Venture a change after stint in navy

Mill House owner Karen Bleakley outside the historic building at Waianakarua. Photo by Sally Rae.
Mill House owner Karen Bleakley outside the historic building at Waianakarua. Photo by Sally Rae.
Flicking through a property guide while visiting her parents in Christchurch last year, Karen Bleakley spied an advertisement for the Mill House in North Otago.

The historic landmark, built as a flour mill in 1879 and later turned into an accommodation and restaurant complex, was being offered in a mortgagee sale.

A friend suggested that it would do no harm to have a look and, in August last year, Ms Bleakley found herself the owner of the property, 25km south of Oamaru, attracted by the potential she saw in it.

It was a major change, both in lifestyle and career, for the 40-year-old who had spent about 17 years in the navy and was living in Wellington.

Coincidentally, Ms Bleakley was born in Oamaru and later spent a year studying at Waitaki Girls' High School.

Built from locally quarried stone by German settler Ernst Diehl, the mill began operation on May 12, 1879. Less than two years later, it was badly damaged by fire and stood unoccupied for several years until it was sold and renovated.

It was later purchased by the Dunedin-based Phoenix Company which operated it as a mill until it closed in 1939.

The mill and surrounding land was sold to the Boy Scouts' Association in 1958 and the mill itself was unoccupied until 1969, when it was purchased by Bernard Esquilant and Bill Menlove.

After extensive restoration work, they opened it as an accommodation-restaurant complex in 1970. A block of motel units had been added in the 1970s.

The property, which is situated alongside the Waianakarua River, later had various owners.

Ms Bleakley moved south in March this year and the complex remained closed while she undertook improvements, before opening at Labour Weekend.

She also had an opportunity to continue her involvement with the Defence Force by doing some project work for the navy.

She enjoyed maintaining contact with colleagues and she also enjoyed catching up with friends who dropped by during the recent Southern Katipo military exercise.

Ms Bleakley recommended a career in the Defence Force, saying it provided great opportunities.

She had enjoyed the challenges and variety that the work involved. She spent a ''fair amount'' of time at sea, including deployments to the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Australia and Afghanistan.

It had also given her various skills that were useful in her new role in the hospitality industry.

Although Ms Bleakley was more used to living in cities, she had found the local community to be very welcoming, friendly and helpful.

She had never had a particular ''life plan''; rather she had been open to opportunities as they came up, she said.

Taking over the Mill House was quite a change and she admitted she might have initially been a little naive about how much work was involved.

''I needed a bit more work-life balance, I think. I'm just waiting for that to come,'' she said, laughing.

However, she had a much more fulfilling personal life now, as previously she had been very much focused on work.

She had learnt a lot over the past few months and was keen to ''do what we do well'' and then progress as the demand arose.

Ms Bleakley said her tenure at the Mill House was ''not a short-term thing'' and she realised that passion and enthusiasm were needed to make the venture succeed. It required putting ''your heart and soul'' into it, she said.

''I'm not going to be bored for a few years,'' she said.

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