Much more to the man

Tom Percy and Peter Yealands at the Yealands Estate Winery
Tom Percy and Peter Yealands at the Yealands Estate Winery

Kiwi ingenuity and number-eight wire stories fill a book about Marlborough business entrepreneur Peter Yealands.

A Bloke for All Seasons - the Peter Yealands Story was written by Blenheim writer Tom Percy after nearly 40 hours of recorded interviews with Peter and three years' research and writing.

One or two obstacles along the way slowed the process, Tom says. The economic downturn resulted in a publisher cancelling an agreement to print the book and health issues kept Tom off the job for a while.

In the meantime, Peter Yealands' latest venture, a 1000-hectare (2471-acre) vineyard, kept doing "fabulously well", further validating the wish to write about him. The first manuscript Tom wrote about Peter Yealands was a Marlborough Express advertising feature to promote the Yealands Estate Winery opening in 2008.

It won a PANPA (Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers' Association) award and prompted Tom to approach Peter about expanding the story into a book.

The advertising feature barely scratched the surface, Tom had pointed out. "Peter's a very reticent man but he saw the marketing potential and agreed."

The pair had a meeting to discuss the venture and a few ground rules were laid. "It was to be a warts-and-all account, but have nothing in it that could hurt family members," Tom says.

The story starts in 1921 when Peter's father, Keith Yealands, was born.

A whole chapter recounts his time during World War II: He had signed up under-age, joining the Long Range Desert Group. He was shot and left for dead, then taken prisoner and sent to work in coal mines, despite there still being a piece of shrapnel in his head.

Keith returned to Marlborough after the war, got married and opened a grocery store on Lee St, Blenheim. That was where Peter started his working life, pulling the eyes out of potatoes before they were sold.

When the grocery store was sold, Peter found other employment opportunities, including work in a lucerne factory, carting hay, starting a Frosty Fish export company and obtaining the first commercial mussel farming licence in the Marlborough Sounds.

"It's been a fascinating story for me [to tell]," Tom says. "All the various industries and Peter was there at the start of them.

He was one of the first deer farmers in New Zealand - deer farming started in New Zealand and half of the farmed deer in the world are in New Zealand.

"He wasn't the first to plant vineyards in Marlborough, that's for sure, but he certainly got in at a good time."

Tom is originally from Canada and sees similarities with that country in New Zealand. "Mother England" was where many of both countries' early settlers came from and stories similar to the Kiwi ingenuity number-eight wire yarns are told about clever Canadians, Tom says.

Peter is the sort of character such tales are told about and Tom is confident many men will enjoy reading his book. "Peter just takes [things] further than most people do. He takes them right to the full point of where they should or shouldn't go."

He quotes a line from the text, initially provided by one of Peter's brothers: "Peter always found it easier to ask forgiveness than permission."

A Bloke for All Seasons - the Peter Yealands Story ($34.99) is available at Whitcoulls and other book stores in New Zealand.

Results Man

This is the prologue of Blenheim writer Tom Percy's biography of Marlborough entrepreneur Peter Yealands.

It is November 2008 and Peter Yealands has been invited to be a speaker at Thrive Wellington, a national business forum featuring many of New Zealand's captains of industry, eminent entrepreneurs, and sports notables.

It is a combination of hard business, motivational presentations, creative thinking and all-round corporate schmoozing at $1500 a table.

It also has some of the trappings of a "see-and-be-seen" event and will be well attended by people who Peter occasionally bumps up against.

It's not really my cup of tea but I've got a lot of wine to sell and there's not much I won't do - within reason - to promote the brand.

As you walk from the parking lot to the entrance of Blenheim Airport, there is no doubt that you are in Marlborough wine country.

The major wineries are well represented with hoardings along the facade of the building and to the left of the entrance is a statue of viticulture pioneer David Herd.

As Peter joins the short queue at the check-in counter he meets an acquaintance who is going to the same event and they chat .

Peter Yealands presents an imposing figure. Now in his early 60s, he is still a strong, burly man, though by his own admission putting on too much weight due to all the office work he has to do now. He is dressed in his usual attire; clean but well-worn Swanndri pullover, work trousers and scuffed boots.

His flowing silver hair and Santa-worthy beard make him immediately recognisable and at the same time more than a little intimidating.

There is about him the aura of a quiet, powerful man who does not suffer fools gladly, offers little small talk and would generally rather be somewhere else.

The flight to Wellington is called and Peter boards the little Beech 1900, finds his seat and soon they're off. The ground falls away and a wider view of the airport and New Zealand Air Force Base Woodbourne fans out below.

A young passenger quickly points out the mothballed A4 Skyhawks sheathed in white plastic forming a Goliath's toy set on the ground.

But they quickly become just another diminishing detail in the ever-expanding sea of green vines carpeting the Wairau valley.

Soon the plane is swinging east out toward Cook Strait and Peter, not unlike a child or first-time flyer, has his eyes glued to the window. Others may find this somewhat endearing or even odd, not realising that Peter is one of those few people who can only see all that is his from the air. He still has three vineyards around Blenheim and his sprawling 2000-hectare (4942-acre) Kaiuma Station farm in the Marlborough Sounds. And as the plane heads out over Cloudy Bay, the sweep of the Yealands Estate vineyard and winery covering more than 1000 hectares east of Seddon comes into view far to the south.

For many, Yealands Estate marks the high point of Peter's business accomplishments and it is indeed the reason why he is on his way to an up-market corporate event to speak to "the suits".

But in the career timeline of Peter Yealands, it is simply where he happens to be today. There is much more to the man – as those attending this event will find out.

The plane is soon approaching the narrow ribbon of concrete that is Wellington Airport. Peter looks out at the heavy stonework reaching into the water that he and a small crew put in there many years ago.

The job was a landmark in his career as it gave him a real indication of the money that could be made with a lot of hard work, a goodly amount of Kiwi know-how, and a healthy indifference to the orthodox way of doing things. They land and Peter heads out to the taxi rank.

On the drive into town he frets a bit over his presentation but he knows that this is part of the overall job of marketing the brand.

And there will be some familiar faces; Yealands Estate will have a Cellar Door booth at the event and a corporate table for some of Peter's business acquaintances.

The taxi arrives at the arena where the event is taking place and drops him at one side of the building. He looks around to see where the entrance is.

As he's looking one way and then the other a fellow in pinstripes, name-badge dangling from his silk-tied collar, walks by and points to the rear of the building, saying: "The loading door's down that way, mate."

Peter laughs, enjoying the irony, and one can only imagine the reaction of that well-heeled guide when Peter is introduced later in the morning.

Peter's track record of mingling with the upper echelon of industry folk has sometimes been scratchy, though never confrontational as that's just not his style. But events like this are not always where he wants to be.

In 2004, at the Romeo Bragato conference in Blenheim, there was a high-end black-tie wine industry event that I really had no choice but to attend, but at least I could take my wife Vai with me so off we go. And this was one of the few times when I actually did put on a jacket and tie, though I can tell you the tie wasn't black.

We found a table and sat down and then this person – must have been a waiter because he was better dressed than me – comes over. I guess he thought we were tourists who had wandered into the wrong place and he asked us to move as the table we'd sat down at was reserved. So we did and sat elsewhere and were told that was reserved as well. By this time I felt like a proper prick standing in the middle of this bloody great room with my wife so in the end I said, "Stuff this, we're out of here," and we found a restaurant down the road, had a nice meal and went home.

And it's not just the social aspects that can be troublesome.

His well-documented frays with the business establishment over the years have rattled more than a few – the volatile battle with the Delegat's Group over Oyster Bay being a significant case in point.

But those who judge a man by what he accomplishes rather than by what he wears or drives have few problems with Peter Yealands.

It was not by chance that he received the first Marine Farm licence for mussel farming in the Marlborough Sounds in the 1970s.

It was not just good luck that his Kaiuma Station farm set enviable standards for sustainable forestry resulting in well-earned conservation awards.

It was no accident that he developed the largest privately-owned vineyard in the country where he then built the most environmentally advanced winery in the world. Peter Yealands has always been a man of results and though these results speak loudly for themselves, a little help from their creator won't hurt and that is why he is in Wellington today.

The Marlborough Express