11 Aug 2010

Businessman Sir Ron Trotter dies

10:01 pm on 11 August 2010

High-profile company director Sir Ron Trotter has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 82.

Sir Ron intended to be a farmer but went into business instead and was best known for his roles from 1980 until 1995 as the first chief executive and then chairman of the board of New Zealand's then largest company, Fletcher Challenge.

He also held the chairmanship of many companies and organisations including Telecom, the Business Roundtable, the Overseas Investment Commission and the Museum of New Zealand.

Sir Ron died peacefully at his home in Te Horo on Kapiti Coast north of Wellington overnight on Wednesday.

Rise of Fletcher Challenge

Ronald Ramsay Trotter was born in Hawera in 1927 and educated at Wanganui Collegiate School. He took a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Victoria University in 1947 and the following year a Certificate in Agriculture at Lincoln College.

After studying at Lincoln he took up a job as a stock and station agent, becoming the manager of Wright Stephenson's Hastings branch at 30. He caught the eye of Wright Stephenson's chair Sir Clifford Plimmer and moved to Wellington as his assistant in 1958. He had a rapid rise through the company and was chair at 43.

In 1972, he orchestrated the merger of Wright Stephenson with the National Mortgage and Agency Company to form Challenge Corporation. Eight years later, he led the merger of Challenge with Fletcher Holdings and Tasman Pulp and Paper to form New Zealand's premier company, Fletcher Challenge. He served as chief executive until 1987 when he moved into the chairman's seat, remaining until 1995.

During Sir Ron's chairmanship Fletcher Challenge expanded rapidly with purchases in forestry, pulp and paper making, building and contacting, from Australia to North and South America and Britain.

The company bought the government stake in Petrocorp, Taranaki oil and gas production and added oil reserves in Canada. The expansion was followed by high debt and interest liabilities, which eventually led to asset sales and cutting of losses.

Sir Ron changed the management structure of Fletcher Challenge to allow top executives to share more of the power of chief executive Hugh Fletcher, who did not share his own zeal for right wing economics.

Controversial career

Sir Ron held the chairmanship of several companies and organisations, including the Business Roundtable and the Overseas Investment Commission.

He was knighted in 1985 and undertook several government assignments, including chairing the committee to advise then State Owned Enterprises minister Richard Prebble on commercial matters relating to SOEs.

Sir Ron was a vocal proponent of economic deregulation and urged the minister to move ahead with privatisation of the public sector. He resigned from the committee after Mr Prebble was sacked from the Cabinet in a row over how state asset sales should be handled.

From 1987-90 he chaired Telecom and ran into controversy over its move from state corporation to private entity. At the time, he was still chair of Fletcher Challenge, one of the bidders for the enterprise. It was understood to be the first time a board member of a SOE had not stood down in similar circumstances.

In 1991, under the National Government, he chaired the National Interim Provider Board responsible for establishing the Crown Health Enterprises which replaced the old hospital boards.

Four years later, Sir Ron up the chairmanship of the Museum of New Zealand and was proud of the museum's biculturalism. In 2000 he left the board in 2000 and retired to his small farm near Wellington.

Prime Minister John Key expressed his sympathies on Wednesday, saying Sir Ron's contribution to business in New Zealand was significant and his achievements will leave a lasting legacy.

Sir Ron is survived by his wife, Margaret Trotter, and four children.