Putting career plans on ice paid off for cool pioneer

17:00, Jun 24 2014
James McAlpine
HONOURED: James McAlpine's ambition saw him become a successful businessman.

The saying goes that if at first you don't succeed try, try again. But in the late James McAlpine's case, he decided to try something else.

The new inductee into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame became a pioneer of refrigeration technology in New Zealand after being unable to find work in his chosen field of marine engineering.

He had originally wanted to follow in his father's footsteps to become a marine engineer but, growing up in the Depression, times were tough after he completed his apprenticeship. After long months without work, he decided to become self-employed.

He sold his parents' radio (or wireless, as it was known then) and opened a business with another friend.

What started out as a humble refrigerator repair service from a rented garage in Parnell soon grew to become James S McAlpine Ltd on July 1935.

The boom in the popularity of icecream generated a demand for icecream cabinets. McAlpine started making the cabinets, which led to his making the first refrigerated ice-cream transport to be built outside the United States.


"He was very ambitious and wanted to get somewhere. Having experienced real hunger, he was really keen on his food and making sure he was never going to run out again," said his eldest son, James McAlpine.

"He was an entrepreneurial man. He travelled a lot to Australia, Europe and the US to observe the developments in the refrigeration industry. That was a big deal in those days when planes were propeller-driven and a flight to Australia could take eight to 10 hours."

James S McAlpine Ltd introduced a number of innovations to the country, including many kinds of chillers and refrigerators for dairy, meat and supermarket displays.

His son said his father saw the opportunities his company had which he then developed in association with other companies.

The younger James McAlpine completed an apprenticeship at the company when he was 16. He stayed on as a refrigeration engineer and became director of McAlpine in 1976.

In World War II, McAlpine senior constructed coolrooms which could be dropped by parachute throughout the islands, as well as soda-fountains and icecream churns for the Americans, fuelling the company's expansion.

After the war, domestic refrigerators and freezers became more ubiquitous. In 1948, McAlpine formed a partnership with famous British refrigeration company Prestcold to import its refrigerators into New Zealand and assemble them locally. Prestcold generated such demand that its sealed refrigerator systems were soon being made and assembled in New Zealand.

Like many entrepreneurs, McAlpine, who died in 1961, had a strong personality.

"He was bossy, always directing and always in charge," according to his youngest son, Andrew.

McAlpine's niece, Lady Sheryl Wells, remembers the day she left school and walked into her uncle's office. He said she should work for a bank, so he called up the manager of the National Bank and helped get her a job. Wells, who is president of Netball New Zealand, worked in the bank for several years after that.

Along with wanting to run the ship, McAlpine also placed an emphasis on quality and was quite a perfectionist.

"I remember once he taught the cleaner how to sweep the floor. There was a certain angle he thought it should be swept at for maximum efficiency," said Andrew McAlpine.

McAlpine also developed close personal relationships with his clients, including executives from Watties canneries, Tip Top icecream and Thomas Ah-Chee, another Business Hall of Fame laureate, who opened New Zealand's first major standalone supermarket in 1958. It was a Foodtown in Otahuhu and featured McAlpine refrigeration equipment.

On one of his business trips to the US, McAlpine obtained a licence to manufacture American supermarket equipment, diversifying his company operations into that lucrative market.

He later received an order for 1000 ice-bank chillers from the New Zealand Co-operative in Hamilton, cementing the company's reputation in the farm refrigeration sector.

McAlpine contributed to many organisations, including an Australian theatre company. He loved Broadway musicals. He was a director of the Reserve Bank, a major supporter of the New Zealand Foundation for the Blind, a foundation member of the Lions in Auckland, a director of Seddon Memorial Technical College (now AUT University), and an honorary life member of the Royal Agricultural Society of New Zealand.

When the McAlpine board sold to sell to ceramics manufacturer Ceramco the family's connection to the company ended.

Today McAlpine operates as McAlpine Hussman and has 450 employees working in the commercial refrigeration and air conditioning sector in Australasia.


The New Zealand Business Hall of Fame was created in 1994 by Young Enterprise Trust, and the award is presented each year with the support of Fairfax Media, Auckland Chamber of Commerce, Ricoh and Kaimira Estate. The 2014 gala dinner is on Thursday, August 7, at The Langham, Auckland. Tickets can be ordered by phone on 04 570 0452 or online at businesshalloffame.co.nz.