Ewing Robertson Interview
Today is the 9th of March 2015. I’m interviewing Ewing Robertson about his life and times and his work or – yes life within the banking system. Ewing, would you like to tell us something about where your family started and then we’ll lead into the rest of it. Thank you Ewing.
I started at Warkworth. I was born in 1929. Warkworth then was a small town with about 5-600 people, as you know north of Auckland. It was a dairy factory – the usual supports in the rural community – the blacksmith, the grocer, the baker, the butcher which was delivered to the house every Saturday. So that was what the country town was then and once every ten days in the season a steamer would come up, a small steamer, would come up Mahurangi River. It’s silted up a bit now but they got right to the wharf, they’d unload the local supplies for the town and take the butter and any produce back to Auckland.
So it was a simple little town, and it had a doctor and high school and a very pleasant environment.
My father bought a holiday house at Orewa – and then of course it was sand hills and lupins, and we had this place to go to, we loved it. We spent all our holidays down there and at the time I think there were six other batches, Reed’s boarding house and the road at the very beginning went along the beach and then up at each end. So that was a very happy youth, good parents – there was like four brothers and two sisters. So we were very lucky, we had parents that were – cared for us and well-fed for those days, we had bikes, we had a horse and a 10 acre paddock so we grew up very happily there. With a large family you all hopped in. You had turns at milking the house cow of course, ha ha and mother made a bit of butter. So you know, we were one of those family units – what made up New Zealand in those days.
And my father was Scottish. He came across from Scotland in about 1913 to New Zealand and joined the Police Force here and he worked in Auckland and Huntly and then he went to Warkworth as Constable-in-Charge. He was in charge 1929 to 1949 when he died. He was also Clerk of the Magistrates Court which was in Warkworth – just closed. So they had court sessions there once a month and he’d go down and write that up so he was quite a wise man and a capable man and so we settled there very happily. I guess Warkworth came into the 20th century with World War II. It was a sleepy hollow – picture show once a week, all that type of thing, Frank, and then when the war came the American troops, our own troops came in first. They set up camps around Warkworth and about 8 farms – they took them over and Fletcher Construction came in and built all the huts and our troops, of course, stayed over in the Middle East, and the Americans came in here when the Japanese invasion was imminent. So they moved in and there was about 20,000 marines virtually, dropped off in Auckland. All came up to Warkworth, fully armed, tanks …
That’s amazing, I didn’t know that.
… CBs the whole lot and they settled in Warkworth. The first lot were marines. I enjoyed the company of these people, most of them weren’t – I was about 15 or 16 – some of them were only 18, so I got to know them. They came to our house a lot and played cards and the first echelon was there then – practised landings on the coast and of course there was lots of accidents. I remember at Martins Bay a few went over the cliff and a landing barge sunk, and they had live ammunition, they were in war service so they were fully armed around the place at that time. So they had to spell – they shipped them off the islands, the first lot, and they had Guadalcanal and those landings. They were nearly wiped out – I think there were about 60% casualties from that lot, and they brought back what was left of them back to Warkworth again, and it was just a very sad occasion, returning the gear and they were in a pretty sad state. And they reinforced them, built them up to their battalion strengths again and sent them off again. And then the third echelon came also to the town so it was a busy boisterous little town. From pictures once a week, there was movies seven nights a week, there was dances, there was everything.
And their generosity was incredible. The town didn’t have a footpath in all places and they came in with their CBs and did all the footpaths at the time. They went to the farmers and graded their farms. And every bridge in the county broke because they couldn’t carry the equipment, so – we bridged – so they were preparing themselves, their CBs – and they went over towards the – for the artillery practise they had – went over towards the Kaipara Harbour, up north of Helensville, up through there and had their live firing up there. So that brought the town to life and from there on Warkworth was never quite the same and the road was made all-weather to Auckland, so the isolation went and my father sold his horse then, which he had to have for duty. So that was Warkworth, very good childhood.
So you went to school in Warkworth, you and your brothers went to school ..?
Yeah, it was the District High School in those days, there was about 550 I think, pupils. Today it’s Mahurangi College and of course the old separate primary schools and so forth. So it was not a bad education system when you went to the school you always had a brother or sister somewhere through the chain. It was quite supportive and from Mahurangi College I couldn’t go to University it wasn’t an achievable thing in those days – you had to pay for it. Family couldn’t – it was quite an – not like it is today, it’s free. So I continued my studies after High School and got my University Entrance, then I went on and sat a diploma in banking which I did mainly by correspondence, which was a hard work – hard job – but it’s a great learning way. You get your lessons and you have to write it all down in longhand in those days and send it back, so it stuck with you. So that was my spell, and then …
So while you were doing this did you play any sports?
Yes, yes, well I played rugby to start with and tennis. But rugby – fact during the war years most of the boys were away – the men around the town, and my two brothers were over in the Middle East and one a prisoner of war in Poland, poor old Tom. But anyway, so I played rugby but then being short they use to call on me once or twice to fill in for seniors. I was nearly killed once or twice in rugby. We had a very big Maori team come down from Port Albert and I remember coming home from that with black eyes and worn out and – my mother said there was no grading. And at that point I thought well, I’ll have to give this rugby away, I wasn’t heavy enough at that game so I took up winter hockey and I played hockey for Rodney, went to country tournaments in Auckland and I enjoyed my hockey. I played a lot of hockey and also when I went to Wellington I also played hockey and tennis, and always been interested in sport. I follow rugby and cricket and I did a little bit of running for a while, cross country, and I enjoyed that. So that was my main sporting interests.
And my first job – of course, when it came to getting work in small towns it wasn’t – there was very limited opportunities in the fifties. The war was just over and New Zealand was pretty flat at that stage. There hadn’t been any maintenance done for all those years and the town was flat. Anyway there wasn’t much at Warkworth – I might have got a job as a baker’s boy but – so I looked at opportunities, and I was interested in agriculture – horticulture particularly – one of the reasons I think we sort of ended up in Hawke’s Bay, we knew what was down here. But I went down to Wellington – I couldn’t get a cadetship in the field, so I took a clerical job in the horticultural division.
Did you really?
Yes, I worked there for a year and a half …
… in the horticulture area, did a bit of study on the horticultural side, but found that the opportunity of becoming a field cadet was very limited – about five a year, and so I was really stuck where I was and I thought I didn’t want to – it was – the office was very much like ‘Gliding On’ – it was – I look back on it – it was a replica – it’s terrible, it was just so real to what exactly happened – with the typist, Miss Hamilton, and the others in the office, it was all there.
But anyway I packed my bags and went back to Warkworth – I let my parents know. Of course in those days you had to go and find the work. I mean there was – not that my father would have ever let me – in the family do it I don’t think – but there was no such thing as the dole, you either had to work or your family … an adult wage didn’t click in until you were 21, so whatever you thought of your parents, or you argued, you couldn’t really leave home.
No, that’s right.
You didn’t have enough money with an apprenticeship. My oldest brother was doing an apprenticeship for about 7/6d a week and he couldn’t care ’cause he used to kick over the traces but he had no option but to do as he was told – ha ha – so it was more discipline than you have today. So I can remember my father saying “well off you go laddie”, and he took me to Auckland and he put me on the express train to Wellington. My mother got me accommodation in a hostel in Wellington …
… and that was a bit of a shock growing up experience but I managed that one.
So, I went back to Warkworth and they said “well what are you going to do?” and my mother, she said “well there’s a job in the Bank of New Zealand – I was talking to Mr Francis the other day, the manager, something’s come up there, go and talk to him”. I said “oh I don’t want to be a banker”, but anyway there was Hobson’s choice.
Famous last words.
And I went there and much to my surprise I found I enjoyed it immensely and found that ? game was one I was interested in, but what I enjoyed the most at banking, it was real banking in those days, was – you looked after your customer – you took an interest in them and them in us. Your loans – you visited the farms and saw what went on, you went out and had a cup of tea with them in the morning and saw how the sheep were going and how many cows had calved and how they were getting on. It was very personal and very rewarding work, being in the rural banking. Today of course it’s not quite – more of a remote thing.
So it was banking for me and from there I moved around the north. I was at Wellsford for some years after I was married. Then I went to Whangarei, Dargaville and Auckland – that sort of area. And then in those days as it was with banking, I received a letter at Wellsford from the general manager in Wellington – the BNZ to say that he had great news for me – I’d been promoted to accountant Waipawa. And that was … early ’60s and I thought oh jolly good – but you just took that and you went in those days, it was an order, like being in the Navy.
So I thought well, where’s Waipawa? And I thought it was Taranaki for a while, and found no, it wasn’t Taranaki it was Hawke’s Bay! And so that was – we packed our bags – and then we had four children.
Would you just like to speak at this stage about your marriage?
… to Nancy, so we’ll pick it up on the way through then.
What – talk about that now?
OK. Nancy was – by that time of course I’d married Nancy, she was Nancy Warren. And Nancy was a farmer’s daughter and brought up on the Great Barrier Island out from Auckland. That’s where she was – well, born in Auckland but she lived on the Great Barrier right through and her father farmed over there and he had – in Port Fitzroy and he had a cattle farm and sheep. And also he owned – he had two islands – Arid Island on the outside of the Barrier and Kaikoura in the entrance, so he had a scow, and he used to shift his stock around … [speaking together]
… from one island to another and then take it to Auckland for the sale where it was sold, and bring his stores back. So he was born on the Great Barrier Island so they were one of the older families in the Islands from the 1860s through. And in the 1950s they sold the farm there to the Forestry and they moved to Leigh. That’s when I met Nancy. So she was a nurse at the cottage hospital at Warkworth. That would have been early ’50s, and that was it. We fell in love then and we got married from there and we moved on with the Bank as I say, to Wellsford, and then later on out to Waipawa with our four children. And the children are grown up today. And Nancy’s great interest was gardening and she fell in love with Hawke’s Bay straight away, she said she didn’t know there was such wonderful soil, or growing situations in the world that there was here. And that was – happened to myself and to her and we thought well, this East Coast in Hawke’s Bay‘s great – this‘ll do us. And Waipawa then – will I comment on Waipawa a bit?
Yeah. Waipawa then was busy little town – had three banks – BNZ, which I was with as an accountant. I relieved manager there once or twice, and the other bank were the ANZ Bank and of course the Post Office Savings Bank was there so we had three banks. We had two hotels, two butchers, grocers, stock firms and the town was shops both sides of the street of course – there were sports shops and there was a Chinese greengrocers.
She was a – it was a bright little town and I found Hawke’s Bay and Waipawa after being in these villages around the north – I could almost say it was a wealthy area, very prosperous.
Yes, and it always has been hasn’t it – Central?
Very prosperous town, and so we settled in there pretty happily and there was some talk of me going to Wellington or further afield and Nancy said no, there was family still up north and her parents were alive and my mother was alive – we were missing the family contact. And at that stage there was an advertisement in the paper that they were starting a … the Trust Bank in Hawke’s Bay – Trustee Bank – and I thought well that could just about suit us – we can stay here and I could further my career and … and that as a savings bank it was a bit narrower operation then – later on it broadened up of course, but by the time I finished with the Bank it was a full service bank.
But anyway so – it came up, there was three – there was Gisborne branch, there was Napier and Hastings – they’d got two savings bankers from Auckland down for Hastings, Gary Cook and Napier Des Lannigan and they said what about Gisborne. I went and had a look and I told Nancy about it – the beaches in the area, and she said “come on, that’ll do us, and we won’t be going to Wellington then”. So off we went to Gisborne to start a bank.
So how old were your children at that stage?
Well they were – that was one thing that I found, looking in hindsight, it was tough going on your wife – this packing game and moving, and also on the children, changing schools. Yes, and I had – Richard was – oh, Louise was the oldest child, then there was Richard, and then they were in their roll – two of them were in High School I think when we went to Gisborne, Richard and Louise. Then we had a gap of five or six years and then we had two more, Miles and Grace. So we had the family of four to look after and take with us, but they handled it well. They enjoyed Gisborne very much and I was only there about two years and the Bank grew at a very rapid rate indeed and I got a call to say would I like to come down to the Head Office in Hastings and look after staffing and marketing and … there was only three of us there – whatever came up. So I said “I’ll think about that” and I went home to Nancy and I said “this is offered and it’ll be – you know it‘s going to go places, this Bank,” and I said “it will in Gisborne, we can stay on here and I’ll build the branch up and I think I’d have a satisfactory working life.” And Nancy said to me “no, you’d better go – we don’t want to go, the kids and I, but you’d better go – you get restless – you’re a restless soul.” She said “you’d better take it – it’ll be more of a challenging future for you and once you’ve built this branch up here I think you could get a bit restless, so you’d better take it.” So we packed our bags and came back down to Hawke’s Bay, which was the best thing we ever did of course, and we had a very happy life here and had the privilege really of starting something new, least of all a bank, and working through with that. So I was a very lucky person to have the opportunity to work with that Bank and take it through to what we did.
So Hawke’s Bay was – back again – Nancy was delighted to get back to the gardens and the area again, and so initially we bought a house in Tomoana Road, opposite Cornwall Park, very handy for the schools, having the children – two at High School and one at primary and one at kindergarten – it worked out very well and Mahora and Hastings welcomed us very much and we were happy there.
Then it settled down to Hawke’s Bay Gisborne Savings Bank then and what a joy it was to work with the people who were involved. I became Chief Executive of the Bank in 1970 I think, yes – and at that stage the directors were Hawke’s Bay people, Hawke’s Bay men and one from Gisborne, who were a great bunch of men and supported Hawke’s Bay. Looking back there was Mr Bill Whitlock of course, the editor of the Hawke’s Bay Herald Tribune; Judge McHugh from Gisborne – a very active man; Don McLeod of course from Wattie’s; David Miller, accountant from Gisborne; Maurice Connor, our farming member – he was a local farmer and lived just out of Hastings; and a well-known personality Sir Hallam Dowling from Napier; and of course the other one was Sir Peter Tait – full of knights really – and then of course Sir Edwin Bate; and Harold White from Waipawa and also a jeweller Mr McClurg from Napier. That was our original Board. They gave me great support and I – they were a fine group of people.
A little side issue there – of course the trustees over the years were – they‘re all deceased now – so I’m the only survivor from that group when it was the Hawke’s Bay Bank. So I look back with some … they had humour – they had a good lot of wise people and good judgment. I always remember once there was a change of Government and I think the Labour Government came in and of course they had a – the appointment of the directors tended to be a bit political. Not that this one was initially in Hawke’s Bay, it came from the community and the Development Committee so we were fortunate to have these ones really appointed without the politicians being involved. But however, I can remember when they didn’t re-appoint one year was Sir Peter Tait and Sir Edwin Bate, up came the letter on my desk to say they weren’t re-appointed. I rang up Sir Edwin and said “I’ve got this sad letter here for these two”, and he said “well Robbie, it‘s goodnight to two good knights isn’t it?” Ha ha – it’s goodnight to two good knights. And so those two went off the Board at a later date, but they were there in the important formation years.
So the Bank itself – it was very exciting indeed the way it grew and of course it expanded over the years from just Hawke’s Bay. Hawke’s Bay – it grew out of Hawke’s Bay – and that was the secret success of the Bank.
There was interesting … one … parochialism, which this area suffered so badly from – Hawke’s Bay, and the East Coast to a degree too. The only ever – as Hugh Baird – and many of the old hands will remember Hugh Baird at my farewell when I retired from the Bank – Hugh Baird came up and he said to me “the Trust Bank was the only organisation that unified Hawke’s Bay and the East Coast, Napier, Hastings and through in the surrounding boroughs”, and when I look through some of the history of the Bank I see a statement in 1962 by Mr C G Harker from Waipawa who was the MP for Hawke’s Bay in those days. He stated that he had ‘never seen greater unanimity between two cities and a few boroughs in their determination to support a new Bank.‘ That was right back in ’62.
So, that went through well. The decisions, my reports and our lending and all the policy of the Bank was unified. I never had a problem at all with my time in there with the two cities, it went exceedingly well. And since that was through … then in 1970. In 1972, again another adventure for the Hawke’s Bay Gisborne Savings Bank. The Manawatu/Wairarapa Savings Bank to the south of us didn’t enjoy the support like Hawke’s Bay and this area had. I mean it wasn’t flourishing as it should, so there was some discussion on what should happen to it. And certainly the Government caused quite an interest because they were guaranteeing in those days so it was one thing that needed dealing with quickly. And I knew what was happening down there and I said to Sir Edwin Bate – he was Chairman at that time. He said “go down there and have a look, Robbie – go down and have a look and have a cup of coffee”. So I did … Head Office and yeah it was not going well at all. The staff were unhappy, the management hadn’t been good and they had all the problems that can come from that and being a new institution with low income it wasn’t matching the market with the wages and so forth. So I came back and I said to Sir Edwin “I think we could handle it and we could take that over and it would give us a much more sounder future – we’d have the Wairarapa, Masterton, through there and Palmerston North, a growing city and Levin, through that side.” And I said “Hawke’s Bay can do it and he said “well, get on with it Robbie.”
So I did – I went down there, met the Board of Directors down there and I prepared a report for our Board and for the Manawatu/Wairarapa ones which they adopted and so we – Hawke’s Bay Savings Bank then became the Eastern & Central, covering this large area. Quite exciting times really. There was a lot of work – I was appointed General Manager of two banks for a while because there was some delay in legislation being put through to enable Banks to merge. There wasn’t anything provided in the Articles, but owing to the fact that it needed some attention … Muldoon was the Minister of Finance and he had to approve who was going to be General Manager of the Bank.
So anyway I was appointed General Manager of the Manawatu/Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay Gisborne for what it was worth, and I spent three days a week down in Palmerston North and two up here until I … pulled together and after about three months I said “that’s enough, we’ll close down Head Office and the operation in Palmerston North” and moved it all to Hastings and put it together from there. And it worked – turned out to be very successful. The staff went with us – I went around all the branches and they welcomed the change and they were again dedicated to the principles of a trust bank and its origins. So the staff loyalty came and … put some new ones in there to help them and it just boomed along very happily.
And during this period of course we were negotiating with Government to become a full service bank. Had enormous opposition from the trading banks of course. They were down and always at us and trying to report any misdemeanours we’d make and so yeah it was quite ugly at times. I can remember in Gisborne with the Chamber of Commerce meeting up there, talking about the Trust Bank and the manager of Westpac got up and said we don’t want another bloody bank up here and so forth and it made it – the more difficult they made it the more … better we did. Business flourished – I remember the Westpac in Gisborne – in a period of about 10 days we took 30 accounts off them – substantial ones too. And so the more they made a mess – the loyalty came in Gisborne from the Williams family and – once that Gisborne branch opened we got £1m in deposits – that was a lot of money in those days. Wellington Trust Bank opened up the same day as I opened the Gisborne Branch – we got £1m in Gisborne before Wellington.
It is amazing. So it really went along exceedingly well indeed. So during this period we were negotiating for personal cheque accounts and farm business and business accounts so that all took place during this period. So it really was very exciting times and rewarding times because we were winning this.
I was fortunate at this stage too – I was interested in housing and finance and I was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship – shall we talk about this now?
… to study housing and finance, which I did in Finland and Norway and Sweden, Denmark and Germany. And I had a three month voyage over there doing this. Nancy once again – married to a banker – she held the fort here and I made that journey, which was very rewarding banking-wise. I learnt a considerable amount with that trip, it was very educational and helpful to me in my job. The Board supported me with this trip and paid me while I was away. When I came back and made out my report on my housing voyage … and shortly after that to my surprise I got a ring from the Government to see if I’d accept a role in the National Housing Commission we used to have in those days …
… which was an advisory body to the Minister. And so I told the Board and they said yes you can fit that in. So I did that and that was another interesting part of my life being Chairman of that for about three or four years and we travelled the country and made various reports to Government … there‘s nothing new in the world – I look at a report I did on alternative housing options and I can repeat this now, it’s a bit of history, but this is what I said:
‘Regulations need to be administered in a way which reflects changing life and family styles and realisation of the real economic situation,’ says National Housing Commission’s Ewing Robertson. ‘At the same time the Commission is certainly not advocating acceptance of cheap substandard housing – it wants new concepts of land development, planning, housing design and construction, which attacks the existing cost structures, but certainly not at the expense of health, safety or acceptance of living standards. Above all it wants action taken to house people in either rental or ownership accommodation at an affordable price and to make sections available for the public.’
Nothing has changed in this world.
It’s fascinating Ewing, that you really had a look at the big picture of banking didn’t you?
You weren’t focussed on any – you were able to see the lot. And that must have been very exciting.
Exciting yes. It was quite interesting that the Housing Commission – Helen Clark was Minister of Housing at that time – she was good. She came across to a few of our meetings, she asked some questions. One in particular was about in Denmark they had made interest paid on housing tax deductible, which of course was absolutely fatal – the price of houses went up just about double, people borrowed as much as they could and it was off their taxes and all of a sudden they were in trouble. So these things she asked about – there was that and several others, and I gave reports on them and she thanked me and listened. So it was – yeah, it was interesting.
So that was an adventure and one that I thoroughly enjoyed being part of – from that too, later on I got a letter from – I think one things leads to another I suppose – from Justice Beattie to see whether I’d be a trustee on the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust later on – so that came up and I had a period of three years as a trustee on the Winston Churchill – so that was an honour to the wonderful people that were on this as trustees also that I worked along with.
The Trust Bank was a very personal thing to the staff and I believed to the area, the region. It was owned by the people that lived here. I think over the years we made a good effort to give them good service. We had good lending policies for housing. We lent – when the Bank was – when I left the Bank it was flourishing and doubling in size about every two years. It was just one of those magic things in Hawke’s Bay and the area got behind it and made it to be.
When I retired in 1989-90 – from that date on the Bank continued to grow and – it would have had at the end of the day, I would say something like a billion in funds and we had 500 odd staff and 30 odd branches and all administered from Hawke’s Bay. It meant a lot to Hawke’s Bay – one, for the number of people it employed and Head Office, about 60 people there, and the branches within Hawke’s Bay, and the administration of course the money was spent here. You know, when you have a Boardroom and a Head Office here – all the printing for example, that was an issue, you take Cliff Press and those places that kept going. Our marketing, our advertising, our maintenance of our computers and machines, all these things were all part of Hawke’s Bay. And I look back and they were glorious years. There were so many Boardrooms around the place you know, I kept in touch with – there was the Meat Boards, there was Whakatu’s and Tomoana’s, there was Unilever’s, there was the plastic factory, there was Masport, Asparagus Ltd, tobacco company – I could go on. Those …
… are not here today. When you have that Head Office in a place that’s where the action is and where the money’s spent, and Hawke’s Bay had so much of that flowing through today which unfortunately has drifted away with modern technology I guess to a large degree, and transport costs and so forth.
Now the sad thing came to me then, after was in 1990s when the Trust Bank Group was sold. That was after I retired, I had to sit at home and watch this happening and I thought my God they can’t do that. The twelve banks in New Zealand, the ASB right through to Invercargill, you’ve got Southland Savings Bank had been there 120 years, Dunedin over 100 years, my own bank (I talk of my own bank) Eastern & Central was relatively new but made a big contribution, we had Waikato and Auckland, Bay of Plenty, and then they were held again in by trustees with the changing of the World and international banking and finance it needed re-organisation. We fortunately got Don Brash and a few others to meld it into one which was working very well, we had the twelve banks in agreement – broad agreement – on what the future would be and how we’d link up together, so that was an exciting period. And when I left I thought that was going to happen, but unfortunately it didn’t in the end. The reason why it never got together as a group – it would have been the largest banking institution in New Zealand today and New Zealand owned, so in hindsight it was a tragedy not only for our area but for the country when it was sold to Westpac. The reasons why it was sold – because good old provincial New Zealand, and personal agendas of the people involved.
So we had Auckland and a Board of Directors up there, we had Wellington and we had Christchurch, we had Dunedin, we had Invercargill – where was the head office going to be and what would we do with this and how would the share allocation take place? When you think about it, they were all community owned it didn’t really matter a damn how it ended up in the end. But that’s all it was – they squabbled and argued – and in the end it started to fall apart. Don Brash nearly did it – his recent book – he was so close in putting that all together but these personal agendas and parochialism – ended up with Auckland going its own way and selling out and the money going in the trust, and with Auckland pulling out of the group it made it very difficult indeed for the remaining ones to get their act together. So the end result of all this was – as I say – purely by dear old New Zealand, I suppose in the provincial small mindedness let us down, and the Bank was sold to Westpac.
So that was the end of our – not quite the end but near enough to the end of our Trust Bank Eastern & Central. The bonus we’ve got and the reward we’ve got I think were the staff and the trustees and the Edwin Bates‘ and Bill Whitlock’s and all that started it. Of course now it’s the Eastern & Central Community Trust. The proceeds of the sale of the shares in the Eastern & Central were divided up between – Wanganui got some and we got a bundle here, and today the Trust has now paid out over $100m in our area to good causes. It still has a base of 100 – capital base of $140-150 million and this should, with good management, continue into the future. So it would be the greatest benefactor that Hawkes Bay and the East Coast has ever known – would be that – there would be nothing ever to match it. So I guess that’s the rewarding part of the – and the consolation to the people who set the Bank up, the staff and to the directors and people that were involved over the years.
It was a marvellous adventure because you know banks don’t start from scratch, they don’t start very often at all, and I look back on Eastern & Central – it was one adding machine and hand-posting virtually. We took it from that through to our age – computer age. We went onto a computer very quickly in Hawke’s Bay and that was one with thanks to Sir James Wattie. The other banks were putting in their own computers and I – ours – was still developing and we had taken over Manawatu and Wairarapa and it seemed to me more important things for us to do with our development was our staff and premises and services etc. And so I approached Sir James and said have you got a big computer up there can possibly run the Bank’s machines – that was of course unheard of, to think that it would be a bank having its computerisation with a private company.
And Sir James smiled a wee bit and at that stage I think it was just fortuitous that it suited him – my call on him – because at that stage I think he’d just bought out Tip Top in Auckland or something else and Tip Top had a big computer in Auckland, he had one here – where was it going to be established? He said “oh, I’ll have to tell them I also have on our computer here a bank, and it’ll have to be centralised in Hastings” – ha ha – so that was one … At that stage we took over their payroll for them, the Bank opened up in their tearooms up there – so I have this association of our computer establishment and we had Nancy Neil – I see her picture here – a book, of the computer staff from Wattie’s. We worked together and we built up a very modern computer system in the Bank with private enterprise. We were the first in Hawke’s Bay to put tellers’ cash dispensers through the window. I was about 6 months ahead of the trading banks.
Well, yeah, well …
Yeah – and we took over a lot of money from the solicitors ‘cause the old – the trading banks of course never gave interest on solicitors trust accounts etc, so we came in and that, again, helped all the people with trusts and estates, they were getting interest there. So we were innovative and we took part in the Blossom Parade, and we took part in any activities there were in Hawke’s Bay and gave generously towards them too. So yeah, it was more than a bank it was a special enterprise and during the time that I was there in all those years the amount – the millions we‘d lent – we never called up one loan, never called up a loan.
That’s amazing isn’t it.
Never called up a loan, because we knew the people, we were lending to people we knew and we used to run a list across the Board of Directors of the loans we’d made and of course they had good local knowledge, so we made pretty good choices. I will say that there was a few in the ’87 crash, and one thing – the farming loans, we never called them up. I worked on the principle – they had a problem they bought the place next door and it was too much – I’d invite them to the Boardroom, they’d sit around the table and – asked them to bring their accountant or solicitor in there and get them to make the decisions – what they were going to do.
And they did that sensibly in the end. There wasn’t any stand up argument with the thing at all. I said “well let‘s talk about it and find an answer to this thing” so that farming – and being general manager was an honour but I did, as it developed of course, miss being involved in the action in the bank. That was one thing – I‘d sit in my office there some days – we built that new building in town and I’d get there – very proud of the building we built and I’d sit up there and I’d say “well, what have we got today”? There was this problem, there was the Reserve Bank, there was this happening, so you were dealing with the administration side of things more. I’d sit there and think well what was the best part of banking? The best part of banking was the people …
Yes – absolutely.
… was seeing people being successful in their business and winning. So in that respect too I’m sure Eastern & Central Hawke’s Bay Trust Bank – we really did re-invest their money I think quite wisely in the area, their Local Body loans which others wouldn’t take, so yeah, it played it’s role as a bank I think very well. So yeah – it was, to me it was an adventure – it was a tremendous disappointment when it was sold, but again I think the consolation prize is the Trust which goes rolling along.
And when the Trust was formed did you have any ongoing work with the Trust?
Well yes, I was in the Bank when the Trust was formed, before I finished. When you say the Trust, the Trust took over the shareholding thing when we were corporatising and we had in Head Office the current – the lady that works around there now and I can’t think of her name at the moment. She was in the office. We gave her a room in the office and so the Trust was operating within the building. We used to make the donations – I mean before the Trust came around, every year we used to meet and make grants anyway from the bank, and that was always a debate with me is how much you gave away. Because I wanted the Bank to develop, I wanted the reserves for capital. But we gave a million dollars or so over a fairly short period, the Bank gave … much profits.
So we were doing that, so we had a structure for making grants then, and then the Trust itself was running within the Bank before I left and the Trust then was … only involved that one girl. And the system I had there was that the branch managers would send in a list of what they thought were the most worthy donations, so I would gather that and that would be handed across to this lady which – then they’d sit down and sort out the things. So you know it was being distributed – it wasn’t a separate organisation like it is now the Trust, it was run from within the Bank and I think we paid the wage of the person that was running it, but after the Bank went of course they had to go onto the open market and … shareholding etc.
So yes it was – one thing I’m pleased we did do here – we’ve written the history of the Bank building premises was interesting. Every premises we built I added something extra to it in the way of you know local flavour to make it accepted in the community. The Manawatu/Wairarapa – yes well, they come to the party well – their Directors come across with our Directors, they appointed them all and for a short time, bless me heart and soul, I had about 19 directors.
A little side issue there – I remember the Reserve Bank saying we – Treasury come up when we were writing the Regulations and I said “well you’d better … we can’t put all these directors together into one.” And he said “no, we can’t have that, we’ll come up with a number and we’ll have a thought through on that.” And lo and behold when the Order of Council comes through announcing the merger between the two, the appointment of directors, they pushed the lot – ha ha ha …
You’d need a hall for a meeting.
Yeah, well you had the Board table – that’s another little interesting – we had a wonderful big board table in that room upstairs and that was – used to be the Wattie’s Board table and they had to get a crane to lift it up off the street and get it through – pull a window out and we got that inside the premises, and that was the James Wattie table, which I felt that was a little bit of history. So I don’t know what they did with that after I finished, but there was some good old … Keith Holyoake up here and – giving away, there was Jim O’Connor – it was all full of local history – they were all involved, the mayors and the people you know? And every year we had an annual meeting – I’d take it to one of the branches. We’d have it in Gisborne one year, or Levin the next year or Palmerston North so we had all the locals coming along and being part of the Bank, you know.
There’s a picture of Doug Hewer there too.
Oh yes, there’s Doug, yeah. They’re all in there. There’s the artist doing our mural. So I’m just so pleased that we wrote this – got this book published and the history of it’s there. Connelly did a very good job. We had conferences here – everything that was on – went to the A&P Show and opened the bank. There was Wattie’s – and she come and worked for us in the end and she worked for us, she was dynamic and then she – when Westpac took us they grabbed her and took her to Wellington in their development section of their computer section.
Good Lord, isn’t that great?
Yes, so she was taken away. Here’s the group here – Doug Hewer, there was Pierce Williams, John Grove, Mike Winter – he was from Gisborne, myself, Bill Green from Gisborne – local boy. He was – the chap Elliott – he was a retired postmaster, I got him to be the first Branch Manager of Havelock North.
That was me opening Gisborne ?? away Gisborne. I went up there – I drove up in the car with the family and they gave me £30, an adding machine and some stationery, and I drove up there …
To open a bank. Oh, isn’t that amazing.
And I got up there and I said to Judge McHugh “Oh,” I said “we’ve got to find a premises, there’s one across the road,” so I found that, got that, and I called up a signwriter and said “I want the name put on the wall.” I went away in the morning doing something, come back he’d made it Gisborne & Hawke’s Bay – parochial – so I had to get it taken off and changed to that. And a safe – I bought a safe for £5 from the Government Life I think – they had a safe ha ha.
Certainly done on a shoestring.
Oh, absolutely – well, I mean – this is the absolutely interesting part of it from the – that Bank developed without any capital injection. It was all developed from profits and it and it made a profit from the first year through, it never made a loss. How it opened was, these trustees we saw here, the Government wouldn’t let it open unless they were all guaranteed against a loss, so they all come up, guaranteed $100 or $500 or whatever it was. The staff made a big sacrifice, our conditions of employment in those days didn’t match the trading banks but they accepted that for the future – the building for the – you know, what would happen in the future – looking at the ASB or others – what it could grow into, so that was the thing that we worked on there. Then I bought those things – typewriter I bought and that was it and you went in there and when people come in the interest was worked by hand on the ledgers. We had one Odhner adding machine and a typewriter, and I got Bill Green – recruited him from the Post Office – Bill was a good adding … he could do interest calculation, so I got him across. You know it was so primitive, it was starting from scratch and within the resources we had, and then it built up from there. And as I said the Bank never made a loss, never had an injection of capital, it was grown from – the way they talk today of starting something – and you’ve got to get people so – and the hours that people work. There was, you know, they went to the A&P Shows, they went out at night – I used to follow the paper in Gisborne – to every annual meeting of a Club or Society. I’d ring them up say hi, who we are, Trust Bank, and we had our grants, we’d like you to bank with us and it was a major success. One laughed, somebody got … our junior – it was the local tobacconist and he’d won something, you know, he sold the ticket – it was in the paper and he got £1000, so I rang him up and he roared out laughing the other end of the phone “oh, I remember that.” He said “I’ll bring it into you, Mr Robertson you can have it”. He said “I bank with one of the other banks”. I can’t think who he said. “For about 50 years and I’ve never heard from them.” [Laughter] He said “somebody rings me” – so he brought it in, ha ha.
Isn’t that wonderful though?
It was so funny – I can remember Worth’s ice cream up there, they used to be down at one of the beach – old family business, you know they made ice cream over the years and there was a shop. And anyway, I’d spoken to old Mr Worth, he was getting old, and anyway the phone went one day, hadn’t been there long, and he said “Mr Robertson would you like to come down and join us for a cup of tea, I’ve got people here I’d like you to meet”. And here it was – must have been Tip Top – one of the ice cream companies, I remember this guy that was there – he was a Jew through and through – and he was there to buy the business off Worths’. And Mr Worth – they had a bit of formality with the family and his wife, and this guy handed over the cheque and Worth turned around to me and gave me the cheque and Worth turned around to me and gave me the cheque and said … there were some wonderful things happened, some really wonderful things happened.
And Gisborne – the Williams family – I can remember one of the Williams coming in and saying, you know, “what are you doing here?” and I told them what it was and they said “well that’s good, that’s good”. And she said … course Butler & Spence were the accountants up there of course, she said “I’ll instruct them to see that they support the Bank”, and they did, oh, magnificently, absolutely magnificently.
So yeah, it was those contacts, I met all these people, I was just so privileged. But now I sit down and I go through the faces and the people that were there and, as you say, once you’ve been out of it for a while … Now and again someone in the street, normally a nice young lady with a young child or something comes up – “Mr Robertson how are you?” Who are they? Now I ask you know, get it right when they say something to you.
The interesting thing is that the very parochialism that you overcame, to make the Bank a success, was the very thing that undid it. It’s not just about Hawke’s Bay …
No, its New Zealand.
… and its incredible because if you look at the Bank then, to where it would be now, there would be no Kiwibank, there’d be …
We had the account base that would have been the largest bank. We would have been bigger than Westpac, or bigger than ANZ. And New Zealand gave it away. You know parochialism in New Zealand has been absolutely disastrous for the county.
You know, we want this – but the personal agendas I struck with the twelve banks in the areas, with the conferences, you know? Talking of conferences – I – Sir Hallam Dowling – I’ll never forget Hallam’s … you know, wonderful effort with cheque accounts and personal loans. And we got the cheque bit going through and, at this conference at Rotorua, I’d done a paper on personal loans and how simple it was to do and how it helps the small people out and we should help that, and even give it to us with a limit of $10,000 or something. So anyway, Hallam – being typical Hallam, arrived late at the bloody meeting and his room wasn’t right and we had to shift him around. Lovely stuff, you know, I did enjoy it – it was great. And knowing him … and underneath it all he had a sense of humour too, but anyway – at this … I said – Conference Hall was there and I said “Hallam” – he hadn’t said anything so I said “this personal loan things coming up I said I’ve done this paper”. He said “I know all about personal loans – I’m with the AA and they do these loans” and he said “Robbie, don’t need to tell me what I need to know” … you know, and I said “but I’m talking about a bank now – I got frank, you know, I knew him well enough to say “come on Hallam – no, we’ve got to win this one” and he had the paper and I’d given him the submissions and he said “right, I’ll fix it”. So it went on – it came to the debate on it – Hallam puts his hand up and he stands up – the conference was there – and he stands up like this and he looks around – faces that way … [demonstrating]
“… so as I was saying” and he talks to the wall and he mumbles you see – and they shout “Can’t hear, Can’t hear”, and he goes on for a bit and he’s got the whole place quiet, and all shouting they couldn’t hear him you see. So then he turns around and he made an absolutely marvellous delivery. He had them all in his hand – it was a real court job, he’d got them all wrapped up and he got them in his hand, and that settled. We had the Reserve Bank – Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank was there and so forth and they used to come to these things. But Hallam’s delivery – everyone clapped and cheered and then they moved a motion that they should move immediately towards this. But that was Hallam’s shot, yeah.
Now you had other community interests. You mentioned the Chamber of Commerce did you, were you involved in that in any way, or ..?
Yes, Chamber of Commerce – I was chairman – president of Chamber of Commerce in Hastings for a couple of years. Enjoyed that, it was much smaller than it is now. Wasn’t much happening, so I made the boardroom at the Bank open for their meetings and they used to come up there and they had the kitchen.
So I had two years as Chairman. I can remember most of the Club and I remember one year we had a visit … goodness me – Rob Muldoon, he was certainly difficult to handle. He was a great debater [?] but he and his wife attended one – we invited – he came up one year to the meeting and so I hosted him there. Yeah, I would have liked to have done more with the Chamber but I had all these … I had a little bit too much on my plate. Ron Cole was secretary and he was a hard worker so I guess for those days we did quite a bit with the Chamber. But it wasn’t as funded as it is now, or as efficient, but it did a job and we used to meet and again it was a ‘keeping in touch with the community and what was happening’ I suppose. And I did the normal things, Jaycees, that type of thing, and Havelock North High School. I always enjoyed being there with Barham for – boys from Havelock North High for three years and that was good. I enjoyed my involvement there.
And then I got involved in quite a few things that happened to you in the way of Trusts. One of the trusts of course – it was a difficult one as it turned out, and it was Sir James Wattie’s Trust. That sort of didn’t go as well as I hoped it would have gone. Barry Sweet was on it and myself and several others.
In 1997 I was awarded the Queen’s Service Order for service to the commercial community. That was an honour, it’s a lovely award and I treasure that and put it away in the cupboard. So that was something I think I was very honoured to receive, but like all these awards when you look at it – who did the bulk of the work? Would have been the staff at the bank and again my secretary when I look back on … Judy Taylor and Caroline Graham … how they helped me through these things. So, you know, there’s others around you that make these things happen, but I was happy to accept it on behalf of them.
Yes. So when you retired – you retired totally – you didn’t have any other business ventures you were part of?
Like … retiring – you had to retire twice really ha ha – you retire and I was involved in several things and organisations, and I was at that stage a Director of the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board – that I enjoyed. It was a good company in those days, run economically and had low line charges and electricity charges – I had time with that.
And then of course legislation came through to change the ownership of these power companies. There was two forms of ownership – there was MEDs like Napier MED owned their own distribution system, Hawke’s Bay was under the Rural Act which never really stated who owned the enterprise at all, and the Hastings City Council would have – Borough Council – would have liked it but they – it wasn’t under that Act. So in the end it was resolved that all the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Boards and similar ones under that jurisdiction would belong to the citizens of the area, or the consumers of the day would become the owners. Napier sold their MED quite quickly. I think they got about 12 million for it. And interestingly enough you see, it was bought by the Hawke’s Bay District Council – that the Hastings District Council really ended up giving Napier 12 million for that because … the city zoned it, or the region under the Power Board Acts. So we had a situation here where Napier sold out then to … got their 12 million … sold to the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board. And at later date of course, with the change in regulations where the people residing in the area of the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board become the owners, shareholders – so Napier got a double dip really.
Oh did they?
‘Course … they were paid out their 12 million … [Speaking together]
Yes, of course they did. Yes, of course they did.
… which they used, and then when that happened all the Napier residents become shareholders and they have a – same shareholding as you and I have Frank.
Yes, and they’ve also got 12 million.
Yes – that’s right – so they ended up doing very well. In fact if you – now with what’s happening there now I suppose you should add 12 million to their debt really.
Which would let them off a little bit … ha ha. So there was some little wrinkles there.
And then it was the Trust, forming the Trust, so we had to write the Trust Deed and I was involved in that and I become the first foundation trustee and chairman of the Hawke’s Bay Consumers Trust for that – the terms were for three years and then a renewal. And I served two terms of three years. In the end of the last term, the six years, I was becoming a little unhappy with what was happening, because we had the best of both worlds. We had Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board and now the Hawke’s Bay Consumers Trust (and now changed over to Unison Lines Company, that’s happened since).
But going back to then we had a company – I’ve got reports from McKay’s & Co in Australia, merchant bankers, that the place was worth about $240m – the company which was owned by the then consumers, and I said I felt that the ownership after these two years had settled down now, we should be talking to the shareholders which we represent, what they want to do with this.
Trust Power did a good move, they kept 51% and issued 49% to the shareholders and that goes on the Stock Exchange. An example also would have been the Auckland Electric Power Board has done that; Tauranga Harbour Board – you know that’s an example. Wonderful – they kept 51% and put 49% on the sharemarket and they’ve just boomed, the shares. So it means you’ve got good management, good supervision and I was becoming concerned about the way it was going. And the good thing we had was possibly the lowest line charges in New Zealand. We had an audit report on the lines and Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board independent audit – they were in good order. So we had something … we had two things – we could either stay as we are and the best benefit you can give to the people of Hawke’s Bay was the very low line costs for personal families living here and for business. So that was my philosophy. But anyway towards the end I had pressure there in various ways that they wanted to either (a) use this equity and borrow money to expand – ha ha. And so anyway I decided I had really – getting older – had enough time on it anyway, and I didn’t want to have a part of what was happening so I resigned at that point and then the new [?] took over.
So following that of course, what they did … they borrowed 200 odd million dollars and bought the lines of Rotorua and Taupo line companies, and then they went further than that and spent million or two up in the hills to put up windmills, which never came to it, and they’ve started – borrowed a lot more money to put in the fibre company which will never be successful because Chorus was going to be over that. They bought a factory in Auckland and now today we are paying over $1m a month in interest still on the loans and we’ve also got some of the highest line charges in the country.
I just look at my last power account and I find that my electricity usage is – my line charges are $61 for the month, my electricity for the month is about $70.
Good Lord is that right?
Yes, I know, I don’t doubt you for one minute.
Do you ever look at your account?
Yes I do.
Do you realise what this is?
What is that?
That’s the line charge that Unison’s taking.
Yes, goodness me.
See people – that’s – Unison’s taking $2.12 a day for those lines now. They’ve just – see in the paper where they’ve had another increase. That’s going up 10¢ for me. They talked – it’s a 5% increase and they said in the paper it’ll be 3%. So these are line charges. It’s incredible.
Absolutely incredible. So that’s the sad news we’ve got for Hawke’s Bay. We would have paid $180m in interest over the last 40 years on these loans they’ve got. And I’ve had a battle there of course with the transparency – there’s no transparency, ’cause the directors … the company tell me they have no legal obligation to answer any questions and won’t. And you go to the trustees and they won’t answer questions either. I ‘ve got letters here now – they’ve just said no. Things that a shareholder should know … they should know whether that fibre company is making money or not, or whether the company in Auckland is, what is the salary structure of the Chief Executive staff – that’s usually published – because we own it. They won’t disclose these things. So it’s become – it’s a most amazing effect.
Well, now just coming back to a personal note.
You – last time we spoke … last time you were living opposite Cornwall Park, you moved from there to ..?
We moved from there up to Havelock North.
John Scott, one of his earlier houses which we enjoyed living there very much, but it was on a steep hillside and with the retirement coming up my wife wanted to have more of a flower garden, so we made the move down here and we’ve settled down in here now – it’d be 25 years since we moved down here – 26 years – and we’ve settled happily here, enjoying all the amenities of Havelock North.
Looks like the Garden of Eden.
Ha ha – you can wander round.
And your children and grandchildren?
Well, sadly our eldest daughter, Louise, died when she was about 59 from an aneurism, so we lost our Louise, but she had one son, and Greg now he’s in Australia, like many others having family scattered around. And then Grace has two daughters, Grace married Parker, and they are simply delightful. This coming Saturday Lydia’s getting married and the wedding’s being held up at Wairunga up on the hill. So we are having a chief – got a double degree at University and done very well and she’s marrying a soldier, and so that’s going to be a happy occasion for us, and Madelaine has just finished her year and done a Bachelor of Science degree and she’s back in University this year to do Honours. She’s a real joy to us as well. And I have one grandson in the South Island, for my son Richard. So we’ve just got the four grandchildren.
But we’re lucky – we’ve got one daughter here – Grace lives here in Havelock North, so that’s good. The young ones have wandered off to find work I think, that’s the problem. But they keep in touch with us and they – this is their home, they come here for Christmas so yeah – which is good.
That’s wonderful that’s been …
How we going, Frank ..?
A wonderful story.
I have wandered around a bit.
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BusinessEastern & Central Savings Bank
Interviewer: Frank Cooper