Ernest Alfred Adams was born in Wellington, Somerset, England, on 23 November 1892, the son of a master baker, Herbert John Adams, and his wife, Eliza Ann Bell. He was educated at Devon County School and Taunton School, but left in 1909 to work for his father. Soon after, however, Herbert Adams went bankrupt and decided to emigrate to Australia. This early experience of hardship had a formative effect on Ernest, and in later life he was to dedicate considerable time and money to education and welfare organisations.
From 1910 Adams worked in his brother’s bakery in Plymouth, before emigrating to Melbourne in 1912 to work for his father. During this period Ernest became a skilled baker, and in 1915 he started his first bakery in Ballarat, Victoria. The previous year, on 19 September, he had married Mary Florinda Larson, in Melbourne. They had a son before she died, along with their second child, in childbirth in 1920. Ernest then moved to Tasmania and set up a bakery partnership. In 1921 he came to New Zealand, bringing his mother-in-law and son from Ballarat. He met his second wife, Jean West, an art student, when he returned to Tasmania to wind up his business interests. After a brief courtship they were married at Derby, Tasmania, on 22 February 1922; they were to have a family of three sons and two daughters.
Soon after his arrival in New Zealand Adams had met Hugh Bruce, a Christchurch baker who was intending to sell his business to retire. Instead they established a partnership, Adams Bruce Limited. Theirs was to become a close business and personal relationship. By 1929 the company had bakeries in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, and its brand of chocolates, ‘Queen Anne’, had become a household name. That year, following Bruce’s retirement, a new company, Ernest Adams Limited, was formed to take over South Island trading, while Adams Bruce was sold to North Island shareholders. However, such was the strength of their friendship that Bruce soon came out of retirement to work for Ernest as the Christchurch factory manager until his death in 1939.
In 1927 Adams set up an innovative insurance scheme to provide retirement benefits for employees, which later developed into a staff superannuation scheme. During the depression, when many companies were retrenching staff, he proposed a company-wide pay cut, starting with himself, to avoid redundancies. He also provided financial assistance to the families of staff who fought in the Second World War. Although he was known for his fairness and generosity, Adams was a firm taskmaster, who expected his staff to maintain his high personal standards.
Under Adams’s stewardship the company survived the depression years, and developed from a chain of small retail shops, through a transition to supermarket trading, to become the largest bakery in the South Island. He maintained its success through uncompromising commitment to quality at an affordable price, and by investing in modern bakery technology. Marketing of the company’s products was supported by extensive newspaper and radio advertising; for many years the well-known radio broadcaster Aunt Daisy endorsed ‘Fether Flake’ pastry.
Throughout his life Adams was involved in a range of community groups. In the late 1930s he began a long association with Cholmondeley Memorial Children’s Home at Governors Bay, Canterbury, and he served on the regional committees of both the New Zealand Crippled Children Society and the New Zealand Branch of the British Empire Cancer Campaign Society. For his community work Adams was made an OBE in 1962. Two years earlier he had set up a trust fund with ten beneficiaries, later reduced to five: the Cholmondeley home, the cancer society (his sister had died of cancer), the Canterbury Aged People’s Welfare Council (for the benefit of Windsor House), the University of Canterbury, and Te Waipounamu Maori Culture Centre. The trust was wound up in 1994 with a substantial return to the beneficiaries.
In his younger days Adams was a keen angler, skier and deer stalker. The family took regular holidays in Arthur’s Pass National Park, where Ernest involved himself fully in the local community. He became an honorary ranger and was a member of the Arthur’s Pass National Park Board from 1948 to 1958; he also became a life member of the Christchurch Ski Club. He served on the Christchurch City Council from 1953 to 1956 and was chairman of the first board of governors of Shirley Boys’ High School. Throughout his life he had a keen and active interest in cameras and cinematography, resulting in a comprehensive photographic record of his company’s history.
Ernest Adams retired as chairman of the company in 1965. He and his wife remained regular visitors to the Christchurch bakery, and Ernest continued to take a keen interest in all facets of the firm’s operation, and the people who worked in it, until his death. He took great pleasure in witnessing the repurchase of Adams Bruce in 1974, making Ernest Adams into a national company. Adams died in Christchurch on 29 August 1976, survived by his wife and children. The success of his bakery business had made him a household name. However, it was his deep commitment to his family, staff, and wider community that had moulded his life.