Why did we start our business?
Working together from Day One
Why did we start our business in tourism and hospitality? Ever since Richard and I married in 1984 we have worked together as a couple. We farmed through the political upheavals and restructuring of the 1980’s with interest rates at over 20% and a massive mortgage – well truth be told – mortgages- plural. The bank decided not to sell us up as they wouldn’t have got their money back so they kept us farming with an overdraft and interest rates that would make your eyes water.
One day, after he turned 40, Richard looked at me and said “I never wanted to be a farmer”. That was a bolt from the blue because he was very, very good at it. I’d go so far as to say obsessive about it. He’d left school at 16 when his father became ill. It wasn’t really a conscious decision on his part, to become a farmer. He went home from boarding school for the school holidays and didn’t return to school.
We work well together with skill sets that are complementary. Unfortunately (or fortunately –at least we don’t argue about it) we are both quite untidy. Richard is dyslexic (we didn’t find this out until he was 50!). I was a library assistant. I guess he knew what he was looking for! His mind goes 100 miles an hour and he’s hard to keep up with. He isn’t always able to articulate what he wants. He is very clever but has trouble thinking through processes. He’s a perfectionist. He’s practical and capable and works incredibly hard. I bet nothing he makes or builds will fall apart any time soon. Not everyone is like that and it isn’t easy for someone who is, to cope with people who aren’t. We aren’t very good at employing people. Our expectations are unreasonable.
So to 2000. We’d paid off the original debt, bought a second farm, were back in debt (we’d kind of got used to it) and were running around like headless chooks. I’d broken an ankle then ruptured a disc. We both had several people in our extended families and within our neighbourhood with fatal illnesses before the age of 60. The office work was becoming more intense and we both hated it. We are more the outdoor hands on types. I’d been thinking about selling up and doing something different for a couple of years so when Richard decided that he would call a real estate agent, I didn’t try and talk him out of it. Richard made the decision and the call (almost simultaneously) at lunch time on Wednesday, the agent visited on Thursday, brought a prospective buyer on Friday and another on Saturday and by Sunday we had an offer. Done. Then we had to tell the kids and that is another story.
We had hosted a number of overseas exchange students and various home stay guests from Richard’s mother. We enjoyed meeting people and showing off the Kiwi way of life. The idea of being able to develop a property that could be a destination as well as part of a journey and utilising our skills, appealed very much.
Flexible work hours
As did the thought of being able to do what most people do and take some time off. We figured that just to catch up, like lots of farmers and business owners, we owed ourselves around 2000+ days of weekend and holiday days – never mind the overtime! We thought we would be able to be a bit choosy about the days and hours we worked, be able to spend more time with our children and travel (more on that in another blog!).
We wanted a property where people could have their own space, the luxury of five star accommodation but with just the one suite where they could feel at home, relax, be looked after or left alone. We wanted to make people feel special.
We didn’t just want to throw money at the place. We wanted to spend some time creating it and letting it evolve. It’s a bit of “Never Ending Story” meets “The Secret Garden”.
Change of Scenery
The ideal place would have a great view of sea or mountains. We wanted to be away from the Canterbury Plains. In other words as well as a lifestyle change we wanted a change of scenery. However we didn’t want to be too far way from Christchurch where the children were still at school. Richard thought we could move to Queensland. I said he’d be doing that on his own.
After much looking we found a property we thought we could make work. It took a lot longer than anticipated. Just getting a power pole and transformer was a mission -all those dairy conversions going on had power companies flat out and a little job like ours wasn’t on their radar. And little did we know but Richard had a large tumour growing in his chest. It was benign but messy and took him several months to get over the surgery. Then I ruptured another disc moving the wardrobe for the guest suite resulting in 12 months of agony followed by surgery. Plus all the other “stuff” that goes on in life with kids and families.
Richard had a vintage car in the shed. He’d bought it from a family friend when he was 15 so we had that restored with a view to doing tours and weddings.
A couple of years after we opened the accommodation at Matua Gardens Retreat we added the Stewart Island project to create a self contained one couple unit for people to rent. Within 12 months the GFC hit followed closely by earthquakes. With cruise ships coming in to Akaroa we started another two small businesses doing tours and car rental and after a lot of to and fro with the Stewart Island project (it was complicated) we finally got something happening down there.
Still Working together
Fortunately we have similar tastes in style and skill sets that work well together even though they might not all be things we love doing. I make incredible mess in the kitchen. Richard often cleans up after me. The toys have shrunk – combine harvesters, heavy trucks and tractors have been traded for dishwasher, mini digger and lawnmower. We are still working on getting the boat!
I never really enjoyed ironing and that hasn’t changed. I do love antique linen and Egyptian cotton sheets (there’s the ironing) and Richard loves old treasures. We have combined all those things into our businesses, with some really old fashioned values. I love to cook and experiment. After years of meat and three veg, baking, baking and more baking, for the shearers and farm hands , it’s been so much fun getting creative.
It’s been a privilege to serve so many guests in so many ways. We’ve created proposals and celebrations, time outs and surprises. We’ve hosted Kiwis and international guests. Some have chosen to share their joys and their sadnesses. We’d like to think we’ve helped some people put some things in perspective, to appreciate the little things and to just stop for a bit. We’ve laughed and shed a tear or two. We’ve opened our home to share what we think is one of the most beautiful settings in New Zealand combined with the kind of service we’d like when we are away. We have shared the excitement as people have watched and listened to a bellbird learning to sing or had breakfast beside a kereru on the deck.
I’m really proud of my husband. Many farmers find it hard to make the decision to do something else. Often they don’t know what they want to do, don’t know what they could do and don’t know how to leave. It can be quite a fearful choice full of what ifs. Richard has a philosophy of looking out the front window not in the rear view mirror (figuratively not literally!), not worrying about stuff you can’t change; not giving a toss what other people think; being prepared to give something a go; and being 100% loyal and committed. He’s not afraid of change.
One night, while cleaning up from guests’ five course celebration dinner, Richard was loading the dishwasher for what seemed like the fiftieth time. I asked him “do you miss shifting irrigators or would you rather be doing this?” He replied “well this is a hell of a lot drier and warmer” Plus he gets to clean up the left overs, talk to some fascinating people and every now and then he sits down and watches the bees. There is life after farming and it is good.