In 1919, Eric Johnson decided burgeoning communities in the Pelorus Sound needed his services, and started transporting passengers around the sounds, later taking their mail as well.
Nearly 100 years later, grandson Peter Johnson and his wife Jennie are still meeting the needs of the Sound's community, providing barging services for aquaculture, forestry and agriculture, among other businesses.
Johnsons Barge Service is a vital component of Pelorus Sound life.
The firm's work includes transporting logs from forestry blocks to port, stock from d'Urville Island, and carrying fish and feed for New Zealand King Salmon farms.
Jennie Johnson said Pelorus had always had a commercial aspect, “and Sounds people have always used it to make a living”.
But that living has largely changed from when she joined the family, 30 years ago next month. Then, the mussel industry was flourishing and Johnsons was laying mussel lines and moving the product to port.
Eventually, the industry grew to a point where mussel companies began to own their own vessels.
Then a moratorium on aquaculture meant no new lines were required, leaving Johnsons bereft of that income.
Jennie Johnson said they were therefore careful to spread their risk, never relying on one industry.
"For instance, if we were just logging-based during the recession we would have gone out of business, because there were no logs."
To ensure they can keep that diversity of business, the Johnsons install and maintain moorings, price fairly despite a lack of competition, maintain other contracts such as the removal of sewage from Abel Tasman National Park, and keep their eyes and ears open for the next opportunity.
"You have to keep looking ahead and trying to place yourself so you're ready to capture these things as they come up."
They have the vessels to ensure they can meet all the markets - from the pride of the four-strong fleet, a motorised barge they built and launched in 2000, to the classic and beloved tug Tawhai, which was designed by Eric in 1966, and now pulls the logging barge.
"Although Tawhai is nearly as old as I am, we would struggle to find a vessel in New Zealand that could do the job she does as well as her."
Looking ahead has also led the Johnsons to enter this year's Westpac Marlborough Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards, "to step back and take a good look at what we're doing, to analyse our business and learn from others".
A few years ago, they began the process of dragging the company into modern times, by updating their brand and their website. Entering the awards is the next step.
The winners of the Westpac Marlborough Chamber of Commerce Business Awards will be announced at a gala dinner on November 16.
- The Marlborough Express