Story: Ormond, John Davies Wilder

Page 1 - Ormond, John Davies Wilder

Ormond, John Davies Wilder

1905–1995

Farmer, meat industry representative, trade negotiator, company chairman

This biography was written by Robert James Bremer and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

The name of John Davies Wilder Ormond came to be synonymous with the New Zealand meat industry in the three decades following the Second World War. He was born at Waipukurau on 8 September 1905, the eldest son of English-born Emilie Mary Gladys Wilder and her husband, John Davies Ormond junior, a station manager. His paternal grandfather, J. D. Ormond, known as ‘The Master’, was a dominant figure in Hawke’s Bay politics, having been the last provincial superintendent, an MHR and a legislative councillor. Brought up at Wallingford, the family’s 19,000-acre estate near Waipukurau, young John learnt the essential skills of sheep and cattle farming and became proficient in horsemanship, an interest that he retained all his life.

Ormond was no scholar and endured rather than enjoyed school, although at Christ’s College, Christchurch, he excelled at sport, especially tennis and rugby. In 1926 he was sent to England, purportedly to attend the University of Cambridge, but after spending some time with his mother’s family he became involved in seasonal rural work, such as haymaking. He then spent six weeks in London working for the service club Toc H, teaching reading and maths to deprived children.

Ormond returned to Wallingford in 1927 and by 1930 was chairman of the Waipukurau branch of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union, a Patangata county councillor and president of both the Waipukurau Agricultural and Pastoral Association and the Waipukurau Jockey Club. Although for most of his career he eschewed party politics, he did make some unsuccessful political forays as an independent Reform and New Zealand National Party candidate during the 1930s; he even flirted with the right-wing Democrat Party.

In 1933 the coalition government’s finance minister, Gordon Coates, who was to become Ormond’s political mentor, encouraged him to stand (successfully) for the New Zealand Meat Producers’ Board. On 26 August 1939, at Waipukurau, he married Judith Wall, the daughter of a Hatuma farmer; at the wedding Coates made one of the official speeches. A week later the Second World War began and Ormond, against Coates’s advice, enlisted for war service, resigning from the Meat Board.

In 1940 Ormond departed with the 2nd Echelon of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force. While the convoy was anchored at Cape Town he distinguished himself by diving over the side of his troopship in an attempt to rescue a drowning man, for which he was awarded the British Empire Medal for gallantry. Wounded during the withdrawal from Greece, in July 1941 he was invalided back to New Zealand, where he continued to serve with the army as an officer instructor, reaching the rank of captain. Typically, he was critical of military bureaucracy and traditionalism, which he considered were hindering the war effort, and communicated his concerns to Coates, who was then a member of the War Cabinet. He was also scornful of the National Party’s attitude towards Coates and its withdrawal from the War Administration, saying that the party made him ‘sick’. He even considered joining his cousins, Ormond Wilson from Manawatu and Jack Ormond (Tiaki Omana) from Mahia, in the New Zealand Labour Party.

His father died in December 1942, and the following year John Ormond was released from military service to return to farming. He won re-election to the Meat Board in 1944 and was deputy chairman by 1949, when he made the first of many trips to Britain to negotiate terms of trade for New Zealand meat. Brusque and outspoken, he was a formidable and tireless negotiator with the style of a horse trader. His personality and patrician background gave him the confidence to deal with the élite British establishment on equal terms. He knew the value of personal contact, made friends easily and was a natural host. Many important foreign dignitaries were guests at the Ormond homes at Wallingford and Porangahau Beach. He was strongly supported by his wife, Judith, who carried the major responsibility of raising their four sons and one daughter.

In 1951 Ormond became chairman of the Meat Board. That year, while negotiating bulk-meat contract arrangements with the British government, he earned considerable notoriety by stating to the British press that ‘it’s time we twisted the lion’s tail’, implying that Britain was not showing sufficient gratitude for New Zealand’s wartime efforts. In 1952 Ormond succeeded in negotiating a 12½ per cent bulk-price increase, even though the New Zealand government had been asking for only 7½ per cent. He also secured unrestricted right of entry for New Zealand meat for 15 years after the termination of the bulk contract in 1954, again exceeding expectations. At the same time he embarrassed his government by stating that if Britain wanted to control New Zealand meat prices then New Zealand should be able to control the prices of British imports. These remarks, accompanied by a premature disclosure of the pricing arrangements, earned him a public admonition from cabinet.

Ormond’s abrasive style, however, was often a useful counterbalance to the softer diplomatic approach. This was especially true when Britain sought entry to the European Economic Community. He was particularly suspicious of the Common Agricultural Policy, with its subsidies, levies and trade barriers. In 1961, when Duncan Sandys, the British secretary of state for Commonwealth relations, led a delegation to soften New Zealand opposition to the British entry application, Ormond and his old friend F. P. Walsh (president of the New Zealand Federation of Labour) were the major questioning voices on the issue. He earned further notoriety when he publicly questioned the sincerity of Sandys in saying that Britain would not sell out the Commonwealth. Levies on New Zealand sheep meat became a critical issue in Britain’s final entry negotiations in 1970–71. In 1970 Ormond hosted Britain’s chief EEC negotiator, Geoffrey Rippon, at Porangahau, and the New Zealand representatives at the final common market negotiations in 1971 were constantly reminded of the Meat Board’s opposition to any damaging concessions.

Ormond took the lead in reducing dependence on the British market, and by 1970 nearly half of New Zealand’s meat exports were being sold elsewhere. Among the diversification schemes he presided over were the entry to the Japanese market in 1957 and the formation in 1960 of the Meat Export Development Company, established to develop North American markets. In 1966 the Meat Board introduced a scheme with a system of rewards and penalties to encourage exporters to seek new markets. For some of these measures Ormond was accused of promoting socialism and monopolism, not only by the meat companies but also by the prime minister, Keith Holyoake.

Ormond was an adamant supporter of producer control, a founding principle in the establishment of the Meat Board in 1922. In the 1950s, during the fierce debate as to whether a new meat works in Southland should involve a proprietary company (Vestey) or be purely a farmers’ co-operative, Ormond weighed in on the co-operative side. In 1960 New Zealand’s first new meat works in 30 years was opened at Lorneville by the farmers’ co-operative Alliance Freezing Company, largely financed by the Meat Board through its huge Meat Industry Reserve Account.

After Ormond’s retirement from the Meat Board in 1972 he was, in his own words, only ‘out of the ring for a while’. Early in 1973 he was engaged by the newly elected Labour prime minister, Norman Kirk, to spearhead the formation of a New Zealand state shipping line. He was ideally suited to the task: his Meat Board duties had included negotiating shipping freight rates, and since 1964 he had been chairman of the Exports and Shipping Council; he also had many personal contacts in international shipping and trade. Ormond recognised the urgent need to adopt containerisation and was frustrated at delays by the traditional shipping lines. After meticulous and often secret planning, the Shipping Corporation of New Zealand Act was passed in October 1973. Ormond was appointed chairman, with another old friend from the FOL, Tom Skinner, as his deputy. Ormond’s ability to transcend party lines ensured the corporation’s survival after National regained office in 1975.

He retired from the Shipping Corporation in September 1979, and returned to farming at Wallingford. In 1981 he moved to Waipukurau, where he continued to receive many notable overseas visitors and was still widely consulted on trade and shipping matters. John Ormond died at his home on 8 March 1995, survived by his wife, Judith, and four sons.

Among the many awards he had received were an honorary DSc from Massey University (1972) and membership of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1980). He had been knighted in 1964, an honour he was convinced had been approved against the wishes of the prime minister, Holyoake. The uneasy relationship between the two men, whose careers had intertwined since the 1930s, illustrates significant differences in character. Ormond’s bluntness and lack of deference often proved too much for the cautiously diplomatic Holyoake. John Ormond was above all a nationalist and his uncompromising promotion of New Zealand’s trade interests earned the respect of even his opponents. The tributes paid to him both at retirement and death indicate his unparalleled stature in trade and agriculture in post-war New Zealand.