Wananga landing Wananga landing

Sir Robertson Stewart

20 July 2023

Sir Robertson Stewart created the internationally regarded manufacturing business, PDL Industries Ltd. He is remembered as a man of purpose and determination. Among his multiple awards and recognitions, he prized his University of Canterbury Honorary Doctorate of Engineering the most. Learn more about this local hero.


The story of Sir Robertson Huntly Steward is a story of ambition, attitude, commitment and vision. It is the story of a man who never wavered in his desire to be the best he could be, a man who rose from a tin shed to a knighthood, creating the internationally regarded manufacturing business, PDL Industries Ltd, along the way.

It is telling that among his multiple awards and recognitions, Sir Robertson – Bob to friends and colleagues – always prized his University of Canterbury Honorary Doctorate of Engineering the most. This, after all, is a man who left school at the age of 13 after a bout of scarlet fever. That he achieved so impressively over the subsequent decades is a testament to his single-minded determination and desire to succeed; his keen eye for opportunity and innovation; and his innate ability to lead a creative team to produce the very best product possible. That he worked through his electrician's apprenticeship in that tin shed and went on to become one of New Zealand's most successful entrepreneurs is perhaps one of the greatest inspirational legacies he left us.

Sir Robertson always claimed the journey was the adventure. "The struggle to get there, making the ball bounce, the relentless drive to create something worthwhile; that's the most important thing," he once said. He never shied from the challenge of that and under the initial tutelage and mentoring of his first employer, Harry Urlwin, the founder of the electrical manufacturing company, H.C. Urlwin Ltd, he learned never to be frightened of anyone or anything.

It was Harry Urlwin who first recognised Sir Robertson's skill and drive. He sent him to England in 1935 to research developments in the then-new plastics industry and, recognising the importance of moulds and dies to the manufacturing process, Sir Robertson learned as much as he could. He returned home a year later and installed the first plastic moulding press in New Zealand, in Christchurch. In 1947, he joined Plastics and Diecasting Ltd in Addington and set about designing a new range of plastic switches and plugs to complement their existing range of plumbing products. After 10 years he bought the company and renamed it PDL Industries Ltd.

PDL Industries was Sir Robertson's passion. He devoted 60 years of his life to it, shaping it into a global leader with four overseas and eight local companies with 70 branches exporting to 50 countries across three continents. PDL Holdings was Company of the Year in 1992. By the time he sold the company to French electoral giant Schneider in 2001 it employed 2,200 people and was achieving global sales exceeding $350 million.

"Bob was a very competitive man. He always wanted to win," says his wife Adrienne, Lady Stewart. "He was tough but fair in everything he did; and he believed utterly in Christchurch as a home manufacturing base. He fought tooth and nail to keep manufacturing alive in New Zealand. He was unbelievably persistent and he never gave up on anything until the job was done. And he never looked back. He always looked to the future rather than dwelling on the past."

Born in Christchurch on September 21, 1913, Sir Robertson attended Linwood North Primary School and one term at Christchurch Boys High School before joining Harry Urlwin's company in 1929 as an apprentice earning 15 shillings a week. Although he never returned to school, he did further his education at night classes and throughout his life, he never stopped learning.

Along with his intense interest in all things mechanical, the young Sir Robertson was a keen sportsman and mountaineer. He climbed in the Southern Alps on numerous occasions. It was in those early years that he also developed a passion for speed and motorbikes. This later developed into a love of boats and fast cars and long before sponsorship became a popular marketing tool, PDL was actively promoting its products through motor racing. Sir Robertson formed a racing team that started with Minis, later graduating to Falcons and Mustangs. The PDL Mustang II was the result of Sir Robertson's determination to design and produce a car better than any other. It subsequently won the vast majority of races on Australasian circuits, setting a number of track records that still stand today.

PDL sponsorship also extended to jet boat racing, surf lifesaving, marathon running, the Ferrymead Historic Park and the Industrial Design Awards. Sir Robertson himself was a city councillor from 1969 to 1972; a founder member and past-president of Christchurch South Rotary Club; a founder member of the New Zealand Council for Technical Education; a Southern Ballet Trust Council member; a major donor to the Antarctic Wing of Canterbury Museum and to the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation.

True to his trailblazing character, Sir Robertson also lead a number of trade missions to the Pacific and Southeast Asia. He established a factory in Malaysia in 1974 and served as Honorary Malaysian Consul for 28 years. It was to honour those business and cultural links that he was awarded the Order of the Crown of Malaysia (JSM) by the King of Malaysia. In 1970 he was made Commander of the British Empire for his outstanding contribution to manufacturing and exporting; and in 1979 he was awarded Knight Bachelor, thus becoming one of the very few people to hold royal honours from two countries. He was inducted into the NZ Business Hall of Fame in 1995.

For all his business and award successes, Sir Robertson always remained grounded. He may have loved the trappings of success, but he never forgot his simple, hardworking roots, or the many people who helped him get to the top. The respect he had for his staff was legendary – and it was mutual. His ability to delegate work responsibilities and to encourage others to maximise their potential were core to his business philosophy. He never tired of pushing the limits of both his own and his workers' capabilities in his drive to reach the top of his field.

"He was a hard taskmaster," says his son and work colleague Mark Stewart. "He was tough but his staff loved him for his fairness. He gave a lot of people chances. He believed in everybody's right to have a go. Basically he was an ordinary bloke who could relate to ordinary people. That was one of his best qualities."

Sir Robertson Stewart died in Christchurch in 2007 at the age of 93. He is remembered universally as a man of purpose and determination, who had enormous pride in his home town.

By Adrienne Rewi (Copyright © March 2009 Local Heroes Trust)

Journalist Adrienne Rewi writes for numerous New Zealand and international magazines. In addition she has authored five editions of the bestselling international travel guide, "Frommer's New Zealand". She is also the author of "Private Views – Conversations with New Zealand Gardeners", "Fine Cheese" and "Architects at Home", and she has published short fiction.

Privacy Preferences

By clicking "Accept All Cookies", you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyse site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts.