Backing shows faith in young manager

17:00, Jul 10 2013
Marilyn and Jim Law have financed Lisa and Kurt Portas, with Beauden, 4 1/2 months, into a 40 per cent share of a new farm.
IN PARTNERSHIP: Marilyn and Jim Law have financed Lisa and Kurt Portas, with Beauden, 4 1/2 months, into a 40 per cent share of a new farm.

A helping hand from their employers has set a young South Wairarapa couple on a farming career. Jon Morgan reports.

Kurt Portas starts to explain he's not the brightest of scholars, but Jim Law won't let him finish.

"Kurt's belittling himself unnecessarily. We see him as a bright guy," the Mobil Oil executive turned farm owner says.

Jim and his wife, Marilyn, are backing that judgment with a sizeable investment in 26-year-old Kurt, his wife, Lisa, and their 4 -month-old son, Beauden.

The Laws have financed the Portas into a 40 per cent share in a 300-hectare sheep and beef farm.

They won't say publicly how much it is worth, but Kurt's reaction is revealing.


"I'm blown away. I feel like I've won Lotto," he says.

He came to the Laws' farming business in Pirinoa in South Wairarapa as a 22-year-old stock manager in 2008.

His farming experience was limited to two years on a big sheep station at Gore after graduating from Smedley training farm, close to his home in Central Hawke's Bay, but he impressed the Laws so much that, within a year, he was offered the job of overall manager of the farming operation on more than 1000 hectares with 9000 stock units.

"I asked for a couple of days to think about it," Kurt says. "It was quite humbling, to be thought good enough to be in charge of a multimillion [dollar] enterprise.

"I was confident I had the practical side sorted. It was just the management, the planning and the staff, and I've had to learn that as I go."

The Laws have made sure Kurt has good advice. Donald Cooper, a Waipawa farmer, became a mentor, visiting the farm monthly for the first six months and now he visits twice a year. Rather than give direct instructions, his role is as a sounding board for Kurt and to stimulate his thinking.

Another adviser is Wairarapa farm consultant Phil Guscott.

Kurt was also encouraged to study for a Lincoln University agriculture diploma, which he is doing at Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre in Masterton.

Subjects covered so far have been pasture and crops, soil biology and plant and animal health, and this year he is studying management and computers.

Jim, a past chairman of Taratahi, says the joint venture between the two institutions opens up the diploma to young rural managers while allowing them to keep working.

Kurt admits the last three years have been a bit hectic, but says the job has "worked out not too bad so far". For the Laws, that's an understatement. The business is approaching the top 10 per cent of Wairarapa sheep and beef farms in stock performance and gross farm income, an achievement they say is largely a result of Kurt's management.

The two couples have also won three prizes in this year's regional Ballance farm environment awards, and at the recent regional Primary Industry Training Organisation awards, Kurt was named best trainer, while staff member Jakeb Herron was the best new-to-farming trainee.

The farm is in three blocks within 10 minutes of each other. The biggest, Palliser Ridge, which has been gradually assembled over several years, is still growing, with the latest 300ha joint-ownership purchase part of that.

The country varies from fertile flats to windswept hills on the stormy south coast. The sheep-to-cattle ratio is 70:30, with 3000 ewes and 1000 hoggets producing 5500 lambs, all finished on the farm. Sharefarming and trading provide another 2500 lambs.

Jim spent 30 years working for Mobil, starting in finance and moving into management.

He worked in Africa, the Middle East, the United States and London, and ended up running the international marketing division in Washington before retiring at 52 in 1999.

He and Marilyn had already bought a small finishing block at Pirinoa and decided to fulfil Jim's youthful ambition of being a farmer. Their aim is to reach 15,000 stock units - the latest purchase takes them to close to 12,000 - to be "comfortably sustainable".

Judges in the farm environment awards described a "park-like feel" to the properties, where native bush is regenerating in gullies and beside streams, supplemented by plantings. Numerous gradient-controlled dams have created a string of wetlands, a "truly commendable accomplishment", the judges said.

Jim admits his farming knowledge is "just enough to be dangerous". Interests overseas, including two children and two grandchildren, mean he and Marilyn spend up to four months of the year away and Kurt is "fully in charge", with the help of two full-time staff and contractors.

They have a mission statement to employ an "empowered and motivated" workforce and Jim says staff education and development are a priority. "It goes back to what I saw in Africa - good people denied educational opportunities. It is hugely inefficient for a country if it doesn't utilise its young people."

He and Marilyn also fund scholarships for post-graduate ecological science students at Victoria University. As a young accountant at Mobil, he benefited from a policy to promote emerging talent.

"Mobil was willing to give them as much authority as they could risk. The key question was, ‘Has this person got the smarts?' "

Now he is following a similar policy. "Kurt may not have come here with a Lincoln diploma but he has the smarts."

He is innovative, Jim says. An example is Kurt's creation of lamb-finishing pastures. In one drill, he plants plantain and rape. The rape lasts for summer and the plantain through the winter. In spring, chicory and clover are broadcast on to the former rape-plantain fields from the same pass as maintenance fertiliser, ensuring no time lag for new pasture.

Kurt has also shown he is not afraid of hard work. "Then there is the softer issue: What is this person like as a human being, his relationship to other people, his contribution to the community? All of that seems to be in place."

Jim says the offer of an equity partnership came up because he and Marilyn wanted to keep Kurt as their manager. "Our view was if we financed Kurt and Lisa into a farm, they would be likely to stay here for a longer period of time than they might have done."

Kurt says he is "honoured to be here".

Lisa, who was a Briscoes manager before having Beauden, says, "It is nice to have that security. We know we will be here for a long time, in a strong community of traditional family farms with good community-minded people."

The couple are stalwarts of the local rugby club, Tuhirangi, with Kurt the team manager and Lisa the secretary.

Kurt says the onus is now on him to be worthy of the Laws' faith in him, but Jim says he only has to produce his normal performance. "Kurt's got his diploma studies, his new baby, new staff, new land to bring in to the operation - there's so much stuff to do.

"When he gets his head above it I'll think of other opportunities to extend him, such as a role on the board of Taratahi. He'd be a great example for the students."