From the 1940s the government embarked on an intense programme of diversifying factory production, while providing protection for existing industries. Under this scheme, local factories that demonstrated they could produce particular goods in New Zealand were shielded from competition. Import licences or prohibitive customs duties limited the importing of overseas goods.
The momentum developed immediately before and during the war continued. Between 1950 and 1955, manufacturing output rose more than 30%. In 1930 there had been 5,047 factories in New Zealand employing 70,625 people; by 1957 this had increased to 8,488 factories employing 156,651 people.
New industries were set up and overseas firms that wanted to maintain access to the New Zealand market began to make goods in New Zealand.
In 1946 international tyre manufacturer Dunlop opened factories in Upper Hutt and Christchurch. Within seven years the company would be one of the largest employers in New Zealand, with more than 700 staff at its two sites. US firm Firestone opened its first New Zealand factory in Christchurch in 1948, and by 1955 had produced one million tyres.
In 1951 English firm McKechnie Brothers started a brass and aluminium extrusion works at New Plymouth (prior to 1953 all aluminium was imported into New Zealand). Seeking to maintain its share of the New Zealand market, English paint manufacturer Lewis Berger established its first New Zealand factory in 1956.
Production in locally owned factories developed in new directions, gathering steam as wartime restrictions were relaxed. Electronics company Tait began making two-way radios in 1949. Import protection kept out cheaper international products, and by the mid-1960s the Tait factory employed around 100 people. Following advances in synthetics, Clearlite Plastics and other manufacturers set up factories to make plastic products, including rainwear, signs and building products. The PDL factory, set up in 1947, made plastic, electrical and consumer goods.
In the 1950s and 1960s the annual reports of the Department of Trade and Industry noted the development of new factories producing new goods. Fork-lift trucks, water-jet engines, forage harvesters, Axminster carpets, wallpaper, aluminium sheet and foil, wood screws, glucose, dextrose, instant coffee and television tubes – each new product confirmed the vigour of the factory sector.
The 1950s and 1960s were the high point of labour-intensive manufacturing in New Zealand. The number of factories with more than 100 workers increased by 43% between 1951 and 1961. The Holeproof factory in Auckland, set up in 1938, had 1,000 staff employed in spinning, knitting, weaving and dying of nylon hosiery in the 1950s. In Hawke’s Bay, Wattie’s, which processed fruit and vegetables, demonstrated not only entrepreneurial flair, but was one of the fastest-growing companies in the 1960s.
By the late 1950s Wattie’s had made New Zealand self-sufficient in canned foods. The company’s factories produced 88 varieties, including fruit, baked beans and pet food. Supplies were so abundant that the company became the world’s largest exporter of canned peas.
Factory expansion was slowed by an ongoing and severe shortage of labour. To deal with this, migration programmes brought in tens of thousands of first skilled and then unskilled workers. Businesses were encouraged by government to employ married women, who had historically been excluded from the workplace, and even pregnant women. Some factories became so desperate that shifts were arranged to fit in with the school day.
There was an increasing concentration of manufacturing in the North Island, consistent with its greater population. By the 1960s more than 70% of factory employment was based there, of which 30% was in the Auckland area.