Kain's empire was apples and property

FORMIDABLE SPIRIT: As the founder of Apple Fields, Christchurch businessman Tom Kain was well known for taking on big challenges.
FORMIDABLE SPIRIT: As the founder of Apple Fields, Christchurch businessman Tom Kain was well known for taking on big challenges.

As a young man growing up in South Canterbury, Tom Kain was once asked to dig up some potatoes for a neighbour.

It was all done by hand, hour after hour, filling up bags and bags. It did not take long for the neighbour to pay a visit to the Kain household and tell Tom's father George that if he had any other boys like that he should send them over.

"Tom spent a week like that - head down bum up, working hard," says his brother Charles.

"He was always that way. He would always see a job through."

In later years, Tom Kain could be seen in restaurants and bars around Christchurch engaging friends, adversaries and strangers in deep conversation with his deep baritone voice.

More often than not, those conversations would soon turn serious and those opposite him would later stumble away, either delighted or bewildered by the experience.

It was the mark of a man deeply interested in all manner of subjects, says former business partner Justin Prain. But it was discussion, the argument that he loved.

"He was always engaging and could be intensely argumentative but the argument was always a challenge intended to ferret out answers or solutions," says Prain.

As part of one of Canterbury's prominent families, Kain was well known in business circles as the head of Apple Fields Ltd - once the country's's largest corporate apple producer which was later turned into a property development company.

He died on December 29, at the age of 63, after being diagnosed last year with prostate cancer.

"He absolutely loved argument or discussion - many people found that intimidating but in our business environment it was essential," Prain says. "The tougher the challenge the more he enjoyed it."

Kain faced many of those over his 40-year business career that first hit the headlines in the 1990s when he took on the country's Apple and Pear marketing board over its monopoly on the export market.

The battle went all the way to the Privy Council where he eventually won. But by that stage the company was $80 million in debt.

He then went on to restructure the company as a property development - selling off rural assets or developing them as residential properties.

"You don't take on a government agency too lightly because you rarely win against them," Prain says.

At its peak the company employed 3100 staff.

That experience gave him a huge distrust of bureaucracy, says his brother Charles, who co-founded Apple Fields and worked along side Kain for 40 years.

It was topped off by a decision of the Apple and Pear board to close the growing season two days before apples ripened in Canterbury.

"He felt quite strongly and could become quite vociferous about people he considered to be dogmatic or self serving," Charles says.

Kain did not like people who were in positions of authority that seemed to just look after their own affairs.

"He thought it was just mindless . . . he stood on the toes of sacred cows."

However, Charles says, he was equally a strong ally of those he perceived to be hard done by and those who had been treated unfairly by the world.

As the third eldest of five siblings - all named George or Georgina after their now 96-year-old father - Kain was intimately involved in a feud that split two sides of the family.

An eight-year battle over family trusts that controlled more than $35 million of farms in Hawke's Bay and Canterbury ended in 2008 after going to the Supreme Court.

The properties were held by 17 trusts that were originally part of a legacy left by grandparents Ernest and Helen Couper to their son and daughter who married George Kain senior.

The Kains disputed that they were being unfairly denied the benefits of the fortune - which market sources suggested may even be double their $35 million book value.

The ruling by the Supreme Court was the legal equivalent of a score draw, with each side having one victory each over the legitimacy of disputed trusts.

But along the way they amassed an estimated legal bill of $4 million and set new precedents for the administration of trusts.

"He had a reputation for being litigious which goes back to an interest in law," says Prain. He studied it but never practised. "But he was a fervent advocate for the rule of law."

Prain says he was also very intellectual and even followed in his father's footsteps by reciting poetry verse by heart when the occasion called for it.

Apple Fields became a pioneer of developing gated communities, with various projects around the region. In more recent years he had partnered with Justin Prain to develop Yaldhurst and Belfast villages.

Many called Kain a "developer in disguise" who always had his eye on using the vast tracts of land that Apple Fields owned on other ventures. But Prain says his business partner was devoted to the apple industry.

After the Apple and Pear saga, Kain convinced the city council, which was then drawing up its district plan, to rewrite it based on his vision of future development.

The city was a wheel with spokes radiating out from the centre. The circumference of the wheel itself is where Kain's projects would be enacted, Prain says.

"It was an astonishing move - to be doing that in an isolated manner is one thing but doing it in a comprehensive conceptual framework is entirely another."

However, the company still struggled for many years and continued to sell land and assets to reduce debt.

The Canterbury earthquakes threw up another opportunity to develop higher density housing around the region.

Prain says it is sad that Kain will not get to see his latest visions completed - ones that require much endurance and patience.

"He had that endurance and mental agility to get by thousands of objections that people always start throwing at you. We are going to miss that."

While his political and business views sometimes seemed extreme and led many to believe that he was arrogant, Prain says he was extraordinarily generous.

Above all, his brother Charles says, he worked hard.

"He was tenacious beyond belief and would never give up."

The Press