One man’s vision lives on in business empire
In this, the centenary year of Hastings, residents of the city and surrounding areas might spare some thought for a man whose contribution to Hastings has never been equalled, writes BRENT REID.
Factory is his monument
THE late Sir James Wattie, founder of J Wattie Canneries in 1934, built an enterprise which has contributed enormously to the prosperity of the district by providing a vast outlet for the wide range of crops produced on the rich, alluvial Heretaunga plains.
There would be few people in the district who at some time have not had some connection with Watties, be it directly or indirectly.
Though Sir James is no longer here, the factory which he built in the middle of Hastings remains as a monument to his immense contribution.
Sir James never let success go to his head. Kings or paupers, he treated them all the same.
It was this empathy with the small man that endeared Sir James to all who came in contact with him. Never was this better illustrated than in February 1962 when a disastrous fire destroyed a major part of the factory.
Not only did staff perform well beyond the call of duty but it seemed the whole of Hastings was prepared to do their bit to get the plant back in production.
Sir James, sleeves rolled up, was right in the thick of it all, calmly telephoning for new equipment to get the factory back in business. Miraculously, the plant was back in production within 48 hours of the fire.
“This is not my company,” he once said. “It belongs to all those people who have put their trust in us.”
It took a man with the foresight, the initiative, the courage of Jim Wattie in 1934, to put his money where his mouth was. The rise of Jim Wattie was without doubt a rags to riches story.
He first came to Hastings when his family moved from the South Island in 1915. His first job was delivering telegrams. Later he worked as a junior clerk with the Hawke’s Bay Farmer’s Meat Company and by 1924 had become secretary of the Hawke’s Bay Fruitgrowers’ Ltd.
His first break came in 1934 when Whittome Stevenson and company contemplated importing jam pulp from Tasmania. Jim Wattie, then 32, immediately saw this was a chance for Hawke’s Bay orchardists.
Mr. Harold Carr who was a director of Watties until his retirement recently, was a young accountant in Hastings at the time and produced the information which led to the turning point in Jim Wattie’s life.
This is how Sir James later told the story. “I think I can say in truth at that moment I realised here was my chance to do something for myself and for Hastings.
“I got my employers to let me take the train to Auckland immediately. At the Whittome Stevenson plant in Newmarket, I called on Colonel Stevenson, a fine old gentleman, who confirmed Harold Carr’s story.
“Colonel Stevenson agreed that if we could match the Tasmanians in quality, price and assurance of deliveries he’d be happy to give us the business.
“There was nothing very odd about their wanting to import pulp. New Zealand then was importing most of its canned fruit and vegetables – the vegetables mainly from England: the fruit from California and Australia.
“Back in Hastings, everybody concerned thought it was great, our producing pulp instead of the Tasmanians. But the company didn’t have the money to buy plant for pulping and get into business.
“I asked if they minded my forming a syndicate with Harold Carr and trying to build a plant. My employers said: ‘Go ahead’.
“Harold and I went down Heretaunga St, our main street, and called on businessmen. We asked them to put 25 or 50 pounds into what we called bonds, but we said to regard it as help-the-district charity rather than an investment.
“In two days we collected 1250 pounds. To this day I can recollect the order in which we did things and got moving.
“My employers had on their property a house which was let to a tenant who was having difficulty in finding the rent. We got that as our first factory.
“We got a secondhand steam boiler from an abattoir. They fortunately took payment in bonds.
“We spent 300 pounds on two steam-jacketed pans from, I remember the makers, Stewart and Longbottom, of Auckland.
“Buying a gooseberry snipper for topping, and tailing gooseberries, from America cost us about 100 pounds. We paid Whittome Stevensons about 70 pounds for a second-hand old pulper – to sieve stone fruits and separate flesh from stones.
“We bought from Gadsens, tins in which to pack our pulp. We spent about 200 pounds on odds and ends, and that left 400 or 500 pounds working capital.
“As we were, in effect, a charity, we – J Wattie Canneries Ltd – registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act, and hence escaped tax. But when, after a year, we sought more capital we had to register under the Companies Act.
“In our first year we took over our landlord company. In addition to sending pulp to the jam factory in Auckland, we canned peaches and pears. They sold well.
“Our subscribed capital at the end of the first year was 9565 pounds. Our sales and sundry income were 3958 pounds and our net profit was 892 pounds.”
Sir James’ first factory was a wooden building which stood on the present factory site.
From those beginnings Watties is now the country’s undisputed leader in food production, the Watties label being synonymous with canned and frozen food products.
This year Watties celebrates its 50th anniversary. The only pity is that Sir James is not here this week to see it all. But time will not diminish his memory.
Men of the calibre of Sir James Wattie are few and far between. His recipe for success simple. “There is only one place success comes before work and that is in the dictionary,” was his favourite quotation.
Photo caption – THE first Wattie factory in Hastings.
Tomoana Freezing Works
Exporters since 1884
Nelsons (NZ) Ltd, Tomoana was founded in 1880. Since 1884 we have frozen meat for export.
We are proud to celebrate a centenary with the City of Hastings.
Export beef and Iamb processed at Tomoana can be purchased throughout the North Island.
Farmers: you will find our stock-buying staff in your area.