Francis John Carter was born at Moutoa, northern Manawatu, New Zealand, to Elizabeth Julian and her husband, John Carter, a farmer, on 13 December 1869. Nothing is known of his education and early life, but as a young man he worked on dairy farms, in flax mills, and as a contractor on the Wellington–Palmerston North railway line.
About 1895 Carter joined J. W. Lee and Arthur Wright in milling kahikatea swamp forest at Koputaroa, near Moutoa, displaying considerable ingenuity in using a steam log-hauler to extract logs on ground too wet for horses. This forest was cleared by 1898, whereupon Wright and Carter concentrated on the sash and door factory they had established in 1897 at Mangaweka, then at the northern railhead of the main trunk railway line. By 1904 the factory employed a staff of 12 and had a branch at Taihape. A flax mill set up with R. W. Smith near Taupo about 1900 proved unprofitable and closed about 1905.
On 14 May 1904, at Auckland, Carter married Ellinor (Ellenor) Harrison, daughter of the manager of the general store in Mangaweka; they were to have four sons. Ellinor ran the books of the general store and the flax mill and managed family life in primitive conditions; the home they were later to establish at Rangataua (near Ohakune) had no electricity until 1936.
Carter and Wright had re-entered sawmilling by 1902 on the Rangitikei River near Ohingaiti. Carter was to display a keen judgement in buying cutting rights from Maori and settlers in areas being opened up by the advance of the railway. The pair entered into formal partnership in 1904, setting up the Premier Sawmill south of Taihape. Apart from matai and totara for local use the plant cut mainly kahikatea for export to Sydney. The mill employed 12 and cut wood from Crown leasehold lands; unlike the majority of plants in the district, it worked to its capacity. Between 1904 and 1906 Carter obtained cutting rights and began logging kahikatea off Maori forest between Utiku and Taihape. They also took over the Winiata mill at Utiku about 1907; in 1909 they shifted it to Ohakune, where the Carters had also moved.
Carter expanded his business by acquiring an interest in Perham, Larsen and Company, which held cutting rights to substantial Maori-owned forests. With the railway completed, logging of previously inaccessible forest became viable. In 1914 Carter began the Orata Sawmilling Company at Horopito. It was destroyed in the major bush fires of 1918 but was rebuilt and operated until 1928. His Manganui Timber Company also operated at Horopito until the forest was cut out in 1932. Senior employees held shares in both these companies.
Carter, R. W. Smith, Alec Bennet and John Punch formed the Makotuku Timber Company in 1913. It operated two mills at Raetihi and one at Pakihi. By 1920 the Raetihi bush was cut and the company concentrated its operations at Pakihi and, later, at Mangaturoa. The Pakihi mill cut until 1955 and was locally known as Plunket's Mill, after its manager. In 1918 Carter purchased the remainder of Perham, Larsen and Company and resettled his family in Rangataua, where milling continued until 1934. The Pokaka Timber Company was formed in 1936 to fell forest on New Zealand Railways land.
Carter had tremendous stamina. While living at Ohakune he would depart from there for Horopito at 5.30 a.m., return to Ohakune for dinner, then ride to Rangataua to tidy up mill business, returning to Ohakune by 10–11 p.m. He served a term on the executive of the Dominion Federated Sawmillers' Association (1924–27) and was seen by his workers as an exacting employer, but one who gave credit where it was due. He was a reserved, somewhat shy individual, most comfortable in a family setting where he showed a fondness for music.
Carter was also actively involved in transforming cleared forest to farmland. Eventually 7,000 acres were converted to pasture and farmed by the Ohutu Grazing Company, under the management of Carter's son Ivan. Another son, Kenneth, joined his father as a clerk in the sawmill at Rangataua.
In the 1920s Carter's interests expanded beyond the area of the main trunk line; he purchased all the shares in the Morningside Timber Company in 1922 and set up a sawmill at Granite Creek near Karamea in 1926. Through the former company, stakes in other sawmills were bought, and in 1934 a kauri sawmill was built at Omatutu in North Auckland, but burnt down in 1945. Cutting rights over the Pouakani block were acquired and a sawmill built at Pureora.
Carter later purchased retail outlets, beginning in 1947 with a 50 per cent stake in the Wanganui firm Bassett and Company. Perham Larsen (Manawatu) Limited opened in Palmerston North in 1948, branch yards were opened in Levin and the Hansard Brothers Limited yard and sawmill at Dannevirke was also acquired.
Francis Carter died at Rangataua on 3 January 1949 after some months of illness; Ellinor Carter survived him by 10 years. Carter had worked hard for his success, but never sought public prominence. He secured the loyalty of senior employees by offering them a stake in new ventures. His keen business sense had laid the foundations of the business group brought together by Kenneth Carter as Carter Consolidated in 1951. After amalgamation with other firms, it became Carter Holt Harvey in 1985.