Publishing legend described as a straight-talker with the loyalty of all who worked for him.
It can be said of William James Wilson ("Will" or "Bill" Wilson to all) that he truly had "ink in his veins".
He was a straight-talking, at times gruff publisher, who had the respect and loyalty of his managers and staff.
Wilson had a great passion for the New Zealand Herald which was the jewel in the crown of former publisher Wilson and Horton – NZME's predecessor. His legacy is the magnificent Goss presses – three HT70s – which still print the Herald each day.
He was the great-great-grandson of colonial Auckland businessman and printer William Chisholm Wilson who founded the New Zealand Herald in 1863 and, like his Wilson forbears, played a huge role in driving the production side of the country's largest newspaper.
The Horton family – the other side of what was once a "family firm" albeit publicly listed – had run the public face of the business. This came to an end when Sir Anthony O'Reilly's INM bought the family shares in 1996 and launched a takeover of Wilson and Horton leading to its delisting.
By the time the company came to invest in new presses in the mid-1990s, it was Wilson and then head engineer John Green who drove the sourcing and installation of the new offset presses at the massive Ellerslie print hall.
They were rated the best in Australasia with the $100 million cost paid upfront with cash. The top-notch installation continues to serve the company well today.
Former Wilson and Horton managing director Michael Horton says Wilson's input on the company's board was "invaluable" particularly when it came to making technical judgments.
Michael Benjamin, who also served as a director, said Wilson was a tonic at board meetings. He wouldn't "take bullshit" and "enjoyed being at the coal face".
"I can remember going with him out to Ellerslie where some printers were talking about going on strike. He said, 'You bunch of bloody useless pricks. Go back to work'. And they did."
Bill Wilson joined the Herald on February 11, 1957 as an 18-year-old apprentice printer in the rotary machine department on a salary of four pounds two shillings and sixpence a week.
"It was hard, dirty work," recalls Horton. "And by modern standards pretty unacceptable."
The Herald was then printed at its huge reinforced concrete print hall which took out much of the block on the corner of Albert and Wyndham Sts stretching back into Mills Lane. The old printing floor was noisy. The smudge and smell of ink permeated the place. It was in this hotbed of production where Wilson found his footing.
It was an eye-opener for him coming straight from King's College – Auckland's premier private school – into the hurly burly of newspaper life.
With a father and uncle on the Wilson and Horton board it meant he was a natural target for good-natured ribbing from the machine hands, some of whom had started out as ship's greasers and stokers.
But Wilson had played centre for the unbeaten King's College 1st XV in a team with the late Sir Douglas Myers and future All Black Tony Davies.
He was not pretentious and could look after himself.
An accident in 1960 left him with a scarred hand after he caught it in the Hoe & Crabtree folder he was operating.
He may have had "ink in his veins" but over time he developed dermatitis from the chemicals.
As he reflected in May 1998 – several months before his retirement – it was "terrific to watch the skilful compositors handling hot type and to see the pages coming together and being taken off in orderly sequence.
"Everything was mechanical and there to see. The electronic age has its great advantages but today you don't see anything; it is all locked into the computer.
"There have been remarkable changes in my time from machines that print 20,000 papers an hour to ones that do 75,000."
Man of many talents
In the 1960s, Wilson was skipper of the classic racing yacht Kahurangi which was built for Lawrence D. Nathan - the great-grandson of the pioneer founder of L. D. Nathan.
"Lawrence Nathan owned the boat but Bill had free run on board," recalls Wayne Hurst who was one of its eight to 10-strong crew before later moving to race on Fidelis.
Sundays were "cake days" when they would take the wives and girlfriends out; sometimes sailing up to Kawau Island on a Friday night with the "girls coming up by ferry the next day".
Nathan had lost a leg during World War II and his relationship with his skipper could at times be testy. "One day Bill hoisted him up in the boat chair to the top of the mast and left him there while we had lunch," says Hurst. "It wasn't serious like today where it is all money, money, money … we had great fun."
There were also trips to Great Barrier with an exciting dash to find the "pot of gold at the end of the rainbow" on one memorable trip back to Auckland under a darkened sky.
But it is in ocean racing where Wilson made his mark.
Kahurangi was a frequent entry in the Auckland to Suva ocean race. In 1966, Wilson pushed the yacht to a record distance run covering 208 miles (335km) in a day. He said later there were hardly any sail changes except for the spinnaker, unlike rough sailing in prior years.
He also skippered Kahurangi to third place in the Sydney-Hobart yacht race in 1967.
Yachting was a singular passion. He was competitive. It was also through sailing he met his wife Sue, first spotting her on an adjoining yacht.
Bill and his twin sister Sue were born on September 19, 1938. Younger brother Jim came along five years later; sister Jane followed.
The Wilsons lived in Auckland's Orakei Rd and holidayed at their bach at Manly Beach.
"William", as Jim knew him then, was a "good sportsman" excelling in rugby in particular and later sailing.
Both Wilson brothers were boarders at King's School and later King's College. But the age gap meant they did not see each other much.
Bill and Sue married in 1969.
When it came to his own family, he was always present, involved and supportive in the lives of his two sons William (Will) and Matthew (Matt), knocking off sharply at 5pm – unless there was a big production issue at the plant – getting home for dinner and actively participating in their sports including teaching them to sail at Kohi Yacht Club. There was a lot of humour. And as with his working life, "Dad never shied away from telling us what he thought", says Matt Wilson.
He also loved the warmth and with Sue used to go to Waikiki Beach in Hawaii for several weeks at a time each year. "He loved the sea and the beach. Over the years they have made many friends in Hawaii and they avoided winter as much as they could," says Matt Wilson.
Their combined personalities were also an asset to the company.
Bill was very social," says Michael Horton. "And Sue was charming."
Former Wilson and Horton chief executive John Maasland recalls, "Bill was larger than life. He was a great host when we entertained the printing suppliers at parties on a huge launch on the harbour."
At another party - this time for Sir Anthony O'Reilly - the women at the top table had great delight on trying on the $2.58m, 40-carat diamond engagement ring Sir Anthony had given his wife Chryss which had previously belonged to Jackie Onassis.
When Wilson represented the company at a conference in the US, he wanted Sue to have a dress "made from newspaper" for an evening function. The print team obliged taking the press inch by inch over several metres of material.
They were not so lucky when it came to trialling another innovation. Alison Stevenson, who ran the Wellington operations, had wanted to run perfume through the gutter of the pages of the paper. The plan was to heighten the senses of the Herald's avid fashion readers who would turn the pages and get a whiff of a perfume.
All was going well until Stevenson got the call from her boss saying "We can't do it!" It had been discovered a press in the US had tried the same thing and blown the place up when a spark ignited the perfume.
Wilson and Horton career.
Wilson thoroughly mastered print production before being appointed circulation manager first for the magazines division, then the then Sunday Herald and finally the Herald in 1978.
By 1983, he was an employee director and in 1989 a full shareholder director of Wilson and Horton Ltd, later going on to be appointed the group's executive director production and technical.
It was a gentler time in newspapers where the "rivers of gold" (big circulation and classified advertising revenues) sustained their fortunes.
The arrival of the internet and shift to online publication changed that.
"Although his name was on Wilson and Horton's Albert St building, Wilson was a man with no pretensions whatsoever," says former Herald editor-in-chief Gavin Ellis.
"There was no area of production, printing and distribution he did not understand."
"Michael Horton was seen as the company's public face. Bill Wilson was the guy who made sure you got the paper in your letterbox."
A career boast was taking the Herald to its highest ever circulation - audited net paid sales of 250,118 in the year to September 1989. The largest-ever print run, for Princess Di's wedding, of well over 300,000 was also on his watch.
He was proudly "Herald first" making a point of tipping out other newspapers – such as the short-lived Auckland Sun – if they dared to use the Herald's newspaper stands with a "don't put this pile of crap on our stand".
The Herald of old may have been seen as staid but the owners and management had strong values. The "suits" from the 4th (executive) floor had their table at the ground floor cafeteria when they would each day canvass the issues of the day: John Hart, Maori grievances, the All Blacks, politics and without fail the contents of that day's Herald. A daily walk around the CBD at lunchtime was part of their routine.
The daily production meeting with Herald editorial leaders was always a feature. Ellis says the only time there was a run-in was when the Herald's shipping column failed to mention the HMNZS Charles Upham was tied up at the Devonport Naval Base. "Every editor who came into contact with him had an open relationship – that was great."
By today's standards, Wilson's retirement at 60 was relatively young. He did not take on other roles. But he stayed connected. He knew all the local chat in Orakei, says Benjamin.
He frequented the golf club where a more recent friend, Bernard Banks – who shared a cart with him – described him as a "big teddy bear".
"His golf was not brilliant. I was on single figures and despite his size his swing was not extrapolated."
Banks – who had lost his own wife 11 years ago – said Wilson was a tower of strength to him.
Sadly, Wilson's own health slipped in the past two to three years. He had a recurrence of prostate cancer and dementia but was at home with his wife Sue until his final few months.
His legacy lives on – not only through the wise choice he made to acquire the Goss presses which have underwritten years of success for the Herald. But also through his sons Will Wilson, who leads the engineering team at the Ellerslie plant, and, Matt Wilson, who is NZME's chief operating officer.
"I had the privilege of working with Dad for two years before he retired," says Matt Wilson. "It's a time I cherish to this day.
"Dad was hugely proud of the family's legacy with the Herald, Wilson and Horton and the Wilson Home on the shore.
"In retirement he was always keen to hear how the Herald was travelling and was hugely supportive and proud of what both Will and I were doing.
"The business is very different today, but the purpose remains and that is what he loved."
• The Herald thanks Michael Horton, John Maasland, Gavin Ellis, Jim Wilson, Matthew Wilson, Malcolm Don, Wayne Hurst, Alison Stevenson, Bernard Banks and Michael Benjamin for their insights and recollections. And the "suits" who co-authored the "Where's Willie" commemorative newspaper presented to Bill Wilson on his retirement in September 1998.