A man of many talents

Ollie (right) at the Brian Perry Civil themed dinner (Steampunk masquerade) at the CCNZ conference in Christchurch last month, with Paul Prendergast from Z Energy. 

Never one to let an opportunity pass him by, Ollie Turner’s working life has evolved through a collection of chance meetings, and the canny ability to spot a good deal. Curiously, a surprising number of these pivotal moments have happened in a pub, he tells Mary Searle Bell.

Ollie is a prime example of someone who, above all else, has a positive, can-do attitude. Sociable, good with machines, and with the ability to spot an opportunity, his career has comprised a collection of various jobs.

“I’m not sure I’d call it a career, but my working life has been a number of somehow connected but random opportunities and experiences.”

He describes his high schooling as “forgettable”.

“I was put in the agriculture stream, which was basically cabbage level. No science or maths, which limited career options.”

His career path began, instead, when he took a ride in a truck.

“Mossburn Transport bought an 8×4 Foden – it was considered huge at the time – and I went for a ride in it and decided, ‘I wanted to drive something like this’. So as soon as I turned 18, I got my HT license and started driving trucks in Roxburgh in the summer seasons.”

In the winter off seasons, he took construction jobs and learned to operate machines, including a D8 dozer and scoop and motorscrapers. At the end of a season, Ray Kerse from Fulton Hogan offered young Ollie a job in his quarry.

“He was an amazing boss, who believed the more he trained his team in operating the plant the more effective we would be.

“After some months Ray told me to be at the Dunedin office at 10am on a Saturday morning. He said this was standard practice when you were sacked and how you collected your final pay. I was in trepidation, not knowing what I had done wrong.

“Turned out, John Fulton and Bill Auld wanted to talk to me about my aspirations and moving to Dunedin.”

After a season in a sealing gang and time reconstructing the Lindis Pass, Ollie moved on to an office role in Fulton Hogan’s transport office and took some accountancy papers, part time, at university. And while attending lectures at random times was disruptive for both parties, it worked, and Ollie got good results in his exams.

“I left Fulton Hogan with the intention of returning after I graduated but that never eventuated. I had the best of intentions, but other opportunities came along.”

Later, while working in an accountancy practice, Goughs manager Alan Ketchen offered Ollie a job – with time off for lectures – selling Caterpillar gear in Otago and Southland.

“The full use of a near-new Mark IV Zephyr sealed the deal.”

Ollie then married Brenda, and took his new wife with him to Arizona on a student exchange offered by the US government to study ‘Costing systems in earthmoving’.

“I was supposed to work for a contractor but, quite unexpectedly, met someone in a bar who was from the Caterpillar Proving Grounds near Phoenix. He offered me a position operating prototypes in their security area. I was in heaven.

“All was great until the Vietnam War ended and Nixon booted out all aliens who held jobs that a returning veteran could do.”

Returning to New Zealand, along with their first child, the family moved to Twizel and Ollie took a job operating machinery, some of which he had sold, until the next opportunity presented itself.

“Cliff Bennetts, a founder of Northern Southland Transport, told me, ‘You should do something with your life – there’s no future in working for wages. There is a run-down transport business at Geraldine which you should buy.’

“With lots of advice from Cliff and Bill Auld, we borrowed to the limit and were suddenly at the sharp end of business. That had its scary moments!”

At that time, Ollie says, transport was constrained by the 40 mile road limit, with freight needing to travel longer distances required to go by rail. A couple of years later, the limit was raised to 150 kilometres and road transport flourished.

“Our mentors strongly advised replacing the old gear, which we did, and profits increased dramatically. 

“We were amongst pioneers in deer transport and this niche helped greatly.”

An unexpected offer to buy the business saw Ollie and his family move on to Arrowtown where they purchased a long-established transport business, working in it for a few years before someone else offered to buy that one from them.

Ollie’s next opportunity involved a complete change in vocation.

“At that time, breweries were flogging off large numbers of hotels at very cheap prices. We bought the Royal Mail Hotel in Lumsden. My idea was to tidy it up, put a manager in, and continue to live in Arrowtown. But I got over-ruled by ‘The Boss’ and we shifted in as a family. 

“Being ‘mine host’ requires a lot of different skills, but I enjoyed it. There was good demand for a clean room and good tucker, and the bar did well.  

“One lunchtime a couple of ‘suits’ walked into the bar. They looked like undertakers but turned out to be receivers for a bus company looking at the four school buses now in their care. They had a contractual obligation to ensure school transport services were not interrupted. 

“Long story short, by 3pm, ‘Ollies Trolleys’ was formed and took over the contracts.

“It was a good little operation which required minimal input for the next few years.” 

After four years in the hotel, they received an offer for it, and the family headed to Dunedin, where Ollie enrolled in the MBA programme at Otago University. After graduating, the National Party asked him to stand in the Dunedin West Electorate. 

“We knew we were unlikely to beat Dr Clive Matthewson but it was a good experience.”

Ollie then bought a deer farm near Timaru while undertaking a five-year contract with Timaru District Council to complete a 25-year strategic plan and set up an economic development unit. 

Soon after completing the contract, he got a call from the late John McMillan at Shell asking him to help him with a project. 

“He wasn’t fazed that it had been nearly 20 years since I was involved with bitumen. We agreed on terms, and so on, and I was to commence in three weeks. 

“Two weeks later I got a call from Shell saying John had suddenly retired due to health issues, ‘but don’t worry there will still be a role for you on no lesser terms’.”  

The revised role saw Ollie looking after Fulton Hogan, Hirequip, Macraes, Isaacs, Holcim, and other key accounts for Shell, and led to him becoming Shell’s South Island commercial manager, a role he held until he retired, aged 60.

“I was enjoying restoring an old truck we had operated and relaxing between Christchurch and our Arrowtown property, when the then-Contractors’ Federation CEO, Richard Michael, asked if I would do a couple of days a week helping its members and branches. That was 13-plus years ago.

“It has been a pleasure trying to help members sort issues. Few smaller businesses have a mentor nor seek advice from a professional before entering contracts. 

“I have always relied on mentors to help steer me from hazards.

“Few things in my career have been planned; random things just happened and I seized opportunities as they arose. However people like Cliff Bennetts, Ray Kerse, Bill Auld, and John Fulton played an important part in steering me in some sort of upward trajectory. 

“I have also been lucky Brenda has put up with me trying new directions.

“But now it is time to hang up my boots for good.”

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