Hugo Friedländer (Friedlander) was born probably in January 1850 at Kolmar, Prussia (Chodziez, Poland). His father, Jonas Friedländer, and his mother, Röschen Buck, were Jewish. As a teenager Hugo emigrated with his brothers, Max and Rudolph, to Australia. They sought their fortune in the goldfields before arriving in New Zealand in the late 1860s.
Initially Hugo Friedlander was based at Orari, Canterbury, where he was buyer for the Temuka general merchant Joseph Mendelson. He moved to Ashburton in 1872 to manage Mendelson's branch there, and in 1876 he and his brothers bought the business. Renamed Friedlander Brothers, the firm traded as auctioneers, grain, wool and general merchants, and commission agents.
Hugo Friedlander, who was the shrewdest businessman of the brothers, was the dominant partner. He was intelligent, generous and public- spirited, but also stubborn and even combative at times. Stocky and of medium height, he had lost the full use of his legs after his spine was fractured when grain sacks fell on him, about 1876. He was an astute financier and many became dependent on him. During the depression of the 1880s, when some farmers doubted that they could continue, Friedlander would often advance more capital and tell them to go back and work. A good judge of character, he was rarely wrong.
In 1895 Friedlander's business acumen rescued the firm from bankruptcy. When their £40,000 overdraft was suddenly called in by the Bank of New Zealand, the brothers dissolved their partnership and started a new firm, Friedlander and Company. Max Friedlander, who was its nominal head, sold the stock of his Roxburgh farm, and the Friedlanders sold their 12,000 bags of grain, which fetched good prices. After clearing the debt, Friedlander and Company sold out to Friedlander Brothers.
Hugo Friedlander handled most of Ashburton county's grain production. The firm's main West Street store at Ashburton was enlarged in the mid 1880s to a capacity of 70,000 sacks. The combined capacity of the stores at Ashburton, Tinwald and Lyndhurst is said to have been 800,000 bushels of grain.
Friedlander was far-sighted and skilled at speculating on the world's grain markets. He would take grain when no other firms were bidding for it, and sell later at a profit. Consequently, farmers could always be confident that Friedlander Brothers would take their produce. His greatest coup as a grain merchant was in 1902 when he supplied 18,000 tons of oats as horse fodder to the British government during the South African war. This earned the firm £150,000.
Hugo Friedlander made a significant contribution to public life in Ashburton. The town's second mayor, he held office from 1879 to 1881, 1890 to 1892 and 1898 to 1901. Initially he showed a desire for improvements, especially in the town water supply, but by 1892 the Ashburton Guardian described his policy as showing 'a chronic acute desire to reduce the [council's] overdraft' at the expense of road repairs, drains, channels and lighting. However, in his last term as mayor, during more prosperous times, Friedlander increased salaries for staff, asphalted footpaths, improved the library, enlarged the municipal offices, and put down 10 miles of concrete channelling.
Friedlander was a member of the Ashburton County Council at various times between 1881 and 1914 and served on the council committee that administered the Ashburton County Hospital. In 1910 he became the first chairman of the hospital board. He was a member of the Lyttelton Harbour Board from 1905 to 1916 and was board chairman from February 1909 until May 1913. He was a director on many other boards, and a strong supporter of education: he funded the Friedlander Science Hall at Ashburton High School and contributed £1,000 towards the borough school.
Friedlander had married Isabel Hart at Melbourne, Australia, on 6 June 1882; the couple had at least three children: two daughters, who died in their first year, and a son. Isabel Friedlander died in 1888 and on 11 September 1889 Hugo married Sara Jane De Beer in Melbourne. There were two children from this marriage: a son and a daughter.
Friedlander was a leading racehorse owner, whose racing colours up to the First World War were red, yellow and black – the colours of the German flag. During the war, probably because of anti-German feeling, he changed his colours to red, white and blue. A few Ashburton people, forgetful of his community services and long residence among them, referred to him as a German, and persecuted him in various ways. Although he was passionate in his own defence and fearless of opposition, he left Ashburton in 1918. Friedlander retired to Auckland where he lived quietly, keeping an interest in racing, until his death on 1 October 1928; he was survived by Sara Friedlander and three children.