Story: Foreman, James David Morton
Foreman, James David Morton
Engineer, car salesman, businessman, plastics manufacturer, doll-maker
This biography was written by Stephanie Clark and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
James David Morton (Mortie) Foreman was born at Pendleton, near Manchester, England, on 24 April 1902, the son of James Somerville Foreman, an electrical engineer, and his wife, Agnes Morton. After serving his engineering apprenticeship in Manchester, he decided to emigrate to Australia in 1925. He married Kathleen (Kar) May Ferguson in Stockport, Cheshire, on 16 April that year and left for Sydney the following day, arranging that she would follow as soon as he had established himself. Later that year he was offered a job in New Zealand selling petrol pumps for the American firm S. F. Bowser and Company. Crossing the Tasman, he was immediately successful in the motor industry and was soon joined by his wife. After some years in Wellington and Wanganui, in the mid 1930s he settled in Hamilton, where he established his own car sales company, Foreman Motors.
During a return visit to England in 1936 Foreman recognised the inevitability of war, and realised that shortages of cars and petrol would threaten his current business. A rudimentary market survey conducted in Hamilton’s main street convinced him that toys, and particularly dolls, would be in short supply and could be made from locally produced materials. In 1940 Foreman began manufacturing dolls’ heads from a unique blend of casein, kahikatea sawdust and formaldehyde in a back-street garage in Hamilton. He had to learn the business from scratch, initially relying on library books: ‘When I started … no one in this country knew very much about plastics. Trial and error was the only way to learn’. He made dolls by day on two salvaged hand-presses and experimented at night at the back of Foreman Motors, testing different plastics as well as designing and building new presses. He soon began making plastic material for the war effort, including torch cases for the army.
Foreman founded Plastic Products in 1941 and within several years had sufficient confidence in its future to give up the car business. By 1946 the company was exporting £35,000 worth of dolls to Australia each year. In the early 1950s it moved from Hood Street to Victoria Street and expanded its product range to include dairy industry equipment, Italian-designed plastic sandals, and detergent bottles. The company pioneered injection- and blow-moulding in New Zealand, and in the late 1950s won a contract to manufacture ballpoint pens for Biro Bic.
As a result of the rapid expansion of the plastics industry and the demand for a wider range of industrial, agricultural and domestic products, a new model factory at Te Rapa, Hamilton, was opened in April 1962. The 56,000-square-foot building cost £150,000, consumed up to 36,000 pounds of raw materials weekly and employed 180 people, including the company’s own team of designers, draughtsmen and engineers. Plastic Products merged with Alex Harvey and Sons in 1964 and was eventually bought by Carter Holt Harvey in 1989, becoming CHH Plastic Products Group. The backyard operation had by then become a leading New Zealand company with a reputation for innovation and excellence.
For much of Foreman’s 30 years as managing director, Plastic Products was one of the largest privately owned businesses in Waikato, and the influence of the Foreman family in Hamilton and the province was enormous. A persuasive and effective promoter of local business, he was twice president of the New Zealand Institute of Plastics, and was a leading member of the Hamilton branch of the New Zealand Manufacturers’ Federation. With his wife, Kathleen, he became involved with local community groups such as Birthright, formed to assist single-parent families, and Marriage Guidance Waikato. He was also a member of Hamilton’s chamber music, acclimatisation and film societies.
Mortie Foreman retired as managing director of Plastic Products in 1969. His wife died in 1975, and on 28 April 1989, in Hamilton, he married Margaret Yvonne Procuta (née Fox), a public relations manager. Foreman died aged 90 in Hamilton on 4 June 1992. He was survived by Yvonne and three sons from his first marriage, two of whom had followed their father into the plastics industry: Bill Foreman became managing director of Plastic Products and later founded Trigon Plastics, where he was joined by his brother Robin.
Innovative, energetic and creative, Mortie Foreman was a problem-solver who saw the potential in people and products and made the best use of both. He utilised time-and-motion studies to streamline processes. He took an interest in his staff and their families, enjoyed spending time on the factory floor, and placed great emphasis on training and apprenticeship schemes. The company he founded took a leading role in the development of the plastics industry in New Zealand, earning valuable export revenue and providing several hundred jobs in Hamilton. On a more personal level, Foreman’s beautiful dolls provided enjoyment for many young girls in New Zealand and Australia during the 1940s and 1950s.