Obituary: Dairy world mover and shaker John Shaskey remembered

Who knew that when he joined the Dairy Board at 19, John Shaskey was embarking on a career that would include several ...
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Who knew that when he joined the Dairy Board at 19, John Shaskey was embarking on a career that would include several overseas postings and 17 passports-full of travel, before finally settling with his family in Hamilton.

OBITUARY: John Patrick Shaskey April 16, 1957 – June 28, 2017

In the years following Britain joining the European Union in 1973, representatives of this country's dairy farmers went cold calling around the world – they had shiploads of milk product to sell.

Britain had traditionally taken the bulk of New Zealand's dairy exports, but that all swiftly changed after the Old Country went bargain shopping in Europe.

One of the global door knockers drumming up dairy business was a young John Shaskey, a Gisborne boy with absolutely no farming background before he joined the Dairy Board in 1976.

When he died recently of cancer, John was well-known as a "go to" man in dairying circles throughout Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas. In his career he had visited 88 countries and owned 17 passports (some with extensions).

John was a working class boy, the son of Gisborne plasterer Joe Shaskey, and his wife May. He had a tough upbringing, moved with the family to New Plymouth as his dad searched for work, and left home at 16, armed with a cardboard suitcase, for a job as a management cadet with P&O shipping in Wellington. He joined the Dairy Board aged 19, and was the youngest employee, aged 21, sent on an overseas business trip, to Singapore.

John was a modest, self-deprecating man, known for his equal dollops of integrity and sense of humour, a tough negotiator, but with a capacity for spontaneous outbreaks of silliness. His personality and style built one-on-one contacts wherever he went, and he learned early on that relationships forged face-to-face were the key to a successful global business.

He learnt some of those skills around the family Monopoly board. His brother Michael recalled that John always won.

"Some might call it good luck, and maybe it was, but he always seemed to have a good idea of how the dice might bounce, and to have enough in the bank to take advantage of the opportunities the dice gave him. He could negotiate a deal with other players when they were in a tight spot and get the best properties they had. Whilst giving him credit for consistent performance, I'm not entirely sure that the little bugger was not cheating."

After Singapore, he spent a couple of years in Mexico, and was there during the huge 1985 earthquake that killed an estimated 5000 people. John was not back at Wellington HQ long before he met Jill Mitchell at The Milking Shed, the appropriately named Dairy Board social club. Jill worked in the milk powder division, and theirs was to be the 18th marriage of couples who were Board staff members.

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When John was appointed managing director (the youngest ever) for the Middle East in 1988, based in Bahrain, Jill went with him. After Mexico, it was a busy, but peaceful time for John, establishing contacts throughout Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, the UAE, Oman, Yemen, Syria Bahrain, and Jordan.

"It was," says Jill, "a hugely exciting time when Dairy Board staff travelled a lot, selling product. It was the days when they built the dairy industry, literally a handful of guys cold calling, travelling around the world drumming up business."

The peaceful bit changed dramatically, however, when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, sparking the Gulf War.

Jill and John were evacuated to England, before John returned to Dubai to do what he did best. This time, given the new boys in town, that "best" meant selling product to the US military.

Then followed a reasonably settled five years in Khandallah and Lower Hutt, and the opportunity to start a family. With two children (Matthew and Rachel) the couple, with Rachel just starting to sleep through, started planning some home renovations. This was probably optimistic, in hindsight, given John's business experience, and in 1999 they were off again, this time to the Board's biggest job in Asia, in Singapore, for what was supposed to be a four-year posting.

But another shake-up was not long in coming.

Fonterra was formed in 2001 from the merger of New Zealand's two largest co-operatives, New Zealand Dairy Group and Kiwi Co-operative Dairies, together with John's employer, the New Zealand Dairy Board, which had been the marketing and export agent for all the co-operatives. John was called back to Wellington, offered a post in Auckland, and settled for Hamilton. Matthew and Rachel were packed off to Southwell School and, later, to Boys High and Dio.

It may have seemed, again foolishly given John's business track record, that they were finally settled. He accepted positions as chair of the Southwell board, as well as on the Port of Napier board. He bought shares in a couple of racehorses; enjoyed entertaining in their 1880 homestead in Lake Crescent, overlooking Lake Rotoroa; took a couple of family holidays to the South Island and the United States. His Godfather-themed 50th birthday party set the standard for years to come for such celebrations.

But a settled suburban life was not to be, and in 2007 John, now managing director of Fonterra Globaltrade, resigned in anger at the establishment of the global dairy auction, a system of sales that he saw as undoing a lot of the personal contacts he and colleagues had established over the years.

With two of those colleagues, Don Learmonth and Colin James, he established an independent dairy marketing company, called the Global Dairy Network, not dissimilar in its role in some ways to his old employer, the Dairy Board. GDN has gone from strength to strength, built on the business model John and his colleagues trusted. For most folk, GDN flies under the radar, but it is now an international, multi-million dollar enterprise.

One of their many consultancies was helping set up the Māori-owned Miraka dairy co-operative outside Taupo. Powered by renewable geothermal energy, Miraka has the capacity to process more than 250 million litres of milk each year. The resultant milk powder and UHT products are sold in 23 countries, with GDN acting as the marketing branch.

GDN was a business model with which John was more comfortable, and his travels started again, door-knocking and cold-calling on behalf of clients throughout New Zealand and the world, including Dairy Farms America, for which GDN acts in a marketing capacity.

A few years back, while on a trip to China, John got the flu. He did not want to go on a scheduled trip to the US a short while later, but, with an All Black game in Chicago as a tempter, he carried on. Dehydrated and run down, he collapsed while in the States, hitting his head. Jill flew over to join him and they spent two weeks in a hotel while he recovered the strength to fly home. He seemed to make a full recovery, but, in July 2015 was diagnosed with cancer. John kept going for a further 23 months, and, before he died, told his family he had completed everything on his bucket list, had nowhere he wanted to go, and had had a good life.

At one point, when he was feeling particularly ill, Jill asked him if there was anything she could do for him.

"He looked at me and said 'just thrive'. That was typical John, always thinking of others."

His farewell at the Hamilton Gardens was attended by about 400 friends and business associates.

John was the dearly loved husband of Jill for 27 years; the loved and loving father of Matthew and Rachel; respected friend of Reef; loved son and son-in-law of Mary and the late Joe, and Timmy and Andre Surridge; loved brother, brother-in-law, and uncle of Claire Barrett, and Michael, Kevin, Trevor, and Grant Mitchell and their families.

  • A Life Story tells of a New Zealander who helped to shape the Waikato community. If you know of someone whose life story should be told, please email Charles.riddle@wintec.ac.nz

 - Stuff

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