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Roger Beattie: The econoclast

When a business venture turned into a quick and painful disaster, Roger Beattie learned from the experience and now he’s launched a string of innovative eco-ventures. Amanda Cropp meets a very commercial conservationist

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Idealog November/December 2006, page 68. Photograph by David Baird

When a business venture turned into a quick and painful disaster, Roger Beattie learned from the experience and now he’s launched a string of innovative eco-ventures. Amanda Cropp meets a very commercial conservationist

On a chilly winter morning Christchurch businessman Roger Beattie stands beside a fenced enclosure on his Lansdowne Valley farm shaking a plastic container of dog biscuits and calling weka, weka, woooo. Soon there’s an odd noise, half-cluck and half-grunt, and a buff weka plods out of the long grass for a snack.

On a chilly winter morning Christchurch businessman Roger Beattie stands beside a fenced enclosure on his Lansdowne Valley farm shaking a plastic container of dog biscuits and calling weka, weka, woooo. Soon there’s an odd noise, half-cluck and half-grunt, and a buff weka plods out of the long grass for a snack.

This bird has come a long way for its dog biscuits. The once-common buff weka had been extinct on the mainland for 70 years but it thrives on the Chatham Islands. Beattie fought a long battle with the Department of Conservation to get the wekas here and they’re destined for a prime role in his latest eco-venture.

Beattie, a tall, thin figure in gumboots, blue corduroys, Icebreaker jumper and a broad-brimmed leather hat, has a penchant for ventures combining his passion for conservation with his entrepreneurial flair. Today, his exports of paua meat to Asia and branded paua pearls to Italy and the US are worth about $2 million a year. More wekas are on a second farm, safely ensconced in a 20-hectare reserve surrounded by a 2.2-kilometre, $100,000 predator-proof electric fence, and they’re likely to feature in a future eco-tourism business. “I don’t see a boundary between conservation and my farming operation,” says Beattie. “I see them very neatly dovetailing into one another.”

The Pitt Island wild sheep grazing in a neighbouring paddock are another Chathams import. Beattie’s flock of 3,000 is the largest in the country and he plans to market their meat as a gourmet product.

With wife Nicki he also owns Valere, a company selling kelp pepper seasoning to delis, supermarkets and health food shops. And a block of native forest near Wanganui purchased last year is earmarked for sustainable logging and eco-tourism.

If you’re looking for an example of someone profitably doing what he loves, Roger Beattie is your man.

Beattie’s entrepreneurial bent was fostered by early exposure to business. His father Doug patented a number of popular electric fence insulators and the Kaikoura-based family firm, Beattie Insulators, is still going strong after 47 years.

“I remember putting my first insulator on an electric fence when I was four,” he says. “If you’re immersed in [business] it becomes the norm, so I was familiar with all those things that go into an entrepreneurial business such as risk-taking, assessing value, quality control.”

On leaving school Beattie marketed insulators, worked on the family farm, ran his own hay baling business and went possum hunting. “So I had four income streams. I’ve always done lots of different things. Some of them I haven’t done well, but I’m getting better now at concentrating on lifting a business to the next level.”

His stint with the family firm didn’t last, however. “Dad wasn’t learning fast enough,” he chuckles. After a year at university studying economics, philosophy and political science he did a shearing course and then landed a shearing job on the Chatham Islands, which was to become his home for much of the next 17 years.

But his entrepreneurial streak soon landed him in trouble on the Chathams. He gave up the shearing for a stake in a farming partnership, using money borrowed from his father, but the venture turned sour after just eight months. Beattie was in a spot: he needed to make some serious money quickly to repay his father.

“It’s tough when your hopes and aspirations are dashed in such a short period of time and you’ve put your heart and soul into it,” he says. “It takes a while to regroup but I was a workaholic in a place where people who worked hard made big money.”

His salvation came from the sea: diving for paua was a lot more lucrative than shearing sheep. But the partnership failure was a salutary experience that had a lasting impact. “I find it easier to be an owner–operator and entrepreneur not working with other people. It showed me that you can fall out with a good friend and I haven’t wanted to do that since.

“I have a number of commercial arrangements with a number of people but mostly my business is owned by me. I can make decisions quickly if I need to or more slowly if I need to. I’m not under pressure from other part-owners to speed up or slow down.”

Beattie’s attitude to paua diving reflects a determination and attention to detail that has served him well. Wearing just a mask, snorkel, wetsuit and weight belt, he would dive every day, holding his breath for a minute or more in the cold, rough, sometimes shark-infested waters. He deliberately worked with good divers to study their techniques.

“I’d spend the first five minutes of the dive just following them seeing what they did. Through that process I developed what I considered to be the best gear, the best systems, the best boats and I trained my crew well. I still hold the record for the most paua caught in a single dive [65].

“My two great skills are identifying unidentified opportunities and then absolute detail—getting the detail right then training other people to do it. My failings are things like timing, organisation and people skills, doing the routine stuff, whereas I’m very good on the big picture. I get other people, either directly employed or on contract, to do those other things.”

At one stage Beattie owned 34 tonne of paua quota, the largest amount held by an individual. He gave up diving for paua and began farming them, designing 200-litre aqua barrels to house the shellfish at two of his five marine farms.

When a Stewart Island paua hatchery set up at a cost of $2.5 million was sold by the receivers, Beattie and four partners snapped it up for $377,000. He is now sole owner of the revamped facility and footed the bill for reseeding 200,000 paua back into the wild to improve stocks.

But paua are not easy creatures to farm. They eat up to half their body weight a week and getting permission to harvest seaweed to feed them has been hard. Algal bloom in Akaroa Harbour wiped out much of Beattie’s stock of small paua in 1996, and before paua are shifted from one farm to another they must be disease-tested at a cost of $2,500 per shipment. “Bureaucracy is killing the industry,” says Beattie. “There were 31 land-based paua farms. Now there are eight.”

But the shellfish are still a good little earner. Beattie’s paua meat (3,500 tonne annually) is canned in Australia for sale to Asian markets where it fetches $100 a kilo.

And the future for paua pearls is even brighter. Over the past 15 years Beattie has spent $12 million developing this side of his business, which goes back to a natural blister pearl he found while diving on Pitt Island. “I thought hell—that’s amazing, I bet that would make amazing jewellery.”

To artificially stimulate paua to create pearls a tiny plastic bead or die is inserted under the mantle. The paua reacts by secreting layers of nacre or mother-of-pearl to form a mabe (hemispherical) pearl.

Beattie first sought advice from Ralph Brown, who pioneered paua pearl culture in New Zealand. “But we developed our own technique. I had the sense that we were better to develop our own method, keep it secret the way the Japanese have, and then we wouldn’t have an issue with people coming along and saying we’d pinched their patent.”

His caution was well-founded. Another paua pearl company fought a five-year legal battle over intellectual property rights for a plastic die. After the parties had slugged it out in court, Beattie again got himself a bargain. “I bought a die for $5,000 that they had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting over in court.”

I had the sense that we were better to develop our own method, keep it secret the way the Japanese have, and then we wouldn’t have an issue with people coming along and saying we’d pinched their patent.

Paua pearls come in lustrous colours ranging from violet and blue/green to green/gold/pink. Beattie’s biggest to date is an 18-millimetre beauty dubbed Blue Moon that retailed for US$20,000 when set in a piece of jewellery. Unmounted pearls typically sell for $200 to $3,000.

Because paua pearls are so different Beattie didn’t market anything until the branding was right. His top-quality pearls sell under the Eyris brand, a name carefully chosen to make a connection between what’s unique and beautiful about the human eye and the unique qualities of Haliotis iris, the scientific name for paua. Lower-grade pearls sell under the Pacific Blue brand.

Although Beattie owns the Blue Pearl Centre at Akaroa which he leases to a jeweller, and has a close relationship with a blue pearl gallery in Christchurch, he’s very clear about his business focus. “We see ourselves as a niche high-end brand. We are blue pearl farmers, processors and marketers. We don’t manufacture, design or retail jewellery so we don’t compete with any of our customers.”

After four years of negotiation Beattie has signed a deal to supply a small exclusive Italian jeweller and his pearls were also a hit at the Las Vegas jewellery show earlier this year, with one company taking orders for $1 million worth of Eyris Pearl jewellery.

A trial selling blue pearl jewellery on the Holland America cruise line went so well that the line wants the jewellery on all its 93 ships, but Beattie says they simply can’t meet the demand. “We may supply one or two ships this year, and ten to 20 next year.”

With blue pearl exports this year expected to reach $1.1 million, Beattie is now turning his attention to his flock of Pitt Island sheep, a breed he first came across when he was contracted to cull wild sheep on Pitt in the 1970s.

The sheep are descended from merinos taken to the Chathams in 1841 and Beattie noticed how tough they were, surviving on poor pasture, with a low lamb mortality rate and no problems with foot rot or fly strike. “They had all the survivability traits we have bred out of domestic sheep and the meat tasted great. It’s how meat used to taste, not strong like wild venison or boar, but not bland like chicken.”

Meat is just one potential income stream from the flock. The fleece is very greasy and Beattie is talking with a large lanolin retailer keen to buy organic lanolin.

He’s even targeting lifestyle block owners wanting low-maintenance, four-legged lawnmowers. “They’re the easiest-care sheep. They don’t need shearing because the wool grows to a certain length and then stops or they shed some of it. They live a long time and aren’t troubled by internal or external parasites so they don’t need drenching or dipping.”

Beattie also co-owns a flock of experimental Bohepe sheep (Bo is a term of affection on the Chathams and Hepe is the Maori word for sheep). It’s a mix of wild sheep, merino and several other breeds and the aim is to produce a fine wool sheep with a short tail and a bare bottom and belly.

If successful it could mean an end to mulesing, the controversial practice of cutting wrinkly skin off around the backsides of merinos to prevent fly strike. Mulesing is still common in Australia and a campaign by animal rights activists in 2004 led a major US retailer to ban garments made with Australian merino wool.

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Roger Beattie is bringing the buff weka back to Canterbury, exporting paua pearls to Asia, planning a seaweed empire and breeding healthier, better–tasting sheep

AgResearch, New Zealand’s largest Crown Research Institute, spent seven years researching the bare-bummed fine wool sheep, but without industry funding to continue the project, the flock was destined for the freezing works until Beattie heard about them. He bought the sheep and has since sold half the flock to the scientist who did the original research and is continuing the project in a private capacity.

It’s not the first time Beattie has dug into his own pocket for research. He invested $190,000 in a study to prove the sustainability of harvesting giant kelp for paua feed and kelp pepper production. “We proved that it’s the equivalent of cutting your lawn—it grows back again. It will grow over a foot a week.”

The kelp pepper arm of the Beattie businesses is run by Roger’s wife Nicki. When the family held beach barbecues beside their Akaroa Harbour marine farm, she’d throw pieces of kelp on the rocks to dry and they’d flake it onto their food. Friends who tried the condiment, which is high in iodine and other nutrients, kept saying they should sell it. About five years ago Nicki quit working as a GP to market the product under the name Valere (Latin for good health).

The kelp is dried, then ground and sold in shakers but a move into exporting is being hampered by problems getting guaranteed supplies of kelp. The Beatties took the Ministry of Fisheries to the High Court over difficulties getting a permit to harvest giant kelp. Beattie claims the ministry hasn’t complied with a signed court agreement and says the case is headed back for court.

He’s also fighting for the right to harvest undaria, a fast-growing seaweed thought to have entered New Zealand waters in ballast from foreign ships and currently classed as a noxious weed. “It’s nuts,” says Beattie. “It’s like classifying pine trees or rye grass as noxious weeds.”

The Department of Conservation spent millions trying to eradicate undaria from Stewart Island waters before admitting defeat and Beattie says we should instead be commercially harvesting the invader which is used in Asian dishes such as miso soup. “We have the longest growing season for undaria in the world and the cleanest water. There’s a massive market for it in Japan.”

This is a man who can’t abide busybody bureaucrats. He firmly believes there is nothing wrong with applying a commercial model to conservation as he plans to do by sustainably logging rimu, rewarewa and tawa from his 89-hectare native forest near Wanganui.

Money from the trees will pay for a conservation manager to do predator control in native bush areas on all the family properties. “We’ll be selling the timber and branding it in such a way that somebody buying timber for a kitchen will know that for every ten trees cut down there will be more planted in their place.”

Beattie will have no compunction about charging visitors a fee to enter his forest once the eco-tourism side of the business gets going. “We need to convince people that if they’re prepared to pay $200 to go out for a meal in the evening, they should be prepared to spend the same amount of money having a guided tour of an amazing bush block. We need to get away from the idea that conservation is too precious to put a dollar value on.”

This isn’t a selfish position, he says—making a profit from his conservation interests will ensure the work continues after he’s gone. “If it is profitable it will be more sustainable, it will have a life after me. If it’s driven entirely by passion, when the passion goes, it won’t survive.”

Beattie admits his capacity for thinking up new ideas far outstrips his ability to physically do all the work required. “I’m frustrated, I’d like all these projects to be cranking at once, but I realise I can’t do them all at once.”

And new projects just keep popping up. Like the decision to fence a 20-hectare block for 100 Enderby Island rabbits. The species was originally introduced to the subantarctic island in 1865 as a food source for shipwrecked sailors and when DOC carried out an eradication programme in 1992 the Rare Breeds Conservation Society managed to save about 50 of the large handsome grey rabbits.

Beattie reckons the rabbits’ low reproduction rate on the mainland (there are now 180) is due to lack of space, so he’ll make sure they get plenty of that. Of course, there’s a commercial angle to his endeavours: should the Enderby bunnies really begin to breed like rabbits he’s sure they’ll make cute pets, and there might be a market for their meat and fur.

But making a buck is not Beattie’s main motivation. “I’m driven by projects, turning them from basket case to success. Money is just a way of keeping score and a way of doing more projects.”

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