Page 1: Biography
Builder, industrialist, government commissioner, racehorse breeder
This biography, written by Selwyn James Parker, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
James Fletcher arrived in New Zealand in 1908 with a bag of tools, a few pounds in his pocket and an unflagging optimism that would help make him one of New Zealand’s most influential industrialists. He was born in Kirkintilloch, Strathclyde, Scotland, on 29 March 1886, the sixth of thirteen children of John Shearer Fletcher, a builder, and his wife, Janet Montgomery Goodwin. James attended school in Glasgow and after a short period as a chemist’s assistant was apprenticed as a carpenter. After completing this in 1907 he intended to emigrate to Canada, but was prevented by a bout of pneumonia. He emigrated instead to Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1908.
After working as foreman of a building firm for six months, Fletcher formed a house-building partnership with Bert Morris in 1909. They soon moved into construction work, taking on projects that were often at the limit of – and even beyond – their capabilities. A municipal swimming pool built in Dunedin had to be closed immediately after it opened so that Fletcher could work out how to stop the water leaking out. The company built the St Kilda Town Hall and Knox College.
Fletcher married Charlotte Muir Cameron at Dunedin on 20 December 1911. Daughter of the owner of a stevedoring firm, she had an insight into business which was often valuable to her husband. The couple had three children: Isabella (Ella), John and James. Both sons went into the family business. Fletcher’s brothers, William, Andrew and John, also joined, and the company, now known as Fletcher Brothers, opened a branch in Invercargill.
While holidaying in Auckland in 1916, James decided to tender for building the city markets there and persuaded a reluctant bank manager to lend the necessary finance. By 1919 the company, known as Fletcher Construction, was firmly established in Auckland and Wellington. The energetic young migrant soon saw that the way to expand was by vertical integration and quickly set up a joinery factory, bought into timber mills and acquired a significant shareholding in the brickmaking industry. He also established a concrete production business and purchased a marble quarry. In time these became the core assets of the company, which was publicly listed in 1940 as Fletcher Holdings, with James Fletcher as its executive chairman.
Fletcher was well-read in technical literature and was always avid for new technology. Most of the company’s construction sites used the latest equipment, almost as it was introduced overseas. The company’s expertise was extremely useful when it played a major role in the reconstruction of Napier and Hastings after the 1931 earthquake.
The depression brought a slow-down in the building industry. Fletcher Construction survived by pledging the assets to one bank provided they saw the company through the hard times. In this period, the firm built Auckland’s Civic Theatre (1929), the Dominion Museum (1934) and Wellington’s railway station (1937).
Naturally gregarious, James Fletcher was a firm believer in cultivating friendships. During the 1930s, on the express between Wellington and Auckland, he formed friendships with politicians, particularly Peter Fraser and Walter Nash. Impatient with the economic retrenchment practised during the depression, Fletcher argued that a major, government-backed project that fulfilled the nation’s needs was essential to stimulate the economy. After its election in 1935, the Labour government invited Fletcher to prepare a scheme for the construction of state rental housing. The company then won the building contract by submitting the lowest tender.
Although hundreds of state houses were built all over New Zealand, the project quickly became a financial liability for its architect. Fletcher’s brothers refused to support what they considered a high-risk scheme and James Fletcher had to establish a separate company, Residential Construction, to undertake the work. At first, the new company lost money so heavily that it would have collapsed but for the government guaranteeing an overdraft. Later Residential Construction achieved worthwhile profits in building Auckland’s state houses.
The Second World War brought a need for major defence-related construction projects. In 1942 Fletcher was appointed commissioner of defence construction and controller of shipbuilding. Impatient of committees and knowledgeable in the ways of bureaucrats, he insisted before taking the post that he report to only one superior, Prime Minister Peter Fraser. Fletcher’s extraordinary powers gave him the right to issue any directive he saw fit to public servants and to dictate what construction could be undertaken by public authorities and local bodies. In spite of some initial resistance, he took the government departments by storm. With a staff at peak of just six, including a secretary, he gradually won over most of the departmental heads.
The job enhanced his stature as a man who could push through projects against seemingly impossible deadlines. Having retired as chairman of Fletcher Holdings to avoid any conflicts of interest in awarding contracts, the commissioner had army training camps, fleets of landing vessels and other urgent wartime projects completed remarkably swiftly. A camp for 20,000 United States marines at McKay’s Crossing, near Paekakariki, was built in six weeks, while in Auckland’s Cornwall Park, a hospital of 122 buildings, housing 1,500 patients, was completed in 16 weeks. In 1943 the need for defence construction slowed, and the Ministry of Works was established as a department capable of undertaking the sizeable hydroelectric and other major projects that were then urgent. Fletcher returned to private industry in 1944 and was knighted in 1946.
In the early 1950s Fletcher and his son Jim, who was now managing director of Fletcher Holdings, worked with the National government to establish the Tasman Pulp and Paper company. Its newsprint-manufacturing plant at Kawerau utilised the state’s Kaingaroa forests. It was a huge and risky undertaking that required a majority Crown shareholding and, once again, Fletcher’s political connections helped greatly. Although Fletcher Holdings had only a minority stake in Tasman, it was able to secure executive control; James Fletcher became chairman. The company overcame initial teething troubles to become substantially profitable and a major earner of foreign exchange.
Fletcher’s last major industrial challenge was the establishment of a steel-making facility. With Jim, he typically sought the best advice from around the world, and became increasingly convinced that the least risky initial strategy was to produce steel from scrap metal instead of the capital-intensive, largely experimental method of using ironsands. The financial problems of New Zealand’s steel industry have since overwhelmingly justified his initial view.
Fletcher also had an interest in horse-breeding. In 1939, with Jim, he established the Alton Lodge stud at Te Kauwhata. It became one of the largest in the country and produced a number of notable horses, including Dalray, winner of the 1952 Melbourne Cup. By 1962 the business had become more than a hobby; the bloodstock was sold and the property retained as a farm. The Fletchers themselves owned and raced winning horses.
James Fletcher retired as chairman of Fletcher Holdings in 1967. He died at Auckland on 12 August 1974. Lottie Fletcher had died in 1967, and he was survived by their children. Fletcher was an energetic and enterprising businessman, with warmth, humour and an ability to get along with people of all types. His determination and capacity for realising his ideas allowed him to build one of the largest industrial enterprises in New Zealand.