The brothers born to business

Martin (left) and Allan Dippie with Kong the donkey at Mitre 10 Mega Dunedin. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Martin (left) and Allan Dippie with Kong the donkey at Mitre 10 Mega Dunedin. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Otago businessmen and brothers Allan and Martin Dippie are the joint Otago Daily Times’ Business Leader of the Year. They talk to Sally Rae.

Somewhere in the Catlins sits an old crawler tractor.

Abandoned a decade ago, it represents the roots of a highly successful family business operation now spanning multiple enterprises throughout Otago and Southland.

Allan and Martin Dippie were Dunedin schoolboys when they came up with the entrepreneurial idea of selling ponga logs.

They headed to the Catlins at weekends to source them from farmers who were clearing land, trusted by their parents to take chainsaws and a truck, despite not having truck licences.

Martin attributed their resourcefulness to their Boy Scout background. It was a profitable business - better paying than Allan's newspaper delivery job at the Evening Star.

The boys had somewhat of a monopoly in the city and delivered the logs to customers at night. All profits were ploughed back into the business.

It taught them all manner of skills; from how to problem-solve - like getting out of a paddock when their vehicle got stuck - to dealing with machinery and marketing a product.

But possibly most importantly, it showed the entrepreneurial teenagers the value of having their own business.

As the source of the logs moved further from the edge of the bush, they realised they had to become more efficient, so they bought the Oliver crawler to make tracks into the bush.

It was later abandoned where it broke down, although Allan Dippie (54) does have a replica in his extensive tractor collection. ''We're going to have to mount a recovery expedition one of these days,'' he said dryly.

The brothers' foray into business followed in the footsteps of their parents, Neville and the late Gaynor, and both paid tribute to them, particularly for instilling their entrepreneurial spirit.

''They just always let us get on with it - it must have been frightening at times. Martin and I had everything on the line so many times,'' Allan said.

Neville Dippie was a Central Otago-based stock agent when he was approached by Ernest Nichol in 1965 to manage Nichol's Dunedin operations.

In 1976, Nichol's Garden Market opened next to the stock food and garden fertiliser factory and the Dippie brothers started working in the factory after school, packaging fertiliser and bagging wood chips.

''I think it taught us a good work ethic. We used to see how many bags we could do after school. We were results-oriented ... we were encouraged to work,'' Allan said.

After leaving school, Allan completed a commerce degree at Lincoln.

He intended becoming a stock agent, and was offered a job with Wrightson. But despite the appeal of a $15,000 salary, a Holden Commodore car - and a pair of moleskins - he declined.

Having a taste of working for himself, he decided to start up a one-man landscaping business. His parents had bought Nichol's Garden Market from the Nichol family and he had a corner within it to run his business.

The business grew quickly - opportunities cropped up in Central Otago and Queenstown - and it was '''crazy times''.

In 1987, Neville and Gaynor moved to Australia and after the planned sale of their business fell through, Allan suggested to Martin that they buy it.

That effectively derailed Martin's university career - he was studying commerce and law at the University of Otago at the time - although he acknowledges he was always going to be a businessman.

Coincidentally, Martin now sat on the University of Otago Council, and it was a ''real privilege'' to contribute back to the institution.

Martin looked after the retail side and Allan continued with the landscaping. With a desire to expand the business rapidly, they doubled its size every year and Knox Row was built in George St, for their parents to return home to run.

The brothers' foray into the property market began with student flats. Martin bought his first when he was 17.

In the early 1990s, Martin and his new bride Frances decided to head overseas, so it was decided to split the business.

By then, they had a fairly large property portfolio in Dunedin, and Martin got paid out in old houses.

Returning three years later, the business was not big enough for both of them, so he branched into hardware. He and his wife bought the Dunedin and Mosgiel Mitre 10 stores in 1994.

''For the first time in our lives, we started competing with each other in some areas, which was good fun,'' Allan said.

The Dippie brothers' enterprises now included garden and hardware retailing, landscaping, contracting, construction, real estate and property development.

They were not immune to controversy over some of their developments, but their success in business was undeniable.

Close in age - Martin is younger by two years - the brothers were regularly mistaken for each other.

But generally, Allan was known as ''the Nichol's guy'', and Martin for Mitre 10.

As to similarities between the two, Allan reckoned they were similar in many ways - ''we tend to think too alike - that's good and bad. I think more good ...'' - while Martin reckoned the difference was that he loved retail and Allan ''loves diggers''.

Martin was just 29 and a year into his own Mitre 10 business, working ''absolutely manic'' hours when he was elected to the national board, two days after the arrival of his first child.

He has been chairman of the $1.5billion business since 2005, and enjoyed the opportunity to represent the co-operative of family-owned businesses.

That nature meant it was quite distinct from other large retailers, and the culture was driven around that family-owned factor, with a spirit of collegiality and co-operation throughout the country.

Mitre 10 was ''like rust - it never sleeps'' and there were always new initiatives coming out, he said.

In 1993, Allan and his wife Liz formed Willowridge Developments, having purchased 37ha of land in the heart of Wanaka.

The Meadowstone development was the company's first and, since then, many hundreds of sections had been developed by the company with projects throughout Central Otago.

In 2003, the brothers built the new Wanaka Mitre 10 - ''everyone thought we were mad'' - and that marked them going back into business together. They also own a joint venture property company.

There were all sorts of inter-connections between their individual businesses.

Martin believed the strength of their model and businesses was they were long-term owners. Otago had been good for them, and they were taking a long-term view. They were committed to a long-term future for both the family business and their staff.

Allan and Liz have three daughters - Estelle, Charlotte and Madeline - while Martin and Frances have daughters Olive and Sarah, and sons Sam and Tim.

Seeing people come in from working after school to moving into management was very satisfying, Allan said.

When it came to the key to succeeding in business, Allan reckoned it was to ''keep changing''.

''If you keep doing what you were doing last year, you will fail.'

Online shopping was the obvious big-game changer in retail and the next Nichol's store would be an online one.

The view could be taken that plants would be immune to the threat of online, but that would be the wrong view.

The secret of the business had been to create opportunities that were around them, de-risking themselves by getting into new things and making it happen.

Twenty years ago, when they started buying land in Wanaka, they were told that they were crazy. In fact, they had been told several times, by smart people, that their strategy was flawed, Martin recalled.

Every year since the ponga log days, their businesses had grown and there were ''always exciting projects on the horizon'', Allan said.

For Nichol's, the site had always been leasehold, but Port Otago's recent decision to freehold it offered more opportunities to develop.

For Martin, one of his greatest satisfactions was employing people. One of the secrets to his business success had been appointing a group chief executive.

That freed up his time to pursue his governance career, allowing him to work on the business, while they also worked in it.

In November, Mitre 10 Mega Dunedin and Mitre 10 Mosgiel won the supreme award in the Westpac Otago Business Awards, having also won the Otago Daily Times excellence in retail category.

People might think retail was all about online these days but it was actually all about the customer, Martin said.

Mitre 10's core capability was helping its customers doing projects and helping them to improve their homes.

The pair were very positive about the future of Dunedin and passionate about the city, in which they always liked to be ''doing a project'', Allan said.

When the two brothers bought Nichol's Garden Market, there were three staff. Now they estimated there were probably around 400 between their various enterprises.

Car racing was a hobby the pair shared; they had done a lot of it together and it had taken them all sorts of places.

Having those interests was important - ''you can't just be 100% work or you'd be a pretty boring person,'' Allan said.

Martin still loved a good project - ''I'm as excited about going to work every day as I was back in the old days'' - and he was also a real devotee of home improvement.

''I'm one of the biggest customers here. I have to hide my Mitre 10 bill from Frances,'' he rued.

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