Sawmills have come and gone during turbulent forestry times, but Rotorua's Red Stag Timber is still going strong as it hits its 80th birthday. Journalist Kelly Makiha takes a walk down memory lane for Rotorua's largest private employer and finds out the secrets to its success.
Eddie Creighton turned up to a job interview at Waipā Mill as an 18-year-old in 1978 to hear the position had just been taken.
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He turned and headed out the door.
Then someone yelled back at him "oh but there's a timber grader job going if you're interested".
"Yep," he said.
But then the fella told him he'd have to do a test.
"I thought 'geez I'm buggered then'."
Turns out the test was to name three grades of timber, which Creighton happily rattled off with a bit of prior knowledge, having spent the past year working at the Arawa Sawmill.
"You're in," said the fella.
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Creighton has never had another job interview.
The now 60-year-old has worked just more than 41 years at the mill and climbed the ladder to middle management, now working as log yard co-ordinator.
Ask him what he thinks of his job and his response is he "bloody loves it".
"I'm still around because of the culture here. Everything seems to progress, every 10 years there's new machines, you're always learning. These guys know what they're doing ... We are one big happy family."
That pretty much sums up the success that is now known as Red Stag Timber and why the business has reached its 80th birthday.
Last night Rotorua's biggest private employer of 300 staff and 80 contractors celebrated the company's 80-year milestone.
An outdoor concert was held at the Waipā site featuring local entertainment, including rock band Kindred, where workers, partners and contractors partied and danced the night away.
Red Stag Timber general manager Tim Rigter said the company's success rested with its staff, so it was important to celebrate the milestone with them.
"Not many businesses stay around for 80 years so it's a good excuse to do something for staff. It is a great team and it all starts with the staff who know the business."
He said while other sawmills had come and gone in the area, with devastating impacts on local communities, Red Stag Timber was able to remain top of its game.
"We have the most modern sawmill in the business. It's a $60 million sawmill and everything you need to process timber is all new and the latest technology ... We have managed to survive difficult times because of the investment, the people and staff and the scale being the largest sawmill in the Southern Hemisphere."
Rigter, who has more than three decades in the industry, including 22 years at Red Stag Timber, said the company was family orientated because it was privately owned by the Verry family.
"We are different from corporates. We are a lot closer to the workers and the owners and don't seem to have so many layers like you do in the corporate-owned businesses."
He said the forestry sector was always up and down and suffered from world events - the latest being China's coronavirus.
However, it had learned not to rely on one market, with 15 per cent of its products going to China. New Zealand is the biggest market catering for 55 per cent, the remainder is 10 per cent to Australia, 10 per cent to the Pacific and other markets collectively making up 10 per cent.
Out of the wood that stays in New Zealand, 25 per cent is for the housing market. It's had to battle ups and downs, including homes being built smaller and with other building products such as concrete,
Today it produces more than 550,000 cubic metres of radiata pine and Douglas fir lumber a year, with an annual turnover of more than $220m.
While the staff numbers peaked at 700, the output was now two-and-a-half times bigger given improved efficiencies.
Rigter said the mill nearly went bust in 2003 because it wasn't performing well under the management at the time but things turned around after the Verrys became the new owners.
"It took off and soared and the turnaround was thanks to the receivers, the new owners and existing staff."
The Red Stag Timber story
Waipā Mill's establishment in Rotorua in the late 1930s was politically motivated.
It was built by the Government to encourage sawmillers to switch from native timber to plantation pinus radiata and Douglas fir.
In the Central North Island, plantations of those exotics were coming to maturity and at the same time, the Government was investing to rejuvenate the economy following the Great Depression.
Sawmillers hadn't been keen on the exotic pines because they were generally smaller in size, imperfect and full of knots and defects that needed to be cut out.
Using traditional circular saw cutting produced too much waste, in the form of sawdust, so new techniques and equipment were needed to convince them of the economic benefits of changing.
It was the Forest Service's job to deal with the problem of declining native forest resources and finding a way to use the plantation softwoods.
Director of the department in the 1930s, Pat Entrican, set about establishing a newsprint mill and a Swedish-type sawmill to process the exotic forests.
Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill in Kawerau and Waipa Sawmill in Rotorua were the results.
Rotorua was the logical place for the state-owned operation with Whakarewarewa Forest ready to harvest and most of the Forest Service's North Island operations based in Rotorua.
The Waipā Valley was selected as the site for the mill. The Crown had already bought most of the land from Māori owners and another block was bought under the Public Works Act, bringing the area up to 115.7ha.
Construction of the mill started in 1938 and took about a year.
It included a sawmill, box factory, creosoting wood preservative plant, drying kilns, a boiler house to produce steam to drive generations that could produce electricity and a temporary office with machinery purchased from Sweden.
The mill began serious operation in January 1940, the war preventing full production until October that year because of the unavailability of logging tractors and other equipment.
The timing was perfect. Due to the war, American forces needed timber, while in New Zealand it was needed for state houses, defence, timber framing for coal mining and other purposes.
By the end of the war, the mill had been expanded and output doubled. The post-war housing and building boom saw demand for timber continue to grow and the mill ran extra shifts to try and keep up.
The mill had a big impact on Rotorua, creating new jobs and prompting an upgrade of the then railway station, situated where Rotorua Central now stands.
Its position well cemented, Waipā was declared a leader of the sawmill industry in the Southern Hemisphere.
By 1950 Waipā's product line expanded to include everything from packaging and crates, construction timber and railway sleepers to fence posts, telephone poles and firewood bark and sawdust. Exports to Australia became necessary to move the mill's growing output.
More highly processed products like finger jointing and furniture-quality timber were introduced in the 1970s.
At its height in the 1960s and 1970s, the mill employed more than 800 people (including contractors), some of whom lived in Waipā Village on Waipā Mill Rd, opposite to what is now the mountain biking hub and the flats known as the Peka Flats, across the highway on the corner of State Highway 5 and 30.
The village had 75 houses, its own hall, shop, post office and a sports ground. Across the road was a volunteer fire brigade which serviced the village, Peka Flats and the mill.
The workforce was generally happy, although a major dispute in the 1970s led to a lock-out and the needed to re-hire staff when the dispute was settled.
There was also a strike, in 1986, when Waipā was moving out of the public service as part of the NZ Forestry Corporation State-Owned Enterprise.
By the 1970s, the technology that had been state-of-the-art when it opened had become tired. Upgrading the equipment began with the installation of a new $8.15m boiler in the 1980s, the most expensive upgrade of that time.
By late 1984, a new Government policy for the sale of timber from state forests meant the mill was paying more for logs and added to the high costs of hauling logs out of steep country. It forced it to look elsewhere for log supplies.
It also lost a valuable contract to supply high-grade timber to Rotorua-based Lockwood Building, which had established its own laminating plant.
Waipā had to find a new niche market producing highly processed laminated roof beams for large constructions.
Increased competition and specialisation by privately-owned mills, growing national debt and new economic thinking saw change start to occur through the 1970s and 1980s.
The Peka Flats were closed and demolished in 1986 due to the geothermal bore closures and maintenance issues and Waipā Village soon followed, the houses put up for tender and sold, rendering the site vacant.
The end of the Forest Service was announced in 1985. It was to be replaced by the Department of Conservation and a state-owned enterprise which would take over the state forests and other assets, including Waipā Mill.
The Forestry Corporation took over the mill in 1987 and long-serving staff found the redundancy packages too attractive to turn down.
The mill lost nearly half its staff and production plummeted. It took a while to get production levels back to what they were.
Forestry Corporation ran the mill until 1996 and consisted of two arms - New Zealand Timberlands managed the state forests and Prolog Industries ran Waipā and another sawmill, Conical Hill.
The corporatisation of the mill was deemed one of the most successful corporate reorganisations in New Zealand history.
The mill was upgraded and the Red Stag brand was created to target developing markets with a focus on Asia and environmental initiatives.
In the late 1990s, it sold the mill and forests, having returned $1.25 billion to the Crown in dividends, loan and capital repayments and tax and spent about $20m on upgrades and developments during its nine-year tenure.
Seven Bay of Plenty forests and the sawmill were transferred to a corporation subsidiary called Timberlands (Bay of Plenty) Ltd in 1990 for separate handling. The subsidiary was established as a separate state-owned enterprise, called Forestry Corporation of New Zealand, and in 1996 the consortium which included the mill and was known as CNIFP, was sold to Fletcher Challenge Forests, CITIC and Brierly Investments.
But Waipā Mill continued to lose money and in 1997 Fletcher Challenge Forests brought in Tim Rigter to take over as site manager.
He and a small team immediately set about to make changes and by 2002, they had restructured the mill, improved its safety record, increased production and productivity and reduced costs.
That same year, Fletcher Challenge Forests decided to quit forestry and focus on wood processing. Dogged by problems, the consortium went into receivership.
The forests were sold to new owners and the receivers, who effectively managed the mill while management and financial systems were changed, reduced operations from three to two shifts. Uncertainty hung over Waipā's future.
When the mill was ready for a buyer, it was father and son Phil and Marty Verry who came to the fore.
They did their due diligence, believed the mill had great and largely unrealised potential and saw it as a new challenge.
As many as 12 bidders were in contention but the Verrys were the highest and in December 2003 became the mill's new private owners.
They weren't deterred by the fact the mill had old plant and limited capacity for capital injection, striving instead for efficiencies and improved output to achieve profitability.
Year one of the family's ownership was one of consolidation but was followed by investment.
Alongside staff and management, the right decisions were made and the mill went from strength to strength.
The company now has strong local and international markets and is a major contributor to the local community both economically and socially despite its turbulent history.
Phil Verry died in 2009 aged 68. The business is now run by his son Marty and his sister, Louise, is a company director.