The patriarch of one of New Zealand's wealthiest families, Sir John Todd, has died.

Knighted in 2011 only weeks after his retirement from the helm of the Todd Corporation, the business leader was also one of the country's top philanthropists as well as a leading patron of the arts, and chairman of his famously private family's charitable Todd Foundation.

Sir John, 88, died at his Wellington home last night after a period of ill health.

A statement from his son Mike said:

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"Our father was a highly respected New Zealander who made a significant contribution to business and philanthropy. He was a man of enterprise and grace and he will be greatly missed.

"Our family salutes him for the work he did in the service of our wonderful family enterprise."

Sir John retired at the end of 2011 after 24 years of chairing Todd Corporation, a non-listed business empire.

From a Central Otago fellmongery and wool-scouring plant, that business has evolved into a $3 billion conglomerate with major energy interests as well as investments in land, retirement homes and information technology.

Its 160 or so beneficiaries are all direct descendants of Charles Todd, who was Sir John's grandfather.

Sir John joined the business through Todd Motors in 1945 at its former Petone car assembly plant, after studying accountancy and commerce at Victoria University.

He became managing director of the company in 1968.

His family had also in the 1930s established New Zealand's first indigenous oil supply firm, starting with reserves imported from the former Soviet Union, and went on to join Shell and BP in discovering and exploiting the Maui gas field.

Its interests have since been extended into onshore oil and gas production, and electricity generation and distribution.