Mussel farming family moves with times

20:31, Aug 18 2014

Simon Pooley and the Greenshell mussel industry have grown up together.

In the early '80s, Simon would toddle around the family launch while dad, Rob Pooley, crafted a living out of an industry still in its infancy.

Over 30 years later, Simon is the captain in charge of all on-water duties of the family's eight farms. And after a stint in a long lining venture in Papua New Guinea and running dirt bike tours in Morocco, working in the mussel industry out of Elaine Bay in the Marlborough Sounds feels more like home than just a job for Simon.

"Mussels is what our family does,"Simon said.

"My earliest memories are of being on boats working weekends and school holidays out on the water, working with a fishing rod beside me.

"I've been out on the farms since I was a little boy.

"It's important to know where your roots are. You can travel as far away as you like, but mine are in Elaine Bay, in the mussel industry. It's home, always will be."

With that sense of belonging, comes a sense of purpose.

"I love the industry," Simon said.

"I'm very proud of what we do.

"When Dad set up Elaine Bay Aquaculture (EBA) his vision was to be the best on the water, and we carry that through. That hasn't changed.

"We may be small, but what we do, we do it well, to the best of our ability."

For Rob, it's a case of back to the future.

"Simon has that youthful exuberance that we all had 30 years ago. That tireless energy of when everyone was led by blind passion and hope," Rob said.

"It's a pleasure to have him in the business because he brings such a high level of passion, energy and excellence."

It's also greatly satisfying to see his son carry on the family business.

"It's rather unique. It's the call of the Sounds versus the call of the rest of the world. He was raised in the Sounds, educated in the Sounds and started working in the Sounds – he can claim a life time's involvement in the industry," Rob said.

"It's a generation on. I'm in a privileged position and it makes me immensely proud to have a son so knowledgeable and experienced. It's a real credit to him."

Since Simon took over the on-water management duties in 2011, the Pooleys have begun reviewing their business model.

"We realise that to have a future in the industry, we need to move higher up the value chain," Simon said.

"We put a lot of effort into this but can't for the life of us see why it's regarded as a commodity and why it's such a low value product.

"But we've been doing this for 30 years and we think we're pretty good at it – if anybody can make a dollar it's us – but if we can't, at least we can look back and say we tried hard.

"Since I've come back full time, we've been focused on taking control of each level of farming, from catching spat through to sending product through to the factory.

"That's been our first priority and we've done that. We're not relying on anybody else to farm our mussels. We've already seen changes in our business.

"And being able to place our own product in the market would be the ultimate – that's our final goal. To have full control from catching right through to consumption.

"It almost feels like a dream."

It's a vision that Rob shares.

"Absolutely you've got to have faith – otherwise you shouldn't be in business," Rob said.

"I've never lost faith in the industry and I've always had a devout passion for what we can deliver.

"Long term, if we are to survive in the industry then we have to be able to differentiate ourselves.

"If we keep doing what we've always done then we're going to go backwards.

"We've got a beautiful product, it's just a matter of handling it and presenting it in a more desirable format."

It's a goal they work towards as a team.

"We're like two good friends working together," Simon said.

"We've got different spheres of responsibility.

"Dad has lots of good ideas, and I interpret those ideas and put them into action.

"He handles more of the upper level of management. He's very good at facilitating and negotiating. He's an ideas man. He knows everybody in the industry and he's good at bringing people together.

"His favourite saying is 'none of us is as good as all of us' and he still quotes it regularly. He has a real team philosophy and tries to get the best outcome for all."

But who's the boss?

"Simon's the boss of his bit and I'm the boss of my bit – but I can't wait for him to take over my bit," Rob said.

"I'd be quite happy to pull back but it's just a question of what's practical."

But as with everything he already has, Simon will have to earn the right to take over.

"I feel like I've been given some incredible opportunities. But I've never been given anything other than opportunities. Everything I've got, I've worked for. And the best way to honour those opportunities is to take them and work hard for them.

"But I do feel grateful for what Dad has given me and I feel like what I'm working towards will give something back to him."

While Simon looks forward to the day when he will take over all aspects of the business, and be able to look after his old man, at the moment he's just happy to be home. Home in the industry he grew up with. And home, raising his own family, along with wife Gabrielle, in the house he grew up in.

"The greatest reward for me is being home, having a beautiful family and that sense of family, and working in the business with Dad," he said.