Meet the 'Mother Hubbard' shearing boss

By Justine Tyerman, Gisborne Herald

Kevin and Donna Williams of K Williams Shearing. Photo / Liam Clayton
Kevin and Donna Williams of K Williams Shearing. Photo / Liam Clayton

Not many bosses would arrange for nurses, budget advisors and the IRD to come and talk to you about child support.

But husband and wife team Donna and Kevin Williams are not your average bosses.

Known as "Mother Hubbard" or "Aunty", Donna organises seminars and workshops to upskill, care for and resolve problems facing the 46-strong crew who work for their partnership, K. Williams Shearing, based in Gisborne.

"Two years ago, we were approached by Turanga Health who offered to bring their health and nutrition services to us," Donna Williams said.

"Since then, a nutritionist has been out to the shearing shed to cook lunch for us with a focus on healthy kai.

"Then they sent a busload of nurses to do health checks on our workers.

"One shearer, who hadn't been near a doctor for 30 years, had a significant medical issue that needed to be attended to. The nurses tracked down his records, identified his problem and referred him to a GP.

"Recently, the nurses came to our house at 6pm to give our team their flu shots.

"Our house is the base for all our activities. We have a 'do drop-in' shed where we hold seminars, workshops, drinks, meetings and presentations from various agencies."

One night, she got someone from the Inland Revenue Department to talk about the changes to child support.

Members of the K Williams Shearing gang. Photo / Liam Clayton
Members of the K Williams Shearing gang. Photo / Liam Clayton

"It was our busy season so only one of our guys turned up - but it was very worthwhile because he was grappling with some big issues and the IRD staff member was able to help and advise him," Williams said.

"Gisborne Budgeting Services staff also came to talk to our crew. They explained about GloBug, a gadget with coloured lights which tells you how much power you have left. It allows you to pay for electricity as you go, so you can manage what you spend and keep on top of payments.

"The adviser talked in real terms: 'You either buy that box of beer and have no power tomorrow or go without the beer and spend the money on power.' "It made sense to our young boys who are flatting and having trouble budgeting wisely.

"I hated maths as a kid . . . but when you are sitting on a wool bale talking to these young ones about how many sheep they've shorn that day and how much money that equates to, all of a sudden maths becomes exciting."

During the quiet season, Williams ran a full day of seminars and workshops at their house with representatives from IRD, WINZ, Budgeting Services, Carrfields Primary Wool (formerly Elders) and PGG Wrightson.

Next on Williams' schedule is organising first aid and driver training courses so more members of the crew can drive the vans.

As part of their holistic approach to staff wellbeing, the couple also provide accommodation for their team.

"We recently bought a four-bedroom house behind our own house and we are setting up quarters for those who work for us and have nowhere to live. The double garage is now a kitchen-dining room, and we've converted a shipping container into three bedrooms."

Taken off the couch

The couple's shearing gang range in age from 17 years to 60-ish.

"We have a bunch of new ones at the moment - one of them we took off the couch, literally," Williams said.

"Kevin went to pick up a shearer for work and there was another guy lying there on the couch. We were down a worker so Kevin said to him 'What are you doing?' to which he replied 'Nothing.' So Kevin told him to get in the van, and he did.

"He's a great worker, a really happy chap, and a permanent member of the crew now."
During the school holidays, they also take 16 to 17-year-old high school students and teach them to work in the sheds.

"It's supposed to be work experience but we pay them, because it's hard work in a shearing shed," Williams said.

The couple were last year recognised for their different approach with a Maori Business Excellence Award at the Westpac Business Excellence Awards.

Williams said of her dedication to the workers: "Some say I do too much for our crew but I see the benefits of looking after them and keeping them happy. Pay them well, feed them well and they work well.

"I'm not their mum or banker . . . but I may as well be sometimes. I boot their bums . . . and give them a big hug.

"I'm a touchy-feely type who likes to hug and kiss everyone I meet . . . including the farmers, something that Kevin can't quite get his head around."

Williams is also the "admin lackey" for the business which involves doing the GST, PAYE, wages and payroll and keeping up with emails.

In her spare time, she designs a range of outdoor clothing which is sold all over New Zealand and Australia. The profits go to a variety of rural activities they sponsor like horse sports, speed shearing and the "take a kid hunting" initiative.

The couple's shearing gang range in age from 17 years to 60-ish. Photo / Liam Clayton
The couple's shearing gang range in age from 17 years to 60-ish. Photo / Liam Clayton

Family attitude

Williams attributes her capable, can-do attitude to growing up in a large family.
She is one of 16 children (12 daughters and four sons).

"Mum took in hundreds of foster children - all my years growing up, there were kids galore in the house, right up to when Mum couldn't walk anymore," Williams said.

"And Dad would take the young guys that no one else would employ ... and teach them scrub-cutting, fencing and farming skills.

"Dad was an ex-army chef, and a pickle, relish and chowchow connoisseur.

"Thanks to Mum and Dad, I'm a bloody good cook and as long as there's food in the fridge, I can make a tasty meal. I love cooking and feeding people."

The couple are not highly educated and have got where they are today through hard work.

"I left Tolaga Bay High School at 15 and Kevin was kicked out of the same school at 15," Williams said.

"When he told his father he wanted to go shearing, he was booted out of the house.

"Shearing did not have a good reputation in those days. The behaviour of men in the gangs was pretty bad and there were some horrible rousies too - some were scary b******.

"The pecking order was very strong and you didn't speak out if you were young.

"But that sort of behaviour is no longer tolerated. And we encourage our young ones to speak up and ask questions, especially when the woolman comes to the shed.

"Shearing is now a respected industry and is also seen as a competitive sport, thanks to world champion Kiwi shearers."

Having worked as a shearer and shepherd since the age of 15, Kevin Williams took over a shearing run in 2007.

They couple have experienced tragedy, losing a daughter in a car accident at the age of 28. They have two other children - Bob, who is a pressman in the crew, Jess, who is a former wool handler - and seven grandchildren.

"Kevin and I are a good team with a solid foundation," said Williams.

"We've been together for 36 years - since we were teenagers - and we've been through a lot together.

"We are useless without each other."

- Gisborne Herald

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