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Fran O'Sullivan: Whineray: world-class Kiwi who stayed at home

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Stand refreshing when many have quit country to further careers

Sir Wilson Whineray was admired for his integrity, leadership and his gift for enjoying life. Photo / APN
Sir Wilson Whineray was admired for his integrity, leadership and his gift for enjoying life. Photo / APN

Sir Wilson Whineray was one of those special Kiwis who was proud to be "world-class from New Zealand".

He was characterised at his funeral in Auckland yesterday as a "public man but also a very private man" by that other All Black great Sir Brian Lochore. He was a great captain, said Lochore, who was "proud to follow him".

Others talked of Whineray's integrity, his leadership and his wonderful gift for enjoying life. And - despite a "harrowing" time - (just possibly) hanging on to life until he knew whether the All Blacks' attempt last Saturday to break his own team's record for the most consecutive wins had succeeded. (It didn't).

Whineray's legendary period as perhaps our finest All Blacks captain has been well canvassed elsewhere in the Herald. His funeral was dignified and fitting. But what struck a compelling chord with me was when his son James Whineray talked about how "Dad was a proud New Zealander and was determined to return and raise a family" after a period at Harvard University studying business on a Harkness fellowship.

How refreshing in an age where we repeatedly - and I would contend foolishly - put on public pedestals those bright and talented people who are proud to be world-class outside of New Zealand.

People who genuinely worry about New Zealand, but comfort themselves for not playing a direct role in our future by debating on the Kea website what would bring them back here or engaging in some communal angst at the annual Worldclass New Zealand Awards.

Some prefer to lend a helping hand from afar to those who are trying to build firms and jobs here. But not too many of them see a personal future in striving to be world-class from here.

What a waste of what it has meant and can still mean to be a New Zealander.

Whineray could also have made the world his oyster. But he chose to come back in 1969 and build his business career at Alex Harvey Industries, later to be merged with that other proud Auckland manufacturing firm Carter Holt to form Carter Holt Harvey. He rose to be deputy managing director under the late Sir Richard Carter, going on to become chairman for a decade. Young New Zealanders are probably not aware of just how strong the manufacturing sector once was. When I began as a business journalist in the 1980s there were two separate camps in New Zealand commercial life. Wellington - where I then lived and worked - was not only the nation's political capital but also its financial capital. All the major banks had HQs there including our (then) NZ-owned banks such as Post Bank and Bank of New Zealand. So, too, the insurance companies, major broking houses and, of course, Brierley Investments.

Auckland was the nation's manufacturing hub, dominated by strong New Zealand-owned firms that made stuff for the world's export markets. Companies such as Fletcher Challenge, dominated by the imposing figure of the late Sir Ron Trotter as chairman and Hugh Fletcher as managing director, or Sir Douglas Myers at Lion Nathan and the late Sir Richard Carter at Carter Holt Harvey.

All could have built stunning international business careers but instead built globally focused companies that they led from here.

My colleague Brian Gaynor has pointed out how these manufacturing companies used to dominate the NZX, or stock exchange, in the early 1980s.

Forestry companies were to the fore. But as Gaynor has observed, Wattie's, Alex Harvey, Feltex, Waitaki-NZR, Carter Holt and UEB were also among the Top-12 companies with a strong export orientation at the end of 1981. Some have since fallen by the way or been sold into foreign ownership.

Outside the Holy Trinity Cathedral yesterday I talked to a number of business people who began their own careers not too long after Sir Wilson began his.

There was a hankering for what we have lost as a nation and a concern that we are not doing enough to encourage talented New Zealanders to be proud New Zealanders and determined - like Sir Wilson - to build their futures here.

Kiwis love to connect. We are able and many of us quickly rise to senior positions in the world's great capitals.

We all know that New Zealand can be a stifling place.

Yesterday, the Rev Jo Kelly-Moore quoted Pulitzer Prize-winner Walter Lippmann, who said: "The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on." Sir Wilson certainly did that. But how true will that be of his successors?

- NZ Herald

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