Peter Yealands doesn’t subscribe to the second mouse theory.
For the one-time Greenshell mussel pioneer, business is not about who gets the cheese – it’s about the challenge of unlocking your goals.
“I’d rather be the first to try something and get it wrong, than to be second,” he says.
And over the past 50 years he has created a career out of firsts. Occasionally it’s gone wrong. Think hawks attacking guinea pigs intended for weed control. But it’s gone right enough times to earn him a reputation as one of New Zealand’s greatest entrepreneurial minds – and a regular spot on the NBR annual Rich List.
It’s success that he credits to the ‘let’s give it a crack’ attitude inherent in the New Zealand psyche.
“I’m a typical Kiwi,” said the 65-year-old.
“I’m no different to a lot of people. I’ve probably been a bit luckier which I put down to my genes.
“My whole life I’ve been driven around innovation and challenge.”
And this is exactly what enticed him to get involved with Greenshell mussels when the industry was still in gestation in the late ‘60s.
“I got interested on the day the first Marine Farming Act came out… at that time I was doing contract work for local authorities and I had a large tax bill,” he said.
“I was discussing how I was going to pay the bill with my accountant who said, ‘look, it’s just a coincidence, but today I’ve received a booklet from government, about the introduction of the Marine Farming Act, and the government are going to give tax subsidies for those getting involved in aquaculture.”
“I said ‘that’s me’.”“In those days, there was no industry whatsoever – nothing to go on. No mussel ropes, or proven concept, no spat to speak of and it was all uphill.
“But that was the appeal.
“Whilst I hated paying tax, it was the challenge of the unknown and having a reason to try things and apply science to it, that drew me in.”
Peter was 20 years old and just married when he put his first concrete raft in the water and soon became consumed by the new industry.
“My new wife was pretty frustrated when I ended up spending every weekend and night working on all aspects of the operation,” he said.
“I was fully charged on this concept. I had other businesses, but was just dying to get into this, and after about 6-8 months the enthusiasm boiled over onto the rest of the family and we formed a company called New Zealand Marine Culture Limited.”
From trolling for spat with plankton nets, to helping establish the industry’s first hatchery, Peter had a hand in many developments that helped shaped today’s mussel farming operations, including several types of anchors, mussel-specific rope and stockings, buoys and the initial introduction of Kaiatia spat.He even farmed scallops in lantern cages, developed a concept on seabed management and created a fish bait designed to keep snapper away.
“I did a hell of a lot of things people probably don’t know about, or those that did would have forgotten,” he said
.When the Marine Farming Act was reworked in 1975, Peter was one of the first to gain a marine farming licence. But after 20 years on the water, he decided it was time to move on.
“The industry had come a bloody long way… I’d done my run,” he said.From there, Peter had stints in the deer, forestry and farming industries.
“I had lots of things going on… and for a 15-year period I was supplying aggregate to industries, so I had a lot of machinery that led the way to develop grapes.”
Peter officially got interested in wine in 1998 after planting his first grapes on a 70 acre property at Grove Town.
“I was looking for a place to play, I bought a place that was derelict and cheap, but I knew I could make it into a nice place and then I had a whole heap of left over land so I put in grapes because, what else was I going to do?” he said.
“At the time, I’d never been on a vineyard in my life. Sometimes the less you know the better.
“That way you don’t have any pre conceived ideas.“I went onto that land not knowing anything about grapes or vines. I found one good advisor and listened to him.
“And when I got into wine, I’d never been into a winery, until I decided to build a $25-million winery.”
Today Peter is best known as the creator, owner, operator and occasional ‘mad scientist’ behind the celebrated Yealands Estate which exports to 80 countries and is one of the country’s largest independent wineries. Set over 1500 hectares predominantly at Seddon, it’s Marlborough’s largest winery by area and 5th largest by production and employs over 140 fulltime staff and over 500 in peak season. But when Peter started at the property, the land was considered too rugged for wine-producing land. In response, Peter pioneered ‘vineyard terracing’ and developed his own sites that now produce crops of complexity and balance where the lush undergrowth in the gullies is balanced by the lower yielding vines subjected to harsher conditions that produce intense flavours.
Today, the Yealands winery is valued at closer to $45-million and celebrated as the world’s most sustainable. To complement the ‘green’ philosophy of the business, Peter has built in a host of environmentally friendly systems including wet land areas on his farms to attract native birds and reduce erosion, making his own fertilizer out of aquaculture, winery and sawmill waste, and using miniature sheep to control weeds.
“Oh S**t yeah you can make money out of being sustainable,” he said.
“All of the things I’ve got in place have a very, very good pay back.
“Our vine prunings used to be left on the ground. Now we bundle them up and burn them to generate all our hot water – that paid for itself in the first 12 months. The alternative was to burn LPG forever and a day.”
The sustainability element has brought Yealands plenty of local and international recognition and is widely incorporated into their branding and efforts to create a provenance for their wine in premium markets around the globe. It’s a position Peter says the aquaculture industry is well placed to capitalise on, given the similarities in location, sustainability and quality.
“Mussels always need to sit alongside wine,” he said.
“In terms of value, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc gets a premium of about 200 per cent over any other country. It’s high value. It’s what people want and is distinctively different.
“Marlborough is no-doubt the home of aquaculture and mussels, but because they are also grown in other areas around the country, I don’t know if a Marlborough mussel would have the same impact as what wine would have. But I think there is potential for it to get a lot better than what it is.”
It’s been over 25 years since Peter put his last line in the water, but he reckons he hasn’t changed much.
“I’ve been termed a maverick – I don’t know why,” he said.
“I just like to push everything. I like to question. I like to think outside the square and find challenges of doing things different and better.
“Sometimes I wish I was not so driven, I wish I could sit back and enjoy the spoils, but I’m still raring to go.”
The spoils are not quite what you’d imagine – fish and chips on a Friday night is still his greatest extravagance.
“I don’t own a suit,” he said.
“I live on the smell of an oily rag and I don’t own much more.
“I’ve got a $5000 car and an average, to below average house.
“While it might be clear that it’s not money that drives him – you’ve got to wonder if just a small piece of cheese might go well with all that wine.