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PF Olsen - the first 50 years

Following is an excerpt from the book which will be published and available in November. 

Peter Olsen’s company started in the garage of his home at Goodwin Ave in 1970. The first decade saw the business grow from a tenuous operation to a successful enterprise. By the end of the 70s the company had activities going on all over the country, plus a few international contracts thrown in. This was a period of rapid growth and constant excitement as staff made manifest Peter Olsen’s vision.

Peter made it a habit to keep in touch with people, and this served him well. He had the kind of personality that no one closed the door on him. Rotorua was a forestry town and he knew everyone. It was in the early days of his company that Peter Olsen’s relationship with John Spencer really came into play.

His first employee was Cliff Robilliard who was initially taken on to help with a beech inventory on Pohukura, a timber block located near Northern Kaingaroa.  As a former colleague from the Forest Service Cliff was reported as saying: “Bloody Olsen, skinny as a rat would carry more weight in his pack than anyone.” It was a shrewd observation that applied figuratively as well as literally.  Cliff’s appointment was closely followed by Peter Wallis, who had worked as a forester under Peter Olsen at Kaingaroa, and Morrie Geenty, a woodsman working at Waiotapu.

Company shares

When Peter Olsen set up the company he wanted staff to join him as partners but no one could afford to put money in. Peter thought if people had shares it would make them more interested in the business. It was a long time before anyone actually bought shares but he persisted in his vision of offering shares to staff. After the company was registered in 1971, people took up shares with the first shareholders being Peter and Ruth Olsen, Peter’s father, Arthur Olsen, and Cliff Robilliard. Soon after this, Morrie Geenty and Peter Wallis also purchased shares. Over the years, all staff were offered access to the scheme and many took it up.

Within two years the company had outgrown the Goodwin Ave garage. Peter Olsen scratched up some money from the bank and put a deposit on a house at 333 Clayton Road. This was an opportunity to bring some office management systems into play and Tom Irvine was employed.

In 1973, PF Olsen began their first foray into plantation logging. They put a proposal together, in partnership with Fleetwood, for logging and cartage of wood from Kaingaroa to PanPac. Nothing came of that venture as Panpac bought their own trucks and did their own cartage. However, ‘Olsens Logging Company’ operated in a small way in the Bay of Plenty as another of Peter Olsen’s many entrepreneurial schemes.

Planting boom

The establishment of the company coincided with and helped to facilitate, a nationwide planting boom during the 1970s with private investors becoming interested in growing forests Peter Olsen saw an opportunity to provide management services to individuals. While it seemed an obvious niche at the time, there were still plenty of risks associated with this new enterprise. There were never any contracts and everything was done on a handshake.

Ngongotaha

By 1974 it had become obvious that the Clayton Road office was too small to accommodate the growing staff numbers and an old two-storey weatherboard house with land at Ngongotaha, was purchased, becoming the office for the next 30 years.

They cultivated some of the land at Ngongotaha and used it to heel in trees. There was also the opportunity for grazing so they started up a farm club.

To manage the increasing administration load, Pat Towersey started as the first office manager in 1976. Her office was in the old kitchen of the Ngongotaha house, where they had an open fire that they used for heating in the winter. Staff in the office at this time were Morrie Geenty, Alan Larsen, Margaret Jane Larsen, Cliff Robilliard, Keith Chandler, Jenny Bradley (accounts), Darby Perston and Tom Irvine. Peter Wallis was a one-man band in Gisborne.

Peter Clark and Pat Towersey

In 1977 Linda Montgomery started as the accounts clerk.  Linda recalled the strong social tradition that had developed in the office. Every Friday after work the staff would meet down the road at the Homestead Tavern. Then everyone thought that was getting too expensive so they started having barbeques after work on a Friday. Another social tradition that started early on was staff morning tea. Linda recalls how it all began. “I went with Peter Olsen a couple of times to see the accountant. When we were there we had morning tea and he brought out cheese and biscuits. Peter said to me: ‘I think we’ll have cheese and crackers from now on’. So that’s when it started. He always insisted that we have biscuits for morning and afternoon tea.

Māori take up forestry ventures

Peter Olsen was always looking for new clients and Māori Trusts were a growing opportunity at the time. As the only private company offering forest management services, PF Olsen became involved with most of the Māori Trust plantings in the Bay of Plenty region.  Haumingi 1A2 forest by Rotoiti was one of the first forests to be established by PF Olsen for a Māori Trust.

By 1976 establishment began on Caxton’s leasehold forests near Waihau Bay on the East Coast. These forests offered significant new development in the relatively isolated area of the country approaching the East Cape. It was the first time that commercial forestry was undertaken on this side of the cape, where poor roading networks made for difficult access.

Ngongotaha office expands

As staff numbers grew, the old house at Ngongotaha Road was becoming too small and in 1978 the company built a new office building adjacent to the original house. Staff thought it was fabulous having an architecturally designed building. Just as the office was expanding, so too was the scope of forestry activities developing all around the country. Down in Canterbury, a fierce storm in 1977 had left a big clean up job in one of the forests. Peter Keach was employed from university to help with the salvage operation.

A proliferation of Peters

During the early years of the company, there was a steady increase in the number of ‘Peters’ on staff. There was Peter Olsen, Peter Keach, Peter Wallis, Peter Bullen, Peter Bennett and Peter Clark. Later on, came Peter Foster, who was the caretaker and handyman at Ngongotaha and Peter Weblin, who took over as harvesting manager in the 90s. Peter Keach used to say that if your name was Peter, you were guaranteed a job at Olsen's.

When Peter Clark showed up at work in Rotorua, he was told that his job would be in Gisborne. In those days, when you worked for a company there was an expectation that you were reasonably mobile. It wasn’t a problem for the young Peter, it didn’t seem to be an employment issue for them, that he would show up expecting to work in one location only to be shunted off somewhere else.

After 18months in Gisborne, Peter Clark came through to Rotorua and had a period as a trainee forester. He was put alongside operational and planning staff on Caxton forests. Around this time, he started to get involved in domestic consulting work for various clients around the country and eventually moved on to overseas consulting.

VADCO – Gisborne’s first log export

In 1979 the company orchestrated the first log export from the Port of Gisborne. Log exports were nothing new – the Forest Service had been exporting out of Tauranga since in the early 60s – but this was the first shipment to go out of Gisborne. John Spencer had a friend in Auckland with a company called VADCO and they were doing importing from China. Peter Clark’s job was to try and keep track of the logs in a crude log tracking fashion and he recalled that they underestimated the size of the challenge.  The operation was underwritten by John Spencer, but it wasn’t very successful. Once again, the company had some hard lessons to learn.

 

In November 2021 PF Olsen will be celebrating 50 years of working in the forest industry.

Celebrations are well 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.