If ever there was an example of how bricks and mortar proves as good an investment as education, it is Sir Tom Clark.

Sir Tom - who began his working life as a 14-year-old at the family's brick and tile company - was last night given the key to Waitakere City just next door to the site where the Crown Lynn and Ceramco ceramics factory he started once stood.

About 100 others who once worked in that factory were also at the New Lynn Community Centre for the occasion, and for once Sir Tom's sailing feats took a back seat.

The reminiscing flowed with tales of the worker who dried his tobacco at the back of the kilns, and of Sir Tom installing a gas producer to fool wartime inspectors into thinking he was using coal while petrol rationing was on.

Sir Tom Clark left school during the Depression when he was 14. He began his working life at the family-owned Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company, and some years later persuaded the board that fancier ceramics were worth getting into.

So the specials department was set up to produce ceramics, its first major contract being for New Zealand Rail. In 1948 it became Crown Lynn, a separate company, and began exporting to several countries, including the US, Canada and the Philippines.

It was left to Sir Tom himself to speak of the factory's demise, which he said was caused by the removal of import controls and the ability to source cheap labour and efficient machinery in other countries.

"I look around the company that was Crown Lynn and that became Bendon. So the whole thing I had worked on for about 50 years now has turned to dust. Things changed, so we got buried. Well, partially buried - I never feel buried. I feel we made a major contribution to New Zealand."

Waitakere Mayor Bob Harvey said Sir Tom had "vision and big dreams."

"There wasn't a house in the country that didn't have Crown Lynn. They were wedding presents, engagement presents and birthday presents. But there is more to Tom Clark than just crockery ... He's not only a true Westie, he's one of New Zealand's greatest entrepreneurs. They don't make them like Tom anymore. He's in the same mould as Sir James Fletcher and Sir James Wattie."

A keen sailor, it was Sir Tom Clark who persuaded Ceramco to back the Whitbread campaign, and he became a mentor to Sir Peter Blake and an adviser and trustee of America's Cup campaigns.

Last year he received the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron's 2004 Sailor of the Year Award.

But last night, it was all about crockery.

Harry Jones had moved from Royal Doulton at Stoke-on-Trent to New Zealand to begin 25 years of working at Crown Lynn as a chemist and technical manager in 1961.

He left to live in Perth in 1988, but his fond memories persuaded him to return to New Zealand for the reunion and to see his old boss again.

Asked what Sir Tom might do with the key to the City, he said Sir Tom, who now lives in Huapai, had never needed a key to get what he wanted. "He always owned the city anyway."

Sir Tom's son Geoffrey Clark remembered working in the factory during school holidays as a 12-year-old.

"I was working on the casting benches in the school holidays. The tourists going through the factory were very concerned with what they saw as underage labour and raised the subject with management. I used to earn 10 shillings a week, plus free canteen, so I made up for the wages on dad's canteen account."