Story: Wattie, James

Page 1: Biography

Wattie, James

1902–1974

Clerk, accountant, company manager, industrialist, philanthropist, race-horse owner

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

James Wattie was born on 23 March 1902 in Hawarden, North Canterbury. The third of five sons of William John Wattie, a shepherd, and his wife, Annie Elizabeth Jifkins, he grew up in a close-knit, hardworking farming family with a Scottish heritage. Soon after he started school the family moved to Nelson, then Marlborough. Most of James’s primary education was at rural schools in Tuamarina, Blenheim and the Wairau Valley. In Blenheim he earned five shillings a week delivering milk twice daily.

After farming in Hillersden, south of Blenheim, William Wattie took up a small block of land in Mahora, a new dairying and fruit-growing subdivision of the Frimley estate straddling the northern boundary of Hastings. James spent his standard six year (1915) at Mahora South School and passed his proficiency examination. Jim Wattie, as he was always known to his friends, was remembered by a fellow pupil as being 'pretty bright', but he did not go on to high school. Jobs were plentiful, and after spending three months running errands for the Hawke's Bay Fruit, Produce and Cool Storage Company, he joined the Post and Telegraph Department as a telegraph messenger. He liked the job but because of a congenital cataract in his right eye, failed the medical examination required for a permanent career. To get on he felt obliged to leave and returned to the packing shed. In 1916 he became junior clerk in the Hawke's Bay Farmers' Meat Company office at Whakatu, and enrolled for a five-year correspondence course in accountancy, swotting in the family cottage kitchen by kerosene lamp.

In 1920 he was promoted to the position of assistant accountant, and in 1924 was appointed accountant for Roach's, the leading department store in the province. On 25 March 1925 he married one of their shop assistants, Gladys Madeline Henderson. Later that year he became secretary, and in 1928 manager, of Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers.

Since the closure of J. N. Williams's Frimley Fruit Canning Factory in 1913, local growers had concentrated on cool storage and producing pip fruit for the export trade. The problem of surplus fruit rotting on the ground remained. In August 1934 Wattie heard through Harold Carr, a young local accountant, that Whittome, Stevenson and Company of Auckland were contemplating importing jam pulp from Tasmania. They called on Colonel J. P. Stevenson, who agreed to give them the business provided they could match the Tasmanians in quality, price and assurance of delivery.

Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers lacked the money to get into the business but agreed to Wattie and Carr forming a syndicate and trying to build a plant. They canvassed local businessmen, asking them to put £25 into bonds and to regard it as a 'help-the-district charity rather than an investment'. In two days they collected £1,250. They rented an old cottage on the Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers' property, installed a second-hand steam boiler and about £700 worth of equipment, and delivered jam pulp to Whittome, Stevensons; they also canned peaches and pears, which sold well. By the end of their first year they had increased their subscribed capital to £9,565 and netted a profit of £892. They took over land, buildings and plant from Hawke’s Bay Fruitgrowers and registered as J. Wattie Canneries, with Wattie as managing director and Carr as secretary.

After inspecting the Australian canning industry, Wattie persuaded his board to erect a new factory, install modern plant and make a three-year contract with a group of six large merchants for the sale of 50,000 cases of canned produce a year. Supplies of fruit and vegetables were obtained from local contract growers and a leased farm. Watties thrived on diversification of crops, which provided security when yields were hard hit by frost. Wartime contracts to supply Britain and local and American military forces accelerated growth.

Wattie was a versatile and tough captain of industry with a shrewd eye for an opening and a feel for the market. He appreciated the importance of promotion and advertising, and of planning. After the war, on almost yearly visits overseas and trade missions, he sought out new markets, modern machinery and up-to-date methods. Wattie understood growers' problems and had the foresight to initiate a research unit. An outspoken advocate of private enterprise, he overtook and stayed ahead of his competitors and came to dominate food processing. By the 1950s cans and packages bearing his signature on their labels had found their way into most New Zealand homes; by the 1960s they were being widely distributed overseas.

As the industry grew, Watties employed a large percentage of the district's workers. Hastings became something of a company town and James Wattie something of a legend. He was prepared to work in any section of the factory where help was needed. Very successful in obtaining and managing workers, for many years he knew them all personally. Even in his last few years he would walk through the factory or sit down in the cafeteria mixing with staff. He appreciated an honest day's work but bawled out any slackers. To him the greatest thing in life was the sense of achievement that went with success.

The extent to which local people depended on Wattie for employment and prosperity and the fund of loyalty, goodwill and support he could command from them were dramatically revealed on 19 February 1962 when fire destroyed two-thirds of the factory buildings at the height of the processing season. Assistance poured in from friends and competitors, and in less than 50 hours the factory was back in production and the framework for a new one was rising.

In recognition of his company's achievements in New Zealand and the establishment of markets overseas, Wattie was invested with a CBE in 1963, and knighted in 1966. A modest, approachable, considerate and generous man, he was quick to share the credit and acknowledge the goodwill and support he received from others.

Wattie wanted his two sons, Gordon and Ray, to succeed him. After picking peas and nailing cases in the school holidays, they got basic training on the factory floor and in the office and laboratory. At Unilever’s two factories in England they worked alongside trainee supervisors and in the United States observed corn canning. Gordon became manager of the Gisborne factory when it opened in 1952 and Ray manager of the Hastings factory.

'In unity', Wattie believed, 'there is security as well as strength'. He wanted his company to be big enough to be protected from takeover bids and to compete in export marketing. In 1964 it acquired other New Zealand food-canning companies and the New Zealand interest in an Australian food corporation. In subsequent years it purchased an interest in a frozen-food organisation in Melbourne. Mergers with General Foods Corporation (NZ) in 1968 and Cropper-NRM (the biggest flour miller in the country) in 1969 catapulted Watties to the forefront of industry in New Zealand.

The three merged companies formed Wattie Industries in 1971, with Sir James as chairman and managing director; Gordon and Ray were joint managing directors of J. Wattie Canneries. Wattie was genuinely upset to be regarded as a monopolist and did not want to be a millionaire. He prided himself on being a salaried man, and saw himself as only one of nearly 24,000 shareholders, over 85 per cent of whom were men and women with relatively small holdings.

Wattie had always taken his business problems home and talked them over with his wife who, he acknowledged, was 'a tremendous inspiration to him'. At Haumoana and Mangapapa, an old homestead at Mangateretere into which they moved in 1950, they enjoyed gardening and growing roses. His main interest was horse-breeding and racing; his horse, Even Stevens, won the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups in 1962. He also got a lot of pleasure out of cars, holidaying and fishing at Taupo, stamp collecting and reading. He was a member and president of the Trades Promotion Council and belonged to numerous clubs and organisations.

Wattie preferred not to talk about the many people and worthy public causes he helped. Best known were medical research and education through the funding of annual visits of overseas medical specialists to lecture in centres where Watties operated, and later in all main centres. The company sponsored an annual book award to encourage New Zealand writing. Other beneficiaries included the Plunket Society, hospitals, the Hastings Aquatic Centre and the Bridge Pa golf tournament.

In later life Wattie made few concessions to the coronary disease from which he suffered after a heart attack in London in June 1962. He retired as managing director of Wattie Industries in 1972 and talked about retiring from active management of the company. His fellow directors were proposing to create a new office of founder president for him when he died following a heart attack at Mangateretere on 8 June 1974. He was survived by his wife and sons. A measure of the affection and respect felt towards him was shown in the tributes paid to him by political and community leaders and his employees at his funeral, attended by some 2,000 people. A Maori farewell oration and lament and singing of 'E pare ra' expressed the grief and gratitude felt by local Ngati Kahungunu.

Although Wattie Industries was a thriving memorial to him, the directors decided that a more tangible one would be a permanent annual grant to the Sir James Wattie Memorial Visiting Professorship for the Advancement of Medical Science. 'Perhaps his greatest attribute', they reflected, 'was his ability to weld together the strengths of the individuals about him into a team striving for the same goal'. In Hastings he was later honoured by the registration of a Sir James Wattie Memorial Youth Trust funded by public donation to provide help for people under 26, in education, trade or technical training, welfare, character-building pursuits and cultural activities.

How to cite this page:

Mary Boyd. 'Wattie, James', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4w9/wattie-james (accessed 20 June 2018)