Family does hard yards to transform station

Outside the historic Station Peak homestead are (from left) Michael, Olivia, Julie and Kieran...
Outside the historic Station Peak homestead are (from left) Michael, Olivia, Julie and Kieran Pavletich. PHOTO: SALLY RAE
The Pavletich family recently celebrated 100 years of farming Station Peak, on the north bank of the Waitaki River. Rural editor Sally Rae speaks to them about their lengthy tenure on the land — and their plans for the future.

Kieran Pavletich always knew that water was the key to the success of Station Peak.

It was his vision to one day see the flats of the property, on the Hakataramea Highway near the Hakataramea township, green, using the valuable resource of the neighbouring Waitaki River.

He and his wife Julie moved to live on the farm in 1982 and, soon after, 120ha was developed into border-dyke irrigation. Unfortunately, that development coincided with the toughest farming climate since the Depression.

Drought, poor stock prices, the impact of Rogernomics and the interest rate on the money they had borrowed going from from 7% to 21% made for difficult times. Mrs Pavletich worked as a teacher at Hakataramea Valley School and that income was to be a life-saver.

"It was my salary that kept us going because we didn’t take anything out of the farm for quite a few years," she said.

Fast forward to now and Mr Pavletich’s vision has been realised; the flats are green under further irrigation development and the Pavletich family remain on the land, running a very different operation from what was originally a traditional sheep and beef property.

At Easter, the Pavletich family celebrated 100 years of farming Station Peak — or technically 101 years as Covid-19 disrupted plans for a celebration last year — which included a community invitation for anyone with a connection to the property to attend.

For her, reaching the milestone was a "great achievement" and they were grateful for the opportunity gained through Mr Pavletich’s aunt to continue to farm there, Mrs Pavletich said.

The proudest thing for her was seeing the next generation coming in "and just really stepping up over the last few years" as the family’s association with the property continued.

In a book written for Station Peak’s centenary, local author Lynley Irving wrote how the original Station Peak run extended as three individual 10,117ha blocks, 12.8km along the Waitaki River front to its boundary with Elephant Hill and up into the Hakataramea Valley for 25km, as far as Rocky Point.

It was first taken up by Herbert Meyer in 1855 and then bought by Robert Campbell, a prominent figure in North Otago’s history, who went on to have the baronial mansion which is now the centrepiece of Campbell Park Estate built.

Mr Campbell paid £40,500 for Station Peak in 1869 and that included 41,000 sheep, 13,500 lambs, 50 cattle, 16 horses, 53km of fencing, buildings and plant.

At one stage, Queenstown’s founding father William Gilbert Rees managed Station Peak for Mr Campbell and set up a ferry near the homestead site, taking loads of wool and other produce across the Waitaki River to a landing at the mouth of Otekaieke Creek.

The property was later broken up into smaller blocks and, in 1920, Station Peak was sold to Margaret Delargy, of neighbouring Fettercairn, who entered her daughter’s name Mary Ellen (Cissie) Pavletich in the title.

She bought the property because she wanted her daughter — married to Leonard Pavletich — and her grandchildren around her.

Leonard Pavletich was born in Dunedin in 1871. His father, Thomas Pavletich, was from a small town on the Istrian Coast in Croatia and may have been a sea captain.

The Pavletich family continued to farm the property and, when Kieran and Julie Pavletich moved to live on the farm in 1982, Mr Pavletich was in partnership with his brother Dermot and his aunt Helen.

A sign greets visitors to Station Peak’s centenary celebrations. PHOTO: SARAH ROWLAND
A sign greets visitors to Station Peak’s centenary celebrations. PHOTO: SARAH ROWLAND
His first years were spent working under manager Don Loomes, whom his aunt employed.

The Loomes family’s association started with Neil Loomes managing Station Peak for 20 years, followed by son Graham and then Don. In 1992, Mr and Mrs Pavletich bought Mr Pavletich’s brother out and continued a three-way partnership with Helen. They acquired sole ownership in 2002.

Mrs Pavletich described her husband’s family as "just really good people-people. They’ve just got their feet on the ground, they are very humble, they value everyone who steps over the threshold basically and that’s meant a lot. All the way, we’ve had support from the community."

In 2006, a block of land was put on the market and, at that time, she and her husband entered into an equity partnership with the new business Station Peak Dairy Ltd.

The equity partners brought dairy knowledge to the partnership, as Mr and Mrs Pavletich had not had much to do with the sector, other than grazing dairy stock. That conversion was completed in July 2007.

The equity partners stayed on for only two seasons before exiting due to the Global Financial Crisis and the Pavletichs returned to being 100% owners of Station Peak.

The couple have three sons, Michael, Phillip and Matthew, and while Michael was always going to be a farmer, that did not necessarily mean he was going to be a dairy farmer.

Michael attended St Kevin’s College in Oamaru, completed a farm management diploma at Lincoln University and then went travelling.

His wife Olivia grew up on a sheep and cropping farm at Southbridge. The couple returned to Station Peak in 2009.

He had not taken any dairy papers at Lincoln and his dairy experience was limited to a short stint on a dairy farm in the school holidays.

But with the irrigation development instigated by his father, the transition to dairy — initially beginning with dairy grazing — was inevitable.

Michael worked under a manager for a couple of years "learning the ropes". Two years later, he was managing the dairy farm and Olivia the office.

In 2014, a second shed was added with an expansion of the milking platform to 630ha, and an increase in cow numbers from 1400 to 2100. They winter all their own cows on farm and grow their own crops.

As well as the milking platform, there is another 52ha irrigated support block and the remainder is a dryland support block, with a total of about 1340ha. Michael might not have initially had notions of being a dairy farmer but he acknowledged that he loved it, particularly the people management aspect.

They employed 12 staff and he loved the ability to be able to create jobs and employ local people, he said. And those were much greater employment opportunities than when it was a traditional sheep and beef farm.

When it came to successful staff management, appreciation was important and also never putting anyone in a position that he would not do himself, he said.

They had a focus on wellbeing and it was also about creating efficiencies and tweaking the system so staff were not overworked, Olivia said.

Meals were provided four days a week during calving, the lolly jar was regularly filled by her and chocolate fish were hidden around the place as "a bit of fun" was important, she said.

A manager now ran both sheds day-to-day, allowing Michael to concentrate on the support areas and the governance space, including regulatory and compliance requirements. He spent a lot of his time in his home office.

He liked the progressiveness of the dairy industry, the technology involved, including the ability to monitor what was happening on the farm from in front of a computer. He was also regularly doing research — like his father, he had vision, Olivia said.

Michael Pavletich (second from left) speaks during Station Peak’s centenary celebrations, watched...
Michael Pavletich (second from left) speaks during Station Peak’s centenary celebrations, watched by (from left) Olivia Pavletich, Julie Pavletich (holding her grandson Harry Pavletich), Kieran Pavletich and Phillip Pavletich. PHOTO: SARAH ROWLAND
His father was never shy of trying something new as he looked to improve and diversify the income streams during his tenure.

That included supplying Awassi lambs — a breed of Middle East origin — for the Saudi Arabian market, artificially inseminating ewes in the shearing shed.

The motivation to discuss farm succession started during the years that Meridian Energy was actively pursuing large-scale opportunities in the area, including Project Aqua and then the north bank tunnel hydro-power scheme.

Shifting their houses up on to the hill was mooted and they were faced with the possibility of their farm being "carved in half by a canal", Julie Pavletich recalled.

As valuations were being done to buy the land and other properties were being looked at to potentially swap with, it got them thinking about their "big asset" and, if they wanted to hold on to it, they had to do some serious work around it, she said.

Meridian eventually pulled out but it had got them looking and talking about succession, she said.

Olivia said the couple had been lucky to have opportunities and they would "just carry on" what her in-laws had "done so well".

Michael said his father’s legacy was family — all family members were always in the loop about what was happening and communication was key around that.

The property had been developed by his parents and now it was about the current generation trying to consolidate that, getting better at what they were doing and becoming more efficient and sustainable.

He would love to get in a position of replicating what they were doing on other farms and growing the business, but Station Peak was the "golden goose" and they would never do anything that would erode that, Michael said.

The family history at Station Peak was something he was very conscious of. Investment had gone into the property and it was his duty now to consolidate and pay down debt, he said.

"To do that, you’ve got to do things well."

He was not farming "to make millions" — "I just want to pass on to my kids or someone else’s kids to keep the tradition going" — preferring to have a good lifestyle and farm in a way that was both economically and environmentally sustainable.

Michael and Olivia have three children, Sophia (10), Jack (8) and Elise (6), and they needed to start thinking about that generation and how to set themselves up to give their children opportunities, Olivia said.

They talked to others who had been through succession and "taken bits and pieces out of everyone’s journeys". "We’re not afraid to go and ask questions and go and get the help we need," Michael said.

He had completed a Fonterra governance course, part of the reason for that being a desire to get more of a grasp of how it all worked

He had been thinking of possibly having a board structure and maybe an independent director to help grow the business. At this stage, it had an unofficial board of advisers.

While some people thought about the next five or 10 years, his family were looking "at the next 50 or 100".

"That’s what it’s about for us, looking long term. It’s just again moving with the times, not being afraid to change," he said.

He was grateful to his father for allowing them to take management on, and implement the things they wanted to do without any interference or friction, which could sometimes happen between generations.

"You have got to be prepared for change, that’s the key to it. Nothing stands still forever," Kieran said.

Julie stood down as a director of Station Peak Dairy Ltd in March 2019, and was replaced by Michael, while Phillip took up a director’s role from December 2020. Kieran (64) said he was still a director but the aim had always been for him to be out of it by the time he turned 65.

He and his wife live in the historic homestead, which they renovated. It incorporates the original five-roomed manager’s dwelling built by Herbert Meyer in 1860 and a servant’s cottage, which are now connected by the two buildings in the centre.

They now had "the best of both worlds", Kieran said.

sally.rae@odt.co.nz

 

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