James Hugh Buchanan Coates was appointed general manager of the National Bank of New Zealand in 1893, at a time when confidence in the banking sector in New Zealand had reached a very low ebb. His reputation in the colony and his abilities as a banker enabled the National Bank to prosper in adversity. By the First World War the National had outgrown its rivals to become second only to the Bank of New Zealand in importance.
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, on 9 October 1851 and registered simply as James, he was the son of Sarah Anne Bendall and her husband, James Coates. His father, who had come out to the colony as private secretary to Governor William Hobson and was subsequently clerk of the House of Representatives, died prematurely in 1854. James was educated in Auckland at the Church of England Grammar School and at St John's College. Physically imposing and with an athletic build, he was an outstanding sportsman in his youth. He was a keen cricketer, played rugby football, and was an excellent shot-putter. Coates also rowed, played golf and was a devotee of horse-racing. He later became involved in sporting clubs, being a founder member of the Auckland Cricket Association and the Auckland Amateur Athletic and Cycle Club, and president of the latter for several years.
Coates left school in 1869 and commenced his banking career with the Bank of New South Wales. He worked both in Auckland and in Thames at the time of the goldrush before accepting a post in 1873 with the newly opened National Bank of New Zealand. His initial appointment was as a teller at the Auckland branch but he was soon promoted, becoming acting accountant in 1875, accountant in 1877, and manager in 1886 after 2½ years as acting manager. Charming and able, well known socially and with the experience of managing the National Bank's most important New Zealand branch, he was chosen to succeed the bank's retiring general manager, William Dymock, in 1893.
The National Bank, although trading profitably, was the smallest of the six banks operating in New Zealand when Coates took over. Bad debts had resulted in its capital being written down by £100,000 in 1884, but it was essentially a cautious and conservative institution. This tradition was upheld by Coates, who, prior to assuming the position of general manager, spent some months in England becoming fully acquainted with the views of the London directors. The instructions he received were quite explicit: he was to make haste slowly.
His first major task was to transfer the colonial headquarters from Auckland to Wellington. This removed Coates from the somewhat suspect Auckland business environment and placed him in closer touch with the government, then heavily involved in restructuring the banking system following the near-collapse of the Bank of New Zealand. Liberal by inclination, he was called upon for advice by both the Seddon and Ward ministries, and in 1894 was offered the presidency of the Bank of New Zealand. The National Bank, however, was unwilling to release him from his contract which still had four years to run.
Once established in Wellington Coates began to rationalise business. The acquisition of the Colonial Bank of New Zealand by the Bank of New Zealand late in 1895 eased competition for scarce banking business and enabled him to expand the National Bank's operations. Over the next few years branches and agencies were opened at Paeroa, Coromandel, Waihi, Kurow and elsewhere. During the early twentieth century the bank opened further branches in both the North and South Islands, and by the time of Coates's retirement had tripled its paid-up capital, built up a reserve fund of £645,000 and increased dividends from five per cent to a regular 12 per cent with one per cent bonus. The expansion in business was due in part to the strong recovery of the New Zealand economy from the mid 1890s. At the same time, however, Coates made an important contribution, his prudential management of accounts and his ability to cut the ratio of charges to gross profits resulting in a business that was sound, liquid, and extremely profitable.
Coates retired in 1914. Remaining in London after the National Bank's annual general meeting, he became honorary treasurer of the New Zealand War Contingent Association, and served on the committees of several other wartime relief organisations. He was also on the board of directors of the National Bank, became a director of the South British Fire and Marine Insurance Company of New Zealand and the Guardian, Trust, and Executors Company, acted as New Zealand receiver for London debenture holders of the New Zealand Midland Railway Company in 1901, and was a fellow of the Institute of Bankers.
After returning to New Zealand at the end of the First World War, James Coates was knighted in 1922. He never married. He died at his home in Parnell, Auckland, on 11 October 1935.