It was inevitable that Wilson would play a strong and sometimes quite political role in public life in New Zealand – the upshot of Fonterra’s dominance of the dairy industry – at times locked into confrontational situations with equally strong-minded politicians on both sides of the House.
Wilson was passionately devoted to Fonterra; strong-willed, direct, not afraid of anyone – yet also imbued with sufficient charm, persuasiveness and an ability to ride through the hard-knuckled politics of the NZ dairy industry to survive many a battle until his last year as chair.
But he was also a private man. A family man who leaves behind him wife Belinda and four daughters of whom he was inordinately proud and had let both them and his colleagues know it.
So private in fact, that when Wilson’s resignation last year was the subject of a particularly graceless – and spectacularly wrong tweet – the respect for the former Fonterra chairman at a personal level was such that neither the company, nor colleagues among the senior business community, revealed publicly that he had developed an aggressive brain tumour.
They knew that was the way “John wanted it” and they respected that.
As he texted me at that time, “It’s not very nice having your private situation play into full public discussion so hopefully it will pass quickly.”
His hope of a 100 per cent recovery was not to be. Yet, he faced his situation with equanimity continuing to attend Fonterra board meetings (by phone when he was “having particularly bad days’) until he stepped down from the board itself last November.
A Fonterra insider confirmed signs that “John wasn’t well” started to appear in May/June last year.