Theodore Nisbet Gibbs was born at Whangaroa, Northland, on 3 February 1896, the son of Richard Solloway Gibbs, a shipwright, and his wife, Gertrude Mabel Nisbet. His ancestors on both sides were early settlers in the north. Soon after his birth his parents became officers of the Salvation Army, and during his first nine years they lived in many parts of New Zealand. Then, in 1905, in Lyttelton, his father reverted to his trade. By 1909 the family had shifted to Christchurch. There they joined the independent Richmond Mission, which had a pacifist and sectarian outlook.
After leaving Christchurch Boys’ High School, TN (as he was known) worked at the Drapery and General Importing Company of New Zealand (DIC) before becoming a junior law clerk in April 1911 at Meares and Williams, solicitors, in Gloucester Street. During the First World War he became managing clerk in the absence of many experienced staff overseas. He was also a conscientious objector, but because of his poor eyesight did not have to test his convictions before the court. In 1920 he left the firm to establish his own business as a public accountant, sharebroker and company secretary, retaining many of his existing clients. He quickly built up his business and by 1935 employed 16 staff in his offices in Nisbet House on Hereford Street.
Gibbs became a member of the Stock Exchange, a council member of the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce, and a fellow of the Royal Economic Society, London. In 1933, when legislation requiring auditors to join the New Zealand Society of Accountants was imminent, he negotiated on behalf of non-members. He was highly regarded as an authority on taxation: in 1932 Whitcombe and Tombs had published his sober and meticulous 60-page booklet Unemployment taxation simply explained , which was critical of some features of the tax. In 1933 he and F. G. Oborn, a local tax inspector, wrote A guide to income tax in New Zealand , which had three subsequent supplements, the last in 1936.
On 28 June 1927, in Wellington, Gibbs married Melbourne-born Elsie Gordon Ogilvie, a nurse, who had come to New Zealand in 1919; they were to have three boys and two girls. She had been one of the founders of the New Zealand Nurses’ Christian Union (later the New Zealand Nurses’ Christian Fellowship) in 1924, and was dominion president from 1948 to 1951. Her keen interest in evangelical movements was shared by her husband, and their large house at the bottom of the Cashmere Hills was regularly used by the China Inland Mission, the Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions (NZ), and the Crusader Movement of New Zealand. Gibbs became the Christchurch representative and a council member for both the CIM and the Crusaders. His family were members of the Cashmere Presbyterian Church, but they would also travel to Sumner to hear the Anglican Reverend W. A. Orange preach.
In 1935 Gibbs’s financial interests placed him at odds with the new Labour government, and he became intensely interested in public affairs at the expense of his pacifist and prohibitionist views. When the government proposed a graduated land tax in 1936, Gibbs launched the Christchurch Land Tax Committee and denounced the tax as ‘bad in principle, as in practice’. He was a private shareholder of the Bank of New Zealand and a member of the committee that opposed its nationalisation in 1944–45, and became involved in the nascent New Zealand National Party, serving as chairman of the Canterbury division from 1941 to 1947 and working closely with the future prime minister Sidney Holland. He also served as dominion vice president and was something of a power broker within the party.
Gibbs was a shrewd business investor, and found biblical justification for his entrepreneurial activities. He was company secretary of United Sawmills from the 1920s and chairman and managing director of Macduffs, a chain of department stores with its head office in Wellington, from the 1940s. This responsibility led to his family’s move there in 1947. In 1950 Macduffs was sold to Woolworths (NZ) at a great profit, but Gibbs remained managing director of the related Tekau Knitwear. He had purchased J. A. Hazelwood’s general store in Upper Hutt in 1944, and under his second son, Colin, it grew considerably. Among his many other business interests was the Freightways group of companies, which were subsidiaries of an Australian carrying firm.
In Wellington Gibbs was well placed to influence the new National government. His friendship with Holland flourished and he advised various party members on their personal finances. He was appointed chairman of the 1951 Taxation Committee, which was established to design a taxation regime that would encourage economic growth. However, the committee consisted of representatives from various pressure groups and many members, particularly the union spokesman, opposed its recommendations. As a result, its report earned the thanks of the prime minister and minister of finance, Sidney Holland, but the government did not implement many of its proposals. Gibbs was also one of three members on the Maori authorities taxation commission in 1952. The following year he and his eldest son, Ian, entered into partnership with Keith Holyoake’s family to purchase and develop 5,500 acres on the foreshore of Lake Taupo.
Gibbs, who had a reputation for tough financial dealings, was always meticulous in personal appearance. He followed his father’s interest in boats, and his launch, Ikarere , was renowned for its speed. He enjoyed golf, collected Maori artefacts, and was the chairman of directors of Wellington’s Crusader Bookroom, which supplied evangelical literature. He served as honorary consul for Finland (1960–67), and was made a Knight First Class of the Order of the White Rose of Finland by the Finnish government in recognition of his services.
In the 1950s Gibbs and his wife moved to a country home near Otaki. Elsie died in 1965. TN married his cousin, Janet Anne Pittendrigh, in Sydney on 6 June 1966 and later moved to Auckland, where he died on 15 July 1978, survived by his wife and children. He had preferred the back room, but from there he influenced New Zealand’s political, religious and financial trends.