Loving family man. Aquaculture visionary. Right arm slow bowler.
John Leo Hannah died following a tramping accident in the Adelaide Tarn area of Kahurangi National Park on December 9, 2011, aged 63.
The husband and father of three was an accomplished outdoorsman, a notable Rotarian and a passionate cricket supporter and social player.
He will be remembered by the New Zealand aquaculture community as an industry pioneer and visionary.
Meticulous planning and incredible foresight were the trademarks of a 20-year aquaculture career that saw him draft the industry’s first $1billion blue print and champion the goal of a united sector.
Born in Richmond, the eldest of four children to respected GP Leo Hannah and his wife Mary, John grew up in Nelson.
His love of the outdoors was sparked with childhood tramps around Lake Rotoiti on holidays at the family bach.
He attended Hampden Street School and Nelson College before completing a bachelor of commerce at Otago University.
After graduating in 1971, he started work for Unilever in Wellington where he would meet his future wife Henrietta.
“They met … during a party at mum’s flat,” said John’s daughter Fiona in her eulogy.
“She first encountered him that night while he was raiding the fridge, helping himself to the left over roast dinner.”
The couple moved to Bath, UK where John completed a Masters of Science (Business Administration) and their first daughter Rachael was born.
He took roles with the International Wool Secretariat and Courtaulds textile company before returning to New Zealand to work for Alliance Textiles. He later worked for Donaghy’s in Dunedin where second daughter Fiona and son Richard were born.
The Hannahs eventually returned to Nelson in 1987, where they bought the family home where Henrietta still lives, perched on top of a hill near the ‘old cem’ (Now called Fairfield Park) where John and his siblings spent their summers playing backyard cricket..
He worked with Baigent Forest Industries for a year before he began with Sealord in 1988, in the industry that would ultimately define his career.
In the role of new business development manager, John quickly recognised the potential of the burgeoning mussel industry and led the company’s entry into the sector with the purchase of a small Paua and mussel processing business, Southern Crown Limited.
“The processing plant … owned paua quota and mussel farm licences but the focus was on paua,” John told the Nelson Mail in 1999 for a feature on Sealord Shellfish’s first 10 years.
“I became aware of the potential for Greenshell Mussels when I visited a major German food show in Cologne in 1991.
“The mussel industry had a stand there and when I saw the public reaction to Greenshell Mussels, it really opened my eyes.
“Research showed the market for Greenshell Mussels had considerable potential to expand.”
Convinced of the huge growth potential of the species, John led a massive expansion that would see Sealord go on to contribute more than a quarter of total mussel revenue within a decade.
The original Tahunanui factory processed 350 tonnes per year. By 1991 the company opened its first dedicated mussel factory with a capacity of 5000 tonnes. And by 1996, John had orchestrated a $6-million state-of-the art factory that was processing 15000 tonnes within two years and more than 20,000 tonnes by 1999.
The creation of the factory and the investment it symbolised was a great achievement at a time when the seafood industry’s main focus was hoki. Proud of the milestone, John made sure Henrietta and his children were on hand at Beatty Street to witness the official opening of the factory.
“The factory was a great achievement. We hadn’t seen anything like that in aquaculture, not for a country mile,” said long-term associate Rob Pooley.
“It was a quantum leap and we were already planning to reach 30,000.
“It was iconic, it was all new, in terms of processing, he and Sealord were pioneers.
“He was never afraid to travel around the world and get cutting edge technology from source to the wharf, to the freezer.
“He was always very good at bringing together the collective. The best possible people to get the best possible information.”
On his office wall was the slogan “Mussels will be the core species for Sealord.”
When new chief executive Phil Lough took his post in 1994, John sent him a letter saying he “Looks forward to showing him the mussel operation, the part of the Sealord business that will continue to grow.”
In 1989, the operation employed 10 staff. By 1999, the plant employed 310 permanent staff – swelling to 422 in peak season. His reputation among the staff gives a good indication of his personality.
Karen Bidlake was one of the originals.
“There were 10 of us working there when John came in as the new boss from Sealord. There was a degree of suspicion about him – but that soon changed ,” said Karen
“John began by learning all aspects of the operation. He came in at 3am to cook the paua because he wanted to learn the whole process.
“Of the 10 staff there when he started –six of us where still there 15-20 years later. John really encouraged and believed in us, enabling us to move into good positions.
“He was not only a colleague and work mate, but a real firm friend who we will miss dreadfully.”
John worked hard to inspire and support his staff.
“He had a quiet, encouraging and supportive way, His door was always open, there was never a silly question and you never heard a bad word about him.
“John had a huge passion and drive for what he was trying to achieve.
“He led us and encouraged us as individuals to reach our full potential.
Even more then a decade after leaving the company, John still looked out for his former staff.
“John emailed me a week before he went tramping, to remind me another colleague of ours was leaving after 30 years, just to make sure he had a farewell function – once again he was thinking of everyone else. He was just the nicest person.”
John’s genuine way with people also earned him the respect of the marine farmers.
“Part of his building blocks for developing such a successful business with Sealord, was the respect and acknowledgement that he gave to the farmers and colleagues that he knew were such an essential part of the industry – and he earned so much respect in return,” Rob said.
“Together we bought a lot of independent farmers to the table – at the time no one could put down a legal supply agreement, but he came up with a memorandum of commitment which, became a working document we used to secure raw material.
“Several farmers in committing to it, insisted on a clause that stated they’d supply Sealord for only as long as John Hannah was there.”
Having also established the industry’s first commercial hatchery and pioneered expansion into other farming regions, there’s no doubting that John laid the foundations for Sealord to become one of the sector’s major participants – and in effect contribute greatly to the overall growth of the sector.
But he also recognised the potential of a united sector and worked tirelessly for the betterment of the wider industry.
His desire to see the industry, his community, and New Zealand inc, flourish saw him serve on various industry bodies for over 15 years, including Chair of New Zealand Aquaculture Council from 1998-2003 and Chair of New Zealand Mussel Industry Council from 95-97.
He was an ardent supporter of the sector throughout the 1990s and lobbied for the aquaculture sector to have a united voice through a single stakeholder group.
Recognising the need for New Zealand farmers to take a united approach to the world he laid the groundwork for the future establishment of Aquaculture New Zealand when he led the creation of the Vision 2020 discussion paper – the first document to set the billion-dollar goal for the sector.
It highlighted the barriers for growth, the need for law reform and potential for new species. It was the first concerted effort to highlight the potential aquaculture offered New Zealand, and ultimately led to the creation of the New Zealand Aquaculture strategy and the formation of Aquaculture New Zealand.
“It was the founding charter, the beginning of the unification of the industry and, from that time on our various industries and species groups obtained a level of integrity that we’d never enjoyed before,” said Rob
“Slowly and gradually, people’s understanding of the industry and its potential for growth and contribution grew.
“And while it wasn’t without its issues, the overarching result was a period of maturation.
“And nobody, but nobody, put more time and effort into that strategy and objectives than John Hannah.”
Current Aquaculture New Zealand Chairman Peter Vitasovich, who knew John for over 20 years, said John’s contribution had a dramatic impact on the landscape of New Zealand’s marine farming industry.
“His efforts have had a profound effect on the growth and progress of this sector,” Peter said.
“John was a visionary – and his legacy is a united sector approach to sustainable growth.”
John was a thinking man. Long pauses often followed a posed question while he formulated his answer. Each night he would sit at the family table after dinner and plot out his following day’s work.
He was thorough in his planning and well-meaning in his endeavours and he was always among the first to recognise where the industry needed to go and plan how it was going to get there.
If you ever met with John, the chances are it was over a coffee. He had over 35 loyalty cards at the various cafes that he called his offices around Nelson, where he would organise meetings, manila folder in hand, ready to jot down any relevant ideas.
Even recently, the semi-retired Hannah would still craft his own submission on the Aquaculture law reforms and write letters to politicians in an effort to support the cause.
His ideas and energy were also an inspiration to the local Rotary community. His 20-plus-years of service was highlighted in 2009 when he received the organisation’s highest honour and was made a Paul Harris Fellow.
His passion for cricket took him to grounds around the world where he would deliver an individual brand of non-spin bowling. Dribblies he called them. And he delivered a few overs at a ‘golden oldies’ match in Melbourne last year, before catching up with his son Richard.
“As we shared some food and a couple of beers I thought he seemed pretty content with life,” Richard said.
“As dad himself would say, he has had a pretty good innings”
John died on the third day of a five day tramp from the head of the Cobb Valley to the Aorere Valley. A trip he’d planned for months.
In this case the cliché rings true – he died doing what he loved.
Such was John’s affinity with the outdoors, that even years after the family bach had been renovated to include an indoor toilet, he still preferred to use the outdoor longdrop – the loo with a view.
“We did lots of walking around the tracks,” said his eldest daughter Rachael.
“The bach was a place of peace, and Dad would never go by a piece of litter without picking it up – and woe betide any person who was foolish enough to litter in John’s presence.
“He was considerate and thoughtful, cautious and deliberate – but also was well known for his dry sense of humour, wit and sense of fun.”
Long-term friend and fellow tramper Richard Wells was with John when he died.
His words best sum up what most people thought of John.
“John was a fantastic guy,” Richard said in his eulogy.
“He had mana.
“He had dignity
“He had integrity.
“John, we’ll keep on tramping, but we’ll sure miss your great company, and your coffee.”