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Apr 20, 2017

Honour for fishing industry pioneer

A Whanganui businesswoman who was at the forefront of the country's fishing industry for about 30 years will be inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame in July.


A Whanganui businesswoman who was at the forefront of the country's fishing industry for about 30 years will be inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame in July.

Pam Williams, who established Wanganui Trawlers (later Wanganui Seafoods) in 1965, is among the laureates named this weekend and who will be inducted at a gala evening in Auckland on July 27.

The Hall of Fame recognises individuals who have made a significant contribution to the economic and social development of the country.

The very private Mrs Williams told the Chronicle she was also "uncomfortable" about being inducted. She has always shunned the limelight, preferring to get on with the job and not doing it for public recognition.

She was born to a farming family in the Waitotara Valley but after farming on her own account in the mid-1960s she was looking for investment opportunities.

The Government of the time was pushing development of the fishing industry and, with the potential in the fishery off the Taranaki bight, she decided to buy a fishing trawler.

She took her idea to her lawyer, Gordon Swan, who decided to back her launching Wanganui Trawlers Ltd. This duo created an extraordinarily successful business relationship spanning more than five decades.

More trawlers joined the fleet and soon all local fishermen were selling their catch under contract to Wanganui Trawlers, including some New Plymouth and Wellington boats.

As more boats were taken on, the business moved into bigger premises with some of its processed fish being exported to Australia and then beyond.

By the mid-70s Mrs Williams was busy lobbying the Government to convince them Wanganui Trawlers had the capability to fish beyond the existing 12-mile limit and move into the newly created 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The Government was pushing regional development, especially in areas where jobs were declining. Mrs Williams had no problem convincing them that this region fitted that category.

When the joint venture legislation was passed in 1977, Wanganui Trawlers was allocated one of seven licences. She needed an offshore joint venture partner and Mrs Williams cemented a successful 12-year partnership with a South Korean company, which initially supplied two deep-water trawlers.

Wanganui Trawlers expanded its processing plant at Castlecliff, building a 3000-tonne capacity coldstore and then a new processing plant. Later about 30 squid jiggers were added from Japan, coming every season, and another joint venture partnership with a Russian company was formed.

The company, now renamed Wanganui Seafoods, was ranked the sixth largest fish quota holder in New Zealand, and within the Deloitte 200 largest privately owned companies exporting to 16 countries. Its Castlecliff factory employed about 200 staff with many more working at sea.

From the company's inception through until the 1980s there were very few women in high positions in New Zealand business so it was not unusual for her to be the only woman at the many business functions. She succeeded not only in what was then a very tough industry, but also one that was completely male dominated.

And she is dismissive of any suggestion about gender being an impediment in industry.

She refused to accept numerous nominations for awards - even the Business Woman of the Year - arguing she made her mark on her own abilities and hard work regardless of gender.

"They regarded me as something of a curiosity. When I asked one Korean businessman the name of his wife he said, 'She does not have a name. She is my possession'. I've never forgotten that.

"I think the fact I was a woman had its advantages because at times I think they looked on me a some kind of queer specimen."

The industry is a high-risk one and there was the constant danger to fishermen and boats when breakdowns occurred or weather turned vicious. There were several occasions when Mrs Williams was up all night talking to them on the ship-to-shore radio she had in her home.

In 1994 Wanganui Seafoods was sold to Sanford for $36.5 million. Mrs Williams said they considered Sanford was the best contender as far as job security of the company staff was concerned.

Sanford's price was not the highest bid, and later Mrs Williams said she deeply regretted this choice, as Sanfords asset-stripped the company and closed the doors in Whanganui.

Mrs Williams said the decision to set up the business in Whanganui was a given from the start and there was never a time when they considered relocating to a bigger centre.

"All of those involved in it were Whanganui people and staunchly patriotic. It wasn't easy - certainly for the ships using the port it was difficult and at times it seemed almost impossible but we managed to work around it."

Her company leased the port and took over the running of it through a subsidiary, Ocean Terminals - it was the first privately run port in the country.

As far as the processing factory and running an export business went, Whanganui was "excellent", she said.

"We had a very good staff who were very loyal and dedicated. It was huge deal when New Zealand decided to claim its 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Before that it was all foreigners fishing our waters.

"But that change left the way open for our involvement - the way was there to get cracking and do something."

- Wanganui Chronicle