Story: Skellerup, George Waldemar

Page 1 - Biography

Skellerup, George Waldemar

1881–1955

Businessman, company director, industrialist

This biography was written by Geoffrey W. Rice and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

George Waldemar Skjellerup was born at Cobden, Victoria, Australia, on 14 February 1881, the youngest of 13 children of Margaret Williamson and her husband, Peder Jensen Skjellerup, a farmer who died before George's third birthday. George left school aged 12 to be apprenticed without pay to a surveyor, but at his mother's request took a night-school course in shorthand. Moving to Fremantle in 1897, he worked as a clerk and later became secretary to a wealthy Perth businessman. He returned briefly to Cobden in 1899, then found work in Melbourne making bicycle tyres for the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company.

In 1902, just before his 21st birthday, Skjellerup sailed to New Zealand, and is said to have landed with only 37s. 6d. to his name. He soon found employment in a bicycle shop in Dunedin, where, he claimed, he made the first pneumatic bicycle tyres manufactured in New Zealand. Within a year he moved to Canterbury, and while working in Rangiora wrote to his former employer in Melbourne, who helped him get a job in the stores and repairs department of the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company in Christchurch.

George Skjellerup married Elizabeth Reid in Dunedin, on 25 February 1907. They first lived in Riccarton, in a house Skjellerup had built himself. During the 1906–7 New Zealand International Exhibition, which attracted thousands of visitors to Christchurch, he worked long hours repairing punctures in motor car tyres. The money he earned from this work, combined with £400 his wife had inherited, gave him the capital to start his own business and to move to New Brighton.

The Para Rubber Company was established by George Skjellerup in Christchurch in 1910, and its first shop opened on 12 September. (The shop was named after Pará, in Brazil, then a major source of high-quality rubber.) While working at Dunlop, he had noticed that the firm offered a very limited range of rubberware, so he invested most of his capital in a variety of new lines. The shop made a loss for the first six months, but at the end of its first year returned a small profit. Demand grew steadily during the First World War, especially in rubber components for milking machines, and by 1918 (when the family moved to 437 Gloucester Street) George had four retail shops. He had also dropped the silent 'j' from his surname.

Para was listed on the stock exchange in 1919, and a successful share float enabled Skellerup to open more shops in both the North and South Islands. As managing director he bought, in 1925, a rubber plantation in Papua for £8,500, but the venture struggled and finally collapsed in the 1930s depression. A more successful move was his takeover in 1929 of Cotton Brothers, rubber importing merchants. By keeping their name, Skellerup was later able to gain a large import quota based on their previous import history. He also used the dormant firm as a wholesale agent for his other businesses.

In 1925 he bought an acre of prime residential property off Desmond Street, facing North Hagley Park across the Avon River. Here he built a two-storeyed stone house named Danmark, which had a stylised Viking ship (the Skellerup trademark) set into the floor of the entrance hall, reflecting George's pride in his Danish ancestry. The house was finished in 1927.

The depression hit Para hard, but Skellerup had reduced stock to lessen its effect. The introduction of import restrictions in 1938 encouraged further expansion of the manufacturing side of business and Skellerup set up several new companies. The Latex Rubber Company had begun making waterproof coats in 1936, and in 1938 the Empire Rubber Mills in Woolston began making the rubber components for milking machines. In 1939 a third company, Marathon Rubber Footwear, was formed to manufacture gumboots and tennis shoes. Skellerup repeatedly applied for a licence to manufacture car tyres, but was always refused. Ironically, after the outbreak of the Second World War, the government asked him to set up a plant to reclaim rubber from old tyres (Rubber Reclaim Limited, later the Atlas Rubber Company), and in 1942 asked him to establish a solar salt-works at Lake Grassmere in Marlborough. The latter venture took nearly a decade to develop, as it required the construction of hundreds of acres of settling ponds. However, by 1955 Dominion Salt Limited was producing 3,000 tons of salt each harvest. By 1948 Skellerup's business interests had grown so large that a holding company, Skellerup Industries, was established. He was also a director of the Mercantile and General Insurance Company.

As a young man Skellerup was a keen cyclist, tennis player and mountaineer: he made some notable climbs in the Southern Alps. But his greatest interest was gardening. He was an active member of the Canterbury Horticultural Society, and donated the Para Cup for garden competitions in Christchurch. The New Zealand Lily Society made him a life member, and he was a notable supporter of the New Zealand Rhododendron Association. He imported many specimen trees and shrubs for his Desmond Street property, which became a showplace for visitors to Christchurch.

George Skellerup suffered a massive heart attack while on holiday in England and died at Minehead, Somerset, on 5 June 1955. His body was flown to Christchurch and buried under a weeping elm in Ruru lawn cemetery. He was survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons.

Skellerup was one of Christchurch's leading industrialists in the 1930s and 1940s. Despite his business success, he remained a man of simple tastes and temperate habits, who gave generously but quietly to a wide range of community groups. A firm believer in family values, he involved his sons in the business from an early age. He also treated his staff as part of his family, and they mourned his death as keenly as friends and relatives. At his death he had over 1,000 employees, and his companies' annual sales topped £4 million. Skellerup Industries became a subsidiary of Brierley Investments Limited in 1987 and part of a new company, Skellerup Group Limited, in 1993. This company was delisted from the stock exchange in 1996 when it was bought out by the management.