New Zealand’s early entrepreneurs

24 July 2015 / Published in Your Community

This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald as part of the 175th Auckland Anniversary celebrations with ASB and Auckland Council.

To celebrate the announcement of the finalists of the Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards we’re sharing the stories of some of New Zealand’s earliest entrepreneurs. ASB is a sponsor of the Entrepreneur Of The Year programme and we were proud to hold the announcement event at ASB North Wharf.

Tom Clark of Crown Lynn

Tom Clark (right), Crown Lynn managing director, at the helm of his famed racing yacht Buccaneer. Photo / File

It's fitting that the "auld mug" of Sir Tom Clark is immortalised in a Toby character jug made by Crown Lynn.

The unglazed, white clay cup bearing his jovial face - on display in the Auckland Museum - was made for Sir Tom when he retired as managing director of Crown Lynn in 1984. It celebrated more than half a century of commitment to a company he transformed from making sewer pipes to setting iconic dinner plates on most New Zealand tables.

The sailor's cap he is wearing on the cup is also fitting - an ardent sailor, Clark was a mentor to Sir Peter Blake and a loyal supporter of New Zealand round-the-world and America's Cup campaigns.

Clark's tale as one of Auckland's great entrepreneurs began in 1931 when he was pulled out of school aged 14, to dig in the clay pits of his father's Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company (Ambrico) in West Auckland, also learning the ropes of business.

After struggling through the Depression, he encouraged the company to diversify - first into floor tiles and electrical insulators, then crockery.

During World War II, the country began running out of tableware, traditionally imported from England. Ambrico started making sturdy bowls and mugs for the US Army and cups and saucers for NZ Railways. Although he'd never made a cup before, Clark researched, designed and built his own tunnel kiln.

"This was the first time it had been done in New Zealand. I thought then it was marvellous but actually it was terrible stuff," Clark said years later. At first, the cup handles kept falling off, but Clark loved a challenge.

By 1948, Clark had built the largest pottery in the Southern Hemisphere. He changed its name to Crown Lynn - from crown, synonymous with English quality, and the pottery's home in New Lynn. Crown Lynn became a Kiwi icon as the ceramics became more decorated, innovative and in demand.

At its peak in the early 1970s, Crown Lynn made 15 million pieces a year. But two decades later, the factory closed, unable to compete with cheap imported ceramics. Clark, knighted in 1986, had again diversified - this time into different industry sectors, including transport, engineering and even lingerie - and renamed the company Ceramco. He died in 2005, aged 88.

Last week, a new museum - Te Toi Uku, The Art of Clay - opened in New Lynn to preserve thousands of pieces of Crown Lynn's heritage.

Mary Jane Milne of Milne & Choyce

Mary Jane Milne. Photo / Supplied

Well ahead of their time, some of early Auckland's captains of industry were businesswomen. Mary Jane Milne and her sister Charlotte created a business in the central city that would be a household name for upmarket fashion for over a century.

After emigrating from Ireland in 1863, Mary Jane found work as a milliner, making beautiful hats for a local store. Four years later, she and Charlotte opened their own haberdashery and drapery business. It flourished, despite an economic recession, and became known as Milne & Choyce, when Charlotte's husband Henry Choyce became managing director.

By 1909, Milne & Choyce was firmly established on Queen St, and Mary Jane would live to see it become a seven-storey department store. The modernistic Mary Jane drove to work each day in a Darracq twin-cylinder car she bought in 1903. She never married but became guardian of her brother's four children.

John Whitney of the Colonial Ammunition Company

Major John Whitney, who started the Colonial Ammunition Company. Photo / Auckland War Memorial Museum

Major John Whitney was a sharpshooter, with an eye for an opportunity. When New Zealand feared a Russian invasion, Whitney was quick to answer the call for arms.

Whitney served in the British Army before emigrating to New Zealand with his family in 1884. Soon after, Russian forces seized part of Afghanistan; the British Empire prepared for war and Whitney volunteered for Auckland's colonial forces.

Discovering New Zealand was low on ammunition stocks, Whitney set to work - with the government's encouragement - making cartridges for soldiers' Snider rifles. To prove his ammunition's merit, Whitney won a shooting competition, according to the Herald, and "created a world record for rapid rifle fire".

Based in Mt Eden, Whitney and Sons became known as the Colonial Ammunition Company, and soon opened another factory in Melbourne. It was the largest ammunitions manufacturer in Australasia, providing millions of rounds of .303 cartridges to the Anzacs throughout the Great War. Production of cartridges for World War II abruptly moved to Hamilton after a plane, suspected to be Japanese, was spotted flying over the Auckland factory. Most of the CAC workforce, especially in wartime, were women.

Whitney, a father of six, was a canny entrepreneur, who knew his business had to diversify to survive. CAC began making sports-gun ammunition, then branched out to aluminium pie dishes, lipstick cases, bottle tops, and even, in the 1960s, canned toheroa shellfish.

After Whitney died in 1932, aged 96, his company continued for half a century.

Today, the bluestone company bulk store is the CAC Bar and Eatery. Next door is the historic shot tower, where molten lead was dropped from 30 metres to create spherical lead pellets for hunters' shells.

Marianne Caughey Smith of Smith & Caughey’s

Marianne Caughey Smith. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

Another Irish-born entrepreneur, Marianne Caughey Smith, opened her drapery shop on Queen St in 1880 and it remains an Auckland institution today as Smith & Caughey.

Soon after arriving in New Zealand, she started Smith's Cheap Drapery Warehouse; within two years, husband William and her brother Andrew Caughey, a draper, had joined her in business. Smith & Caughey's became an upscale department store. Following her husband's death in 1912, Marianne Caughey Smith finally became a director.

This self-made, very private woman was also one of Auckland's most generous benefactors. Always involved in mission work, she gifted orphanages and a convalescent home for women and children, and gave two parks to the city - Quinton Park in Bayswater and Craigavon Park, Green Bay. When she died in 1938 (after marrying the Reverend Raymond Preston), most of her estate went to setting up care facilities for the elderly in Remuera.

Maurice Paykel and Woolf Fisher of Fisher & Paykel

Woolf Fisher and Maurice Paykel. Photo / Supplied

Maurice Paykel and Woolf Fisher were good friends whose families fled anti-Semitism in Russia in the late 19th century and eventually settled in Auckland. They also became family when Fisher married Paykel's sister Joan.

But the seed for their pioneering business venture was planted by Paykel's mother Olive, when she asked husband George to import a new-fangled refrigerator she'd seen in an American magazine. Fisher, a young travelling confectionery salesman, began selling the extra fridges that Maurice Paykel's parents didn't need.

Fisher immediately saw a demand and convinced Paykel - who'd originally wanted to be a farmer - to join forces in a company importing the latest whiteware to enhance the lives of Kiwi families.

In 1934, Fisher & Paykel set up shop in Queen's Arcade and did a roaring trade. When the Government introduced tough import restrictions in 1938, the partners decided to start manufacturing their own appliances - first under licence, then under their own brand-name. During World War II, the company thrived as washing machines and refrigerators were declared an essential industry.

Business historian Ian Hunter told the Herald that by 1949, they could barely keep up with demand - churning out 600 washing machines, 500 refrigerators and 700 vacuum cleaners each month.

Developing their own technology became Fisher & Paykel's point of difference - polyurethane foam insulation, pre-painted steel cabinetry and dishwashers with drawers among their many innovations.

The friends ran the company together, moving it out of the city to large factories in Mt Wellington, then East Tamaki, and building a strong export market.

Both men were philanthropists - Fisher supporting young people and education; Paykel a benefactor of medical research.

An astute businessman, Fisher was also the first chairman of New Zealand Steel and a horse breeder; he was knighted Sir Woolf in 1964. When Fisher died in 1975, Paykel took leadership of the firm; renowned as a caring employer, he was still involved until his death in 2002.

Amy Hellaby of R & W Hellaby

Amy Hellaby. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library

Amy Hellaby's success as a leading Auckland businesswoman was born out of tragedy. At 38, she was left at the helm of one of New Zealand's largest private companies and the guardian of 11 children.

Born Amy Briscoe in England in 1864, her first taste of New Zealand was the Chatham Islands, where she moved with her trader father. She was sent to boarding school in Ponsonby and later married butcher Richard Hellaby; he'd set up a thriving butchery business, which grew to be the largest in the country by 1900.

That year, Hellaby's brother and sister-in-law died suddenly and the Hellabys, who had six children, took on the responsibility of five nephews and nieces. Two years later, the hard-working Richard died from heart problems and his young wife found herself in charge of R & W Hellaby - already New Zealand's largest exporter of frozen meat.

According to her biography in Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, the stress of heading the business turned Amy's hair white within a few weeks. But she kept the business afloat through World War I, with the Hellaby men running the firm on returning from war. Today the Wilson Hellaby group remains one of the largest domestic meat suppliers in the country.

J.J. Craig of J.J. Craig Ltd

The name John Joseph Craig may not ring bells but it certainly built bricks - and can still be found etched in bricks throughout the city he helped shape. In 1902, TheCyclopaedia of New Zealand noted: "Mr J. J. Craig's business is probably for variety, colossal proportions and industrial enterprise, the champion concern of the Colony."

Craig, born in Auckland in 1860, took over his father's cartage contracting firm in 1885 and began to build his business empire. For the next 45 years, nearly every piece of cargo that arrived at the Port of Auckland was carted by a J.J. Craig horse and cart or vehicle; he kept hundreds of draughthorses in stables near the city wharves.

The industrious Craig extended his commercial interests to shipping, helping to open Auckland to the world of trade with his fleet of sailing ships. He became one of the largest brick-makers in the country - his brick and pottery works in Avondale could turn out 90,000 bricks a day - and his lime business made the mortar that bound many of Auckland's significant buildings. He also had interests in coal and gold mines, and was a generous benefactor.


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