The boy from Bluff

Clifford Skeggs. Photos by ODT.
Clifford Skeggs. Photos by ODT.
Otago Harbour Board chairman Cliff Skeggs (centre, in blue) with Prime Minister Robert Muldoon ...
Otago Harbour Board chairman Cliff Skeggs (centre, in blue) with Prime Minister Robert Muldoon (second from right) in 1977 at the official opening of the container facility at Port Chalmers. Sir Clifford describes it as the ''pinnacle'' of his public...

The story of Sir Clifford Skeggs is one of a self-made man afraid of neither risk nor hard work. The former Dunedin mayor discusses public office, oysters and his varied endeavours with Shane Gilchrist.

There is something fitting about the proximity of Sir Clifford Skeggs' property to Wanaka's long-standing tourist attraction, Puzzling World.

Ponder the life of the 84-year-old entrepreneur and former Dunedin mayor and it becomes clear he has walked many paths, made a few detours and, very occasionally, back-tracked in a manner perhaps not dissimilar to all those families whiling away a few hours of the school holidays.

Yet the only movement to be seen from the large windows at the front of his house comes by way of a water tanker reducing dust on a swath of land being worked into a new subdivision and a grader shaving an area close to the grassy airstrip from which Sir Clifford used to sometimes commute by light plane.

Notably, he would be at the plane's controls.

As he readily states, he rarely relinquished control.

He divulges all this and more in his self-published autobiography, Sir Clifford Skeggs: the boy from Bluff.

Ghost-written by Jenny McLeod, it's a story of a self-made man afraid of neither risk nor hard work.

As his book's subtitle implies, Sir Clifford's roots are firmly anchored in the sea.

Likewise, Skeggs Group has its origins in the bounty beneath southern swells, the businessman establishing Skeggs Fisheries Ltd in 1958 on the back of a booming crayfish export market.

Sir Clifford gave controlling interest in Skeggs Group to his three sons, David (managing director), Graeme and Bryan, in 2005.

Yet the move came with a caveat that reflected his ''incredible pride'' in his various fisheries endeavours: sale of the company's Bluff oyster subsidiary would be ''over his dead body''.

Such is his passion for boats, Sir Clifford devotes an entire chapter of his book to the vessels he has both owned and skippered over the years.

An early aquatic adventure involved him and older brother Jim cutting a tar drum in half and paddling it around Bluff Harbour before returning home bleeding and bruised.

Such escapades earned the pair, and their mates, a reputation as ''the tough boys'' from Bluff.

They, along with eldest sister Sylvia, knew the merits of hard work, however.

His father, George, who had faked his age to fight in World War 1, volunteered for service in World War 2, leaving his wife to run a dairy, in which the children would also work.

''Life in Bluff wasn't a bed of roses,'' Sir Clifford reflects.

''I realised our family didn't have much money and I had to help my mother. So I got jobs.''

Thus, at the age of 10, he began developing the entwined instincts of making money and sniffing out a good deal: using his paper run earnings, he would scour Bluff to find the cheapest tomatoes (his mother, Beatrice, loved them).

''I was always out for a bargain. I used to take on every challenge that came my way to make money ... I was the best poppy-seller in Bluff,'' he says, disclosing a methodology that involved meeting boats as they came into dock.

''I made sure every wharfie bought one.''

Invalided home from World War 2 (''He got sand in his lungs while in North Africa ...''), his father worked as a labourer but also had a shoe repair business following his rehabilitation in Dunedin.

''Both my parents were extremely hard-working,'' Sir Clifford recalls.

In 1947, aged 16 and keen to start making his own way in life, Sir Clifford left Southland Technical College and headed to Port Chalmers to begin a five-year boat-building apprenticeship with Miller and Tunnage.

His lodgings cost more than what he made, so he earned extra income working at the Metro movie theatre in Port Chalmers, his role evolving from ushering to cleaning to stoking the facility's boiler. Still nurturing an ambition to become a naval architect, he also fixed and built boats for people to earn extra cash.

A motorbike accident between Invercargill and Bluff on Christmas Eve, 1950, left him with a compound fracture in his lower leg.

Reset five times, the leg still causes him problems, says Sir Clifford, who digs out a series of X-rays that reveal his double hip replacements and a titanium plate inserted in his lower back.

He has also had double knee surgery.

''I still have trouble; my back is a mess.''

Still, recuperation in Kew Hospital allowed him time to complete a correspondence course in accounting.

Always good with numbers, he says the course proved helpful in his later endeavours.

Other calculations had entered the frame by that stage, too.

On his recovery, he resumed his courtship of Marie Ledgerwood, whom he'd met in 1950 at a Saturday-night dance organised by Port Chalmers watersiders.

Two years later, the daughter of well-known Deborah Bay fisherman Bill Ledgerwood married ''the rough boy from Bluff''; 62 years on, they remain together.

Sir Clifford spied another opportunity in the early 1950s.

Aged 22, he employed four boat-builders with whom he'd served his apprenticeship and, investing the 240 he'd saved, started up a business converting fishing boats for crayfishing.

''The advent of the crayfishing industry is where I accumulated my first major assets,'' he says, adding he moved from boat-building to fishing two years later when he and his father-in-law bought a 14m ''beaten-up old wreck'' in Hobart and sailed it to Bluff before eventually converting it for crayfish, of which he was entitled to half the catch.

Mr Ledgerwood, a shareholder and director in Otakou Fisheries, invited his son-in-law to look after the firm's fishing fleet in 1956, a move that gave Sir Clifford the opportunity to assess all aspects of the business.

It was a turning point.

Six months later, he'd formulated a plan to export crayfish tails directly to an American company.

No middleman, more profit.

''Young and ambitious and with nothing to lose,'' Sir Clifford launched Skeggs Fisheries Ltd in 1958.

The forerunner to Skeggs Foods and Skeggs Group, it was the springboard into the Bluff oyster business as well as, in no particular order, frozen food, coastal shipping, forestry, engineering, venison and live deer recovery, poultry and meat processing.

Aviation was another interest.

Sir Clifford, who gained his pilot's licence in 1968 and owned and flew various planes, started commercial airline Pacifica Air in 1987, the intention being to fill a gap in the Christchurch to Nelson market, although it bowed out to stronger competition after a year.

The seafaring man found fiscal advantages in the soil.

Taking advantage of tax incentives and suspensory loans offered by Rob Muldoon's National government, he bought farms at Waitahuna, on the Taieri, Ohai and Central Otago, developing unproductive and/or underutilised land.

In 1979, back when ''Wanaka had a population of 500 and one policeman'', he acquired the 121ha Mount Iron Farms property on the edge of the town.

Though he and Marie have sold the bulk of the land to developer Alan Dippie, the couple retain about 8ha.

Property has come in handy for Sir Clifford over the years.

From the 1960s, he began to build his property portfolio, buying commercial buildings in Dunedin, including prime spots in George St, as well as throughout Central Otago.

''Rightly or wrongly, I had a strategy of moving things on if I could see if I could make something reasonable from a deal,'' he says.

Yet there have been failures, most notably after Skeggs Corporation Ltd was listed on the New Zealand Stock Exchange in 1987.

A month later, the sharemarket crashed; within two years, Wilson Neill had bought out Skeggs Corp.

A long period of rebuilding, including a refocus on fishing as well as other ventures, such as wine and, significantly, tourism, has seen Skeggs Group grow steadily.

According to the National Business Review's 2014 ''rich list'', it is valued at $150 million.

Still, 1987 wasn't all bad.

He was honoured with a knighthood, although he maintains ''becoming a sir didn't change me''.

''I didn't expect one because I thought perhaps I was too much of an individual. Anyway, I was more interested in Dunedin's future than accolades.

''Despite always being accused of being a member of the National Party - which I was not, by the way - it was the Labour Party that honoured me with a knighthood.''

Given Sir Clifford's business acumen, his passion for the South and his appetite for hard work, public office was inevitable.

Elected to the Otago Harbour Board in 1968, he became chairman five years later, at the age of 42.

He has no hesitation in describing the September 12, 1977, official opening of the container facility at Port Chalmers as the ''pinnacle'' of his public career.

''Without question. We had a meeting in the town hall [more than 2500 people attended on April 29, 1975] because we were getting no government support. I crucified members of Parliament and anyone who wasn't supporting it.''

A Dunedin city councillor since 1971, Sir Clifford stepped down as chairman of the OHB in 1977 (although he remained a board member and was appointed chairman of the new Port Otago Ltd in 1989).

• He was elected mayor of Dunedin in 1977, at the age of 46. He held the office for a record four terms, exiting in 1989.

''Dunedin was in a hell of a state when I first got the mayoralty. That first year, we lost 5000 people in the drift north. The University of Otago had 6000 students when I went in as mayor; when I left, the tertiary institutions in the city had about 20,000 students.

''I have to say we made a lot of progress. Determination won through.''

Exasperated by the council's lack of business focus, Sir Clifford oversaw the restructuring and corporatising of the DCC's management structure and the creation of Dunedin City Holdings to help offset rates rises.

He also regards as a highlight the June 1982 opening of the $9 million Civic Centre.

A follow-up to the Dunedin Public Library project, the Civic Centre's aim was to put previously disparate council services and departments under one roof: a ''one-stop shop''.

An Otago Daily Times feature published at the time he stood down as mayor in October 1989 describes his ''ability to mix easily with people from many different backgrounds''.

''He has that gift of making those he talks to feel that, at least for the moment, they are the most important person in the world,'' the article notes.

The mention of such traits prompts Sir Clifford to recall his weekday morning walks ''from my fishing company office to the mayoral office.

The purpose of those walks was to meet people on the street.

''I'd stop and talk to guys sweeping the gutters, whoever ... I always tried to mix with people.''

Yet he had his share of criticism, too, including late-night phone calls and abuse, even a death threat.

''A guy rang up one night and said he was coming up to kill me. Of course, I called the police and it turned out the person was in a mental institution.''

And though he now acknowledges both the recreational and natural value of Aramoana (''My wife used to live in Deborah Bay so that's where we would often go for a walk or swim. It's a beautiful spot ...''), he supported the proposal to build an aluminium smelter there.

''That's a fair call,'' he says when reminded of the opposition to his stance from some community quarters in the 1970s and early '80s.

''I was trying to get the smelter down there. I was very supportive of that because it was another industry. I only wanted it because of the growth factor.''

In a quote from his book, one of Sir Clifford's business peers labels him as ''impetuous and hard to control''.

Given his record in commerce and public office, such a description could be interpreted as ''decisive''.

Yet he offers a brutally honest self-assessment: ''I would clearly suggest now that the reason I didn't stand again for mayor is the fact I was becoming a bit of a dictator.

''I wanted it my way or I didn't want it. And I didn't really like that.''

He might have been in semi-retirement for a decade, but Sir Clifford is still hatching plans.

''I go to Fiji for the winter months now,'' he says in reference to his departure in a few weeks to Denarau Island.

Skeggs Group bought a marina there for around $1 million in the 1990s. Back then, it comprised a wharf and shed.

Now, it boasts four commercial wharves.

He wanders around his dining room looking for plans of the latest Denarau development, which includes a 200-berth marina, an industrial area, a sports stadium and residential and commercial accommodation.

''I've got plans for Fiji that encompass the next 10 years. It's a massive undertaking.''

Unable to unearth the plans (''Marie will know where they are ...''), he instead turns to a wall where several framed photos reveal boats of varying shapes and sizes.

''I skipper all the boats myself. I've got a marine engineer's certificate,'' he says, then points to a picture of a handsome resort-style home: ''This is my house in Fiji.''

It's a matter-of-fact statement, without a trace of boastfulness. Having handed over the reins of Skeggs Group to his sons, a decision he admits was far from easy (''I've done things they wouldn't do and vice-versa ...''), Sir Clifford took control of the design and building of the 150-passenger catamaran Spirit of Queenstown, launched in 2013 on Lake Wakatipu as a poor-weather alternative to Southern Discoveries' Milford Sound operations.

He claims he has ''eased off a bit lately'', before working in the fact he's busy building a new house near the Wanaka marina.

''I've designed all my houses. I do a sketch of the layout ... This place is too much for us,'' he says, adding he's awaiting resource consent for a lift to be installed in the new place.

In the meantime, he's been shopping.

Downstairs, off to one side of his house, is a large garage.

But there are no cars here. Instead, it is brimful of boxes containing whiteware and other fittings.

He says he imported a lot of it from China. Presumably, he got a good deal.

 


SIR CLIFFORD SKEGGS

• Age: 84 (born in Bluff on March 19, 1931)Married to: Marie, Lady Skeggs (1952); the couple have three sons (Graeme, Bryan and David) and 11 grandchildren.

• Launched Skeggs Fisheries Ltd in 1958. The company was a forerunner to Skeggs Foods and Skeggs Group, moving into commercial property, frozen food, coastal shipping, farming, engineering, venison and live deer recovery, aviation, poultry, meat processing, tourism and wine. Skeggs Group is now valued at $150 million.

• Elected to Otago Harbour Board in 1968, Skeggs was made chairman in 1973. He stepped down as chairman in 1977 (although he remained a board member and was appointed chairman of the new Port Otago Ltd in 1989).

• Four-term mayor of Dunedin from 1977 to 1989.

• Now semi-retired, he and wife Marie live in Wanaka.

 


HIGHS AND LOWS

SIR CLIFFORD SKEGGS ON ...

... his wife, Marie, Lady Skeggs:

''She is not as aggressive as I am. It's been a good match. She's not what I call business-oriented. It's worked out wonderfully. As a mayoress she was tops, too.''

... his 1987 knighthood:

''Despite always being accused of being a member of the National Party - which I was not, by the way - it was the Labour Party that honoured me with a knighthood.''

... the Skeggs Foundation (established in 1993; to date has given grants worth more than $3.5 million to Otago sportspeople):

''I started that to get kids into sport. Right from day one, I didn't have anything to do with the operation of it. It's been a real success story in benefiting the community.''

... his hands-on approach (following the purchase and revamp of the Lake Hawea Hotel in the late '80s, Skeggs briefly took on barman duties, with his wife washing dishes):

''My father-in-law was the cashier and Jean McLean, the deputy mayor who became a very dear friend, was carrying jugs around. She came in and said, `those rude people out there ... one of them gave me a slap on the backside so I turned around and poured a jug of beer over them'. She was real character.''

... a right royal mix-up:

''The time Prince Charles coughed and spluttered on a mouthful of cooking sherry at a civic reception.''

(The Heir to the Throne had requested a glass of sherry; after a flurry of activity behind the scenes, the drink was procured.) ''The sherry apparently came from a bottle found in the kitchen.''

... other royal encounters:

''I've dined with the Queen five times. She is a lovely lady.''

... highlights of mayoralty:

''Getting the Civic Centre built. It has proved its worth many times over. You used to have to go to four different places to get a building permit. Also, the introduction of a corporate structure to council.''

... a passion for the sea and its bounty:

''When the boys were knocking off a lot of the fishing assets, I made it quite clear that if they sold the Bluff oyster business it would be over my dead body.''


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