Gordon Alexander Brown was born at Turakina, near Wanganui, on 28 November 1907, one of 12 children of Annie Cains and her husband, John Robert Brown, a flaxmill worker. Gordon initially attended Tokomaru School, but after his father became an auctioneer in Palmerston North during the First World War, he attended West End School and Palmerston North Technical School, leaving at the age of 13 to work for the Manawatu Daily Times. His next position, as office boy for the local legal firm of Loughnan and Jacobs, provided him with the training that by 1934 allowed him to open his own business as public secretary and accountant in Broadway, Palmerston North. On 30 December 1931, in Palmerston North, Gordon Brown married Margaret Lillian Higgins. The couple were to have four children, one of whom died in infancy.
Through reading about socialism and the co-operative movement, Gordon Brown became an advocate of the principles and benefits of co-operation. He was among the seven people who met on 7 April 1935 to establish the Manawatū Co-operative Society. Their intention was to open co-operative retail stores to make quality groceries available at reasonable prices. Brown joined the provisional committee and was elected to the inaugural management committee on 27 September 1935, becoming honorary secretary. After widespread fund-raising and recruiting of members, the first shop opened on 14 November 1935. Three butcheries and a bakery also opened in the pre-war period.
In September 1935 he was elected to the board of the national organisation for consumers’ co-operation, the Co-operative Alliance. He became managing secretary of the newly renamed Consumers’ Co-operative Society (Manawatū) Limited in 1937 and general manager in 1952. Approximately 30 similar co-operatives were started in New Zealand during the 1930s, but most failed. The Manawatū venture, by contrast, was successful and longstanding. In 1969 W. A. Poole, an economist, noted that ‘Manawatū has a general manager who would make a success of any enterprise – and he has been there from the outset’. During nearly 40 years under Brown’s management, the Manawatū co-operative grew from a small grocery business to a remarkably successful organisation, peaking in the 1960s with over 30,000 members and 40 different shops and enterprises throughout the greater Manawatū district. It was the largest business in the district and a major employer. Brown was widely known as ‘Mr Co-op’.
He had a number of other long-term interests. His involvement with rugby lasted for 60 years. He joined the Kia Toa Rugby Football Club in 1922, and was a capable club player. After a short period as coach of a lower grade team, he soon moved into rugby administration, becoming prominent at local, regional and national levels. He was on the club committee from 1926 and secretary-treasurer from 1928. He was secretary of the Manawatū Rugby Football Union (1939–45), vice president (1947–50), president (1951–52), and then chairman until 1957. He became a life member of Kia Toa in 1938 and of the MRFU in 1957. He was a member of the council of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (1950–56), and became vice president (1957–58) and president (1959). He managed the 1958 New Zealand Colts’ tour to Japan, and in 1959 hosted the first International Rugby Football Board meeting to be held outside Britain.
Gordon Brown was elected to the Palmerston North City Council in 1968, and was deputy mayor from 1974 to 1976. He served on most of the council committees, including a period as deputy chairman of the finance committee, but was most proud of his nine years as chairman of the parks and reserves committee. During this time, many of Palmerston North’s sporting facilities were developed or improved. In particular, Brown took a key part in the negotiations to transfer the Palmerston North showgrounds from the underfunded agricultural and pastoral association to the council in 1974. Under his chairmanship (until 1979), the new board of control was able to transform the rundown showgrounds into a showplace for local, national and international sporting events, particularly rugby. This was his most significant contribution as a local body politician.
However, Brown found it difficult to work with other councillors. While he was industrious, trustworthy and often helpful, he could also be intolerant and short-tempered. As a strongly opinionated, determined and individual leader, he was frequently uncomfortable with group decision-making, a feeling which led to his resignation from the council in 1977.
Gordon Brown represented Manawatū on the Wellington Harbour Board from 1956 to 1971, and was a director (from 1973) and deputy chairman (from 1975) of the Bank of New Zealand. From his retirement in 1972 until 1974 he was executive director of the Consumers’ Co-operative Society (Manawatū) Limited and he was chairman of the board of directors from 1979. He became a keen bowler, and served on the executive of the Palmerston North Bowling Club for many years. An enthusiastic supporter of the New Zealand Labour Party, he held various positions in the Palmerston North branch during his 50 years as a member. Although he refused to stand for Parliament, he assisted in several successful election campaigns. He served as a justice of the peace, and was made an OBE in 1975 for services to the community and sport.
Gordon Brown died on 16 July 1982 in Palmerston North, survived by his wife, Margaret, two daughters and a son. His funeral was held in the Kia Toa Rugby Clubrooms, and his ashes were scattered on the rugby pitch at the showgrounds. His main legacy to Manawatū, the Consumers’ Co-operative, had been declining as a consequence of increasing competition from supermarkets and became a casualty of the 1987 sharemarket crash. It ceased trading in 1988.