Woolf Fisher was born in Wellington on 20 May 1912, the eldest of six children of Jewish parents Michael Fisher and his wife, Fanny Dabscheck. His father, who owned the bakery and general store in Paraparaumu, was from Riga, Latvia, then part of Russia; his mother was born in Victoria, Australia. They led a rural life and at an early age Woolf showed a particular ability to handle horses. The family moved to Wellington, then later to Auckland, where he attended Mount Albert Grammar School in 1926–27.
By the 1930s Woolf Fisher was working as a salesman selling confectionery on commission. He was also an agent for the importing firm Paykel Brothers. When the parents of his close friend Maurice Paykel found themselves with a surplus of refrigerators, Fisher offered to sell those they did not want. After selling the first in Whāngārei he realised there was a future in importing refrigerators. In January 1934 Woolf and his father, together with Maurice Paykel and his father, George, formed the company of Fisher and Paykel. Woolf’s contribution was £40 and a £210 loan on his 1928 De Soto car. The close personal and business relationship between the families was sealed when Woolf Fisher married Maurice’s sister, Joyce Paykel, at the Auckland synagogue on 12 September 1935.
Fisher and Paykel expanded into importing Maytag washing machines and the new Kelvinator refrigerators, and also assembled radios. In 1938, with the introduction of import controls, the company decided to manufacture its own products. It operated from various premises until a factory was opened in Lorne Street, Auckland, in 1945. During the Second World War it supplied refrigeration to the army and after 1945 it developed innovative methods in low-volume production and in insulation of refrigeration walls.
In the mid 1960s the firm moved to a larger purpose-built factory in Mount Wellington. At a time of uncertainty over Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community and its possible effects on future supplies, Fisher and Paykel made a decision to develop their own technology, and began to design and manufacture appliances to suit the New Zealand market. This began a period of expansion and advancement that earned the company international recognition. Between 1967 and 1971 its earnings from exports rose from $500,000 to $2.4 million. In 1972 a new refrigerator factory was opened in East Tāmaki, and its head office was later moved there. Woolf Fisher, together with Maurice Paykel, continued to lead the company until his death in 1975. An emphasis on staff welfare – employees were provided with excellent meals and conditions – and Fisher’s easy personal relationship with his workers contributed to the company’s enviable industrial relations record.
Throughout his life Fisher maintained his interest in horses, hunting with the Pakuranga Hunt, playing polo and becoming a prominent racehorse owner and breeder. In 1940 Woolf and Joyce had bought a farm in Mount Wellington, where in 1950 they founded Rā Ora stud, with two brood-mares and the stallion Underwood. The large old farmhouse and the couple’s wonderful hospitality made Rā Ora a favourite visiting place for family, friends and overseas guests. Although they had no children, the Fishers enjoyed entertaining young people. In 1951 Woolf imported Gabador, who was to sire El Khobar and Gabrielle. Fisher was also responsible for Akbar, a 1951 Melbourne Cup contestant. Ra Ora grew into a large and important stud, and in 1962 moved to 177 acres in East Tāmaki. He revived the Auckland Polo Club in 1955 and was a member of the committee of the Auckland Racing Club from 1958, serving as its president in 1974–75.
Fisher’s business acumen was recognised by the government, which chose him to head a trade mission to Australia in 1959. In 1960 he was asked to chair the New Zealand Steel Investigating Company to report on the viability of smelting iron-sands. After 2½ years’ study, it recommended a site in South Auckland, based on the iron-sands of the Waikato north head. A provisional board was formed and in July 1965 New Zealand Steel Limited was incorporated, with Fisher as its first chairman; he served until his retirement in 1974. The company’s operation at Glenbrook was named the Woolf Fisher Works in appreciation of his efforts. In keeping with his management ideals his office was always accessible to employees.
In 1960 he founded the Woolf Fisher Trust to enable post-primary schoolteachers and principals to study overseas on full pay. Fisher added to the endowment before his death, and 756 fellowships had been provided by 1997. Fisher and Paykel had sent six young employees on New Zealand’s first Outward Bound course in February 1961, and on the formation of the Outward Bound Trust of New Zealand in March that year, Woolf became its first president. When a suitable site at Anakiwa, Queen Charlotte Sound, came on the market, he took up the option until its purchase could be confirmed.
He was involved in many other organisations, including the Auckland Hebrew Congregation trust board, the Rotary Club of Auckland, the New Zealand Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. In 1964 he was knighted for his contribution to industry and philanthropy. Woolf Fisher died on 12 January 1975 at his holiday home in Rotorua; he was survived by his wife, Joyce.