Page 1: Biography
Rabbiter, stock manager, meat exporter, company director
This biography, written by W. R. Richmond, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
William Richmond was born at Campbeltown, Argyllshire, Scotland, on 8 August 1869, the son of Thomas Orr Richmond, a farmer, and his wife, Catherine (Kate) Stewart. William left school at the age of 13 and emigrated four years later to New Zealand, working his passage on a sailing ship. He was a rabbiter at Benmore station in North Otago, and later worked his way to Hawke's Bay. William Nelson, the founder of Tomoana Freezing Works in Hastings, offered him a job in 1892 at Chesterhope, a training farm. He became assistant manager in the late 1890s. At Wellington on 9 July 1894 he married Janet Greenlees Mitchell; they were to have a son and two daughters, one of whom died in infancy.
About 1900 Nelson greatly expanded his meat operations and asked Richmond to purchase 300,000 sheep in one season. Nelson offered him £3,000 if he succeeded, and no pay at all if he failed; Richmond succeeded. He sailed to Britain about 1901 to investigate the British meat market, particularly Smithfield. He thought that Nelson was delivering too much prime meat and that the market for seconds was inadequately supplied. Nelson turned a deaf ear, so Richmond bought all the seconds and exported them on his own account, with more than handsome results. From then till 1909 he organised the stock acquisition for Tomoana.
William Richmond travelled on horseback all over Hawke's Bay to select stock. Much of the travel was overnight, to leave more time for stock work. Farmers on his route would often provide him with horses for the next move, to be returned on his way back. Later, he tried motorcycles, but soon turned to cars, having one of the first in Hawke's Bay – a Wolseley. He was reputed to have made the first crossing of the new Wairoa bridge, and to have been promptly charged with exceeding the speed limit of four miles per hour.
In May 1909 Nelson handed all stock and meat trading over to Richmond, and Tomoana became solely a killing and processing works. The next 13 years saw him become extremely prosperous. He invested in land, often in half shares with others, including properties in north Taranaki, northern Hawke's Bay and Reporoa in the central North Island. In his own right Richmond bought Te Mata and Torran (both made into family trusts) and two properties on the rich flats between Napier and Hastings.
Richmond struck financial disaster in 1922; he had purchased hundreds of thousands of stock at an average of 21 shillings per head, but after killing and shipping costs they realised less than seven shillings on the London market. He laughingly held lotteries among the office staff on the next day's figure. Richmond was insolvent, but help came from the Williams family of Poverty Bay. He faced financial ruin again early in the depression, but was saved by the goodwill of farmer clients and business interests.
The company of W. Richmond Limited was formed in 1930 with Richmond as chairman and managing director. Before the Second World War, friction developed between Richmond and many directors over his generosity to farmers, particularly his enthusiasm for the system of owners' account, by which farmers were paid 85 per cent of the scheduled price of stock as an advance. This was seen as contrary to shareholders' interests as Richmond had guaranteed at least the scheduled price as a return.
The problem was temporarily solved by government bulk purchasing during the war, but in 1946 the government stopped buying pelts and wool (meat followed in 1954), and Richmond reintroduced the system of owners' account. Some shareholders saw the advance as a loan, and in 1951 this led to an attempt to sell the business. The affair ended when a large shareholder and friend of Richmond bought out all the dissenters. Richmond, then 81, stood down as chairman but continued to be involved with the company until his death.
Janet Richmond had died in 1916. On 8 July 1918 at Hastings Richmond married Catherine Mary Wilson, who had worked for him as an accountant; they had two sons and a daughter. Catherine gained fame in November 1929 as the North Island's first woman pilot. She died in August 1941, and on 21 November 1942, Richmond married Constance Maurice White (née Mason) at Hastings. He died at Hastings on 23 August 1956; he was survived by his third wife, a daughter from his first marriage and two daughters and a son from his second marriage.
William Richmond neither smoked nor drank. He was, however, keen on betting, and owned racehorses, winning the 1918 New Zealand Grand National Steeplechase with St Elmn. His unerring judgement of stock, together with his drive and business acumen, made him one of the most significant figures in the Hawke's Bay meat industry.