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Story: Todd, Charles

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Todd, Charles


Fellmonger, wool-scourer, motor car importer and assembler, petrol importer and retailer, industrialist, community leader

This biography, written by Tony Nightingale, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Charles Todd was born on 28 May 1868 at Peebles, Scotland, the son of Mary Sullivan and her husband, Charles Todd, a mill foreman. In the early 1870s the family emigrated to New Zealand, where Charles senior managed a fellmongery and later various mining companies in Otago. Young Charles attended school at Cromwell and Bendigo. When the Bendigo mine closed in 1884, the family moved to Heriot and he joined his father in a fellmongery and wool-scouring business. A year later he took charge of the business and ran sheep in association with it. During the next 31 years he diversified into auctioneering and storekeeping.

On 23 April 1895, in Dunedin, Charles Todd married Mary Hegarty; they were to have four sons and three daughters. Over the years he drew his family into his commercial ventures and eventually created one of New Zealand's largest family enterprises.

As a pioneer motorist in the Otago district, Todd recognised the possibilities of the motor car and in 1915 took a business gamble – the first of many that would become the hallmark of his career. After moving to Dunedin, where he founded the stock and station agency Todd Brothers, he secured the local franchise for Ford cars. The business thrived, and in 1923 the motor franchise became a separate firm, the Todd Motor Company, which was later incorporated as Todd Motors. Todd also acquired the New Zealand agency for Gray cars in 1923 and was obliged to relinquish the Otago Ford dealership.

In 1925 Todd sold the stock and station agency to Dalgety and Company and moved to Wellington to better co-ordinate the nationwide marketing of Gray and Chrysler cars, for which he had also gained the franchise. Todd Motors acquired the Rootes Motors dealership for Hillman, Humber and Commer vehicles in 1929, and five years later established Todd Motor Industries, a company that imported and assembled Rootes and Chrysler vehicles.

In 1931, after his petrol supplier refused to accommodate the company with any reduction in price during a South Island petrol price war, Todd decided to import his own petrol. With a group of friends, the New Zealand Farmers' Union and some automobile associations, he floated a petrol discount operation, the Associated Motorists Petrol Company of New Zealand (AMPC). In March 1933 the company began marketing imported Russian petrol under the name Europa. The strategy was immensely risky and it was only a matter of time before the major companies – Vacuum, Shell and Texas – tackled the fledgeling organisation in a price war. Discounting began in earnest in mid 1933, and by the end of the year the shareholders of AMPC approached the government for protection. This was granted under the Motor-spirits (Regulation of Prices) Act 1933, and the large oil companies backed off. Between 1936 and 1942 the Labour government brought in price control throughout the country and Todd realised that the viability of AMPC was dependent on government regulation of the industry. From this time the company developed close links with successive governments.

Todd chaired the various companies in the group and from 1938 headed the Todd Corporation, a holding company of the group's interests. Outside his business career he had a strong commitment to community affairs. He was president of the Otago Expansion League (1917–23) and of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce (1920–22), mayor of St Kilda (1923–25), and a director of the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition (1925–26). A committed Catholic and a prohibitionist, he wrote a pamphlet, Prohibition and Catholics, in 1919, and he served as president of the New Zealand Alliance and of the Otago branch of the United Temperance Reform Council. He stood unsuccessfully for the Reform Party in Dunedin South in 1928 and as an independent Reform candidate in the Central Otago electorate in 1931.

In his youth Todd was a keen cricketer and rugby player, and he maintained an interest in sporting activities. He served as president of the Otago Cricket Association in 1927–28 and gave an aerodrome site at Green Island to the Otago Aero Club, of which he was patron. After moving north, he was a member of the Rotary Club of Wellington, deputy chairman of the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition of 1939–40, a member of the National Patriotic Fund Board and chairman of the National Council for Reclamation of Waste Material.

His wife, Mary, was involved with the Red Cross during the First World War. She also made regular donations to a variety of charities and was the driving force behind two particular benefactions: the Charles and Mary Todd Scholarship for the education of secondary school boys, and the Mary Todd Parish Trust. Charles Todd died in Wellington on 21 August 1942, survived by his wife and seven children. The family maintained its involvement in the Todd Corporation after his death and two sons, Desmond and Bryan, were knighted for their services to business.

How to cite this page:

Tony Nightingale. 'Todd, Charles', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4t20/todd-charles (accessed 13 July 2024)