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Monday, 21 January 2019 02:53 am

Alister Grant has been a feminist well ahead of his time

In days when single women couldn’t get a loan from the bank, Alister Grant was…

A feminist ahead of his time

“I’ve always said the best tool any manager can own is a well-oiled bicycle,” says Mr Grant, over his second whiskey.

The staff at the café all know him by name, and have his first glass waiting at his usual table. Alister Grant barely has to order any more, as the chef knows his meal by heart – strips of bacon with a side of fries, served with Worcestershire sauce.

He tucks into it keenly while dispensing management advice he believes isn’t ever followed. Even the owner greeted him with respect as he entered the door, although at 93 years old, he did so slowly.

Alister Alan Keith Grant, born November 2, 1920 at Lewisham Hospital in Christchurch (now the Southern Cross Hospital), has lived a full life.

He started the National Bank’s savings bank, helped set up the Equal Opportunities Tribunal (now the Human Rights Review Tribunal), and spent several years helping the elderly through the Meals on Wheels programme.

Although possibly his proudest achievement is failing to get into the military eight times, including twice in one day. “Once for the air force, three times for the navy and five for the army.  I finally got as far as Burnham Camp [Army base], and Hitler shot himself the next day. Probably heard I was coming.”

A heart defect kept him from passing medical requirements, although that didn’t stop him trying to join the same army his brother and brother-in-law proudly served.

He originally started with the National Bank shortly after leaving school, earning 15 shillings a week in a job his mother got him at the local branch. Mr Grant slowly worked his way up the bank hierarchy, becoming branch manager in Kurow, a town in the Waitaki Valley, northeast of Oamaru. “I earned more in Kurow fixing clocks and shooting rabbits than I ever did with the bank.”

From there, he was promoted to working in the bank’s head office in various management positions, from the general manager’s assistant to head of the Economics and Statistics department, which was responsible for the bank’s operation and the viability of branches and new procedures.

During the late 1970s, the bank created a new position, the regional manager. While some merely used the role as a stepping stone to higher management, Sir Frank Holmes called Mr Grant’s appointment as central regional manager “the culmination of a distinguished banking career” in his book The Thoroughbred Among New Zealand Banks (A history of the National Bank).

Sir Frank calls Mr Grant “an unusual banker. Very intelligent, well read and relishing controversy with superiors as well as peers, he was consistently challenging many of the established practices of the bank.”

BANKING BOARD: Alister Grant (left) with Spencer Russell (later Sir Spencer, Reserve Bank govenor) at a National Bank executive meeting some time in the late 1970's. IMAGE: Supplied by family

When the Equal Opportunities Tribunal was founded in 1977, it was Mr Grant’s liberal views on banking and business that got him invited to assist.

While working as one of the Nat Bank’s general managers, Mr Grant changed its policy on lending to women after meeting Oona Bernard. Despite being general manager of Scholl Footwear at the time, she could not get a loan to buy a house, as the bank would not lend to single women.

He altered the savings bank’s book of instructions to give priority to certain types of people for housing loans –single women being primary among them.

The passage concerned is quoted in Sir Frank’s book: “Examples would be: (i) Single women earning a reasonable income and likely to continue doing so … (iv) People who, by name or origin, are members of a group regarded by some lenders as being of below average creditworthiness. We lend on the basis of the person’s creditworthiness, not that of the group.”

Ms Bernard became Mrs Grant, his second wife, when they married in October, 1971.

He remembers they were both invited to a dinner held by the Wellington Manager’s Club, which Mrs Grant was discouraged from going to, as it was to be in prominent gentlemen’s club, the Wellington Club.

Mr Grant drew many angry stares from the other diners, who were outraged that he would dare bring his wife to such a place. One finally thought to raise the issue with him, to which he replied: “She’s not here as my wife, I’m here as her husband.” Mrs Grant was the manager of an entire corporation, he was not.

While working as a branch manager for the bank, he says he often found among his customers that the wife should be making the decisions, ”irrespective of who actually did”.

FOND KEEPSAKE: Mr Grant's Nat Bank ID, still kept in his wallet today.

He would often hand a couple’s chequebook to the wife, telling the husband,
“I can’t enforce it, but if you don’t follow it, you won’t be banking with me any more.”

It is his belief that the more intelligent of a couple should make the decisions, and at least 50% of the time  that would be the wife.

The first case brought before the Equal Opportunities Tribunal was in July, 1978, when two women working for Ocean Beach Freezing Company complained about not being allowed to work as slaughterers, one of the highest and hardest working positions in a meatworks.

“The problem wasn’t just the company, it was the union oppressing these women, and the company’s great fault for not standing up to them,” Mr Grant recalls.

The company denied that the women were discriminated against because of their gender, saying that it was not practical or feasible to provide separate facilities for them. The union supported Ocean Beach’s management in this, also saying that promoting the women would block the position for unemployed men.

It took nearly two years to resolve the case, involving visits to the meatworks and multiple meetings with management and the union, a fact happily touted by feminist magazine Broadsheet in its September, 1980, issue, with the line “As we go to print, the Tribunal had not yet reached a decision.”

The tribunal eventually decided in the women’s favour, forcing the company to allow them the job and not accepting the argument about facilities.

“Despite all the good we did, we never got as much media attention as when we got in trouble while working for Meals on Wheels. We were the first people to be fired from a voluntary job.”

After retiring, the Grants spent a lot of time delivering Meals on Wheels to the elderly of Wellington. This came to an end when they argued with the Health Board over a price increase for the service.

The increase required had been calculated as a percentage, and went from a round figure to one needing change. “It went from $5 to $6.10, something like that. If the folks needed the service, it was because they couldn’t go shopping for themselves, they wouldn’t have small change.”

They protested to the board that if the price needed to increase, it should stay as a round figure, but this was ignored. So instead, they took to allowing the customers to pay the old amount, and paying the difference themselves. The hospital board eventually asked them to leave the job.

“Funnily enough, a year or so later after the fuss had died down, they [the board] just quietly did what we’d been telling them all along anyway,” Mr Grant says with a grin.

They also enjoyed travelling, taking many round-the-world trips, and were fond of bringing back “genuine” souvenirs. “We’d never touch tourist junk.”

Once, during a trip to Rarotonga, he said he was disappointed to come across a store selling items machine-made back in New Zealand. He instead bought a handmade broom, being sold to the locals for about $4.50. It still decorates the wall of his room in the retirement home today.

“I remember we used to have a Pacific Island woman come in to do some cleaning, and she recognised the broom. Told me it was ‘good for dealing with troublesome little boys, too’.”

He collected many such souvenirs, including greenstone mere, African tribal spears, an ivory chess set, and a basket bought in Thailand that had been used by a prisoner of war building the Burma Railway (made famous by the movie Bridge over the River Kwai).

The basket has been donated to the Waiouru Army Museum, and many of the other items have been gifted to his children and grandchildren.

Normally bringing such items back to New Zealand would be difficult or impossible due to weight limits on aircraft, but Mr Grant says they never had a problem, as they always mailed things back, with the assistance of either Scholl or the National Bank. “Wherever we went, one of those two companies would look after us.”

Mrs Grant died  in  2003. Mr Grant is taking growing older with a grain of salt. “Five sets of letters after my name and I can’t read any more,” he chuckles. “My mother always said, ‘the secret to a long life is to have a crook heart and know it.’”

And his advice for those also getting older? “Don’t.”


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