Don Rowlands won nine national rowing titles and an Empire Games gold medal in single sculls, but made an even bigger impact with his work as a sports administrator. He was the mastermind behind the 1978 world rowing championships at Lake Karapiro, and patron of the world championships when they returned to that venue in 2010.
Rowlands, born in Auckland in 1926, was the son of a timer mill manager at Owhango, near Taumarunui, and boarded at Wanganui Technical College. He planned to pursue a marine career and began a fitting and turning apprenticeship as a prerequisite for becoming a marine engineer.
He worked in Auckland for Mason Brothers Engineering and studied at the Bowers School of Engineering. However, his goals changed when one of his bosses advised him to focus on a future in production and management.
At the same time, Rowlands had developed what became a lifelong passion for rowing. He began rowing for Mason Brothers in business-house competition, and then joined the West End Rowing Club in Auckland.
In 1949, his second year of competitive rowing, Rowlands was in the West End eight that won the national title. At the Auckland Empire Games the following year the eight took the silver medal, beaten by Australia by a whisker.
Rowlands won three national eights titles with West End. He was forced to switch to single sculls when he became works manager for Thames engineering and metal founders firm Charles Judd. There was no rowing club in Thames, so he would train alone.
In 1953, his first year as a competitive single sculler, he won the national championship, the first of five successive titles. He also beat 1948 Olympic gold medallist Mervyn Wood to win the New South Wales title.
At the 1954 Vancouver Empire Games, Rowlands and Englishman Sidney Rand were in a class of their own in the heats, but in the final Rowlands hammered Rand by 15 seconds.
Rowlands was a reserve the 1956 Olympic team and retired from competitive rowing in 1958, though he became ever more involved in his sport.
He was the rowing manager of the 1962 Empire Games team to Perth and in 1971 managed the New Zealand rowing team on a European tour that laid the platform for the gold and silver medal performances at the Munich Olympics the following year. He also managed the New Zealand team to the 1997 world championships.
Rowlands’ work at the 1978 world championships, the biggest sports event to have been held in New Zealand until then, was ground-breaking. He was largely instrumental in the upgrading of the venue so that it was suitable to host a world championship. At the regatta itself he introduced innovations such as lanes, starting barges and umpire boats that followed every race.
The International Rowing Federation, FISA, could hardly have been more impressed, and no future world championship or Olympic regatta was held without Rowlands’ innovations. Often he was enlisted to assist in their installation.
Rowlands became a leading FISA official and even in 1992, when he was required to resign as the Australia and New Zealand representative on grounds of age, he was appointed to two special FISA commissions, one as honorary member for life of the federation’s council and the other as a member of a commission charged with control of regattas and their technical installations.
For decades he was a key figure in New Zealand rowing. He and his wife, Correlie, were the primary fund-raisers for New Zealand rowing throughout the 1970s. His official national association roles included selector and president.
His expertise was used in other areas of sport, too, and he was a long-serving member of the New Zealand Sports Foundation board.
All the while Rowlands was a major figure in the business world. He joined Fisher and Paykel as assistant production manager in 1953, was made general manager in 1976 and managing director in 1979. He had an enlightened attitude towards staff relations and his “people first” policy was extremely popular.
Rowlands’ other business roles included being chairman of Mainfreight and the Auckland 2000 committee. He was appointed to the Economic Development Commission in 1987 and was an outspoken member of the Business Roundtable, sometimes swimming against the tide in that group. He helped lead a government trade mission to China in 1984 and became the manufacturers’ federation president in 1987.
In 2006 Rowlands was presented with a service to sport award during the Halberg Awards. He is a life member of New Zealand Rowing, and was awarded an MBE and later a CBE. The Don Rowlands Centre at Lake Karapiro was opened in 2010.