Obituary: Tom Clark

By Arnold Pickmere

Sir Tom Clark, pioneer industrialist, died aged 88.

In later life Sir Thomas Edwin Clark was known as a patron of New Zealand's international yachting ventures. And also for the extensive garden he created with his wife in the south Kaipara after he retired from other things.

Once described, in 1969, as "big, forceful, direct and outgoing", his main legacy lies more in his contribution to New Zealand's industrial development through the Crown Lynn Pottery (later Ceramco) and his enthusiastic championing of building the country's exports beyond such primary produce as butter, cheese, meat and wool.

He had a zest for life, which nearly ended in a motor racing crash in the 1950s (he drove Formula One at one stage).

He was in hospital for six months.

He turned to yachting (including Saracen, Infidel and Buccaneer, a plywood racing yacht then claimed as the largest in the world). He had Lion New Zealand and Steinlager 2 built for Whitbread Round the World Races, sponsored his friend Sir Peter Blake and later brought him into the triumphant San Diego America's Cup campaign.

He has also been described as instrumental in getting Michael Fay to back the 1986 America's Cup campaign (KZ7) in Fremantle.

There were occasional suggestions during his long business career that Tom Clark had it cushy from the start, because he walked into the family's fourth-generation brick and drainage pipe business. It had started in Hobsonville in West Auckland around the middle of the 1800s.

In fact, it wasn't that easy. In 1929, his father, of identical name, engineered the amalgamation of the family firm with a number of other family brick and tile businesses, resulting in the Amalgamated Brick and Tile Company.

But by 1931, with the Depression biting, Thomas junior was pulled out of Kings College, aged 14, because of the expense. He went to work at the brick plant, where he became "the boy" around the place.

Grey Lynn Potteries grew up in conditions which were normal for the times but which now sound odd.

Early in World War II, New Zealand found itself running out of cups and saucers, because such items were not being imported, nor made locally on any scale.

In Clark's words, "The Government realised if we didn't do something we would be drinking out of jam tins."

Urgent Government orders went out to where Tom Clark junior was running a small New Lynn factory, diversifying from pipes and tiles into floor tiles and insulators.

He had never seen crockery made before but read all he could and, in 1940, designed and built a tunnel kiln and started producing cups.

"This was the first time it had been done in New Zealand. I thought then it was marvellous but actually it was terrible stuff," he recalled in 1969.

Some of early cups lacked handles because he couldn't work out how to attach them successfully. A reputation for handles that broke off pursued Crown Lynn, possibly unfairly, into the 1950s.

After the war considerable improvements came and, by 1948, the company was selling more than half its production to Australia. But in August that year, Minister of Finance Walter Nash changed the exchange rate by 25 per cent and the Australian market disappeared overnight. Nevertheless, by 1959 Crown Lynn Potteries had produced its 100 millionth article.

Crown Lynn became Ceramco in 1974 and diversified into a series of new interests, including electronics, appliance wholesaling and making acquisitions including Bendon lingerie. The Crown Lynn pottery factory closed in 1989, unable to compete with foreign competitors.

Sir Tom Clark, knighted in 1986, finally retired in 1993 as a director of the then Ceramco Corporation after 62 years continuous service as an employee and director.

Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey, who presented Sir Tom with the keys to Waitakere City in February this year, described him as a "giant in New Zealand business".

He is survived by his wife, Lady Patricia Clark, and nine children. He had two previous marriages.

* A celebration of Sir Tom Clark's life will be held at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Parnell, on Monday at 1pm.

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