James William Ferguson Foreman ONZM 28 March 1927 – 30 August 2017.
Bill Foreman’s leadership, vision and the workplace culture he engendered were remembered recently at a function for the plastics pioneer who died on August 30.
A former employee of his father Mortie’s company Plastic Products, in 1971 Bill Foreman joined John Gibb and Bill Armstrong to establish Trigon Plastics. By 1995 the Te Rapa-based company had achieved global turnover of $140 million, with overseas manufacturing sites at Telford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Atlanta and Seattle in the United States and Singapore, when sold to United States company Sealed Air Corporation.
Recently, original Trigon shareholders John Gibb, Russell Cassey and Brien Higgins, together with past employees from both companies and three of Bill’s family gathered at the Verandah at Hamilton Lake to farewell Bill.
Bill was remembered at the function as a born leader with an extraordinary memory, as a great communicator with a distinct sense of humour who didn’t suffer fools easily.
But Bill genuinely cared about people and like his father, the company he led set out to build a culture based on team work and family values. Bills’ daughter Penny spoke about his “Trigon family” and how important this was to him.
Employee welfare was important – credit union, superannuation, medical insurance and social club were all part of the Trigon package. Bill could be very generous, recognising and rewarding extraordinary effort. The Trigon Group Employee Shareholding Scheme was established at the beginning, ultimately encompassing 140 employees.
Bill recognised talent in people early on and surrounded himself with doers. Russell said “People felt inspired by Bill, he changed their lives, gave them a purpose, encouraged them to believe in themselves and painted a vision for their careers”.
Bill was a prolific reader, his favoured read was The Economist which he read cover to cover, every week of his business life. He would underline passages and wrote comments with his “exclusive green pen”. He was visionary, a global thinker who saw the big picture, often becoming very excited about possibilities, though not all ideas were equal. John Gibb, a founding Trigon shareholder, recalled Bill advocating the virtues of exporting snails to France. Like another idea of exporting New Zealand native trees to the Middle East, the idea fortunately didn’t progress.
Russell said, “Internationalisation was a very bold thing to do in those days. Overseas was always on his radar, going global was part of his plan.”
Bill was a great networker, renowned for connecting withcustomers, suppliers, employees, politicians, bureaucrats and other industry leaders. Attending major international packaging and speciality food exhibitions was embedded in the annual calendar. He knew the importance of technical superiority, regularly sharing technology with selected overseas companies.
He had the highest level of honesty and integrity, was loyal and expected these qualities in return. He was focused, worked long hours, believing that “persistence and hard work always paid dividends.” Whilst sharing experiences from the very early days, John Gibb’s wife Eleanor noted that “only in the dictionary does success come before work”. Work hard, play hard was the Trigon way.
Described as complex, Bill had an unwavering determination, drive and passion. He was decisive and forceful at times, occasionally pig headed and could be very tough on people, even those totally committed to the cause. A favourite saying was “Get the message” emphasised with a thump on the desk.
He led from the front, was a trail blazer, innovative and creative, described as a disciplined man of routine, a creature of habit with pre-breakfast walks along Milford Beach and weekly Pilate’s sessions right into his late 80s.
Brien said that Bill understood the benefits of empowering those around him to get on with the job by making information, including financials, available at monthly briefings to all staff.
It’s widely acknowledged that both companies led the way in training their future workforce. Plastic Products developed a very sophisticated model of selection and training under the guidance of Doug Millar and Rod Kilgour. Russell carried this on at Trigon and became a mentor to all 57 that were employed as cadets or apprentices. The business grew so rapidly that the opportunity for promotion came quickly.
Owen Embling, now managing director of Convex Plastics, joined Trigon as an apprentice in 1979. “One of the most valuable things Bill Foreman and the Trigon environment provided for me was a place I could feel safe to make decisions, to explore innovative solutions, believing in myself. This had a huge impact on my personal well-being, so that I could follow the common goal of developing technology to grow business. The environment fostered a lot of young managers who in turn fostered a lot of other young people.”
Kevin Chubb, now chief executive of Tidd Ross Todd Ltd, joined Trigon as a management cadet in 1975 and was managing director of the New Zealand operation when the business sold, said the Verandah event “was a terrific turnout, with colleagues from the shop floor to the board room, camaraderie that will be with us forever”.
“A hugely appreciative group of people that benefited greatly from the lessons learned under Bill’s leadership, that gave many the confidence, skills and abilities to succeed in a wide range of endeavours “post-Trigon”.
Kim Campbell, a Trigon employee and now chief executive of the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA), said, “Bill leaves behind many friends in New Zealand industry and is deeply grieved by his large family. New Zealand, and particularly the EMA, has lost a larger than life character who made a lasting impression on all who came in touch with him. Sadly, New Zealand produces too few people like Bill Foreman”.
Finally from Roger Evans who joined Trigon in 1976 as an engineering cadet and greatly appreciated the training environment and challenges that came his way, before starting Stafford Engineering with his brother Don in 1986.
“I’m now in the twilight years of my working life and have not come across a better workplace training model for young people the likes of which Plastic Products and Trigon totally embraced. Many of us believe that this is what set them apart and allowed them to achieve what they did.”