Most of New Zealand’s early large companies were involved in providing financial services. Overseas banks included the Bank of New South Wales, the Union Bank of Australia, the National Bank of New Zealand and the Bank of Australasia. There were also two significant local banks, the Colonial Bank with 20 branches, and the Bank of New Zealand (established in 1861) which had over 100 branches. In the late 1800s each of these banks had capitalisations of more than £1 million (over $170 million in 2009 terms).
The company man
Agents of stock and station companies were often very familiar with their rural clients. Agents became ‘a man’s man, a ladies man, a model husband, a fatherly father, a good provider, a Nationalist, a staunch Labour man, a Social Credit disciple, a Catholic, a technician, a politician, a mathematician, an all-round mechanic and, on occasion, a Communist.’1
Other significant financial institutions included stock and station agents and insurance companies. Most stock and stations agents were provincial, but two – Dalgetys and Wright Stephenson – operated on a national basis. Dalgetys, the National Mortgage Agency (established in 1864) and the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency (founded in 1865) were all British-owned. They provided funds for land development. Wright Stephenson (established in 1861) was the most important of the New Zealand-owned firms. It has been headed by a number of key business figures – William Hunt, Clifford Plimmer and Ron Trotter. New Zealand Insurance (established in 1859) and South British Insurance (established in 1872) were large companies operating out of Auckland. By 1961 New Zealand Insurance was first, and South British Insurance third, in terms of market capitalisation on the stock exchange. The two companies merged in 1981.
Lots of breweries
In 1891 New Zealand had 102 breweries. Poor transport meant that high-bulk low-value products like beer were confined to local or regional markets. Some larger breweries did exist in the major metropolitan markets – Dunedin had Speights, Wellington had McCarthys, and Auckland had Campbell, Ehrenfried, Great Northern and Hancocks.
Poor land transport
In the late 1800s it was difficult to transport goods between cities, and costs were high. Small- to medium-scale factories arose in each of the main settlements, rather than one or two large factories serving the whole country. In 1911 there were 433 private companies in New Zealand and 566 public companies. Few of these companies were large, and many operated in the same industries – just in different cities.
Breweries were often linked to importers, providing alcoholic liquors as well as New Zealand-made beer. Each urban area had its own breweries. This regional pattern remained in many industries, including coachbuilding, baking and newspapers, up until the 1920s. From the 1920s many industries followed a pattern of acquisitions and mergers, and small entrepreneurial firms grew into large ones trading in all parts of the country. It was only in 1923 that New Zealand Breweries, incorporating the 10 largest breweries, formed. Auckland-based Dominion Breweries emerged as the other major player in the 1930s.
Large companies that serviced New Zealand consumers often processed imports, and company ownership was shared by overseas suppliers. Many banks, financial institutions and shipping companies were owned overseas. Local competitors (whether government or private sector) provided a check so that large overseas companies could not monopolise the market. Railways were almost entirely owned by the government.