Rowing helped shape manager

19:28, Jun 04 2014

Although he won gold in the single scull rowing at the Vancouver British Empire Games in 1954, Don Rowlands believes it was his silver medal in 1950 that shaped his management career the most.

The former chief executive of Fisher & Paykel gained his silver in the rowing eights event, and the teamwork and discipline required set a precedent for his business career, he says.

"The [rowing] eight is the ultimate team sport because there are no stars, you can't go on the water if you don't have a full team.

"For rowing, you've got to have the genes and the right body type, but most of it is above the ears, you've got to have discipline and willpower."

During his time at the management helm as managing director of Champion Spark Plugs from 1965 to 1976, and then as chief executive of Fisher & Paykel until 1989, Rowlands says he preferred not to be the star of the show, and was more comfortable talking to his team on the factory floor than sitting behind a desk.

"As manager I like to get people talking and to listen to their ideas. I was never autocratic, I talked to the staff and asked people what they thought about things," he says.


Growing up in the King Country, Rowlands also learned the value of team spirit from watching his father, Horace, manage workers at the Dominion Timber Company. Horace had lost his leg in a forestry accident but managed his team of tree fellers on a peg leg without any problems, keeping his workers on side by feeding them bush tucker.

Rowlands says he saw the same kind of leadership when working with Sir Woolf Fisher and Maurice Paykel when he joined the whiteware company in 1954.

"They were special people, they really understood the cost of meat and potatoes and what the working man had to pay for things. I had big shoes to fill when I took over.

"I was a bit more hands on than they were, though. Because I was brought up in a sawmill with bushmen, I was completely relaxed with everybody in the businesses, no matter what station they were working in.

"I carried that over with me to F&P, I just talked and listened to people.

"We had some smart engineers and we used to have wonderful brainstorming meetings. We would come up with some crazy ideas and every now and then a gem would pop out."

Those gems included the world renowned Gentle Annie washer in 1985, named after the company's washing machine tester Annie, and Smart Drive in 1992, the same technology later used in the DishDrawer.

Those innovations came at just the right time for Fisher & Paykel. Deregulation in 1984 led to imported whiteware flooding the New Zealand market.

"All of the manufacturers were under pressure, and a lot of them didn't survive. It just happened that at Fisher & Paykel, before he died, Woolf Fisher had seen this coming, so we were ahead of the game in design," Rowlands says.

While the industry struggled, Rowlands worked closely with union reps.

"I wasn't opposed to unions. One day I had a meeting with all the union reps and just lined up all [the] imported goods in front of them and said: ‘This is what we are up against'.

"I'd tell them: ‘You and I are on the same side, I care just as much about the welfare of my staff as you do'. That was my style.

"After we went public [in 1979], I really made an effort to talk to the team about how the company had gone each year and how the meeting of the board of directors went. It was all about communication."

Rowlands stepped down from Fisher & Paykel in 1989 but served on the board for another 11 years. He also became chairman of Mainfreight.

Watching the company grow from a fledgling freight business with one Bedford truck to a billion-dollar international corporate was both challenging and interesting, he says. Mainfreight adopted several of Fisher & Paykel's policies, including paying staff a dividend each year based on the company's performance.

Rowlands stepped down from Mainfreight in 2011 when the international travel became too taxing. But at 87 he is still incredibly fit. An active sailor, he also goes to the gym three times a week where he uses the treadmill and exercycle, but avoids the rowing machine.

"I've had two open heart surgeries and the rowing machine is too tough now.

"When I do things, I like to do them properly," he says.

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