Born in New Plymouth on 24 February 1918, Daniel Anthony Watkins was the fifth child and third son of Augustus Edward Watkins, a self-employed accountant, and his wife, Alice Mary Kyngdon. He attended West End School and New Plymouth Boys’ High School, where he excelled in swimming. From 1932 to 1939 he had a series of farming, warehouse and sales jobs, before enlisting at the outbreak of the Second World War. He served in the Middle East with No 4 New Zealand Field Ambulance and at HQ New Zealand Division, but was discharged as medically unfit in November 1942. On 30 December that year, in New Plymouth, he married Betty Eileen Whitcombe, a typist; they were to have two daughters.
Daniel Watkins now joined his brothers Ivon and Harry in their flower, seed and nursery business. Following success producing and marketing a fertiliser they named Fertona, the brothers incorporated their enterprise as Ivon Watkins Limited in 1944. Alerted by an article in the American magazine Seed World to the new plant hormone technology, they ordered Rootone, Fruitone and Transplantone from the American Chemical Paint Company, who also supplied a sample of the weedkiller Weedone (2,4-D). Enthusiastic responses from customers who tested small quantities of this product led Daniel to persuade the American company to give Ivon Watkins Limited its New Zealand agency in 1946. He also organised a conference on weed control and in 1947 hosted a sabbatical visit by A. M. S. Pridham of Cornell University, a leading authority on plant hormone technology, who developed techniques and equipment for New Zealand conditions. From 1948 Daniel developed the company as an agrochemical business, while Ivon specialised in nursery work and Harry built up Watkins Seeds.
Moving progressively from simple distribution to manufacture of the herbicides MCPA, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, Ivon Watkins Limited expanded dramatically during the great post-war growth of New Zealand farm production. Under Daniel’s control the company became New Zealand agent for several large American and European chemical and machinery enterprises. It also invested extensively in research and development, employing a qualified scientist, Brian Gundesen, from 1949, and assisting employee George Mason with doctoral studies at the University of California in 1956. The firm leased a research farm in 1962 and established a research station at Waireka, Taranaki, in 1967. Besides producing detailed promotional and technical material, the company trained a nationwide network of technical sales representatives. Through a host of subsidiaries it diversified into engineering (particularly the production of spray equipment), became a major manufacturer of bulk detergents, and produced and marketed veterinary products, insecticides and timber preservatives. In 1960 Ivon Watkins Limited’s operations, previously scattered in many premises, were concentrated at a purpose-built plant at Paritutu, beside Port Taranaki.
The company’s expansion necessitated ongoing large injections of capital. This was initially provided by New Plymouth business and professional people, including St Leger Reeves and Russell Matthews (chairmen in 1946–49 and 1949–53 respectively), and by the Auckland firm Frank M. Winstone (Merchants) Limited. In 1952 the firm became a public company and eight years later it listed on the stock exchange. In 1958 some shares were issued to the American Chemical Paint Company (later Amchem Products) to replace royalty payments. Other international enterprises expressed interest in investing, and in 1964 Ivon Watkins-Dow Limited (IWD) was formed, with the Dow Chemical Company of Michigan holding a 50 per cent share. In 1973 Dow acquired control by purchasing shares held by Amchem. IWD faced mounting public controversy from the 1960s, repeatedly denying allegations that its products were used in the manufacture of defoliants used by American forces in Vietnam. It also devoted considerable resources to defending the safety of 2,4,5-T against the claims of environmental campaigners; Watkins himself maintained strongly that the product was safe.
In 1978 Daniel Watkins withdrew from day-to-day operations in the company, but remained chairman (having held that post since 1970). He acted as a business consultant, owned the Endeavour Travel agency and chaired the New Plymouth-based Horticultural Producers and Packers Co-operative Limited. He was also active in many organisations, including the National Research Advisory Council, one of the National Development Conference’s working committees, the New Zealand Institute of Management and the Trades Promotion Council. He was a member of the Taranaki Harbour Board (1977–82), president of the New Zealand Horticultural Trades Association and of the Pacific Basin Economic Council, and vice president of the Wellington Manufacturers’ Association. His recreational interests included woodwork (which cost him a finger), swimming, deep-sea fishing and travel.
Daniel Watkins died on 22 February 1982 of a heart attack while working on his holiday home at Simpsons Beach, Whitianga. He was survived by his wife and daughters. An exuberant individual and a great raconteur with a lively sense of humour, Watkins was an excellent salesman and an enthusiastic businessman. Seizing the opportunity to enter the new field of agrochemicals in the mid 1940s, he developed a major, although increasingly controversial, science-based manufacturing industry.