Philip Yates, founder of Genetic Technologies Ltd celebrated his 90th birthday in March 2022. In this article we honour his dedication and commitment to the New Zealand maize industry and briefly document the 47 years of Pioneer® brand maize in New Zealand.
Philip Yates joined his family’s seed business, Arthur Yates and Co Ltd in 1949 as a shy 17-year-old junior. In doing so, he followed a long line of his family into the seed trade.
The Yates family’s involvement in the seed industry started in England in the late 1700’s. James Yates, a cotton importer purchased a small quantity of Egyptian cotton seed and on-sold it to the colonists in the southern part of the present-day USA. This proved an inspired move as the demand for cotton seed grew and very soon James relinquished his cotton importing business and became a seed merchant. His younger son, George Yates, opened the family’s first seed store in Macclesfield near Manchester in 1826. Three years later he opened a second store and in 1846 his eldest son, Samuel Yates (15), was put in charge of the branch!
Over the years that followed Samuel’s five sons joined him in the family seed business. Samuel’s second son Arthur who suffered from asthma was given medical advice to take a sea voyage away from the smoky cold air of the industrialising British Midlands. Arthur’s destination was Otago where he worked as a shepherd before settling in the Hawke’s Bay. In his spare time, and to supplement his income, Arthur scythed grass seed from the sides of the road. His seed revenue quickly outstripped his shepherd’s wages, and in 1882 he moved to Auckland, rented a rickety wooden shop in Victoria St West and opened a specialised seed business.
Arthur’s younger brother Ernest Yates travelled from England to join him in business in 1886. A man of great vision, Ernest built a successful seed business based on integrity and focused on delivering value to his customers. Ernest was followed in the trade by his son Norman who became Managing Director of Arthur Yates & Co Ltd in 1949. Norman took the family seed firm “public” in 1969 when it was listed on the New Zealand stock exchange.
Philip, Norman’s eldest son, was the sixth generation of the Yates family to be involved in the seed trade. Over the next two decades he slowly rose through the ranks of the company becoming Chief Executive and Managing Director in 1973.
Arthur Yates and Co Ltd prospered under Philip’s innovative and passionate leadership. Over the next decade sales grew from $6 million to $275 million and staff numbers increased from 250 to approximately 2,000. Yates Reliable Seeds became a household name, wholesaling seed of every kind from flowers to vegetables, broad acre agricultural seeds to bird seed.
While their product range was large, Philip was always looking for superior seed products. A magazine article about hybrid wheat caught his interest and ultimately led to a phone call to Pioneer Hi-Bred’s Overseas Division based in Des Moines, Iowa.
“International phone calls were both expensive and uncommon in the 1970’s”, says Philip. “Pioneer was surprised to get my call and even more stunned when I told them “If you will agree to see me, I can be in your office next week”.
Pioneer agreed, and Philip caught a Pan Am flight to the USA that weekend. What followed was a whirlwind tour of Pioneer’s operations and breeding programmes and meetings with many people including Dr William Brown and Tom Urban who, at the time, were Head of Research and Chief Executive respectively.
Philip was impressed by Pioneer’s significant library of elite maize germplasm, their commitment and innovation in plant breeding, and above all else, their conservative family values and customer-focused “Long Look” philosophies. A long-term relationship was formed, and the Yates company became the New Zealand distributor and producer of Pioneer® brand seed.
The timing could not have been better. In the 1970’s Pioneer had invested significantly developing hybrids with ever-higher yields. Their new corn hybrids were breaking USA yield records and sales were on a rapid upward trajectory increasing five-fold from 1972 to 1980.
While Pioneer had a range of exciting new products, New Zealand’s tight biosecurity requirements meant that only about 48 individual maize seeds could be imported at a time. On arrival seed had to be treated with a toxic combination of fungicides which meant only half would remain viable.
"Because we started with such a small seed volume, it took us three years to get enough seed for a single trial” says Philip.
The first Pioneer maize hybrid to be commercialised in New Zealand was 3780.
“Growers loved it because it not only yielded well, but it didn’t fall over” says Philip".
“This was a real bonus because prior to 3780’s introduction it was not uncommon for the combine to drive slowly with people walking in front standing up plants so the cobs could be harvested”.
The initial Pioneer seed crops were hand-picked, and sun dried but as sales grew, Arthur Yates and Co built a seed production plant at Waharoa in the eastern Waikato. The seed drier was fired by burning the cob cores which saved fuel costs but ultimately proved to be a costly decision.
“The level of technology was low at the time and the smoke and gases discharged from incomplete cob combustion was so acidic that after three years the new seed production plant was almost completely rusted away” says Philip.
As the maize seed production plant was coming to an untimely end, so too was the Yates family’s involvement in the Yates company. In 1985, Equiticorp, a recently established investment bank, took control of the company via a share market raid and at the age of 53, Philip was dismissed and given two days to vacate his office.
It was a rough blow for Philip who had lost a 200-year-old family business along with the only career he knew. Pioneer were unimpressed by the turn of events. They cancelled their distribution agreement with the now Equiticorp-controlled Yates company and offered Philip the Pioneer representation in New Zealand. Genetic Technologies, a 100% Yates family-owned agribusiness was formed.
For the first two seasons, Genetic Technologies imported Pioneer® brand maize seed but in 1991, a new seed production plant was commissioned in Gisborne.
Over the next few years, Genetic Technologies invested significantly in hybrid and agronomic research as well as promoting the use of maize silage into the dairy industry.
“We quickly realised it was impossible to get high quality trial data from a handful of trials” says Philip. “Pioneer had an enormous pool of maize genetics but we needed to grow sales so we could afford to invest in a large-scale local hybrid evaluation program which would allow us to accurately identify those which performed best under New Zealand’s wide range of growing conditions”.
For Philip a highlight has been seeing maize yields increase year after year, as a result of both higher yielding maize genetics and improved crop management practices.
“We have gone from plate planters to sophisticated, computer-controlled vacuum planters. High rates of granular insecticides have been replaced with more user-friendly and effective insecticide seed treatments. We have replaced long fallow periods with fast maize crop establishment using a range of selective herbicides to control weeds”.
Today Philip’s son Will, who joined the company in 1990, leads the management team. However, at 90 years young, and after many “retirement” functions held over the past 20-years, Philip is still well and truly engaged in the business. His key passion remains the identification and advancement of new, superior maize hybrids.
Happy 90th birthday Philip and thank-you for 47 years of contribution to the New Zealand maize industry.