An expanding sector
By the start of the 20th century farmers were served by at least 40 regional and national agencies, ranging from one-man bands to companies employing hundreds. The national companies were Wright Stephenson, New Zealand Loan & Mercantile Agency, National Mortgage & Agency Co. of New Zealand (NMA) and Dalgety & Co.
The big agencies faced vigorous competition from smaller regional firms and farmer-owned cooperatives. Companies joined together to build saleyards and wool stores.
After the wool boom of the early 1950s, livestock and wool prices fell. Stock and station agencies’ commissions fell too, and dairy company-owned stores provided competition. The bigger stock and station companies began taking over the smaller ones, to extend their regional coverage and for economies of scale. Businessman Sir Ronald Trotter observed that when he began in the industry in the late 1950s there were 45 companies competing. When he retired as chair of Wrightson in 1998 there were only five – Wrightson, Pyne Gould Guinness, Williams & Kettle, Allied Farmers and Elders New Zealand.
Jack of all trades
One stock agent claimed that a successful agent ‘must be a Nationalist, a staunch Labour man, a Social Credit disciple, a Catholic, a Protestant, a technician, a politician, a mathematician, an all-round mechanic, and, on occasion, a Communist. He must be an expert driver, talker, traveller, bridge player, golfer, bowler, diplomat, a football maniac, an authority on astrology, dogs, cats, sheep, cattle, horses, all types of leases, water rights and noxious weeds. The person with all these qualifications is truly entitled to the initials C.S.S.A. after his name – Country Stock and Station Agent.’ 1
Seven years after Trotter’s comments, the first three merged as PGG Wrightson. This brought together six big families of companies which began to coalesce in the 1960s. Dalgetys had merged with NZ Loan & Mercantile in 1962, and NMA with Wright Stephenson in 1972. The Crown Group made several consolidations in the 1970s, and merged with Dalgety New Zealand in 1983. Dalgety Crown was bought by Wrightson NMA in 1986.
Wrightson was floated as a public company in 1993, partly taken over by Rural Portfolio Investments in 2004, and acquired Williams & Kettle in 2005. That same year it merged with Pyne Gould Guinness and became PGG Wrightson, which is a listed company traded on the New Zealand stock exchange.
PGG Wrightson (and its predecessors Wright Stephenson and Wrightson) has always been active in Australia, particularly selling pasture seeds. It also sells seeds and develops dairy farms in Uruguay, and had an annual turnover of more than $1 billion in the early 2000s.
Elders Australia was active in New Zealand in the 1980s, buying smaller agencies and attempting to prevent the 1986 merger of Wrightson and Dalgety. However, when its parent company ran into difficulties, Elders retreated across the Tasman. It left behind the finance business and some livestock agents, which formed a private company. In the early 2000s, Elders New Zealand is a privately-owned company which is rebuilding a national network of livestock, wool and real estate agents, along with some merchandise outlets and financial products. It has a joint venture with broker Primary Wool, and buys in products and services from Elders in Australia.
The Allied Farmers group covers most of the North Island with merchandise, livestock, wool, real estate and financial services.
There are also many private livestock agents who operate throughout New Zealand.
In the early 2000s, farmers use many other suppliers. There are cooperative supply stores like RD1, Farmlands and CRT (Combined Rural Traders). Stock and station agencies no longer sell or represent farm machinery, and some fertiliser and chemical companies sell direct to farmers.
Rural finance is now vigorously contested by all major trading banks and some specialised rural lenders. Agencies have only a small portion of total rural lending – around $30 billion, mainly seasonal finance for livestock and crops.