PF Olsen - the first 50 years

By the 1980s, the list of Olsen clients had expanded dramatically and new rows of trees were marching across hillsides around the country.

Steady Growth

The company’s initial growth spurt in the 1970s was followed by a decade of constant expansion. With new clients coming in all the time, Peter Olsen was able to do what he loved best: creating new forests and employing staff. He had a similar approach to both activities, treating them as enthusiastic leaps of faith.

Throughout the 1980s, New Zealand’s rural areas became a setting for all manner of farming enterprises and land use experimentation. People were trying their hand at farming deer, goats, ostriches, emus, llamas and fitches. At Matahi forest near Whakatane, Caxton decided to jump on the diversification bandwagon. They established a deer farm and a small boysenberry crop. A part time deer farm manager, Jim Andersen, was appointed and he also tended the boysenberries. Over time the berries developed a disease that rendered them unmarketable, and the deer farm was gradually wound down. Olsens was reminded, yet again, that sticking to core business was the best bet.

In the early 80s Olsens got their first management job in Australia. Dick Jamieson owned a plantation known as Knapsack Forest in New South Wales. The trees were already planted, so it was simply a matter of tending them. This work came about through their existing connection with Dick Jamieson’s company Health Spa in New Zealand (later known as Permanent Forests).

The strength of Olsens

The 1980s saw a steady increase in recruitment as the workload grew. Even when extra staff weren’t actually needed, Peter Olsen loved to recruit promising candidates. One way or another, he would find something to keep them occupied, trusting that they would pay their way.

“He (Peter Olsen) liked being an employer, and he looked after his staff very well. I was always thoroughly impressed. People came and went and kept their own time. PF was admirably relaxed about it. People worked hard for Olsens because they liked the environment. He created a great environment. When I was there in the 1980s, Olsens was a great place to work. I thought I’d do two years and then do my OE. Well I stayed there five years, which was a long time for a graduate in those days.” (Greg Molloy)

Even though the system may have appeared lax, Peter Olsen always made sure there was someone in the company keeping an eye on the young foresters and acting as a mentor. Olsens did it well and as a consequence it was like a family.

Olsens vs New Zealand Forest Service

 Exotic logging gets under way

The establishment of new forests was a big focus during the 70s. However, the business end of forestry comes when the trees are cut down. In 1982 Les Russell was employed to assist Len Harrod in Omataroa. As a forest service ranger, Les had exotic harvesting experience that was of particular value to Peter Olsen. Even though there were no harvesting operations going on at the time, it was clear that these skills would be needed in the future. Once again, Peter Olsen was thinking ahead.

Balancing the books

A step-change for the accounting department was the appointment of Brian Travers. Initially employed as a forest economist, Brian was given feasibility studies and other odd jobs until he saw the opportunity for a better fit. After a period of churn in the accounts department, a vacancy arose for the position of company accountant. Brian decided to go for it.  This appointment turned out to be a winning move and served as an example of how Peter Olsen excelled at using staff to their full advantage. If people ever showed particular skill in an area, there was no squandering their talent. Brian’s talent turned out to be extricating the company from sticky situations arising from some of Peter Olsen’s wild ideas.

Overseas opportunities
By the mid-1980s, business began to slow down. Competition was building, and Olsens were getting short of work, particularly on the consulting front. When a job came up in 1985 to do some harvesting and timber conversion in Vanuatu, they took it on. The projected yield was based on an inventory that had been done by the British Government. As the job progressed, they could see that the forest contained only a fraction of the timber promised.

Another overseas project that ran in the late 1980s was a logging concession held by an indigenous landowner group in Bougainville. The project ran for about 18 months until the whole of Bougainville Island became entangled in political strife. Olsens’ staff ran a portable sawmill there and taught the locals how to run it.

In 1987 Olsens became involved in a large aid project in the Philippines. Peter Olsen was always scathing about international projects that produced more reports that actual substance. This project gave an opportunity to provide real results.

Warren Ellis with Ruth and Peter Olsen Bukidnon.

 Changes in New Zealand forestry – 1987

The demise of the New Zealand Forest Service in 1987 resulted in massive change for the industry.

Around the time of the Forest Service demise, the government announced that it was going to abolish tax deductibility for forest expenditure. This meant that forestry investors couldn’t claim the costs against their tax from other income sources. They had to keep all costs in their books until the day the trees were felled at which point they could claim tax against the income off the trees. This represented a serious disincentive to forest investment and Peter Olsen was riled. He found out when parliament was in session and took the government to task.  Peter had been a strong Labour supporter ever since the day he was born and was a political activist from the time he was a teenager. It was a standing joke that John Spencer’s great ambition was to get Peter to vote National but he remained left-wing to the bitter end. He knew a lot of people in the party network and managed to get hold of Geoffrey Palmer, who was deputy Prime Minister at the time. He pulled Palmer out of the debating chamber at 3 o’clock in the morning and gave him an earful saying that this new legislation would wreck the industry and thousands of people would lose their jobs. No-one knows what Geoffrey Palmer said in reply, but the bill was subsequently overturned.


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.