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How Peri Drysdale risked it all to build Untouched World

Peri Drysdale risked her life savings on high-tech—and beat the machine

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Photograph by Stacy Squires/The Press

Peri Drysdale is one of the few New Zealand nurses to create a multimillion-dollar export company—Untouched World—and probably one of the few New Zealand business people to enlist Bill Clinton into her cause (take that silly APEC jacket off, pose and smile … cheers Billy!) How does she do it? And what’s next?

Let’s start with the basics. How did you get Bill Clinton to get his kit off?

He actually had the Untouched World jumper on under his APEC jacket at the gala dinner. I was really conscious that my garment was underneath somebody else’s and I wanted to make sure that the world got to see it.

The Peruvian Government 2IC said Fujimori, the then president of Peru, wanted to talk with me. So we went all the way up the red carpet to the front of the room. After talking to Fujimori I went back to the table and my new friend said, “Have you met Bill Clinton yet?” And so I had this split-second decision—do I go all the way back up that red carpet again?

I did and he jumped to his feet. And that was when I asked him to take his jacket off, or make sure he got a photograph of himself in my shirt.

The next day I watched all of the leaders arrive at the Auckland Museum with their jackets done up. They’d been told to wear them open so they could see my shirt underneath, but it was a horrible day. So my heart had gotten really low by the time Bill arrived, as he was the last one to get there. And then he got out of the car with it over his shoulder. I was just thrilled to bits.

This swimming upstream thing is your style, isn’t it? Weren’t you one of the world’s first owners of a computer-controlled knitting machine?

We started in 1981 with ten knitters, and by 1984 we had 500. We couldn’t keep up with production so we ended up importing a new generation computerised machine off the production line—the very first one, with ‘number 1’ on the chassis. When the thing arrived, my husband Alex and I thought we’d have a read of the manual before the engineer came to install it. Couldn’t find the manual in the crate, so we rang up the engineer and he didn’t have it. He rang Japan and they said they hadn’t written one yet. So that was a good start.

You’d shelled out quite a bit of money for this machine, right?

We’d borrowed a quarter of a million dollars, mortgaged against our house—27 percent interest. We were in it up to here. There wasn’t any going back. But when the machine arrived, the electronics didn’t work. It was the first time they’d actually used a computer program of that particular type, running on yellow binary code tape. So I’d be on the phone to Japan and they’d say okay, go into page 26 of the control tape, find character 16 and cover up bit 1, and punch out …

Disaster! How did you get through?

We very nearly didn’t get through, actually. We pleaded with them to take the machine back but they wouldn’t. We had no choice but to carry on or we would have lost everything. So we just pushed everything we could into it, worked it round the clock. Fortunately, my husband’s quite clever and he wired it up so that we could run it through the night and if it ran out of yarn or something it would ring us up. But there was a period there where he would sleep in the bean bag under the machine, wake up when he needed to fix it, and come home for breakfast.

Eventually, after someone knitted the wrong batch, I thought we don’t have the resources to cover this. So I called the accountant and said I think it’s time to call it a day. He came in and said no, no, no, it’s all too good to throw away—and within 24 hours we’d restructured and started to work our way out.

What do you attribute that kind of result to—is there a South Island pioneering spirit?

You don’t want to lose your house and everything that you own, do you? So there’s a fair amount of drive to avoid that happening.

And we could sell everything we could get off that machine. There was no problem with the market, there was no problem with the margins. And we got the machine to work. The Japanese were really good in the end. They gave us a design system that gave us an advantage. We cold-produced coarse wool jumpers on a knitting machine, something no one else was doing.

How big is your business now?

We employ about 140 staff and export to many countries. Actually, we started the business to export. We made our first trip in 1983 and our first exports to Japan and Canada in 1988, and then in 1990 into Europe. So you can find one of our brands, Snowy Peak, Merino Mink and Untouched World, in most places.

Manufacturing in China?

We’re still manufacturing about 95 percent of what we do in New Zealand. In fact, we’re pulling some of our manufacturing back from China. It doesn’t matter what we tell our European customers about how brilliant these companies in China are, they don’t trust them.

You’re also innovating in fabric, like Merino Mink, a possum-merino combination.

Yes. It’s a fantastic fibre. What’s really special about this is that it’s not just soft and light, but it performs really well. Most of the luxury fibres are beautiful to wear, but as you’re walking out of the shop having paid a lot of money for them the assistant will be calling after you: “Look after it!” We plead with our customers not to look after it. Just use it.

We spent four years working with the possum fibre. Most of that work was done in Japan with a technologist at Mitsubishi Woollen Mills. We launched Merino Mink in 1996 having done what we hoped was enough R&D with this wild animal. I got a PhD in possum; I could be called Peri Possum.

And now you’re increasingly turning to philanthropy. Tell us about the Untouched World Charitable Trust, which aims to ‘lift the awareness of sustainability with young people and give them profound leadership tools’—by dropping them off on a deserted island. How does that work?

We take 14 children from different high schools up to Picton, and put them on a boat to Blumine Island. Then they’ve got to get off that boat in the rocky sea into a rubber duckie boat, because there’s no jetty. They’ve also got to get everything they need—scientific gear, Apple computers, food, packs, clothing, tents—onto the island, because there’s only a compost toilet and tap there. That’s a good start.

They go on Sunday and for two days we teach them what needs to be done, and how to do it. Then on Tuesday it’s theirs—completely student-led. The energy’s really high when they go in, because it’s exciting and they’re really interested in what they’re doing. And then once we hand over to them the energy goes up another level.

You can’t get them to bed at night because they’re busy working out what they’re going to do the next day, and who’s going to do what. But still they’re up first thing. That’s the really good, interesting thing around business: when you’re passionate about what you’re doing, that energy just comes.

And that’s what we want to do with these children; teach them that actually what they think is their personal barrier, isn’t. There’s a whole lot more there after that. That’s what led us to be recognised by the United Nations; we’ve got the royal United Nations logo on our garments now.

And what about your own two children? How have you managed to successfully grow both an export company and a family?

I made a choice that until Emily was 16 it was family first. If the business needed me and the family needed me, there was no question it was family. And then when Emily went off to university it was business. I just went full-on into the business.

I remember having a chat with the children when they were in their early teens. I said you know I used to feel so guilty that you didn’t have the smell of hot cookies coming out of the oven when you came home from school. And Tim said to me, “Don’t worry Mum, just bring home the bacon.”

How does the future look for your business? And New Zealand?

We’re just starting really. There is so much growth potential it’s just open-ended. Obviously it’s accelerated incredibly over the past three years.

And in terms of New Zealand, I just think we’ve just got this fantastic opportunity to brand ourselves, to have a country brand that says best in environmental, social and cultural practice. And that would give everything we do, what you’re doing, what I’m doing, what everyone in this country is doing, a fantastic little margin in the international arena.

New Zealand could be a premium sustainability brand—and not just in a commercial sense, but because it would make it just such a fantastic place to live.