Key Points:

Sir Robertson Stewart, who died yesterday at the age of 93, was renowned as a pioneer among manufacturers.

But it was the Cantabrian businessman's decision to back a little known substance called plastic that set him on the path to a place in New Zealand history.

Sir Robertson, who founded leading Christchurch plastics manufacturer PDL, died after a career of highlights, including building a business employing 2000 people and eventually generating $350 million in revenue.

"He was hugely driven and inspirational," said his son, Mark, who assumed the helm at PDL after Sir Robertson retired in the mid-1990s.

"He was a very, very driven person and he knew how to mobilise people for a common cause, which was to develop PDL, and he was successful at it. People would walk over broken glass for him."

Sir Robertson's lengthy business career effectively began when scarlet fever forced him to leave Christchurch Boys High at 13, after which he attended night school for five years to become an electrical engineer.

Then in 1935 a local company sent him to England to study the then-cutting edge field of plastics.

"He then came back, imported a moulding machine ... and started the plastics industry in New Zealand," Stewart said.

In 1947, he went to work for Plastic & Die Casting Ltd, originally a surplus war munitions factory.

He raised enough money to buy the company 10 years later, naming it PDL Industries.

"He was a pioneer of manufactured exporting in New Zealand," Stewart said.

PDL, which made electrical fittings, switch gear and motor control equipment, was listed from 1973 until 2001, when the Stewarts sold their stake to French giant Schneider, netting the family around $97 million.

In addition to running PDL, Sir Robertson championed the cause of New Zealand exporting, leading six trade missions to Southeast Asia.

He was a Christchurch City Councillor from 1969 to 1972, a Southern Ballet Trust Council member, honorary consul to Malaysia (1975), and a life member of the Canterbury Manufacturing Association. In 1970 he received a CBE and in 1979 a knighthood.

Stewart described his father as a "passionate New Zealander" who believed strongly in New Zealand-based manufacturing and exporting.

Although PDL moved some of its manufacturing overseas in the late 1990s, Sir Robertson "was a pragmatist too and realised that it was probably more important to try to keep the business growing".

While PDL brought Sir Robertson wealth, "that was never the reason he did it - he did it because he loved business and that was his life", Stewart said.

Besides business, Sir Robertson loved travelling and motor racing.

"His big claim to fame was the PDL Mustang - a legendary racing car, which put PDL on the map."

He leaves behind his second wife Lady Adrienne Stewart, five sons and 17 grandchildren.

One of his sons, Robert, began Skope Industries.

LIFE OF A PIONEER
Sir Robertson Stewart

* Born 1913

* Attended Christchurch Boys High, but forced to leave because of scarlet fever at age 13.

* Studied electrical engineering at night school and later went to England to study plastics.

* Founded Christchurch plastics manufacturer PDL Industries, which later achieved revenue of $350 million and employed about 200 staff.

* Favourite saying: "My job is to make ordinary people do extraordinary things."