NZ buyer spends millions snapping up 10 farms

By Peter de Graaf -
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Ngatitara Farm, between Kaikohe and Awarua, is one of 10 which has sold to the Spencer family after an earlier sale to the Chinese-owned Dakang NZ Farm Group fell through. Photo / Debbie Beadle
Ngatitara Farm, between Kaikohe and Awarua, is one of 10 which has sold to the Spencer family after an earlier sale to the Chinese-owned Dakang NZ Farm Group fell through. Photo / Debbie Beadle

Ten farms south of Kaikohe which hit headlines last year when a Chinese firm offered to buy them for more than $40 million have now sold to a wealthy New Zealand family.

Merv and Cara Pinny. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Merv and Cara Pinny. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Merv and Cara Pinny put the 10 Mangakahia Rd farms on the market last year. With a total of 3900 cows producing 15 million litres of milk a season, it is Northland's biggest dairy operation.

Dakang NZ Farm Group offered about $42.7 million for the farms but withdrew its bid in October, citing delays in getting approval from the Overseas Investment Office.

It is understood the firm's change of heart was also influenced by a Government decision last year to veto the sale of the 14,000ha Lochinver Station near Taupo to the Shanghai Pengxin Group. Shanghai Pengxin owns 55 per cent of Dakang Pasture, which in turn owns Dakang NZ Farm Group.

The farms have now been sold to the Spencer family, who also bought Lochinver Station. The publicity-shy family also owns land on Waiheke Island. Patriarch John Spencer, who made his fortune through the family's pulp and paper mill, died in London last month.

Settlement on the Pinny farms was reached on February 29. The sale price was thought to be similar to the Chinese offer.

Mr Pinny, who started out as an 18-year-old sharemilker in the Waikato and became Northland's biggest dairy farmer by the time he hit his 50s, said a confidentiality clause prevented him from saying how much the farms sold for.

"But we're pretty happy with the outcome," he said.

He was disappointed when the Chinese deal fell through - especially after sinking $350,000 into marketing the farms, and a huge effort to prepare them for sale - but the Kiwi in him was pleased.

"When you're from New Zealand it's hard to sell to someone else, but it's also a business and you have to get the best you can. We're certainly pleased for the locals that it's staying in New Zealand ownership. The staff are pretty important to us, they're like family."

Another plus was that by the time the farms sold they were looking "magnificent". The sale went through just before the latest milk price drop, adding to Mr Pinny's reputation for good luck. His nickname is "Tinny Pinny".

Bayleys director Mark Macky, who conducted the sale, said most of the management team had stayed in place and the farms continued to employ a lot of people in the Kaikohe area. The properties had been for sale individually or combined.

The Pinnys operated seven dairy farms and three dairy support farms ranging in size from 100-600ha and totalling 3300ha.

They were the largest suppliers in Northland, producing about 1.2 million kg of milk solids or 15 million litres of milk a season.

The rise and rise of Merv Pinny

The man who became Northland's biggest dairy farmer puts his success down to the skills he gained helping on his father's farm as a child.

Merv Pinny and his wife Cara sold their 10 Mangakahia Rd farms to the Spencer family on February 29 for an undisclosed sum, thought to be around $40 million, after an initial sale last year to a Chinese firm fell through.

Mr Pinny, 56, grew up on the family dairy farm at Te Aroha. He helped his father every day before school and landed his first sharemilking job in Matamata at the age of 18. He set a farm production record in his first year, a feat he repeated at every farm he bought.

"I think it was what I'd learnt from my father. He was a very good farmer. It's basically about good grass management and looking after your animals."

At age of 21 he bought his first farm at Morrinsville; he sold a later farm at Te Aroha after a marriage break-up and moved to Northland because it was the only place he could afford to start again.

He was a reluctant Northlander at first, believing it wasn't a great place for farming, until he spotted a Dargaville property that had everything he wanted. He bought another three farms at Dargaville before buying Ngatitara, south of Kaikohe, which became the core of his Mangakahia Rd farms.

From 2006 onwards he started buying up neighbouring farms and converting them to dairy, eventually owning 10 contiguous farms stretching more than 40km.

At the peak of their farming empire the Pinnys also owned or leased farms at Kai Iwi Lakes, Moerewa, Taupo Bay, Kerikeri and Purerua Peninsula. They had 65 staff, 15,000 head of beef and dairy cattle, and produced 20 million litres of milk a year.

However, running so many farms over a large area turned out to be "a hell of a mission". They sold some off and concentrated on the Mangakahia Rd farms with a staff of 36, some of whom stayed with the Pinnys as long as 10 years.

"The last crew I had were just fantastic. I can't speak highly enough of them," he said.

The couple decided to sell up three of four years ago.

"I felt like I'd done enough in the farming world, and there were other things I wanted to do. Music is one of them."

Mr Pinny's farm career was unusual in that he tried to combine it with music. He landed a recording contract and at one stage he was playing six nights a week in Auckland while farming in the Waikato by day.

He has now set up his own recording studio at home on the Purerua Peninsula. His earliest recordings have been remastered and are about to be released on iTunes.

"So I've almost gone full circle," he said.

He currently plays guitar and sings with Bootleg, a rock/blues band due to perform at the upcoming Ocean and Orchard Festival in Kerikeri.

Mrs Pinny was using her new-found free time to focus on a business degree while he was enjoying not hearing his phone ring every five minutes.

"I'll probably go fishing, that sort of stuff. Having fun and learning to enjoy the Bay of Islands - and catching up on the family time I haven't had," he said.

Who is the Spencer family?

The reclusive Spencer family own more than 10 farms and various other properties throughout New Zealand.

The family, who are the largest sole landowner on Waiheke, recently brought ten farms south of Kaikohe, in addition to owing vineyards and Lochinver Station.

The hefty purchase comes just one month after family patriarch John Spencer, who made his fortune through the family's pulp and paper mill, died in London.

The National Business Review's rich list last year assessed the family's wealth as being worth $720m.

Multimillionaire businessman John Spencer in 1996. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Multimillionaire businessman John Spencer in 1996. Photo / Brett Phibbs

John Spencer was an heir to his grandfather's Caxton paper empire who took over the family business in 1981 but sold it later that decade to Carter Holt Harvey for about $300m.

In recent years the patriarch gained public attention following a number of court battles to resolve zoning issues with councils and neighbours.

Spencer is survived by his son Berridge and daughter Mertsi.

Berridge has become the public face of Spencer family business interests, while Mertsi is understood to run a specialist home accessory business in Dubai.

Berridge is reportedly a keen cricketer and yachtie who runs the award-winning Man O'War Wines on Waiheke, splitting his time between Auckland, the US and Europe.

Before John Spencer died, he spent New Zealand winters in the Northern Hemisphere around Monaco and during summer, at the family's residence in Takapuna, North Shore.

The family also owns Takapuna's high-rise tower Spencer on Byron, which takes its name from the family - a joint venture with the Covington Group on land in the family for years.

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