Arthur McKee was born in Liverpool, Lancashire, England, on 14 August 1863, the son of Jane Fleck and her husband, Alexander McKee, a journeyman shoemaker. Arthur attended classes at University College, Liverpool, and later became a reporter on the staff of the St Helens Newspaper and Advertiser. On 10 February 1887 McKee married Martha Gore Holden at Liverpool; they were to have three sons and a daughter. The following year he launched his own newspaper, the St Helens Chronicle, which he also edited.
McKee emigrated to New Zealand in 1890 with his wife, two children and an invalid brother. He also brought with him a Linotype machine. Soon after his arrival he formed a partnership, McKee and Gamble, in Wellington to carry out experimental work in photo-engraving and printing. He was one of the three original directors of the Cyclopedia Company, which published the Cyclopedia of New Zealand from 1897. McKee and Gamble were responsible for the engraving, stereotyping and machine work for the first volume, and for The imperial album on NZ scenery. They introduced new photo-engraving techniques and were the first printing company in the southern hemisphere to power a printing press by electric motor. The partnership was dissolved later in 1897 and McKee formed McKee and Company, which did contract engraving for volumes five and six of the Cyclopedia. Among their publications was King Dick abroad, a booklet of caricatures of Premier Richard Seddon, who was a personal friend of Arthur McKee.
McKee and Joseph Horn started a land agency business in Wellington in 1900. In the same year McKee, while on a cycling tour of the Nelson district, visited W. E. Scott's Rotherfield orchard in Riwaka; he was sufficiently impressed with the potential of the area to begin buying land there in 1902. Over the next decade McKee gradually sold his Wellington business interests while establishing his family in Riwaka. The scattered family commuted between there and Wellington. Martha McKee died at Riwaka on 2 May 1905, and on 12 February 1908 Arthur married Annie Isabel Macdonald at Wellington; they had two sons and a daughter. From 1914 to 1916 they lived at Nelson while their cob house was being built at the Bluffs in Tasman.
Arthur McKee was soon involved in the Nelson fruit industry. He planted apples and glasshouse grapes. In 1910 he saw the potential for the Moutere hills country to grow apples and envisaged large-scale orchard development. A syndicate bought 2,600 acres of manuka-clad land and set out to clear, road and plant about 900 acres. McKee sold the balance of the land to a new company, Tasman Orchards, and acted as chairman. He produced posters and an elegantly designed and printed booklet promoting the venture. The booklet, Apples for export, attracted buyers to the area, in spite of adverse newspaper reports which described the Moutere hills as a barren wasteland capable only of growing manuka. McKee reassured shareholders by telling them that Fred E. Nottage, a government orchard instructor from Hawke's Bay, had been appointed to supervise the development scheme.
Tasman Orchards Company signed contracts with the absentee owners of the new blocks to clear, plant and manage the land on their behalf. When many of these orchards were found to be uneconomic, two of the owners successfully sought damages on the grounds that the claims made in McKee's booklet were fraudulent. The decision was reversed on appeal.
McKee had widespread business interests in the Nelson area. He had established his own orchard of about 100 acres and in 1920 he and eight other growers formed the Bluffs Fruitgrowers Company Limited, one of several packing co-operatives in the area at the time. McKee later formed Tasman Forests Limited and planted Pinus insignis ( P. radiata ) trees on land too steep for apple trees. He was involved in real estate in Nelson, helped set up the Motueka Cool Storage Company at Port Motueka, and opened a marble quarry in the upper Takaka valley. Trading as the Nelson Marble Company, the firm sold cut marble slabs for the construction of war memorials and the Catholic churches in Motueka and Takaka. McKee also began experimenting with growing several varieties of tobacco in 1919, and later sold quantities of dried leaf to the cigarette manufacturers W. D. & H. O. Wills.
In 1931 McKee saw the potential for replacing the imported chemicals used to spray apple orchards with a locally manufactured product. He and his two younger sons, Tasman and Guy, began producing lime sulphur, mainly for use on the family orchard; surplus was sold to local growers. Increasing business led to the formation in 1932 of Fruitgrowers Chemical Company, which later developed many new products to improve the quality of agricultural and horticultural produce. McKee's company, Lime and Marble, formed in 1938–39, became a large manufacturer of non-metallic minerals and other industrial products. Another McKee company, L. & M. Oil, later entered oil exploration.
On 9 March 1943 Arthur McKee died in Nelson, survived by his second wife and five children. He was a creative man of great vision, who was able to see the long-term potential of many new ventures. His successful launching of several new companies made possible future developments in journalism, fruit-growing, forestry, cool-storage, and the minerals and chemicals industries.