PF Olsen - the first 50 years

Over the next few editions of Wood Matters we will be recounting some stories of our founder, reflecting on the past and the achievements of PF Olsen over the last 50 years. In this blog we look at PF Olsen - the man:

Peter Francis Olsen was one of the great contributors to New Zealand forestry. He founded one of the first private forest management companies and made a huge contribution to the sector. Through the success of the company he founded in 1970, his influence lives on to this day.

Peter Olsen was born in Taihape in 1930. Descended from Scandinavian stock, Peter’s father was a government worker in the social welfare department. Growing up in a white collar family and a blue collar town, Peter developed a strong social conscience. His outstanding empathy for others and his social values later became the backbone of his company.

Peters sister June commented that Peter had a great way of believing that everyone was special and everyone had a contribution to make. He always listened. He had a tremendous understanding of people.  She recalled their father’s insistence on being positive in the face of any challenge.

“Father always said to us: ‘What do you mean you can’t do something? Just go and do it.’ For us there was no such thing as ‘can’t’: we would always find a way.”

This philosophy, which rubbed off on Peter as a child, sparked many audacious enterprises and would cause many headaches to his forestry staff.

Forester in the making

When he was about 16, Peter worked for a neighbour who was running a small sawmilling operation for native logs. This experience whetted his appetite for forestry work and at the age of 18 he joined the Forest Service as a junior labourer. After a period of time working on the National Forest Survey, Peter was accepted as a forestry trainee and he attended Victoria University to do a BSc in botany.

From 1946 to 1955 forestry students were assigned to work on the National Forest Survey, which was a huge inventory undertaken over the whole country. Its purpose was to assess the remaining native forest resource for potential commercial development. During the holidays, Peter was sent to the Coromandel, Urewera and West Coast of the South Island for his part in this exercise. It involved measuring plots over a giant grid overlaying some of the most rugged bush in the country.

There was a distinctly pioneering element about the New Zealand Forest Service. Foresters were posted to remote regions in very basic conditions with minimal equipment. At a time when forestry was undergoing rapid development at nearly all levels, the young Peter Olsen with his fertile mind, innovative ideas, practical skills and innate sense of adventure found the perfect niche for himself.

Ash Cunningham and Gavin Molloy were among the group of students who attended university with Peter and went on to become lifelong friends.

Australian adventures

After completing their science degrees, Ash, Gavin and Peter Olsen travelled to Canberra where they studied for a Diploma in Forestry at the Australian Forestry School in 1954 and ‘55. In those days, there was no specialist forestry school in New Zealand so trainees were sent overseas to study. Peter was relatively young to be attending post graduate study, but he was always ahead of the game.

Bright young prospect

Upon completing his forestry diploma and returning to New Zealand in 1955, Peter was posted to the Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Rotorua for two years. During this time he developed an abiding interest in science, particularly in genetic tree improvement. His commitment to research became an important part of the company culture and Peter’s fascination with genetic tree improvement was particularly fruitful.

After his stint at FRI, Peter was sent to Kaingaroa as a forester and rose quickly through the ranks. Even then he was recognised as one of the bright young prospects in the Forest Service.

New opportunities

In 1965, Peter Olsen and Priestley Thomson travelled to the States to do a consulting job which involved assessing forest resources. While they were there, Peter also undertook a job for John Spencer to investigate a deal on a paper machine. 

Upon their return to New Zealand, Peter wrote a report for the American company on behalf of the New Zealand Forest Service. The recipients were impressed with his attention to detail and accuracy. While this result highlighted Peter’s potential and talent to the Forest Service hierarchy, it also opened his eyes to other opportunities. This experience helped to lay the foundation for what happened 10 years later when he started his own company. It gave him ideas about how he could assist his clients in their understanding of opportunities. 

During the 1960s, a serious disease began to emerge in New Zealand’s pine forests. Known as dothistroma, this foliar disease impacted tree growth and sometimes led to mortality. Peter Olsen played a prominent role in effort to overcome the disease. Dr Colin Bassett was the forestry scientist at FRI who headed the dothistroma project. He said that one of Peter’s achievements was that he organised industry control operations.

Colin believed that Peter Olsen’s part in the organisation of dothistroma control was invaluable. The industry-wide programme devised at that time remains in place to this day, despite the many changes in forest ownership.

Bob Pocknall worked as a trainee under Peter in Kaingaroa Forest in the 1960s, and later went on to head up Olsen’s Napier office. Bob says that Peter’s passion for the industry, and his inclusive approach, was evident throughout his career.

Peter's biggest driver was his love of forestry. He recognised that planted forests were a sustainable way to generate economic wealth and create jobs. He saw New Zealand as a country that was looking to the future, where fast growing planted forests are used to supply wood. 

Peter served on the Executive Committee of the Forest Owners’ Association for more than 20 years he was described as an excellent leader in industry development matters.

The intensity of his involvement in the industry was more than notable, it was possibly unequalled. Such was the character of Peter Olsen, he thought nothing of phoning MPs, often in the middle of the night, to advocate on behalf of the industry. He was the champion of the small forester, particularly when other such champions were lacking, and always he was on the side of clear and simple solutions. Anyone who wanted an opinion, could always rely on Peter. His sincerity was unquestionable, and amongst his peers, colleagues and competitors, respect for him was immense, even in those offended by his sharp tongue.

Register your interest in our 50yr celebrations at this link  or by emailing Janine Branson