Story: Entrican, Alexander Robert

Page 1 - Biography

Entrican, Alexander Robert

1898–1965

Civil engineer, forestry administrator

This biography was written by J. R. Martin and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Alexander Robert Entrican was born at Devonport on 28 January 1898, the son of Robert John Entrican, a merchant, and his wife, Annie Isabella Lamb. Known as Pat, he was educated at Auckland Grammar School and in 1915 enrolled at Auckland University College. During 1917 he worked as an assistant engineer for the Auckland electrical tramways. He joined the army in 1918, did not serve overseas, and retained his association with the Territorial Force until 1929. In 1919 he graduated in engineering from Auckland University College and lectured briefly there in hydraulics. He then joined the Wellington engineering firm of Hay and Vickerman as chief assistant civil engineer.

In March 1921 he became engineer in forest products in the newly created State Forest Service. He was to remain with the department for nearly 40 years. On 2 April 1921 Entrican married Erica Charlton Morpeth at Wellington. They were to have two daughters.

At heart Entrican was always an engineer, retaining a close interest in the detail of plant and processes while being sensitive to the claim that he was not a professional forester. His early Forest Service work was wide-ranging. His pioneering technical projects included work on timber testing, kiln drying and wood preservation. He wrote many articles and spoke at industry gatherings throughout the country.

Entrican soon became engaged with the possibilities for the utilisation of exotic forest resources in the Bay of Plenty area, at first for timber and later for pulp production. In 1927–28 he was sent to Australia, the United States, Canada and England to study the pulping properties of New Zealand wood, both indigenous and exotic. He visited Scandinavia and the United Kingdom in 1932–33 and became a pioneer in the use of pine for newspaper print. The visits laid the basis for overseas contacts which Entrican actively pursued for the rest of his life, notably at the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin.

Through the 1930s the range of Entrican’s responsibilities expanded and in 1939 he was appointed director of forests at the comparatively young age of 41. His first report to Parliament was a personal manifesto. It signalled a reorientation of departmental policy and laid out the issues which he was to prosecute with singleminded energy for the next two decades. Forestry was, in the new director’s view, vital to effective land use and thus the national interest. Multiple use – with some areas cut, some replanted and some preserved – was the key to successful forest management but was a strategy calculated to bring the Forest Service into conflict with both pastoral interests seeking to burn off trees, and preservationist groups seeking to lock away indigenous forests in national parks. Entrican also wanted more control over the clearing of forests on private land.

His aspirations were almost immediately overtaken by the Second World War. In September 1939 he became timber controller with extensive powers to regulate the felling, sale and purchase of state and private forests to meet increased wartime demand for timber. The exercise of this unusual degree of regulatory authority no doubt reinforced his tendencies to bureaucratic autocracy. These were to become marked in his later years as director.

The Murupara forestry scheme, eventually to mature as Tasman Pulp and Paper Company, was both a substantive and symbolic contribution to New Zealand’s post-war industrial development. Entrican was deeply engaged in advocacy and negotiation from the outset under both Labour and National governments. He was a foundation director of Tasman Pulp and Paper Company in 1952 and chairman of Kaingaroa Logging Company from its inception in 1955. He passionately believed that development of the Bay of Plenty resource was a national imperative. While political emphases changed with the election of a National government in 1949, Entrican always believed that to be successful any project should be an integrated complex, from planting to processing, and capable of competing internationally. This would demand a dominant role for the state.

Throughout the troubled early years of the Tasman development Entrican’s strongly held views brought him into conflict with his fellow directors. He thought that Bernard Ashwin, the influential secretary to the treasury, was overly concerned with the Crown’s financial exposure and insufficiently attentive to management and forestry considerations. At the same time Entrican was consistently suspicious of the dominant business interest in the Tasman project, Fletcher Holdings. Ironically, a principal criticism of the negotiations in the 1950s for the sale of state wood was that, effectively, a long-term subsidy was provided for Tasman. Ultimately, the development to which Entrican committed so much energy for so long was a personal disappointment as Fletcher Holdings’ emphasis on pulp and paper production moved away from the integrated timber industry he wanted.

While Tasman dominated much of Entrican’s long tenure as director, his impact on the Forest Service was all-embracing. He set in train the post-war National Forest Survey, and in his final year as director general inaugurated the second planting boom (the first was in the 1920s). Entrican established the state mills at Waipa and Conical Hills to facilitate the technical changes needed in milling exotic pine timber, and promoted the establishment of the Forest Research Institute in 1947. He even designed the department’s calendars and Christmas cards, exemplifying Entrican’s style of a ‘finger on all the activities of his department’ and his reported view that ‘delegation of authority can be overdone’. He was confident in his achievements in departmental training and established the Woodsmen’s Schools in 1950; the top trainees were awarded Entrican’s Axe of Honour. He was scornful of the external controls which constrained his managerial authority and was not averse to expressing his opinions publicly or to ministers. His bête noire was the Public Service Commission, which he considered the enthronement of both mediocrity and conformity. The antipathy was mutual.

Entrican rarely took leave, and in his latter years confessed to overwork; he was also affected by the long illness of his wife, who died on 4 September 1961. He left the public service on 7 December 1961 and found retirement a severe trial. He died in Wellington on 21 April 1965.

Pat Entrican was far from the common representation of the grey bureaucrat. A tall figure, he wore ‘bow ties and broad-brimmed cowboy-style hats with little plastic covers for protection from rain’. A ‘gruff, no-nonsense man, forever on tours of inspection of his empire’, he was not easy to work with. He was an idealist who demanded excellence in the smallest detail. Entrican’s dedication and singular contribution to the development of one of New Zealand’s major industries was recognised by his appointment as CBE in 1955.