Keith Wilson Hay was born in Hastings on 13 December 1917, the third child in a family of five. His father, William Cattley Hay, a farm labourer, had emigrated to Invercargill in 1903 and married Elsie May Major (née Biggs), a widow, at Pahiatua in 1914. They named their only son Keith after William’s home town, the birthplace of the Free Church of Scotland. William’s Presbyterianism and early poverty were to be important influences on his son. The family returned to Scotland for two years when Keith was six, living in harsh conditions and sleeping on chaff sacks.
Back in New Zealand the family lived in Dannevirke, then Auckland. Keith left school in standard six to split fenceposts on a farm in Kohukohu for a retired headmaster, who taught him accountancy at night. After working briefly on a farm in Ngatea, Hay returned to Auckland, and at 16 was chosen from a queue of unemployed boys to work in the KDV box factory in Morningside. He left to join a small motor-body builder and there completed his apprenticeship.
In 1938 Keith Hay started a caravan-building business with £40 savings. After selling his first caravan at a loss, he turned to home renovations, and the maintenance and relocation of derelict buildings for the Public Trust Office. In 1941 he joined the Army Service Corps, and on 20 May 1942 married Enid Marjorie Paris, a draper, in Mount Eden; they had three sons and a daughter. On his release from the army in 1943 Hay considered a future in politics. He had been a member of the Eden branch of the New Zealand Labour Party in 1936–37. A keen admirer of John A. Lee, he stood unsuccessfully for Lee’s Democratic Soldier Labour Party in Roskill in 1943.
Hay’s first important business opportunity came when he won a tender to relocate an American army camp from the Auckland Domain to Panmure, and he succeeded by using the novel method of shifting the buildings in large sections instead of dismantling them. New Zealand’s desperate housing shortage after the war provided an opening for an innovative approach. In 1949 Hay built his first relocatable house in the KDV Boxes yard in Morningside, and soon afterwards founded Keith Hay Homes Limited. Constructing houses in a central assembly yard and then transporting them to suburban or rural sites, he pioneered a new era of low-cost prefabricated housing in New Zealand. In 1953 the company shifted to Mount Roskill.
At the same time, Hay saw the potential of replacing expensive imported timbers and relatively scarce native timbers with Pinus radiata for house construction: pine was a renewable source of timber and could be nailed more quickly. This move, too, significantly changed home construction. Through the 1950s Hay fought the conservatism of local councils and building societies to make building with Pinus radiata permissible. He was also an innovator in speeding up production methods, cutting labour costs, and incorporating plastics and other new materials into home construction.
Keith Hay was an enthusiastic ‘arm-waver’ who inspired loyalty. Keith Hay Homes became highly successful, opening branches throughout the country and reaching an annual turnover of nearly £10 million. The business also diversified to include construction of schools, churches, and commercial and government buildings. Hay’s respect for the contribution of his workmen was symbolised in small statues of a carpenter and labourer, commissioned from Frank Szirmay, which he placed on his desk.
In 1950 Hay began a long parallel career of 42 years in local politics. After one term on Mount Roskill Borough Council he was elected mayor in 1953. Here, too, he was an entrepreneurial leader. He swiftly sold council plant, contracted out services, doubled the rates, and borrowed £1 million. His council made dramatic improvements to the basic amenities of a semi-rural district. The population grew quickly and Mount Roskill became New Zealand’s largest borough. Hay encouraged a policy of self-help under which the council provided materials and led citizens in working bees to construct their footpaths and a local swimming pool. He promoted a Christian vision of suburban life (opening council meetings with prayer), and was influential in creating the ‘Bible belt’ character of Mount Roskill – a no-licence suburb with 26 churches for 35,000 people by 1988. He did less to promote the community’s cultural assets.
When Hay retired from the mayoralty in 1974 he turned to Auckland metropolitan politics. He was elected four times to the Auckland Regional Authority (and its successor, the Auckland Regional Council), and, maintaining his practical interests, was chairman of the Works, Water Works, and Parks committees. He was also a founder member of the Auckland International Airport Committee. Hay had a role in many community organisations: he was an elder of St John’s Presbyterian Church, and donated buildings and money to churches, sheltered workshops and a range of causes.
Keith Hay was confident, ebullient and generous in nature, with a ‘bullet head, rubicund features and wide, toothy smile’. A conservative Christian, in 1959 he organised the outdoor meetings of the American evangelist Billy Graham, and in 1972 led the planning for a nationwide series of ‘Jesus marches’, which attracted 70,000 participants to protest against New Zealand’s abandonment of Christian moral standards. Hay viewed the Homosexual Law Reform bill in 1985 as the ‘turning-point in New Zealand’ and became a founding member of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens to oppose change. The coalition united conservative sectors from all church denominations, and by aggressive campaigning succeeded in collecting 800,000 signatures for the largest petition in New Zealand history. It failed, homosexuality was decriminalised, and the coalition’s influence waned. Hay’s leadership, though, contributed to conservative Christians taking a more active political stance in the next decade.
Hay remained as chairman of the board of his group of companies until the 1990s, but by then his sons effectively ran the group. His last few years were spent attending to charitable trusts and employment projects. His community work and business success were rewarded with his appointment as an OBE in 1966, and a CBE in 1977. Keith Hay died in Auckland Public Hospital on 2 January 1997 at the age of 79, survived by his wife and children.