was in the ‘76 year … a drought in Europe; and you know, I’d been finished tidying up the acquisitions and we had more capacity. I knew that there’d been a drought in Europe because all the news about wine in Europe was that there was going to be a fabulous vintage, which it was; but [it] made us aware that there was an opportunity for peas. And we ended up doing a lot of extra peas, and we did them in the South Island largely because their season was later than that in the North Island, and we were able to hire a refrigerated ship because we didn’t have the cold stores that were big enough to tackle the peas. We just put ‘em into Timaru and we loaded the ship up; when it was full we sent it to Europe and made some really good money. Again that was nothing to do with any of my ability, it was just that I was the right person at the right time.
Another thing about that stage was that I had a fairly eclectic interest in the business, and it was always an irritation to me that the insurance had some elements that I felt were unfair; in particular the consequential loss policy – we had to be very careful that we didn’t hit the average terms of the insurers. The average is that if you don’t insure enough, any claim will be written down by the amount that you are under the real value of your assets; and I felt that we were penalised because Wattie’s was very dispersed – we had the factories I’ve mentioned before, but we also had plenty of our flour mills in remote locations; we had plenty of … well, we had the ice cream plants; we had snack food plants; we had bakeries, which were all spread around; unlike say, Forest Products, with whom I had some knowledge, where they had a huge risk all in one place at Tokoroa. So I spent a bit of time at Massey University with some of the people that were pretty clever in the field of statistics, and … sort of verging on to insurance and underwriters, and that sort of area; and convinced the insurers that our risk was a much lesser risk because of the dispersal across the whole of the country relative to other ones that had huge big concentrated assets. I think one of them might’ve been Lion Nathan, because they had huge breweries – they weren’t de-centralised like Wattie’s was. So that was an interesting by-product.
Well, unfortunately Sir James died not long after the formation of Wattie Industries and everyone moved up a spot; and so I was moved up from being secretary of Wattie Canneries as a working division of Wattie Industries, and I was made secretary of Wattie Industries which meant that I was secretary of a company that was a public listed company and on the Stock Exchange. And my expertise was not particularly looking at the small print, but I was well and truly supported by Ray Wattie’s brother, Gordon Wattie, who was the managing director of Wattie Industries. And we formed a new partnership, with me again doing the external type of things for the company and getting into all sorts of funny situations. One of them was there were [was] a group of a people that thought they should boycott Wattie’s’ products because we charged too much. And that was centred in Christchurch, so I went down to Christchurch on behalf of Wattie’s and spoke to the persons involved who were rather misled; their argument was that they could no longer afford to buy a couple of packets of chocolate biscuits, which didn’t have a lot to do with Wattie’s, but they were thinking of Wattie’s being a more public enemy. I walked out of the meeting and a person with a camera jumped out from behind a tree; and it was from Television New Zealand and they interviewed me … it was quite a shock. But eventually they apologised; and the chairman of Television New Zealand apologised that they had done this in such a secretive way, because we would’ve been perfectly happy and I would’ve been given the job to be interviewed by television; and it wasn’t such a sneaky approach. But that all died away in due course.
Also at Wattie Industries I was made responsible for the home economist that was put on the staff, and again being in the right place at the right time I was able to help her get her own programme on TV, [television] and she was acknowledged as the Wattie’s home economist. She was doing a child’s programme, encouraging kids to do baking and the like. And we used my elder daughter, Stephanie, probably about eight or nine at the time – this would be in the late 1970s – to go over to the test kitchen we had at the Wattie’s Head Office; we built a new building for Wattie Industries close to Wattie Canneries, and we had a test kitchen there. And she tried out the recipes that our home economist, Sonia Gray, was developing to make sure that they were within the capabilities of young children. And that was, I thought, a bit of a coup that we had our own programme on TV and we didn’t have to pay for it.
In Wattie Industries’ view there was a need for a new impetus at one of the operating divisions, the equal of Wattie Canneries, which was General Foods. So after being the secretary of Wattie Industries for a number of years, which culminated in Wattie Industries winning the prize for the best annual report by a public listed New Zealand company. And they won that for the 1979 report which I did with a lot of help from other people, but I was responsible for it. So the Society of Accountants who presented the prize, presented it to me in 1980 for the best annual report. Well there was nowhere further for me to go, so my reward was I was transferred to Auckland, to a company called General Foods which needed some fresh ideas on the human side of the business.
I went into General Foods; and I felt that Wattie [Wattie’s] was a terrific company ‘cause it was quite an egalitarian approach. Sir James Wattie was an absolute icon and he was a marvellous man; he used to have his smoko [morning tea break] with the staff in the staff canteen. And if Lady Wattie was busy doing something else he’d have his lunch there as well; he had no airs and graces. He used to have some sayings that I took greatly to heart; one of them was, ‘The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary’, and I remembered that quite vividly. And another was, ‘Respect is earned, it’s not given’. So those were things that I used a bit in going to General Foods, where I was made the deputy managing director.
My kids … by this stage I had four; Stephanie I’ve talked about; David and Ben and Jenny. So they were convinced that we should go to Auckland, because Auckland had the products I was going to be involved in – Tip Top Ice Cream, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Tegel Poultry, Irvine’s Bakery products, Bluebird snack food products. We got up to Auckland, and the best thing I could say about Auckland was it opened me up to a different style of life. We lived in Remuera when we first went to Auckland, and then later on we shifted to Parnell; and we met some really terrific people, so it was a wee bit different from a lot of people’s experience of Auckland because we were in the situation of meeting very nice people.
And along with my own experience I realised that education was the best thing I could do for the children so the girls went to Auckland Dio [Diocesan School for Girls] and the boys went to Kings [College]; and that’s paid, I think, in my opinion, big dividends, ‘cause I thoroughly enjoyed my involvement at Kings ‘cause you meet a lot of parents who are similar to yourself, who you know, like to work hard and earn whatever they got. And we could help one another with trips – I was always a starter to go on the school trips, and it was a joy to me that I was based at Tip Top corner on the Great South Road, which wasn’t far from Kings, so I could sneak out and coach; I helped coach rugby teams, and I went to everything I could at the school. That was a great occasion; made some wonderful friends, too. So Auckland was pretty good to me.
And then we shifted to Parnell, and that was beaut because you could walk to … you know, it was at the stage when we were all becoming a bit more sensible about drink driving … so you could walk to the places that we were going to eat at, and drink unreservedly and [chuckle] come home without falling over. So that was a great place to be in, and in Auckland I ended up doing quite a lot of overseas travel. I was involved in exports so I went to Japan a bit, and I went to Asia quite a lot. I was on the board of a joint venture in Thailand for poultry, which was a bit of a slog because they had monthly board meetings; and I was still involved in running a lot of operations in Auckland.
Just going back – we just had a talk from John Newlands … you’d know John?
John went to Leopard Brewery to eventually become the manager … sales manager. He’d only just got married, so he sold his car and put that down for a deposit for a new home, because the sales manager always got a car from the brewery. [Chuckles]
That was a big thing, getting a car – I got a car when I was secretary of Wattie Industries, but before that I wasn’t … I mean when I went down to Wellington to see the Gear Meat Company, the only car available was one of the field rep’s cars, it was a bloody old Morris Oxford. [Chuckle] Anyway that was – a lot of this is a lot of luck in a good company, getting in the right place at the right time.
And you talked about Jack Newman?
He was her [Fiona, Alistair’s wife] uncle. He was a funny guy, that, because Fiona’s father had died, and that’s why he gave her away at the wedding. There were five people that were in the Newman family, but I represented her family in the meetings that they had. Well, the meetings were meant to be discussions about you know, future strategy, but [chuckle] no one got a bloody word in, really, and certainly not me ‘cause I wasn’t even a member of the family. [Chuckle]
But anyway, she went to Iona. So she had a solid connection with Hawke’s Bay, and she had lots of old friends that grew … like, Margaret Clark was at Iona.
My wife went to Iona; all the Walker girls, seven of them.
Oh hell! They must’ve had very big shoulders …
And I’ve got seventeen brother-in-laws. [brothers-in-law]
Oh … goodness me!
So I was going to Bangkok once a month for board meetings, which was a real pain, but the deal was that you had to be flying to the meetings First Class, so that part of it was fine. I used to fly up on a Monday late in the day here, which got me into Singapore at about six o’clock. And I stayed with friends there – actually he was a fellow I met – he was a Kings parent, and he had a boy at Kings and a girl at Dio, so we knew them two times; lovely people, and I always had a meal with them on the Monday night in Singapore, but I always stayed at a hotel, usually quite close to the airport. So I flew up to Bangkok on a Tuesday, early, had a board meeting all day and then I flew out of Bangkok to Hong Kong overnight, and back to New Zealand, where Fiona would pick me up at the airport at about eight o’clock in the morning. But of course being in First Class you’ve always got plenty of sleep, so I didn’t need to be felt sorry for.
But one of the other trips that we did together was to Japan. On the way home Fiona … we got back to Hong Kong and Fiona went back to New Zealand, and I went to Singapore to do some more business in Singapore for exports. And Fiona’s plane was about an hour out of Hong Kong when the cabin filled with smoke; and that was pretty scary, a lot of very frightened people on the plane. So they turned back … went to Hong Kong. She arrived, and because we were separating we’d had a few drinks in the bar; and so she had absolutely no money. But fortunately the airline got her into a hotel, and a gentleman on the plane lent her some dollars which was fantastic; so that was a bit exciting for us. Yeah; but that part of my life was really … I found it quite stressful, because I was very committed to the family and I was away quite a lot.
I had quite a few trips ‘cause we were trying to build the business internationally, because at that stage we knew that the very controlled economy that Labour had set up with import licensing was going to go, and we needed to be ready to take on the world. And the best way to know whether Wattie’s was competitive or not was to start exporting, and if you could make some money in the export market you were obviously going to be a bit protected from people trying to come into New Zealand and take us on locally. So that was always a major issue for us; and we also had to make sure we had the technology right.
The world was starting to use extrusion as a means of making some products. When I was first at Wattie’s, baked beans and spaghetti were huge businesses for us, and we used to have a hundred women loading by hand spaghetti – that we’d bought in from elsewhere – into cans, and then we’d pour the Wattie’s tomato juice in. And we were able to do volumetric filling of baked beans … like, if you filled a cup and put it in the can, that would be the right amount of baked beans; so that was quite simple. But for spaghetti the answer was to make up a spaghetti mix, and then extrude it under pressure like plastic; let a certain length go into the can and then a knife would cut it off. That made the whole thing very automatic, and that meant that we could be very competitive in two of our key products which were baked beans and spaghetti.
So that was part of our approach with ice cream, ‘cause one of the companies I was running was Tip Top Ice Cream, and we were looking at new products for shaped ice cream products. And I think the first one that we made was a replica of the New Zealand yacht, KZ7 or something like that – it was an ice cream product made in the shape of a yacht and that was done by extruding it through a branded product called Glacier. And I first saw that in Texas … Houston; I went to a plant there which was eye-boggling. It had all this gear and hardly any people, whereas our ice cream plants were pretty chock-a-block. And so we had to do quite a lot of work at Tip Top in Auckland, and one of the by-products of that was that the churns that we used for our ice cream making had to be enlarged; and they were stainless steel. And at the same time Alwyn Corban was setting up a wine business in Hawke’s Bay, and he was doing it with the people of Washpool, and he needed stainless steel tanks. So we sold him our surplus stainless steel tanks which I think were used successfully by Alwyn for many years. So that was a bit of an interesting by-product; and Alwyn is one of my heroes in the wine industry, and he and I saw each other recently at the Maraekakaho Anzac Day Parade [for] which for many years we supplied the speaker. But enough of that.
Now, going back to Wattie’s – with this dreaded import ban being dropped we were in a position of being vulnerable to overseas marketers coming into our market. And the managing director of Wattie Industries was a fellow, John Howarth, who was from Cropper NRM [Northern Roller Milling] which was a business that did a lot of importing and had a flour and feed milling business; and when he resigned he was replaced by another guy out of that Cropper NRM background … fellow called Cliff Lyon. Now in my view it should have been Ray Wattie. Ray Wattie was certainly the most able person that you could get, and he was a tough guy; he was the guy to take on competition. He wasn’t going to let anyone beat him down, but the powers that be decided that they needed to get someone from the UK, which is a very ‘inferiority complex’ type of thing to do. Anyway, I certainly applied for the job of running what was the Consumer Foods Division which Ray was running, and that was a huge company. The Consumer Foods Division was done as a means of making all of the food operations in Wattie’s work together; it was a very good idea and Ray Wattie was given the job of running it under John Howarth. But when he left he expected, and should’ve been made his successor, but he wasn’t. But that Consumer Foods Division had Wattie’s, Tip Top, Bluebird, Edmond’s, Irvine’s, KFC, Betty Crocker and Sunshine all in it; Ray Wattie was the managing director of it and I was the general manager of it. So that was a wonderful opportunity, and I enjoyed it big time. And again, my sort of role was an external role – I’d be talking on marketing issues to home economics [economists] doing the interface with the government. We always had to be aware that the food industry had its own set of regulations, and they were written by civil servants who never knew the discipline of making a profit. And so I would be spending a bit of time doing that, whereas Ray was such a busy guy … and to be fair he had a reasonably short fuse … so it was probably not the best idea to have him trying to negotiate.
I also had a big role in the human resources side of the business. For some reason I was able to talk to people in the unions without too much … because I had no face; I was happy to be just talking to them, and so Wattie’s was a place that never had strikes. And I came out of that Wattie company to a place where strikes were always on the go, in Auckland. And I had some major reconstructions to be involved in and one of them was the reconstruction of Wattie Canneries. And that was done after the new person was appointed to run the Consumer Foods Division after Ray had resigned. That was a big change because we needed to focus on marketing rather than production, so that was a terrific change of culture in Wattie Canneries.
One thing you never had to worry about in Wattie Canneries was the devotion of the staff; they were fantastic people and worked very hard and for the common good. And it was a style of management that was, as I said, egalitarian. You got respect because you had to earn it but the people that were running it were people who had earned respect.
Now that was a wee bit different when I went to General Foods; it was a different sort of company. To be fair, I thought it was a bit of a Kings [College] and Auckland Grammar sort of preserve – most of the senior people had been to private schools, [Kings] or Auckland Grammar, both very good schools; there was an executive dining room, and there was a history of strikes; even worse, there was a history of stealing on a grotesque range. Now, one of the things that I ought to make clear is that I’m a Christian; I don’t think I’m overly verbose about it, but I do have those values that you treat people well, and that was reinforced by my time at Wattie Canneries. And so I started being a bit strong about what we were going to do at General Foods when I was there, and what we weren’t going to do. One of the things they would do is, the drivers would jack up and say, “We’re not going to deliver peas or ice cream today”, and their boss would run around and give them $20 notes and they would then do it. So that was not going to work with me – I said, “If you’re going to do that you’re on strike; you can go home and you won’t get paid.” And another thing that was happening was that there was a lot of stealing and I was told … you know, I’m going back to 1980, so it was about a million and a quarter dollars [$1.25 million] then. And that was huge; and it was meaning the business was not being as profitable, probably, as it should’ve been.
And I started to work with a guy, Ivan Poole, who was an ex-navy guy, to work it out; and I was told by people in the freezer that if I went into the freezer I’d have a pallet dropped on me. So of course I went in the freezer every day – that was just a red rag to the bull to me – and I never went in with protective clothing, I went in with a white coat; so I was a good target, but nothing ever happened because the people in there respected management that actually came in and looked as though we were interested in what happened. Because there were plenty of good people inside, but the bad people were stealing by the truckload. And it was damaging to everyone – those that were involved in stealing and those that weren’t.
So I started to do things that would bring them to be more friendly to management. I spent a lot of time with the trade union delegates … the senior delegates. One was Tuhoe, [Ngai Tuhoe] and the other was Northland Maori, and I got some help with them in selecting people that would be good for training. They were mainly Maori people ‘cause we had a lot of Maori people living in South Auckland. I got a [an] ex-SAS major who’d retired to run the sort of … army used to be very good at selection trials … and we ran them down at Tokaanu in a motel unit down there and I would go there for the week with the candidates, and this SAS guy who’d become a trainer. And I found a lot out about the business by just going with the ordinary guys; and one of the things I was really disturbed about was the people that worked in the freezers worked for forty minutes and then had twenty minutes off ‘cause they had to unfreeze themselves. But they had nowhere to go, so – Auckland it rains all the bloody time – so they were standing round in the rain and the wet. So the company bought a couple of army huts, and we put a giant speaker system into one of them and not the other – ‘cause not everyone wants a lot of music – and they thought I was the best thing since sliced bread. And then the company supported a rugby league team which was staff members only; I went to every match, and I started to build up an esprit de corps. Also, we had a fire brigade station on the site, which basically was paid out of the savings we made in insurance premiums because we had guards on the gate which [who] doubled as fire guards; we had two appliances on the site; and we had firemen sleeping on the site who were all staff members. I tell you – it was quite eerie for me – I used to work a bit at night ‘cause I was doing a lot of other things during the day, especially with staff. And I’d be sitting in my office and the lights would all go out, and the next minute these guys would turn up using breathing apparatus. And it was pitch black, and it sounded like Darth Vader was out to get me. Ha! We all had a good laugh about that.
But eventually people started to realise that there was a change in the weather at General Foods, and the stealing got to the stage where it went from a million and a quarter [$1.25 million] to nothing. Well, I think when I left it was $16,000, and that was breakages. The annoying thing was, it was quite simple to fix. What was holding these guys back wasn’t any lack of ability, it was … they weren’t good at English; you know. We decided [it was] very much worth while to promote and train a bit further. I got an English teacher to come in at a time when they weren’t busy, and she was teaching them how to write reports, and do things like computers, which I have to say is a joke, ‘cause I didn’t know myself.
What happened was, the rest of Wattie Industries started saying, “Oh, hell! This is pretty good – we’ll go and pinch these guys”, ‘cause you know, everyone was looking at that stage for capable Maori staff; well we had plenty at Tip Top. They were being trained … [a] combination … they were either doing things like being in the fire brigade which was good for discipline and good for self esteem, and you know, had a very good first aid component to it; or they were coming into management jobs.
The guy that I thought was probably the best that I’d struck was pinched by Tegel to run their South Island distribution system. And I was flattered in a way, but I just felt that was a bit of a shame that we lost him. But he married a local Pakeha Christchurch girl, and I had the privilege of being a speaker at the wedding. And then when people got married that were both, you know, on the staff, we used to have dos … pre-wedding parties … at our house in Remuera, which used to make the … you can imagine, with all the Maori and Pakeha and Polynesian people coming to the house for the pre-wedding party … the neighbours used to get a bit worried. But it was a great way to get people to see that while we might’ve lived in a very nice part of Auckland and our kids went to pretty good schools, that we were just an ordinary family that had a pretty big house, and it had a room that could accommodate quite a lot of people. So that was a very good part of being a boss and you know, fairly well paid in my job.
But with the arrival of the English guy, we had further work to do on making ourselves competitive, and we needed to convert, as I said earlier, from being a production-driven, factory-driven operation, to being a marketing-driven operation. And that meant we had to go from a factory-based management system to a product-based management system. So we formed out of Wattie Canneries, five separate business units; one was Wattie Can, [Canneries] then there was Wattie Frozen, and there was Wattie Fishing. They were the big three, and Irvine’s Bakery was another one that was put in as a separate business unit as well. And to do that we needed to reconfigure the management, so I had a big role, and a sad role, in that I had to arrange with the unions, redundancy, because there was quite a big number of redundancies involved in what we were doing ‘cause at the same time as I mentioned earlier, we were making the work as efficient as we could, and that was usually with machines. Now it was very sad for the people involved, so I went and had a talk with Helen Clark who was the Minister of Labour at the time, and that was very useful – I found her very helpful. And then I talked to union leaders, and they and I worked out what was going to be the redundancy agreement for the Wattie changes. And the changes were all made without any strike action across a whole heap of places, you know, not just Wattie Canneries; other places as well. So I was proud of that, so that the staff weren’t going to win because if they’d gone on strike they were just going to be worse off. So I was very pleased we didn’t have strikes.
We also had a big job to do with Tip Top, which was the frozen food distributor of Wattie Frozen, Tegel Poultry, Irvine’s and Tip Top, and quite a range of frozen products where we had a de-centralised system that had a freezer in every town of any size, and had a local management. And we streamlined all of that, and again, we were able to make change without any strike action. So that was part of a reputation I think I had with the unions, of not always agreeing with them, but always being honest. So it was quite a substantial change.
The company then got into a war with Goodman Group, which ended up with Goodman Group gaining control of the whole of Wattie’s. And they were most interested in the flour milling sort of, part of the business, and the feed milling, and they weren’t interested in the Wattie part of the business, and so they sold it. They set it up as one company, and they looked for a new person to run that company. And I’d been previously approached to go to spend time at an American university to get the latest information on management practices. I had four children and a wife; I couldn’t see myself going away for months, because there was too much to do at home. And I’d already spent a lot of time at home, and I was coming home … usually [from] overseas … always got home on Saturday morning, so I was always available for sport; didn’t matter where I was in the world, I’d be aiming to be home on the weekend. And because I was fortunate enough to be travelling, you know, in a good seat, I’d arrive home fairly fresh; probably fairly dopey too. But I wasn’t available to go overseas for a long period. So when the job came up for running this new group, the new Wattie companies and it was going to be sold, I’d made it quite clear that I opposed the idea of selling it ‘cause it was bound to be sold off-shore. And it was sold, to Heinz, and I was no longer required, so I was pushed out. The fellow that followed me at Wattie Canneries – when I moved up to Wattie Industries I appointed a guy, David Irving, as my successor at Wattie Canneries – and he was a very able person, and he took on the job of going to university in the States and became the boss of the new Wattie company under Heinz. And I ended up without a job, so that was a bit sad. But fortunately I had a farm in Hawke’s Bay, so I came back to Hawke’s Bay. Our youngest child was still at school, so Fiona stayed in Auckland and saw her through school. And then I spent a bit of time doing odds and sods – mainly in funny sorts of consultancy work in Auckland.
And then I was approached by David Davidson and Peter Jennings who are the O&G [Obstetrics & Gynaecology] specialists, amongst others, at Hawke’s Bay District Health; and that was in 1995. Because Hawke’s Bay District Health Board was now a CHE … a Crown Health Enterprise … and they were looking for someone to run it. These guys knew me personally and thought that it might be – I didn’t have a job – that I might do it. So I came down to this CHE; and even blind Freddy could see that you can’t have two acute hospitals twelve miles apart and try and run an efficient and good clinical practice when your helicopter can’t land at one place; where your Intensive Care unit is in one place and your CT [computerised tomography] scanner’s in another place and your experts are in between two hospitals. You have two boilers to heat the hospitals; one of the hospitals is a high-rise building and the Children’s Ward is at the top of it, and there is no ladder in Hawke’s Bay that could reach them if a fire broke out below, on the ground level. It was also on a hill, and you had no parking for people with broken limbs who’d be climbing up the hill on crutches. So you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that it needed to be changed.
The hospital[s] had a combined staff society, and every year since the Hawke’s Bay earthquake  they had been asking for the powers-that-be to have only one hospital; to rebuild one hospital, not two. It was very much a political problem; but I was asked by the Board at the time to lead a team to investigate whether putting everything into one hospital was possible, and which location it should be; or should we build again at a new site halfway between Hastings and Napier. And so on that job we spent a lot of time; I spent a lot of time, because I was living on my own at this stage, because my wife was making sure our daughter got through her education, and then she was selling our house in Parnell. So I was able to work a lot of time after hours, so I got to know how the hospital worked pretty well. At the same time I was sort of becoming a bit of a farmer.
One of the things that I learnt pretty soon was that you had to be very careful what information you believed in the health business; it wasn’t as straightforward as being in, say, Wattie’s. Everyone in Wattie’s I thought, you know, were [was] pretty straightforward, and there were no hidden agendas; but it was quite tricky with the politicians being involved, and you had various pressures on you. But I have to say that one of the pressures was never financial management from, say, the Reserve Bank or people in that area. We were asked to do a job, and I did it on purely clinical grounds. And there were some terrific heroes in that. What we did was, we did three possibilities; one was have it at Napier; another was have it in Hastings; and another was to have it on a brand-new site. Well, having a brand-new site was quickly ruled out, because you had to write off huge investments at two places, Napier and Hastings. So it came down to what was the best place for the future development of health in Hawke’s Bay? And after doing all the work, it was quite decisively the fact that we had plenty of acres of flat land at Hastings, whereas the site at Napier – brilliant outlook, but terrible place to try and expand on, and always going to be short of that one thing which is short at every hospital, even at Hastings, is car parking. So we did that, and I’ve got to say, that was a major restructuring involving a lot of very good people – dedicated people. And that was done without any industrial action, and it was done because the staff knew very well that you couldn’t run two hospitals efficiently, as health was a very expensive business, and it was a twenty-four / seven business; so you had to have everything available all the time. And the only way to do that half decently was to have it all at one hospital, so the decision was to make that hospital at Hastings because of the ability we had to make things here, and we had a flat site.
But it’d also been the fact that over the years Hastings had been very cleverly developing what is called ‘the circle of care’ in clinical terms, and that is that your front door has your Emergency Department; very close to your Emergency Department you’ve got to have your Imaging or X-ray department so you can see what’s happening. You also need to have your laboratory there so you can do your blood tests; and you also need to have means of resuscitation very handy to your ED when people are being brought in that are severely injured. You also then need to be able to get them into the operating theatres, which should be the next tier behind the laboratory, behind the Imaging; and then the Intensive Care department, where you take people after operations and after … not just accidents, but could be heart attacks; could be a variety of things. So all of these had to be in close proximity, which they were at Hastings, and we had plenty of room to expand. And we also had to be aware of the risks of a fire in the high-rise at Napier, where we had no means of getting to the Paediatric Ward which was on the top floor; and we had people struggling to walk up a hill, and so it was a lot easier here.
So that decision was made, and then the sky fell, really. I was subject to quite a lot of abuse; I got mail that was pretty … pretty upsetting. But being an ex-front row prop, I could make sure that I didn’t have to worry about it. And also, on the farm we were a k [kilometre] away from the road – you couldn’t see the house from the road – and always had dogs around. So that was a bit of a help.
But it was very satisfying to get the job done. And of course since then, not everything that’s happened has been what I would’ve liked. I was very keen to keep the land opposite the hospital, the Karaitiana Estate, because I know one thing that you’re going to use in hospitals … you need a lot of land these days. The more you can do away from the hospital proper, the better it is for the patient and for your staff, and for the outcomes. So that was a bit disappointing when that was sold, but that was after my time.
Also, I felt that the Board took a fairly distant view of what was the most important question before them which was, what to do about hospitals in Hawke’s Bay. What they did was, they asked me to set up a committee to run it, and that was done with full-time employees, so the Board, who should be the people running strategy, was a bit distant. And so we presented a report to the Board whose job was to accept or reject it; and they of course accepted it because they couldn’t answer the propositions that we had put forward. But it was a very unfortunate time, and it was very tough on the people involved, who did it with purely good intentions. And I ran a secret poll of all of the Consultants … that’s the specialists at the hospital, and there were sixty-five of them … and every one of them agreed that we had to have one hospital for acute cases. That was absolutely convincing; there was some difference – I think two or three said that maybe we should’ve had it at Napier, but the overwhelming majority of the Consultants, and the Nursing profession who I spoke to through their structure, said that we had done the right thing in recommending one hospital. So that’s what happened.
When I left there I worked for Hawke’s Bay Vintners, which is another of my great interests; so wine started as a hobby but in time I used to talk with the Rotary Clubs and Lions and so on about wine, and I was invited by the editor of the Hawke’s Bay Herald Tribune [now Hawke’s Bay Today] to write a wine column, which I did for about four or five years from about 1978 to about ‘92. And that was once a week, and that was syndicated to a number of other newspapers. And according to the paper it made pretty good money, but to me it was a delight, because being a former West Coaster, any way of getting free booze was considered to be pretty good form. As I have said many times, I used to get more wine than I could drink myself, so I got my beer-drinking friends round to the house and started a wine tasting group. And that was in 1978, and the first bottle that was drunk was invariably the best wine available. And these were guys that didn’t know anything about wine; didn’t know the talk, didn’t know the hype; and so they just drank it purely on what tasted best, and that’s the only real test for wine, is – does it taste good? And occasions for wine should be fun … shouldn’t be too serious. So I got an undeserved reputation for being able to pick very good wines. And when Montana launched their Melbourne [Marlborough] wines – which was quite a big deal for New Zealand because probably more than three-quarters of the New Zealand industry is in Marlborough – I was flown up to Auckland, put up in a hotel, and sat with the chief winemaker, Peter Hubscher, when it was launched to all the experts in a big function in Auckland. And I thought I was very lucky no one asked me any questions, ‘cause I didn’t have all my mates there to tell me what they liked best. So it’s been good fun for me, and I’ve always been able to … because I spent a lot of time going to Auckland for various reasons ‘cause I was representing the company [at] various things, there was always a chance to do something like visit a winery, or talk to someone. And I used to see George Fistonich quite often because his winery was out at Mangere and it was on the way to the airport; so if I left on a seven o’clock plane heading back for the Bay, usually business was over at six – I could hop in and see him, have a bit of a chat. And then he also lived quite close to where I lived when I went to Auckland; he lived just round the corner.
And it was a bit interesting, because my wife got on the committee of the Remuera National Party, and the member for Remuera was Doug Graham. And he was a bit worried that I didn’t vote National, and he said … ‘cause we were at his place for dinner, and they came to our place … “What would it take to get your vote?” And I said that a bottle of French claret would be helpful. And the next morning when I went down to get the milk there was a bottle of French claret in the [chuckle] milkbox; so I felt a bit concerned that I might need to vote National without the necessary convictions.
So that was the story of time in Wattie’s, and … and some sadnesses; the sadness that I had was that I was very close to the Wattie family, and I had a lot to do with Sir James’ funeral, which was very sad; and I worked for both of the boys, and that I felt I probably had a better chance of ending up in a very senior job with them than I had under the new brooms. And that was sad, and I always felt the family never got the recognition that they deserved. It gave me opportunities, for example, I was in charge of the Wattie building which was a brand-new one, and it had an area for demonstrations. Well, David Irving and I used to run films there, and we would hire a projector depending on the film. But I can remember that Jim Newbigin was the local wine and spirit man, and he’d sell us some whisky to have at showings, and that the local Tip Top branch would make sure we had ice creams for half-time, which was a lot of fun. And we used to all dress up, which was hilarious when you think back to all these wonderfully important people dressing up as cowboys and going along to a movie in a big company’s premises. But of course I had all the keys for the place being the boss-man, and the caretaker reported to me ‘cause I was the Ministry of All Unwanted Jobs – they’d end up with me. And so the caretaker would make sure that the next day there was nothing amiss.
So that was good fun, and we had a wonderful time for example, in our cricket; I played for a club team on a Saturday, and I’d been able to convince my wife that we played until it was dark. And because we had three or four kids it was going to be very difficult for her to get down. And one day she came down about three o’clock which was half-time; and I’m afraid to say that we in the opposition played at the Windsor Park ground which was quite close to the Mayfair Hotel, so we used to have our afternoon tea at the hotel. But we also had a sort of private club that was based on a ground at Okawa, which was the property of a former captain of the New Zealand cricket team. [Thomas Coleman Lowry] And we went on tour of [with] that group, and we went to Marton, and we went to Tolaga Bay. But the one that I remember most vividly was that we hired planes from the local aero club, and we flew over to the King Country and we played a team that was based at Te Anga. But they called themselves the Marokopa Cricket Club; and the Marokopa Cricket Club was too much of a mouthful so they just called themselves the MCC. And we had a home and away match, and they put on a do for us at the local hotel in Te Anga, which was spectacular. We drank a lot of beer … a hell of a lot of beer to be fair; and the ladies of the district did us a hula, where they got down to bras and skirts, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. And the next day … it’s still the best afternoon tea I’ve ever had at any sort of sporting venue, ‘cause they had whitebait in the local river, and we had whitebait to burn! But it was just fabulous, and it was something that we returned. And they filled us up with beer, and the next day – one of our team mates was across the road from where I was staying – and I noticed he had his head out the window. And then the next thing he was outside; he’d been ill, and his false teeth had gone into the garden outside the window. And he was having a hell of a job trying to find his false teeth.
But we paid them back big-time, because when they came back, we hired the Te Mata Restaurant up the hill from Havelock … Te Mata Peak restaurant … and we put on a do, but we only served wine. And so the next day they were as crook as we were, ‘cause they were not wine drinkers. And we had two of them staying with us at our house, and our children were fascinated ‘cause we had two loos [toilets] and one of them was being used for … people were very ill. And the guy that was worse off was the captain of the King Country rugby team; and I don’t know if he took the field the next day. It was really quite … we thought it was quite funny, but that just shows you how irresponsible and juvenile we were.
And of course we were involved in things locally, where I was on the local kindergarten committee. And it was nice, because the back entrance of the primary school was right beside our house; and also we could go to the kindergarten without crossing the road. So you know, it was the wonderful thing about living in Hawke’s Bay – you’re always working on interior lines. It was fabulous to be bringing up children here, but it was also very good in Auckland, because we were able to do our very best for them.
For most of the time we were in Auckland we had a farm in Hawke’s Bay, which was out at Mangatahi, and that was something that we spent a lot of time at. And all our children were able to go there and meet with their friends. Our four children are all graduates; three of them are graduates from Massey, and one of them’s a graduate from Melbourne Uni. [University] They were all able to go on the farm, and they were all able to do jobs for us; but the best thing about it was we were all there as a family. We used it for all sorts of funny purposes – we planted apples on the fertile river flats down below the house, and we also planted grapes; and we ran about fifty weaner heifers. We had a lot of water rights, and we were able in a hot Hawke’s Bay summer we could always irrigate to keep the cattle alive; we could always irrigate pasture for them. We had a wonderful house there which looked over to the Kawekas [Kaweka Range] and down the river, so it was just a place that was heavenly, and we were so blessed to be able to do it.
It got to the point, though, where the children – none of them wanted to be farmers, and Fiona and I were getting past crunching our way across a frosty paddock to prune apples or grapes. We had a full-time manager on the place with us, and you know, we couldn’t see there was a reason for us to just keep going, so we sold the place and came to town.
And so the only other thing I want to say is, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a Christian. I’ve had a lot from my involvement in St Luke’s Church at Havelock [North]; I’ve been the Vicar’s Warden, which in an Anglican context is the most important lay person of the parish. And I resigned from that when it was discovered I had three aneurysms, and I had cancer. So both of those have been dealt with, and no worries now; I resigned that position, but I’m still heavily involved in the church, and blessed by it.
So that’s my story, and it’s a tribute to wonderful Hawke’s Bay that I’ve had such a lovely life, and been so fortunate, and blessed.
Well, Alistair, wonderful! A wonderful talk … you’ve certainly filled your life with business and family, and you have had a wonderful time, and good health now.
Still a bucket list … not all top of it.
I’m sorry to take this long …
No! No, don’t worry about it. And I see you talk about Alwyn Corban – he’s now on the board of my son, Sam, with his wine division with Hãhã Wines. Alwyn’s been a great help to Sam.
Well I’ve had a lovely sort of connection with the Corban family, because one of my younger boys’ best friends at school was Ben Corban; Ben Corban’s [I] think a nephew of Alwyn, so his partner came in when the Corbans took over the Holders. He had a daughter that my boy went out with, and we were invited and very honoured to go to the … the Corban family had a hundred year celebration.
Yes, they did …
We were at it; and the father told me it was time that my boy settled down with a nice woman. [Chuckle] I felt very embarrassed, ‘cause Ben actually ended up going to Melbourne – he worked on the farm with us for a while – and he married a Colombian girl, and she had come out of Colombia because it was a terrible place for women. She was a qualified accountant, but not under our rules. And I think it’s quite right – it’s a bit like we have medical people used to come in and say, “Well I’m a qualified general surgeon”; and they did it to different standards from our people.
It’s great to catch up – one of the things about long life is that you get to the stage where you’re not quite as restlessly ambitious as you might’ve been, and it’s really nice to just chill out a bit. But I think the big thing is your family – that’s what I’ve always felt.
People have these funny ideas about schools, and when I was working at Tip Top, we had a very Polynesian-Maori workplace, and they were guys from tough environments. Once the place had been straightened out it became a very desirable place to work, ‘cause you know, the people were good. But my kids all worked there. Some of the people would be at our place for, say, a wedding party, and they’d meet, say, this boy – I had two boys at Kings. They thought, you know, people from Kings were from a different bloody planet. His nickname in the freezers was Holmes, after Paul Holmes [chuckle] ‘cause he was a great storyteller. They kept asking him things, and they couldn’t believe how ordinary he was, and that he sneaked away, and he’d have a drink with his mates, and they were no different from anyone else.
The school is terrific. We were lucky because – I mean you get out what you put in. I spent a bit of time there, and I was involved with Tip Top. We had fridges everywhere, and so it wasn’t that hard – and my boys were day boys; well, I didn’t want them to board – so you could scare up an old deep freeze and find a few things to put in it, which meant that the House that our boys were in was pretty special. But I went on all of the trips. And here was I going through Singapore regularly, and I was able to meet up with a Kings parent. And they had a son who was … the first time in a while; he wasn’t the head boy, but he got the prize for being the most valuable member of the school. And he’s now a physician … a specialist.
Oh well – there’s your bit.
Anyway, I’m pleased you’ve had a look round the place …
Well, it’s a great institution, this, and very valuable.
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Interviewer: Jim Newbigin