New knight scoped out ways to build wealth

CECILE MEIER
Last updated 05:00 02/06/2014
Robert and Barbara Stewart, of Skope Industries.
Fairfax NZ
POWER COUPLE: Robert and Barbara Stewart, of Skope Industries.

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Skope Industries founder Sir Robert Stewart says being knighted is "the ultimate honour".

"It is not something you do on your own, it is something that everyone makes a contribution to."

The Canterbury manufacturer had a clear goal in his life. He aspired to wealth.

"People always assume I was rich, but when I was young my family wasn't wealthy. My father [Sir Robertson Stewart] became wealthy and then got divorced and went his way."

Sir Robert left school when he was 15 to become an apprentice electrician with the government. He worked at Christchurch Airport and at the Paparua prison.

But then his father funded him to study engineering at Cranfield College in England. There, Sir Robert decided he wanted to become a millionaire.

"It is not fashionable in New Zealand to say you want to be rich . . . But I had a clear goal nearly all my life and it came about when I went to England and I saw people driving Rolls Royces and I thought ‘why can't I do that too?"'

He came back to New Zealand and worked for his father's company PDL Industries for five years.

"I was going to work with him and we would be rich together, but it didn't go like that so I went on my own.

"It was just that the two of us were similar and couldn't work together easily."

With the help of a £110,000 loan from his father, he bought a "tiny factory that made heaters" in 1966 at the age of 25.

"I paid him back every dollar."

Skope Industries now employs 400 staff and designs and manufactures world leading low-energy commercial refrigerators exported worldwide with clients including Coca Cola Amatil.

Sir Robert's children Guy and Alexandra run the company.

"I stepped down from the company to try and give my children the space while I am still alive to see how they do," he says.

He has won many export and design awards over the years. He was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2007 for services to manufacturing and the community.

Sir Robert is also proud of his work as chairman of the Health Research Council of New Zealand since 2002.

"I am really proud to be able to help fund some of our brightest medical research people in the country."

He also helped shape what he calls "the politics of manufacturing" when he was president of the Canterbury Manufacturers Association.

"We were very focused on making manufacturing work in Canterbury. We needed a good port and a good airport."

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He says the future of manufacturing is in design.

Manufacturers can build prototypes, review them with the customers, make a few of them and then if the client agrees, commission factories in China to build in big quantities.

He turned 75 last week and is completing a book about his life in business that will be released in September.

He says his wife Barbara played a huge role in his success.

"We've been married for 400 years," he jokes, "but it's a team of two and the two of us have to make it work".  

- Stuff

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