Robert Webster Interview
I’m with Robert Webster from Webster Limes, interviewing him on behalf of the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank on the 22nd November, 2014. Good morning Robert.
Good morning Jim.
Robert I’d like you to give us a bit of history on the Webster family and how you got started with Webster Limes and perhaps you could go back to the beginning.
The family comes from Christchurch. Dad’s father was a blacksmith’s engineer for Duncan Engineering and then Anderson Engineering in Christchurch and Dad did an engineering degree in Christchurch and then went overseas to London. His brother did accountancy and while Dad was overseas he went up and worked in Wellington. Dad went overseas in 1939 just prior to the war and war broke out while he was in England and as everybody thought the war would be over very quickly so he just stayed there and as it transpired that it was going to carry on longer he decided that he’d come home and join the New Zealand army rather than become a member of the English army and when he did come home he married Mum and then turned around and went back over for the duration of the war. He and Maurice both ended up in Italy, Maurice in the Tanks and Dad was in the engineering side of it.
When the war was coming to an end they wrote to their uncle who was an engineer and Managing Director of Cory Wright & Salmon which was an engineering company importing equipment for power stations and pulp mills and the like into New Zealand and both the boys wrote to their Uncle Nick and asked him if he could find them a job. And Uncle Nick saw an ad in the paper for the sale of a bankrupt lime business in Havelock North and felt that was an industry that would probably go forward after the war, decided that he would introduce the boys to that when they came back.
When Dad arrived in Auckland on his return Uncle Nick suggested that they met in Havelock North early 1946 and Mum and Dad drove down from Auckland, which took about 15 hours, and ended up in Napier at about 9.30 at night to have baked beans on toast at Paxie’s which was an eatery for want of another description. Then they went out the next day and had a look at the lime works which had been originally built by H H Campbell & Son which was a builders’ firm in Hawke’s Bay and they started it primarily to produce lime to make lime mortar to put all the buildings together with, and also to supply the local freezing industry, fellmongery, with lime to treat their skins with. But they’d gone bankrupt prior to the war and it had been left to sit and run down in disrepair so it was a pretty big challenge. But they put in a tender to the Bank of New South Wales who held the documents on it. Our opposition which is McDonald’s lime also put a tender in. They were going to shut the plant down and just take the corrugated iron to extend their factory in the South Island. So the Bank felt it would be better to have some employment opportunities in Hawke’s Bay so they got the go ahead to purchase it which they did and they had 4 months to find out how it worked, what actually lime was.
Lime starts off as calcium carbonate which is limestone and to make lime you must burn the limestone to in excess of 900 degrees centigrade and that forces the CO2 gas out of it and that changes it from calcium carbonate to calcium oxide which is lime. Then the next step is you can add water to that and by adding water to it you trigger a physical and chemical reaction to take place and it changes it from limestone or calcium oxide to calcium hydroxide which is a fine white powder and is second to caustic soda as an alkali. So it’s basically a chemical lime.
So anyway they decided to take the job on and they got it going and they had to produce some lime for the start of the killing season in the local freezing works which they did and from there they grew it as they learned how to work it and the quality became better and everything else and they grew it to having all the markets and some extras which they’d previously had other than the building trade because of the 1931 earthquake everybody went off lime water for the building bricks. So they were supplying right up into Auckland and pretty much the whole of the North Island and McDonald’s were supplying the South Island and some into the North Island. As time went on the deposit at Waimarama Road started to run out and they started looking for another deposit which they found on a farm owned by the McKenzie family in Middle Road and we purchased the first bit of that land in 1963 and started to quarry it. And we took the limestone to start with over to Waimarama Road and burnt it in the kilns there and then in 1968 we put in a rotary kiln and burnt the lime and carted the burnt lime back to Waimarama Road to hydrate through the hydrating plant. And in the meantime McDonald’s had opened up a kiln and hydrating operation at Otorohanga as part of supplying the steel works which had gone in at Glenbrook, and they took half our market overnight so we went back to having to fight to stay alive which we managed to do on quality that helped us go back into markets that we’d lost. Today we now have them all back again plus others. In 1975 we sold the property at Waimarama Road and moved everything to Middle Road and started to grow the business again.
I started work on a Federated Farmers’ cadetship to start with and didn’t want to go into the lime industry. The farming cadetship that I was on was a really cheap labour scheme and there were some pretty mean farmers out there working $14 a week and doing about 80 hours work so I had a bit of a fall out with the fellow I was working for, left and Dad said they had just sacked somebody so there was a job there for me until I found out what I wanted to do. So I started there in October 1969. Haven’t found anything else to do so I’m still there.
The company has now grown to supplying markets right throughout the North Island into the top of the South Island, some export to Fiji and other islands and we now produce burnt and hydrated lime, agriculture lime, fine ground limestone and other limestone products and we now have both my boys working for the company which is pretty good. And Nick, the oldest, has done engineering and Matthew has done business studies and marketing so they complement each other really. There’s a next generation and looks like they are going to carry it on and we’ve now freeholded enough lime down there fully consented for 70 years of operation in the future and we are about to enter the next phase of Webster’s which is we’re going to put in another kiln which will treble our output which we need to do and there is a market there.
Robert, I didn’t really realise what you could do with limestone and you mention the purchasing of further land at your Middle Road site.
There is an opportunity to purchase more land alongside it which we have a verbal agreement – first right of refusal on it. So the next generations are…
So you’ve been a major employer in the district and long standing of course and a lot of companies are missing from the area but it’s nice to see that your company is surviving.
We don’t employ as many as we did when they first started. They had a staff of about 19. We are running a staff at the moment of 12 plus myself and the two boys and producing probably five times as much as they were producing in the early days because of the different markets and things but lime is very important to the world. David Attenborough made a comment some years ago that the only industry the world needed was the lime industry to correct the damage of the acid rain and pollution to the world. The markets that we supply, our biggest market for our hydrated lime is water treatment for drinking water and some for the effluent side as well but drinking water is becoming more and more having to be treated because of overtaxing of it.
I was quite surprised that you had so many people working for you. Was quite surprised when you said there are 12 people working there. Obviously they were working behind the scenes.
Absolutely. Only allowed out at lunch time.
Robert, now you’ve got other interests as well and you might tell us a little bit about your car racing and motor cars.
I don’t know about that Jim. We’ve been involved since we were children because Dad was involved with motor racing. He had some pretty special cars two of which are still going but out of New Zealand now. One was a 1931 Alfa Romeo which was the first car to beat the Bentleys at Brooklands in England and it has got quite a history and that’s now in Japan fully restored. The last sale was about seven million I think. The other car that he had was a Cooper 500 again a car with a bit of history, enough history for it to be taken back to England by an Englishman who fully restored it to what it was so I sort of piggy backed on that. I enjoy racing cars and enjoy driving anything. I’ve been dabbling in cars ever since I’ve had my licence and now we’re in a position where we can have a reasonably good car and have a lot of fun doing Targa rallies and so forth.
I can always remember your father Bruce coming back from Ohakea towing the car and just outside Pakipaki a policeman pulled him up and said no tail lights and walked around the back of the car to have a look and tripped over the towbar.
Myself and two sisters, our job when we were old enough and we were going to motor racing was to keep an eye out for the law on the roads so I think that’s saved me quite a few dollars in my driving experience too, always looking forward and behind. The other car that I have is another special little car. It came out to New Zealand to compete in the 1972 Heatway Rally. It was brought out by New Zealand Motor Corporation and was driven by Angus Hyslop, another one of New Zealand’s very good motor racing people. It came fifth and its sister car was driven by Andrew Cowan who was an international Scottish rally driver and he won the Heatway Rally and I’ve got Angus’ car which has been fully restored to what it was when it was first put together. Those two cars were the last two cars to come out of Doddington Technical Tuning in England so they’re a bit special. I found the fellow that had started to restore it and he was in Balclutha. It took quite a bit of persuading to get him to sell it to me because he had also been approached by an Englishman so it took me nine months of aeroplane trips and emails and so forth, telephone conversations and persuaded him that it should stay in New Zealand and it did which is quite good.
Now you’ve just done a trip down south and you were telling me about a car museum as well.
Yes, well that’s at Cromwell called Highland Park. A group of racing enthusiasts purchased a block of land a number of years ago and spent in excess of a million dollars getting resource consents for it then didn’t have any money to go and produce a circuit. So they got in touch with a fellow who was very keen on motor racing and a very good driver who started his life in Scotland in a gypsy caravan. Tony Quinn is his name. He had made a lot of money for himself and he decided that he would take over that entire operation and he’d do it himself as a business venture which he did. In 18 months he spent twenty one million dollars and he has a world class motor racing circuit in Cromwell and he’s designed the tracks using corners from other motor racing circuits around the world that he’s raced on. So you get Nordberg out of Germany and other places and it’s a credit to him and it’s a credit to New Zealand to have it and the museum side of it would be the best car museum I’ve been in to and I’ve seen a few around the world and all privately owned. I think that’s a credit to him.
How many vehicles ?
There would be about 50. He owns some of them. Some of them are loaned to him by the owners but one of the ones that he has got is the Benetton Formula I car that Michael Schumacher raced and Tony Quinn owns that and he takes it out and runs it round the track every so often. So that’s the calibre of vehicles he’s got in there is very high.
What about Maurice?
Yes Maurice didn’t partake in motor racing. He came back from the war pretty beaten up being inside a tank when a shell came in it and it rattled around and he was the only survivor and that didn’t do Maurice much good at all. But Maurice was a very good accountant. He kept the books for Websters Lime for a lot of years which helped the company go forward. Without money you can’t do very much but he was also a very good member of the Havelock Club. I think it’s a credit to what those two guys did and the foresight of their uncle, Uncle Nichol, which has left a platform for me to work from and go forward which I think I’m doing the same for our boys and I think that I feel very proud to do that.
You told us about your two sons. Have you only got two sons? Have you got any daughters?
No, no daughters. Only two sons but we have six granddaughters ranging from 11 down to 6 months. We would all like to have a grandson or a son but Olivia was Nick’s first daughter and when he went in to let Mum and Dad know that they’d had a daughter Dad said to Nick “Even girls can drive dump trucks”. So you never know there might be a lot of girls working at the Lime Works one day.
Robert, thank you very much. On behalf of the Knowledge Bank we sincerely thank you for your talk.
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Interviewer : Jim Newbigin