Sir James Fletcher, the mild-mannered man of steel

By Graeme Hunt

James Muir Cameron Fletcher might have lived out his life as an accountant rather than as a top industrialist had outside events not intervened.

Despite his auspicious birth date in Dunedin - December 25, 1914 - Jim or JC, as family and friends knew him, was not initially destined to run the country's largest business empire.

He was slightly built, quiet and shy. As the second son of Scots-born builder James (later Sir James) Fletcher, he exhibited little of his father's street-wise ruthlessness or cunning.

James Fletcher senior had dragged the struggling Fletcher Construction through the Depression to list it without fanfare on the stock exchange in 1940 as Fletcher Holdings Ltd. It had a turnover of just over £600,000 ($1.73 million).

Young Jim was company secretary at head office, noted more for his good manners and big ears than for his commercial acumen. He had been with the business for less than five years.

In 1942, his father, a friend of the first Labour Government, was seconded to the War Administration as commissioner of defence construction and superintendent of military works and later as controller of shipping, giving him virtual control over the wartime building industry.

The price for this concentration of power in his hands was that he had to sever his business connections for his term of office. The managing directorship of the company fell to 27-year-old Jim, who that year married his strong-willed office assistant, Vaughan Gunthorp.

Far from being a pushover in business, as some thought, Jim Fletcher showed he was made for the job. "Adventurousness was exactly the quality Jim Fletcher brought to the job of bringing Fletchers through the war," his biographer Selwyn Parker wrote in 1994. "If he couldn't fight [in the war], at least he could do his part in the trenches of management."

Fletcher was not only a relentless worker - "beaver" is an apt description - but he also paid great attention to detail, tidying up paperwork and accounting systems left in an untidy state by his father.

His business style was different from his father's - "more remote, more analytical and probably tougher", according to Parker. "The company's founder loved to chat; his son didn't. At least, not at first."

People could be forgiven for thinking that when James senior stepped down from his government work in 1944 he would take up the reins of the company once again.

That didn't happen. Instead, he let his son get on with it and accepted a knighthood from a grateful Labour Government in 1946.

It was the smartest move in the history of the Fletcher family, though James senior stayed on as chairman of Fletcher Holdings until 1968 before taking on the courtesy title of founder president. His relationship with Jim was probably the most enduring father-and-son big business relationship in New Zealand history. It also brought huge benefits to the company.

As the post-war economy grew, Fletcher Holdings expanded. In 1960, it bought the Australian-owned Kauri Timber Co and in the same year opened the Pacific Steel mill at Otahuhu, Auckland, with an initial capacity of 50,000 tonnes.

But the jewel in the Fletcher Holdings' crown was construction. It was not only the most visible of the Fletcher Holdings' seven subsidiaries (the others were steel & engineering, timber, investment, industries, hardware, and construction [Australia]) but it was also its biggest earner.

Even as late as 1965, construction was the group's big earner. Its turnover that year was £13.2 million or nearly 35 per cent of group turnover.

Fletcher Construction first ventured overseas in 1946 with the launch of Fletcher South Seas in Samoa. It later expanded into Australia in 1949 and, much later, into the United States in 1986.

Fletcher Holdings was not Jim Fletcher's only success. In 1952, he and his father helped form Tasman Pulp & Paper, a joint venture with the National Government to utilise the pulp for kraft papermaking from radiata pine forests in the central North Island.

Tasman was a substantial venture in New Zealand terms, involving the construction of a newsprint mill at Kawerau, in the eastern Bay of Plenty. The mill started operating in October 1955 and although Fletcher Holdings was then a minority shareholder, it retained executive control.

Tasman, with Fletcher Holdings and Challenge Corporation, joined forces in 1981 to form what was then the country's largest company, Fletcher Challenge.

Fletcher Holdings' strong relationship with the state in the 1940s and 1950s, as much a product of the rationing of capital brought about by the command economy as anything else, was unpopular with some other major New Zealand companies. Notable among the critics were rival foresters NZ Forest Products and Carter Consolidated, whose own development had been disadvantaged by Fletcher Holdings' cosy involvement with various governments.

None of this tarnished Jim Fletcher's reputation or business standing. He was chairman of Fletcher Holdings from 1972-81 and president and director of Fletcher Challenge from 1981 until his retirement in 1990.

He held a number of other key directorships, was chairman of the Fletcher Trust, patron of the Deafness Research Foundation and active in the Business in the Community mentoring organisation. He was knighted in 1980, six years after his father's death.

Jim's three sons worked for Fletcher Challenge at different times; the eldest, Jim, was killed by an intruder at his Bay of Plenty bach on New Year's Eve 1993; second son Hugh, married to Chief Justice Sian Elias, was managing director and later chief executive; and third son Angus was married to former MP and former Auckland mayor Christine Fletcher.

Jim Fletcher's greatest legacy is, ironically, a company he had nothing directly to do with, Fletcher Building, which arose in 2000 from the break-up of Fletcher Challenge. One of its core businesses, the 82-year-old Fletcher Construction, continues a business started in Dunedin by James Fletcher senior shortly after he arrived there in 1908 and greatly expanded during Jim Fletcher's reign. Fletcher Construction was his pride and joy.

Like his father, Jim Fletcher loved horses. Hunting and racing were his passions and he was able to fit these around his extensive business commitments. He served a term as president of the Auckland Racing Club.

"Horses," wrote Selwyn Parker, "continued to provide Jim Fletcher with his sole relaxation, westerns and romance novels aside."

To the end, Jim Fletcher was the quiet man of steel - a gracious, modest individual for someone who became New Zealand's leading industrialist for the second half of the 20th Century.

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