Story: Clark, Thomas Edwin

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Clark, Thomas Edwin

1916–2005

Industrialist

This biography, written by Margaret McClure, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019.

Tom Clark was one of New Zealand’s leading twentieth-century industrialists, and the driving force behind Crown Lynn pottery. As one of the fourth generation of Clarks to manufacture brick and pipes, he branched out to pioneer the mass production of tableware in New Zealand. He ran New Zealand’s largest pottery and turned it into a national icon. His zest for innovation also helped transform New Zealand’s sailing industries, while his alliance with Peter Blake culminated in New Zealand’s extraordinary successes in Whitbread Round the World races and the America’s Cup, the world’s premier yachting trophy. He had enormous self-confidence, claiming of other leaders, ‘I could eat those guys for breakfast.’1

Early years

Thomas Edwin Clark II was born in Hobsonville on 6 August 1916, the sixth child of eight born to Thomas Edwin Clark and his wife Margaret Morison. Tom was educated at Hobsonville Primary School and King’s College, Auckland. His education was cut short at the age of 14 in 1931 when his father, manager of the Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company, withdrew him from school after laying off more than 200 staff because of the depression. Tom began work at his father’s firm as a labourer, digging clay, loading, firing and unloading kilns. At 21 he gained experience as deputy manager of the company’s Kamo factory, before returning to the company’s pipe plant in New Lynn as assistant general manager.

Pioneering pottery

Imagining other possibilities for clay, Tom won the support of his board of directors and £5000 to establish an experimental Porcelain Specialties Department (or Specials Department). Tom managed the Department, working closely with Ray Ockleston. Forced to innovate because of the distance from overseas potteries, Tom read widely, and adapted machinery used in other industries or invented his own. The Department’s first product was acid-resistant tiles for dairy factories and abattoirs, and it soon diversified into chamber pots, moulds for the manufacture of rubber gloves and other products. If Tom saw a potential market, his team found a way to make it. Their first major success came in the late 1930s with porcelain components for the reticulation of electricity throughout New Zealand.

Wartime import restrictions and the company’s designation as an essential industry opened the way for the Specials Department to manufacture tableware for New Zealand and Australia. Clark and his team designed a continuous tunnel kiln. Once this was built Clark won a contract to supply bowls and mugs for the United States troops in the Pacific, set up a laboratory, and scoured New Zealand for the best clays. Even on his honeymoon he could not resist chewing samples by the roadside to test for plasticity and grit. A contract with the Railways Department followed; heavy cups with handles that fell off haunted the company’s reputation for more than a decade before the problem was conquered. New markets opened up in Australia, where almost half the company’s output was sold during the war.

Post-war

From the late 1940s Tom worked to build upon the pottery’s wartime growth. For the rest of his career he spent several months each year gathering ideas in factories in Europe, Japan and the United States. In 1946 he bought machinery in England, where he began recruiting skilled craftsmen and women to revolutionise the primitive processes in his own factory. No sooner had he invested in specialist staff and equipment than the Labour government revalued the New Zealand currency; he faced the first of many setbacks when most of the company’s export orders to Australia were cancelled. In 1946 the Specials Department was renamed AMBRICO, with Tom as its managing director; in 1948 it became a separate company called Crown Lynn Potteries Ltd – honouring its base in New Lynn while hinting at royal endorsement.

In the early 1950s Clark welcomed immigrant designers such as Frank Carpay who added a contemporary edge to Crown Lynn’s range, but failed to sway the public’s preference for English rosebuds. Clark worked hard to overcome his customers’ suspicion of locally made crockery, placing potters at the wheel to demonstrate their work at shows. The winning entries in annual design awards were incorporated in new lines of dinnerware. He introduced factory tours in 1961, and encouraged inventive shop displays (such as resting a Mini on four Crown Lynn cups in 1964). His masterstroke was Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Crown Lynn factory in 1963. Suddenly Crown Lynn pottery was in demand.

Heyday

Crown Lynn’s prosperity was built, in part, on import controls protecting the pottery industry, and Clark lobbied successive governments to keep these in place. The Holyoake government established a tariff board in 1961, and Crown Lynn was one of the first manufacturers to win its case for ongoing protection. Full-scale mass production followed under Clark’s ethos of ‘make it faster, better.’2 As Crown Lynn became one of New Zealand’s leading manufacturing export earners, Clark imported one of the country’s first computers to keep track of sales. Exports extended to Canada and the USA; dinnerware went to the Australian armed forces, Air New Zealand, British Airways and Qantas. Locally, the company supplied crockery to many government departments. By 1969, 60 per cent of New Zealand households were buying Crown Lynn ware. A year later – with kilns going night and day – 700 workers were producing 15 million pieces a year.

Challenges

While Clark followed overseas china manufacturers who economised by moving their factories to low-wage countries, Crown Lynn’s ventures into Asia foundered. Back home the pottery, known as Ceramco from 1974, was producing an unsustainably wide range of lines on ageing equipment. Intent on growth, Clark had begun buying up smaller ceramic companies and then diversified into 60 industries ranging from mining to underwear. When the Muldoon government began easing import controls in the late 1970s, the company’s days were numbered. In the face of falling sales and difficulties operating in a deregulated environment, Ceramco’s major shareholders Alan Gibbs and Charles Bidwill closed Crown Lynn in 1989. Tom had retired from his role as Ceramco’s managing director in 1984, but remained on its parent company’s board until 1993. He was inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame in 1997.

Buccaneer

Tom was a risk-taker in every field. He raced Grand Prix cars until he nearly died after crashing a Ferrari Super Squalo at Bathurst, Australia, in 1957. When he turned to sailing, he needed ‘something that would get up and go’.3 He worked with maverick John Spencer, who was designing ultra-light plywood displacement boats that outpaced traditional A-class keelers. Clark dominated Auckland harbour racing with Saracen and Infidel before moving into off-shore racing. In 1970 he commissioned Spencer to build the 22-metre Buccaneer, New Zealand’s first maxi-yacht. This won line honours in that year’s Sydney to Hobart race, and Clark went on to compete successfully on the international ocean-racing circuit.

In the late 1970s Tom Clark relinquished the wheel of Buccaneer and became the driving force behind New Zealand ocean sailing. He commissioned Bruce Farr’s Ceramco New Zealand to publicise his company, and backed Peter Blake to skipper it in the 1981–82 Whitbread Round the World Race. Ceramco New Zealand lost a mast on the first leg, but Clark organised subsequent campaigns and co-ordinated a range of funders, including Doug Myers of Lion Breweries. Under Blake’s leadership these efforts culminated in Steinlager II’s extraordinary success in 1989–90. The maxi-ketch won all six legs of the Whitbread race as well as the overall prize.

Tom remained a close mentor of Blake, who he recruited to manage New Zealand’s America’s Cup bid in 1992. As a trustee and director of Team New Zealand from 1993 to 2001, he supported Blake’s leadership of New Zealand’s first successful challenge for the Cup in 1995 and the defence of the Cup in 2000. When Blake was killed on the Amazon in 2001, Tom felt that he had lost a son. 

Family life

Tom married his first wife, Joan Mary Hodgson, on 20 August 1938 at All Saints’ Church in Ponsonby, Auckland. The couple had four children before divorcing on 12 November 1953. On the same day he married Josephine Mary Buckley at the Registrar’s Office in Auckland; they had three children. After Josephine’s death on 6 August 1962, Tom married schoolteacher Patricia Mary France in St Stephen’s Church, Ponsonby on 3 September 1963; they had three children. 

Later years

Tom Clark was knighted in 1985 for services to manufacturing, export, sport and the community. His manufacturing heritage is honoured in Te Toi Uku Museum in New Lynn, in the names of Clark Street and Ambrico Place, and in the homes of thousands of Crown Lynn collectors. His sporting spirit endures in the strength of New Zealand’s competitive sailing.

In retirement, Tom commissioned an award-winning house at South Head, Kaipara that included features in brick and pipe to celebrate his family tradition. The only Crown Lynn piece Tom coveted and bought was a Frank Carpay plate, ‘the one thing’, he said ‘I was very, very proud of’.4 He and Patricia created extensive gardens and took on a new business venture farming deer. Tom Clark died in Auckland on 14 June 2005, aged 88. Yachtsmen and sailing colleagues bore his coffin into the crowded Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Auckland; his sons carried him out while a waiata rang from the gallery. He was survived by Lady Patricia and nine of his ten children.

Footnotes:
  1. Tom Clark. Transcript of interview by Valerie Ringer Monk, 8 September 2004, p.13. Private collection. Back
  2. Tom Clark. Transcript of interview by Valerie Ringer Monk, 1 February 2005, p.5. Private collection Back
  3. Quoted in Graham Reid. ‘The old man and the sea’. New Zealand Herald, 30 June 2000 Back
  4. Tom Clark. Transcript of interview by Valerie Ringer Monk, 10 March 2005, p.15. Private collection Back
How to cite this page:

Margaret McClure. 'Clark, Thomas Edwin', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2019. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6c6/clark-thomas-edwin (accessed 19 September 2019)