It’s a people business

Profile: John Perrin was a Lincoln graduate who saw an opportunity to create a consultancy profession to help Rotorua Maori Trusts diversify.

John Perrin: ‘I worked alongside some fantastic farm managers who embraced the changes.’

It was the 1980s and times were tough for sheep and beef farmers. John Perrin was a Lincoln graduate who saw an opportunity to create a consultancy profession to help Rotorua Maori Trusts diversify their land into dairy and grow their economic returns. Forty years later, farm consultants are a common source of expertise for farmers to lean on. Sheryl Haitana reports.

Working alongside Maori iwi to convert land to dairy in the 1980s and 90s and help them grow their businesses was the building blocks of John Perrin’s consultancy. They grew together, John’s consultancy business and the Maori agribusiness clients he advised along the way.

Being a ‘private farm consultant’ was a somewhat new role at the time, but when Ngāti Whakaue advertised for a farm supervisor John quickly saw the potential for picking up more advisory roles in farming and he formed the Rotorua-based agribusiness consulting firm, Perrin Ag. With a diploma in valuation and farm management from Lincoln University in his pocket, he had started his career in the Lands and Survey Department in Christchurch, then took over the supervision of farms with the department in Rotorua and spent five years in land development, subdividing large farms and settling farmers under the Government’s land settlement programme.

John always had a desire to run his own business and when the opportunity arose with Ngāti Whakaue he took the leap.

“At the time I took the punt and quite a drop in income. I then got involved with more Maori trusts and incorporations and we grew together really. I have a lot to be grateful for in getting started in Maori agribusiness, it’s been a pretty rewarding exercise.

“I have a fair bit of pride with how those Maori farms have changed and developed over time, that was pretty satisfying. And to see where they have got to now and see the expertise they have.”

Consultancy for Maori trusts and incorporations was initially 100% of his business.

It was the 1980s and production and profit opportunities were poor for sheep and beef properties. Everyone was looking around at other opportunities to improve production.

“It became apparent we should be looking at dairy and we did some feasibility studies. Ngati Whakaue was the first one to go along with the proposal,” John says.

Over the next 10 years John worked with iwi to consider the right contour land to convert to dairy or looking for opportunities to buy other land to grow their portfolios.

“There were quite a few drivers, but mostly to diversify away from traditional sheep and beef.

“The other big driver was the shares in the dairy company, the price started to increase. So there was a bit of a race, urgency to get some of these conversions done to try and reduce the capital needed.”

John was involved in drawing up the boundaries for farms and assessing the economic viability of dairy farm conversions. He did the feasibility studies and modelling to show how dairy might work. He then got his boots dirty on the farm project managing the actual conversions, from fencing to setting up water supply and building cowsheds.

One of the challenges of the job, having done a feasibility study, was being there to see the capital budgeted for was enough to implement the changes and hopefully see the returns, he says.

“It was an interesting time because you had done the desktop exercise, but then you had to implement the plan and deliver on those figures.

“I worked alongside some fantastic farm managers who embraced the changes. You can’t get anywhere without the right people. It’s all a people business really.”

The Maori Trusts and Incorporation consultancy now makes up about 30% of the business, with the balance made up from other corporations, family farms, and collaborating with government and primary sector organisations on some of the largest rural projects in the country.

It’s important for agri professionals to be working alongside the officials bringing in rules and regulations so they can be a voice to explain what happens on farms and the real consequences of those changes, John says.

With all the changes coming in, farmers have so much on their plate and bringing in external expertise is becoming essential.

“There are so many issues farmers have to deal with, no one farmer can have all the expertise these days. I think they’re going to need more and more assistance.”

Farm businesses must tackle multiple levels of complexity, from financial targets, to environmental compliance.

“Understanding the whole farm system is more important than ever, he says. Once upon a time the only consideration was what was the best farm system for the land.”

John stepped away from consultancy a few years ago and now sits on the Perrin Ag board as chair. He is proud of the way the business itself has changed and developed over the years and of the calibre of people they’ve employed.

“We’ve been really particular about getting really good people. I’m proud to still have my name associated with it. It’s certainly not been all my doing, we’ve had some amazing people come in and keep driving it forward. Our managing director Lee Matheson and his senior team are doing a fantastic job.”

Perrin Ag consultants are there for farmers to help navigate all of those things and to work out what the best result is for them and their families, and the same goes for corporates. The rate of change and the complexity of requirements farmers are facing is going to see a move away from traditional family farms handed down through generations, John believes.

“Individual family farm ownership might remain, but they will become bigger farms and possibly run externally by agribusiness specialists, providing the farm supervision and the skills required,” he says.

“We have always tried to look ahead and help farmers be proactive about protecting their farm businesses. The raft of changes coming at farmers now is hugely challenging.

“We understand the big picture and the technical nature of farming, but we also have dirt on our boots. That’s hugely valuable in today’s farming environment.”

John believes there will be greater collaboration between New Zealand primary industry sectors from dairying to sheep and beef. Likewise, farm portfolios will continue to diversify, he believes.

“Once upon a time all we were worried about was per-hectare production. Now we must have a deeper understanding of what’s happening onfarm and monitor the performance of every single animal in order to meet changing customer demands.”