Dream mushrooms into $3m venture

CALEB HARRIS
Last updated 05:00 01/09/2014
Clive Thompson, owner of Carterton’s Parkvale Mushrooms
CALEB HARRIS

BROWN BEAUTIES: Clive Thompson, owner of Carterton’s Parkvale Mushrooms, says a lifetime dedicated to mushrooms began when a picture of them ‘‘intrigued his imagination’’ as a teenager.

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Nearly half a century ago a power-board inspector gave up a prestigious job, a fat pension and even his home to back his teenage son's business dream. Now his boy's idea, which began in a hole in a Featherston backyard, has mushroomed into a $3 million enterprise with 38 staff.

Clive Thompson, owner of Carterton's Parkvale Mushrooms, sums up his parents' sacrifices with a typical, smiling understatement: "I think they didn't regret it."

Thompson has lived and breathed mushrooms since, as a lad, he saw a picture in a book of them growing on a shelf. "It just intrigued my imagination." He left Greytown's Kuranui College, ripped out his parents' fruit trees, dug a cellar, roofed it and began selling mushrooms. A self-taught horticulturist, he'd always been good with figures and cash books.

His father, then aged 50, sensed potential, gave up his job and the two became partners, taking out a loan to get started. Thompson senior eventually sold the family home to raise further capital. Thompson admits it was a punt: "At times it was pretty hairy."

When he outgrew the backyard, his mother helped find a disused dairy factory at Parkvale east of Carterton. She later became his chief compost inspector. "Not too many mothers would do that." All three of Thompson's sisters have also worked for him.

When Thompson felt the market was ready for change some 20 years ago and switched from the standard white button mushroom to his now-famous, discus-like Parkvale gourmet brown, the reaction was "unbelievable".

"They just took off . . . people were just about ready to shoot each other down at the markets."

But the buzz faded and realising it was publicise or perish, Thompson spent $250,000 on TV and other advertising over three years.

He demonstrated how to use the big, flavour-packed mushrooms, with simple, effective recipes tested by him and wife Margaret. Recipes glued to mushroom cartons backed up the ads and chucking a thick, aromatic "mushie" on the barbie became a Kiwi habit Now, Parkvale browns are trucked daily to supermarkets and restaurants around the country.

Picking is daily except Christmas Day and many of Thompson's 38 staff have spent years with him. Wages are about 40 per cent of costs.

Tasty mushrooms depend on rich compost and the hi-tech process of wetting, airing and sterilising it was another big overhead, until Thompson turned it into revenue - he now sells up to 50 tonnes of his "good powerful brew" weekly, at $40 for a small trailer-load.

The recipe works: turnover has risen from $2.5m a year five years ago to $3.2m this year.

At one stage there were about 60 mushroom growers in the country, but only seven have survived. "It's a pretty tough game."

Now, that business-minded teen is, by his own admission, "the oldest living mushroom grower in the country." At 67, his two sons may soon step into his shoes.

He puts his success down to a focus on quality, doing one thing well, and investing profits wisely. "We don't go for looks around here - it's about what works."

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The understated smile returns. "You've got to be pretty obstinate, I think . . . I don't normally give up without a fight."

THE NUMBERS

7-8: tonnes of mushrooms sold weekly 3: Stages of mushroom growth – button, cup and flat About $14: retail, 2kg box of Parkvale browns 

- BusinessDay

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