Q)Environmentalist, philanthropist, businessman, oyster farmer – you’ve been described as ‘possibly the busiest man in New Zealand’. How do you describe what you do?
A) I regard myself as an environmentalist and a businessman. Environmental protectionism is something I’ve worked with for the greater part of my life and I’ve looked for opportunities for business and conservation to work together rather than be in conflict, for example NZ Natural mineral water, Living Earth and more recently with Te Matuku Bay oysters.
Q) Can you tell us about Living Earth?
A) Most composting businesses are launched by councils trying to reduce the volume of waste that goes into landfill. And that is a noble intent. But the most important thing about compost is producing a high quality product that people want to buy, and for good value. We started that business really with a marketing hat on and we tried to make a really high performance growing media. The fact that it diverted nearly 2 million tonnes of organic waste away from landfills, avoiding greenhouse gasses and leeching into waterways was an environmental bonus. The most fulfilling part of making compost is knowing how much good it’s doing for the quality of your soil and improving crop yields.
Q) Your early background was in journalism and public relations – how did that shape your future career?
A) I started life as a cadet reporter on a great newspaper called the Auckland Star. Journalism gives you snap shots of the world and encourages curiosity. You get the privilege of learning a lot about a lot of stuff and not necessarily becoming an expert about anything. The public relations agency we started during late ‘70s-’80s, Allan Fenwick McCully, became the main PR agency in the country. PR taught me the importance of accurate communications and advocacy and the power of persuasion. It was a valuable lesson in later life about how to present a compelling case.
Q) You’ve recently been knighted for services to business and the environment – how do the two go together?
A) They must in this country. New Zealand’s economy is dependent on a healthy environment and thriving ecosystems. Ecosystems that support soils and the things we grow, ecosystems that support the marine economy and ecosystems that support the outstanding landscapes that underpin our tourism sector. Nearly all the pillars of New Zealand business rely on a healthy environment so there shouldn’t be conflict. In the 70s, the green movement argued that business and conservation were in conflict and that growth and trade were damaging to the environment, and there was some justification for their position. But it created conflict across the wider business sector and as a result, many business people felt the environment was the enemy. When environmentalists and later governments, started imposing environmental standards, investors believed it would just add cost and not value. In fact, the reverse is generally the case. In most cases working with nature reduces cost and certainly adds a long term value, but it’s taken a while for mainstream business to accept this. One reason is that external costs of environment damage are not brought to account.
Q) You receiving the investiture at a ceremony at Government House – a property donated by your grandfather Sir Frank Mappin. Did it have extra significance accepting the honour at a house you once played in as a child?
A) Yes it was a special day. It’s a magnificent property,12 acres on the slopes of Mt Eden, and one of the finest gardens in Auckland. My grandparents donated it because they couldn’t bear the prospect of it being subdivided.
Q) You’re now the third member of your family to be knighted – can you tell us a bit about the other Sirs?
A) Sir Frank Mappin was the 9th Baronet of Thronby. It was an inherited Baronetcy. His great grandfather was a founder of the British Liberal Party and had a successful business in Sheffield making steel springs for the fledgling locomotive industry. My paternal great grandfather Sir George Fenwick, was long time editor of the Otago Daily Times and also founder of the NZ Press Association. He was a great citizen of Dunedin who did all sorts of wonderful things for the university and art gallery,the list of his achievements is legend.
Q) You were the inaugural convener of the National Party’s environmental policy unit – the Bluegreens – why did you get involved in politics?
A) I was frustrated by a general lack of environmental policy and wanted to demonstrate that environmental responsibility and business and progress were not incompatible. I believe a strong economy is fundamental to environmental responsibility. We approached the National Party about setting up a policy task force and subsequently the Bluegreens which has tried to lead the party in responsible environmental policy and reform.
Q) Through your work heading the Antarctic Restoration project, you had a Scottish distillery recreate the 100-yearold whisky found beneath the floorboards of Shackleton’s hut – was it any good? A) Yeah, it’s great Scotch. I didn’t taste the original because we operate under the strict heritage principals of the Antarctic Treaty. When this case of scotch was found the Antarctic Heritage Trust received agreement that it could take a bottle to the original distillery and their experts would replicate it. It’s terrific whisky. It’s all about the story.
Q) How did your work in campaigning for marine reserves lead you to oyster farming?
A) In the late ‘80s when I was a trustee of WWF we were advocating for creation of the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park which would include a number of marine reserves. I owned land on Waiheke, which included Te Matuku Bay. A group of us identified Te Matuku Bay as an ideal reserve because it is a very pure estuary with an unpolluted catchment of native bush that extended out into the reef system of islands. The Minister of Conservation agreed and it was gazetted. I had covenanted my land, which was 1000 acres, so that it could never be subdivided or disturbed. But inside this terrestrial and marine sanctuary was a derelict oyster farm. Originally I had campaigned to have the oyster farm removed but MAF refused and it occurred to me if we farmed these leases really well, we could create an exemplar that enhanced the marine environment and produced a really high quality oyster. I tracked down the owner, and we purchase it. I pulled out the old timber and built a totally new system using single seed oysters in suspended baskets. What developed was an aquacultural business working hand in glove in an environmentally sensitive area.
Q) If you’re trying to preserve the land on Waiheke, why did you gift a 6km stretch of it to create a public walkway?
A) There’s not much native forest close to Auckland and I was lucky enough to have a lovely stand of native forest on this block. My family and I thought it would be a good thing to allow other people to enjoy it. So we created this public walkway through the forest and gifted it to Auckland. It gives us all a lot of pleasure to see Aucklanders enjoying it.
Q) Do you see aquaculture as a prime example of industry working in balance with the environment?
A) Aquaculture is a very efficient way of creating protein. Shellfish is a great New Zealand seafood and it should have a low environmental cost.
Q) What’s your vision for Te Matuku Bay Oysters?
A) We offer our customers oysters that have terrific taste and flavour that can be eaten fresh and live all year round. Consumers know that the oysters come from a fabulous natural environment and that when they eat our oysters they are experiencing a bit of that environment. We’re fortunate to be able to grow them in a marine reserve and fortunate we’re so close to the largest city in the land. People are becoming more and more demanding about freshness, taste and flavour so being able to harvest oysters on the morning tide and have them on restaurant tables by lunch time, live and shucked at the table is all part of the story.
Q) Where are Te Matuku Bay oysters sold and how do you market them?
A) We focus on the domestic market. We’re not a big farm. We want to ride the value wave rather than volume wave so our markets include top end New Zealand restaurants, increasingly sold as live product and branded as Te Matuku Bay Oysters.
Q) What’s your personal preference: Bluff or Pacific oysters?
A) I think any oyster that is eaten live and fresh out of the shell is fantastic and we celebrate the different flavours of each. But a live Pacific oyster in perfect condition is in a class of its own.