The Wattie’s history – from humble beginnings to a global presence

Jim Wattie

Who would have thought that when Jim Wattie and his friend Harold Carr got together to form their small operation called J. Wattie Canneries Ltd, that they’d be making business history. This timeline shows how Jim overcame adversity on many occasions, and moved from one success to another.

It all started with some surplus fruit, Kiwi ingenuity and a dream

The Wattie’s story began in Hawke’s Bay in 1934. Fresh New Zealand produce was being wasted because of the prohibitive cost of transporting fresh produce from Hastings to the cities of Auckland and Wellington. James (Jim) Wattie and friend Harold Carr formed J. Wattie Canneries Ltd in 1934 and in 1935 started supplying pulped fruit from gooseberries, plums and peaches to be made into jam, which led in turn to the canning of peaches and pears.

The first major challenges

Tomato Harvesting

In 1936, bad weather wiped out the crops of peaches and pears. Instead of importing fruit, Jim and Harold decided to grow and can peas and tomatoes. Many said peas wouldn’t grow in Hawke’s Bay and doubted that consumers would buy canned tomatoes. Jim’s foresight proved correct. Wattie’s peas soon became popular in New Zealand and the UK. Tomatoes were an immediate success, and quickly sold out.

World War II

At the end of the 1930s, Wattie’s’ success was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Wattie’s was called on to contribute to the war effort, with its operations being designated an essential industry by the Government.  Almost everything that Wattie’s could make was needed to feed the Allied soldiers – mainly canned rations.

Kiwi Icons

The Iconic Products

When the war ended, the demand for canned meat and dehydrated rations slowed. So Jim led the company in a new direction, creating new products made from the natural produce that Wattie’s specialised in. Tomatoes were added to a host of great ingredients to create the products that future generations of Kiwis would grow up with: Wattie’s Tomato Sauce, Baked Beans, Spaghetti and Tomato Purée.

Expanding to Gisborne

In 1950, Jim Wattie wanted to expand his range of products to include sweet corn. To do so he needed another factory and to plant in the best corn-growing land in New Zealand – Gisborne. He convinced local farmers to plant corn, and then built a factory from scratch.  Virtually overnight, Wattie’s became the world’s biggest frozen food manufacturer outside the USA. Soon after that, Wattie’s began catching, processing and canning fish. When Wattie’s became concerned with the amount of waste this industry generated, the pet food brands ‘Felix’ and ‘Fido’ were launched to use what had once been waste – another New Zealand first. 

The Golden Years

The Golden Years

During the years after World War 2, electric fridge−freezers (introduced in the 1930s) were becoming more common, and Kiwis were looking for new products to fill them. Jim Wattie saw this as an opportunity to get into frozen foods. Because of Wattie’s adoption of frozen technology, New Zealand vegetables became popular here and around the world. 

Bringing up New Zealand’s babies

In 1958, Wattie’s started production of its own lines of baby food.  Jim immediately got involved with the world renowned Plunket Society. When Plunket gave their seal of approval to the new products, Kiwi mothers embraced the new range and sales were immediately strong. The relationship was reinforced in 1990, when Wattie’s−Plunket Baby Foods were launched. Today, Wattie’s helps to ensure Plunket’s goals are met not only by sponsoring the Society but by providing advice and support to young families through the Wattie’s ForBaby website.

A disaster turned into an opportunity

In 1962, a significant fire broke out on the King Street manufacturing site in Hastings. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt, but most of the factory was destroyed. Immediately, Jim Wattie moved into action to overcome this setback. Stocks of beans and tomatoes were dispatched to the Gisborne factory within six hours, and canning production restarted within 24 hours. His staff was so determined to get production going again that the first day’s canned pea production was the biggest they’d ever achieved. In the aftermath of the destruction, the company took the opportunity to rebuild the factory and speed up planned expansions.

From Jim to Sir James Wattie

Sir James Wattie

Jim Wattie, as he was always known, was knighted Sir James Wattie in 1966 for services to the food industry. This was considered just recognition for the considerable achievements in his lifetime. Sir James was a genuinely modest and generous man who, in accepting this great honour, characteristically recognised the contribution of many others he had worked with. He mentioned that he was a salaried man who considered himself only one of 24,000 New Zealand Wattie’s shareholders, the great majority of whom were small investors. Factory workers recalled that Sir James regularly went through the factory talking to whomever he met and that he knew all employees by their first name. Local growers recalled him as a man who was ‘hard, but fair and honest’ in his dealings with them. Sir James stepped down as Managing Director of Wattie Industries Ltd in 1972 and handed the reins to his elder son, Gordon. His younger son, Ray, became Managing Director of the Wattie Canneries division. Sir James Wattie passed away at his home on 8 June 1974. Tributes poured in from around the world.

Expanding South

Harvesting crops

With Wattie’s growing so rapidly, Sir James Wattie (as he then was) had to solve the problem of the cost of transporting products across Cook Strait. The solution was to build a factory for frozen foods in Christchurch.  Begun in 1969, this made Wattie’s a truly national organisation. The site would become by far the largest pea−processing plant in New Zealand, and is believed to still be the largest producer of air−dehydrated peas in the world. 

Goodman Fielder Wattie Ltd

In 1980, Goodman Fielder and Wattie Industries purchased shares in each other’s companies beginning what was to become a close relationship. This was consummated by a merger in 1987 to create Goodman Fielder Wattie Ltd.

H.J. Heinz & Wattie’s

In October 1992, the H.J. Heinz Company of Pittsburgh, USA, purchased Wattie’s from Goodman Fielder for $565 million, beginning an exciting chapter in the New Zealand company’s history. H.J. Heinz was established in 1869 by Henry J. Heinz and from its inception the company had a reputation for producing high quality nutritious foods. The H.J. Heinz Company produced many similar products to Wattie’s, such as baked beans, soups, baby foods and sauces, and saw in Wattie’s a company with similar values that would be a natural fit with its global business.

More growth

Food in a Minute

Wattie’s purchased the nearby disused freezing works at Tomoana, Hastings, in 1995 and rebuilt the site into a modern food processing factory and distribution centre. Wattie’s also purchased associated businesses, including in 1996 Craig’s brand jams and canned beans and the Pacific and Hellaby’s brands of corned beef, and in 1998 the ETA brand salad dressings and peanut butter (under licence) and the Bruno pet food brand. Over $100 million was invested in upgrading the factories at King Street and Tomoana to meet the quality and price demands of international food markets. The development of canned pasta sauces and new frozen products in the mid−1990s was boosted by the revolutionary Food in a Minute ®television campaign. This series of short cooking programmes was designed to help Kiwis cook quick, easy and nutritious meals. Now hosted by Lana Garland, this concept has been developed further with the Food in a Minute website which since its inception has received more hits than any other food website in New Zealand.

Environmental responsibility

In 1999, Wattie’s established Kowhai Farm, an organic 57−hectare cropping farm run by the company in conjunction with Lincoln University. This profitable commercial scale mixed−cropping farm was used to research sustainable agriculture practices and methods of reducing carbon emissions, and to give grower suppliers ideas to adapt to their own farms.