Wood Matters

PF Olsen - the first 50 years

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The 1990s was a decade of boom and bust. Log prices soared and planting rates reached a new high. The company employed over 70 permanent staff and information technology offered all sorts of potential for greater productivity. Olsens had never known such prosperity, and it was ranked in the top 400 companies in New Zealand. But everything was due to change. The loss of Caxton, the death of Peter Olsen and an economic crisis in Asia brought everything crashing down.

Boom times

After the Forest Service was disbanded in 1987, the whole forestry sector changed completely. Most of these changes were to Olsens’ benefit. When the Forestry Corporation was set up, the people who worked there did not have the capacity to go out and provide extra services. Olsens was well placed to step in and it flourished over this period. By employing specialists from overseas like Theo Vos and Jeff Schnell, they were able to provide leading expertise in areas like forest valuation. They had enough scale at that stage to maintain the capability in all areas of forest management. The consulting team was doing a wide range of projects including feasibility studies for new planting. A lot of this work led to management jobs.

Company Restructure – 1995

In 1995 Peter Olsen reduced his involvement with the company and permitted a successful restructuring of the company to permit the staff to take over the operational activities. No one ever expected him to stop work, because he probably couldn’t. But he had plans of stepping back as the dominant shareholder. This was part of Peter Olsen’s succession plan. He thought ahead, and this restructuring was completed with little disruption and minimal legal fees.

Social strengths

In the early days of his employment with the company, Jeff Schnell discovered the strength of social connections.

“Our tearoom has always been an important part of the office. People are always encouraged to stop for smoko. It is a great time to interact with other staff, have a laugh and discuss all and sundry. Its value cannot be overestimated.”

The rise of computers

The first PC was introduced to Olsens in 1988 by the company accountant, Brian Travers. This acquisition was a real breakthrough. Around the same time, they purchased CBA, an accounting software package that served the company for 10 years with minor upgrades. Upon the arrival of the PC, Brian discovered the wonders of Symphony, an early spreadsheet program.

Eventually, it became evident that the computer might be useful for forestry applications as well, so Olsens started to look for capability in the area. Jeff Schnell's appointment in 1990 heralded the beginning of an IT revolution for Olsens. Even though Peter Olsen knew a lot about what computers could do, he never had one on his desk. Jeff Schnell had become the company’s ‘computer guy’ by default. He was more than pleased when Grant Alexander, recruited as a forester, began to show a serious interest in computer systems. Once Grant got on board, Olsens’ IT systems began to take off. His forestry experience combined with his computer skills turned out to be a real boon for the company.

Draughting goes digital

The digital age brought tremendous change to the mapping department. As custodians of land information, the advent of computers enabled them to store considerably more data than was previously possible. Richard Quinlan has witnessed land information management through all the stages of its remarkable evolution from paper-based systems to a digital goldmine.

Death of Peter Olsen - 1998

Peter Olsen died at home at the age of 68 after experiencing heart problems. His death was unexpected and therefore devastating to all his staff. Richard Quinlan recalled the shock waves that swept through the company. “Everyone was thinking ‘whoa – what happens now?’. Luckily we had a bunch of really strong leaders coming through the ranks – people like Clarkie and Keachie. They had big shoes to fill, and they did an amazing job of stepping in.”

Initially Peter Keach and Peter Clark acted as joint interim CEOs.  Following this Peter Clark was appointed CEO for a probationary period of two or three years. He put in place a Business Plan focused first on stabilising the company’s finances and thereafter quite aggressive growth.  Peter Clark brought strong management and crisis management skills and provided the continuity of the culture that Peter Olsen created.


In April 2022 PF Olsen will be celebrating 50 years of working in the forest industry.

Celebrations are underway to recognise this milestone and the people who have been involved in the company since its founding days.  Held over 2 days there will be an opportunity to look through our current premises, reconnect with friends and celebrate the launch of the history book.  The following evening will be a gala dinner, storytelling, live music, great food, awards and celebrations.

There is an online event page and registration form.  Or for further information please contact Janine Branson by email.