City Of Enterprise: Perspectives on Auckland Business History
ed Ian Hunter and Diana Morrow
Auckland University Press, $59.99,
City of Enterprise presents an unashamedly Auckland Point of view on business, and why not? So little is known about the way business has developed in New Zealand that a book focusing on the powerhouse of the New Zealand economy has to be timely. More importantly, a book dedicated to that remarkable historian Emeritus Professor Russell Stone, and including an afterword by him, should be a shining example of the genre.
The fact that City of Enterprise does not reach the heights of Stone’s own superb writings on New Zealand history and business is unfortunate. His afterword, which is actually the text of an address given in 2004, provides an example of how business history can be brought to life. Stone puts forward a very personal but highly apposite view of the myth and reality of Auckland business from 1841-2004. He comments on the “shady reputation” of Auckland, and talks about the reasons Auckland has become the commercial centre of the Dominion since 1945.
Stone asks the question: “Will the rest of the economy now begin to accept that Auckland is not, after all, too big for its boots?” His answer is no. And in a way that is the difficulty with this book. It is a very worthy effort by Hunter and Morrow, and the University of Auckland Business History Project, and one of the early outcomes of the latter which can only be regarded as much needed. The project aims to “reinvigorate and foster the research, teaching and dissemination of business history in New Zealand”. In this instance, for New Zealand, read Auckland.
Hunter and Morrow, both of them historians and writers, have brought together a fascinating mix of companies and events all involving our biggest city. The activities covered include Maori enterprise, maritime history, the timber trade, stock and station businesses, and newspapers. Individual companies such as the Auckland Gas Company, Farmers’ Trading Company, and Ross and Glendining get chapters of their own as examples of the changes occurring through the period.
Each chapter is written by one individual, including Hunter on Farmers’ (a subject he knows well, having written a book on Lincoln Laidlaw). Unfortunately, information on the chapter authors is not provided, so it is difficult for the uninitiated to know of their expertise, except in the case of well-known writers such as Gavin McLean. He writes on the maritime development of the city. His chapter is a good example of the approach used throughout the book. He writes about change and continuity in the maritime history of the city. He carefully defines and describes the major trends over a long period of time but has only 20 pages in which to do so. It is a useful summary of events with a lot of factual information carefully gathered together. However, it lacks any flair or imagination.
McLean describes Auckland as a “great entrepot city”. Well, I love Auckland, but to describe it as a great example of such a city, compared with Sydney, New York or Marseilles, is going a bit far. McLean provides excellent information on the themes of the period, although he uses the word conveniently more often than he needs to. What we don’t get is any sense of the dynamism, energy and sheer foolhardiness of many of the great characters of the marine world of Auckland. The Union Shipping Group was the giant of the industry in the 80s, but hardly a leader in Union or anywhere else gets more than a perfunctory mention. As a result, McLean’s chapter, like most of the book, fails to grasp what business is truly about.
Business is about people with flair and imagination who are focused on success and achievement. They take risks because they see opportunities the rest do not see. They make money, as a result, for some of the time, and lose money the rest of the time. It is their endeavours that an academic approach to the business world fails to capture. This makes City of Enterprise a very dry read which will help students pass their exams but will never set alight those interested in what really went on, as Auckland grew from a dirty little port village into the centre of New Zealand’s commercial world.
Bruce Wallace is the Auckland-based author of Battle of the Titans – The Story of the Rise and Fall of Fletcher Challenge and Your Money Diet.