Immigrant built smallgoods firm

Aalt Verkerk
Aalt Verkerk

Dutch immigrant Aalt Verkerk founded a family butchery in Christchurch and built it into a leading meat and smallgoods company. A few hours before his recent death, Verkerk was still handling company paperwork from his hospital bed. He was 89.

Son John says work was everything to his father. He was a wise and caring family man but had no outside interests. It was as if he had strung barbed wire around his home, his shop and factory, the market and his church, John says. He never wanted to be anywhere else.

Verkerk became a New Zealand citizen soon after arriving in 1952.

He resisted making trips back to Holland and went only once, under extreme duress. His wife returned several times without him - though only a flimsy, last-minute excuse got him out of one other trip, John says.

He was embarrassed to be appointed a Member of the NZ Order of Merit, in 2003, for services to the Dutch community. He felt he had given little to the community and must have been recommended for the award because his business prominence reflected well on all Dutch immigrants.

Brought up on a small farm in the Utrecht area, Verkerk had a strong memory of walking home from school one day to see his father's cows being led away. The Great Depression had hit Holland and the mortgagor had foreclosed on his father. Verkerk knew every cow by name. The sight of them leaving haunted him. His family believes it explained his thrifty, no-risk approach to business.

The family moved to Amsterdam, where his father did milk deliveries. There, as a boy, Verkerk was fascinated by the sight of butchers wielding long knives in their shop. He worked and qualified as a butcher but his career was stalled by the German invasion. The "defiant and feisty teenager" became involved in black-market trading, using false identity papers to move around the country, John says. Some of his accomplices were arrested by the Germans and never seen again but Verkerk survived.

Verkerk had long been keen to emigrate and post-war economic chaos prompted him to leave. He married Johanna, whom he had been dating for some years, and they chose New Zealand because of its immigration assistance scheme. They brought their first two children with them. Verkerk found the voyage boring so he worked in the ship's kitchen.

The family lived in a caravan for the first six months, while Verkerk worked in a Papanui butchery. When approached to join the union, he declined. John says: "He was his own union, a one-man union." Three years later he bought a former abattoir on the corner of Manchester and Armagh streets and went into business on his own. Labour was scarce and he used to visit the magistrate's court and bail prisoners to work for him. Most of the family also worked in the business. John says they were never pressured to join but were welcomed when they did.

The shop was renovated in 1970. It became the company's flagship, as Verkerk had by then opened a meat-processing works in Papanui.

His business grew to employ 200 workers and was listed among New Zealand's top 500 companies. However, John says his brother Peter was the force behind most of the later initiatives.

Johanna died in 2002. John says his father was "no socialite, rather an insular type", nevertheless his charm, physical stature and standing in the community attracted women. Six months later he married Ansje, whom he had known in Holland.

Fairfax Media