Page 1: Biography
Husheer, Johann Gerhard
Tobacco grower and processor, industrialist, philanthropist
This biography, written by Robert McGregor, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Johann Gerhard Husheer (known as Gerhard) was born in Bremen, Germany, on 26 July 1864, the third of six children of Johann Gerhard Husheer and his wife, Adele Neunreuther. At the age of 16 he was articled to the tobacco import and warehouse firm of Ankerschmitt and Sons while studying commerce and languages at night-school. His indenture complete, he travelled extensively in Europe before accepting a position in 1888 with another tobacco company, Hartlaub and Company of Rotterdam. Further travels brought him to New Zealand in 1891, when he visited Napier for the first time.
On 20 September 1892, in Bergen, Norway, Husheer married Bertha Gurine Petersen; they settled in Rotterdam and were to have four sons. In 1894 Hartlaub and Company sent Gerhard to South Africa to investigate establishing a tobacco industry, and in 1895 he moved to Johannesburg where he started the Atlas Tobacco Works; his wife and two sons joined him in 1897. Difficulties created by the South African War caused them to return to Germany in 1901.
By 1910 Gerhard Husheer had decided to emigrate to New Zealand to attempt to establish a tobacco industry. The family reached Wellington in 1911 and chose Hawke's Bay in which to settle. Leasing a farm at Pakipaki, near Hastings, Husheer spent the next two years growing experimental tobacco crops with some success and in 1913 formed the New Zealand Tobacco Company. In 1915 a new processing factory was built at Ahuriri in Napier, and New Zealand's first tobacco was marketed in 1916. Demand steadily increased and by 1918 the company was earning good dividends for its shareholders.
The Husheer family were classified as enemy aliens during the First World War, but this initially created no serious problems. In 1919, however, a faction of directors succeeded in ousting Husheer from his position and had him and his two sons in the business forcibly ejected from the premises.
Two difficult years followed, and in 1920 Husheer moved to Riverhead, near Auckland, and set up a syndicate to finance the growing and processing of tobacco. In 1921 he formed the National Tobacco Company, which almost immediately bought up the stock, buildings and machinery of the by-now virtually defunct New Zealand Tobacco Company. The Napier factory was utilised to process the Auckland-grown leaf and the Riverhead Gold brand of cigarette tobacco appeared. In the 1921–22 season tobacco was grown experimentally near Motueka, and the leaf submitted to Husheer indicated that this was the area in New Zealand most suited to its culture. The company had ceased growing its own leaf by 1924 and was depending on contract growers in the Nelson area and in Te Atatu, west Auckland. In 1926 a handsome new brick factory was completed, and in spite of heavy increases in excise duty imposed on domestically grown leaf, the company flourished.
Husheer and his family had moved back to Napier in 1924. Increasing prosperity meant that he was able to purchase a house on Bluff Hill, and in 1930 he engaged an architect, Louis Hay, to remodel it with a lavish budget, decorating it with leadlight windows in elaborate designs of fruit and flowers. The extensive property was landscaped and planted with trees, predominantly the New Zealand natives that Husheer admired.
Husheer was in a private hospital recuperating from a minor operation when the Hawke's Bay earthquake struck on 3 February 1931; he was trapped inside the third floor of the building for several hours. The factory machinery was not badly damaged and production was quickly resumed. Husheer's house, however, was temporarily uninhabitable and part of the property had plunged to sea level with the collapse of Bluff Hill. While repairs were effected, he purchased and lived in a large house in Havelock North, which he would later keep staffed and maintained as a destination for Sunday drives.
The company was unharmed by the depression and in 1933–34 Husheer was able to build a new factory office in a manner most architects could only dream about then. Louis Hay's Chicago-style design was superbly handled. The opulent decoration was regarded locally with awe, and would have drawn criticism during tough depression times had it not been for Husheer's generosity as a local benefactor. He supplied free milk, cocoa and biscuits to Napier schoolchildren, distributed free meat, assisted families in need, and gave away as much as £8,000 per annum for many years.
As the company prospered during the 1930s, Husheer became a local legend in Hawke's Bay. Immensely wealthy by the standards of a provincial city, he was a remote figure, personally known to few. His wealth and, during the war years, his nationality imposed isolation, yet he made no effort to dispel the mystique that surrounded him. The succession of enormous chauffeur-driven Studebaker and Pierce-Arrow limousines with their melodious wind horns, his four houses, and his Alsatian dogs set him apart and encouraged local stories about him.
One of Husheer's three adjacent houses in Napier was damaged during the war when a servant with a grievance set fire to it. Yet he was known as a model employer, his staff being well paid and provided with enviable working conditions. He loved art and classical music and was described by the grandchild who knew him best as having a good sense of humour. But he was not close to his children, his wife Bertha providing the warmth that he lacked.
As Husheer aged, his unwillingness to relinquish control resulted, for the second time, in his losing a company he had established, this time to a takeover by a rival; after his death it was purchased by Rothmans Tobacco Company. The office building of 1933–34 is now a company icon, reopened, restored, and visited by architectural enthusiasts.
Gerhard Husheer died in Napier on 30 November 1954 at the age of 90, survived by his wife and three of their sons. His experience and expertise, combined with hard work, a supportive family and progressive marketing and promotion, made him one of New Zealand’s foremost industrialists.