Old white man of the day

Sir James Wattie at right, with the can.


James Wattie was born on 23 March 1902 in Hawarden, North Canterbury. Most of James’s primary education was at rural schools in Tuamarina, Blenheim and the Wairau Valley. In Blenheim he earned five shillings a week delivering milk twice daily.

Jim Wattie, as he was always known to his friends, was remembered by a fellow pupil as being ‘pretty bright’, but he did not go on to high school.[…]

In 1920 he was promoted to the position of assistant accountant, and in 1924 was appointed accountant for Roach’s, the leading department store in the province. On 25 March 1925 he married one of their shop assistants, Gladys Madeline Henderson. Later that year he became secretary, and in 1928 manager, of Hawke’s Bay Fruitgrowers.

Since the closure of J. N. Williams’s Frimley Fruit Canning Factory in 1913, local growers had concentrated on cool storage and producing pip fruit for the export trade. The problem of surplus fruit rotting on the ground remained. In August 1934 Wattie heard through Harold Carr, a young local accountant, that Whittome, Stevenson and Company of Auckland were contemplating importing jam pulp from Tasmania. They called on Colonel J. P. Stevenson, who agreed to give them the business provided they could match the Tasmanians in quality, price and assurance of delivery.

Hawke’s Bay Fruitgrowers lacked the money to get into the business but agreed to Wattie and Carr forming a syndicate and trying to build a plant. They canvassed local businessmen, asking them to put £25 into bonds and to regard it as a ‘help-the-district charity rather than an investment’. In two days they collected £1,250. They rented an old cottage on the Hawke’s Bay Fruitgrowers’ property, installed a second-hand steam boiler and about £700 worth of equipment, and delivered jam pulp to Whittome, Stevensons; they also canned peaches and pears, which sold well. By the end of their first year they had increased their subscribed capital to £9,565 and netted a profit of £892. They took over land, buildings and plant from Hawke’s Bay Fruitgrowers and registered as J. Wattie Canneries, with Wattie as managing director and Carr as secretary.

After inspecting the Australian canning industry, Wattie persuaded his board to erect a new factory, install modern plant and make a three-year contract with a group of six large merchants for the sale of 50,000 cases of canned produce a year. Supplies of fruit and vegetables were obtained from local contract growers and a leased farm. Watties thrived on diversification of crops, which provided security when yields were hard hit by frost. Wartime contracts to supply Britain and local and American military forces accelerated growth.

Wattie was a versatile and tough captain of industry with a shrewd eye for an opening and a feel for the market. He appreciated the importance of promotion and advertising, and of planning. After the war, on almost yearly visits overseas and trade missions, he sought out new markets, modern machinery and up-to-date methods. Wattie understood growers’ problems and had the foresight to initiate a research unit. An outspoken advocate of private enterprise, he overtook and stayed ahead of his competitors and came to dominate food processing. By the 1950s cans and packages bearing his signature on their labels had found their way into most New Zealand homes; by the 1960s they were being widely distributed overseas.

As the industry grew, Watties employed a large percentage of the district’s workers. Hastings became something of a company town and James Wattie something of a legend. He was prepared to work in any section of the factory where help was needed. Very successful in obtaining and managing workers, for many years he knew them all personally. Even in his last few years he would walk through the factory or sit down in the cafeteria mixing with staff. He appreciated an honest day’s work but bawled out any slackers. To him the greatest thing in life was the sense of achievement that went with success.

The extent to which local people depended on Wattie for employment and prosperity and the fund of loyalty, goodwill and support he could command from them were dramatically revealed on 19 February 1962 when fire destroyed two-thirds of the factory buildings at the height of the processing season. Assistance poured in from friends and competitors, and in less than 50 hours the factory was back in production and the framework for a new one was rising.

In recognition of his company’s achievements in New Zealand and the establishment of markets overseas, Wattie was invested with a CBE in 1963, and knighted in 1966. A modest, approachable, considerate and generous man, he was quick to share the credit and acknowledge the goodwill and support he received from others.

Watties Sauce

Do you want:

  • Ad-free access?
  • Access to our very popular daily crossword?
  • Access to daily sudoku?
  • Access to Incite Politics magazine articles?
  • Access to podcasts?
  • Access to political polls?

Our subscribers’ financial support is the reason why we have been able to offer our latest service; Audio blogs. 

Click Here  to support us and watch the number of services grow.

WH is a pale, stale, male who does not believe all the doom and gloom climate nonsense so enjoys generating CO2 that the plants need to grow by driving his MG.

To read my previous articles click on my name in blue.

Listen to this post:
Voiced by Amazon Polly