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No. 20 (November 1957)
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Maori Crayfish Tycoon

One of the biggest fishing enterprises in New Zealand is owned by Maoris and has a Maori as its manager. It is the Otakou Fisheries of Dunedin, run by Mr Rani Ellison who must be one of New Zealand's most unusual businessmen.

Before 1946, the people of Otakou Heads were farmers or worked in town. A few made some money out of line fishing and caught harracouta along the coast. The people also have interests in the muttonbird islands, particularly Kaihuka, and go there every year.

They belong to Ngati Mamoe and Ngaitahu and their canoe is Takitimu which according to their tradition was wrecked at the mouth of the Waihau River. They travelled south from there to where they now live.

Elder of the tribe at present is Dr. Pohau Ellison, who is among the last survivors of the famous “Young Maori Party” which arose at Te Aute College before the end of the last century. The community has a meeting house called Tamatea and a Maori church and gate with copies of ancient carvings in concrete.

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Fish is unloaded on the wharf and stored at once in freezing chambers. Shaw McEwen works in the chamber at Otakou, (Photograph: N. M. Beaumont).

After the last war. Rani Ellison, with two of his brothers, started a transport business at Otakou. They soon decided that business would be brisker if they could stimulate a little more fishing at the Otakou Heads. That would provide them with some extra loads.

They bought a shed and started to build a landing ramp. Most of the timber came from the family farm on which Rani had worked before the war. (Rani Ellison had tried for a university degree when young, but he found the academic life did not suit him and he went farming instead.) The harbour board lent the three men a punt which was anchored just in front of the ramp. They ran a wire from the punt to the factory, and attached a bin to the wire. This bin, filled with fish, was drawn by a horse into the factory where it was emptied out by various devices. Later, when the landing ramp was completed, with the help of a harbour board pile driver, they put a railway on the wharf. The small capital needed for the project was horrowed from relations and friends at Otakou. The primary object (apart from stimulating their own cartage business) was to employ

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Bernes Oysters is one of Mr Ellison's recent business ventures. The oysters are flown north from Invercargill as soon as they are landed.

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One of the boots supplying Otakou Fisheries is the oyster dredger Ariel (Otago Daily Times Photograph).

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Back from the sea: Messrs Taiamoa and Russell on board M.V. Foam, another boat supplying Otakou Fisheries. (Photo; N. M. Beaumont)

Maori men with work near their homes, so they would not all have to travel to Dunedin.

These were the foundations of Otakou Fisheries which last year had a turnover of close to one million pounds. The whole enterprise was like a businessman's dream, except that those who dream about large sums of money do not usually get them. When Mr Ellison describes how it all happened it sounds like a series of phenomenally lucky breaks, all of them quite unexpected. Yet such a long list of lucky accidents is rather unlikely, to say the least.

Mr Ellison produces an almost constant plan of brainwaves. In the company as it is now, he has a good number of able and systematic executives indispensable to the success of the enterprise, but he stands slightly aloof as the artist who plays with financial combinations, thinks up new ways of processing and selling fish, or the many other products in which he is interested. It is very strange to think only ten years ago he was totally ignorant of the world of business and finance.

Stranger still is how little he personally has become infected with the affections and the

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Above: Mr Rani Ellison at his Dunedin desk.

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Below: Crayfish tails, ready in bags, are loaded off the fishing vessel. (Photos: N. M. Beaumontit)

hunger for money that so often accompanies financial success. Through it all he has remained slightly hesitant and humble; his relationship to the other people of Otakou has not, one imagines, changed at all. He is one of the iwi at weddings. An important visit to America, his first trip to that part of the world was put off for several months, because he did not want to be away when his baby was born. The fact that several hundred thousand pounds of business were involved did not make any difference to that.

The small amount originally put into the business by the Otakou people has grown to huge assets. The value of all the original shares has been raised as the business grew. Everyone profited equally. He feels himself as a trustee and representative of his own people.

If he had been struggling merely for himself, he would now perhaps be a harder man, he could no longer genuinely feel his equality and kinship with most other people, his achievements would have separated him. But because the link with his people was not broken, he showed that the highest financial success can be achieved without the loss of the qualities the Maori sums up in the word “aroha.”

When the first barracouta was being processed, Mr Ellison made a deal with a Dunedin firm selling his total output for about a year. The Dunedin firm did so because of a small temporary

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Turu Taiaroa weighing in crayfish. (Photograph: N. M. Beaumont).

shortage, not imagining that the annual output from one horse and a bin could be very great. However, hardly any time passed before various people at Otakou bought boats and obtained licenses. Others who had previously sold their catches to a rival firm were glad of an opportunity for a change. Rani soon flooded the Dunedin market. When the term of this first agreement was over, Otakou Fisheries could not hope to get rid of their output locally.

In this way they were forced to enter the export market which was to bring them their greatest wealth. It was at that time, 1947, that Otakou Fisheries became a limited liability company, based on co-operative lines. Of the twenty-two shareholders, twenty were working for the fisheries. They all put something into the business; their investment was in those days a big sacrifice to many. The first shipment of fish to Sydney was in April 1947–£353 worth of fish, representing six weeks' output.

One of Rani Ellison's first investments was to instal ultramodern freezers competing favourably with anything else in the district. After two years of operations, more fisherman gave their output to Otakou to handle than to any other distributor in Otago and Southland. The fish was still largely exported, but the shops of Dunedin now revived their interest in it because other companies no longer had enough fish left to supply them. At present there are, in addition to the company's own boats, 160 fishing vessels selling their catches to Otakou Fisheries. Quite a few of these are financed by the company.

One can say that it is this mass support from the fishermen that made Otakou's great success possible. How was the support obtained? Principally. Rani Ellison says, it was a matter of honest dealing and good relations.

In 1947, the export of crayfish to Melbourne started. No New Zealand firm had tried this before. At first the whole animal was sent, at 2d per pound, but this proved unsatisfactory. They then switched over to crayfish tails sent to Melbourne and cooked crayfish in tins sent to places like Singapore.

After a few years Rani Ellison discovered by accident what happened to the craytails he sent to Melbourne. Evidently most or all of them never came on the Australian market, but were transshipped to the United States at a huge profit. In 1953, Otakou Fisheries began to export to the United States direct. Last year, sales totalled well over one million dollars. It is claimed that Otakou Fisheries is now the biggest single processor of craytails in the world.

It has not been Otakou's principle to own their own boats (they have only two), but to leave the

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Johnnie Bradie helps to process these crayfish tails for export to America. (Photograph: N. M. Beaumont).

fishermen independent, even though quite a large percentage of the cost of the boats is financed by the company. One company they bought out had, in addition, one oyster boat and six others.

Once the ordinary activities of the company were on a sound footing. Mr Ellison developed a great interest in buying out companies or else taking over their management. As he says, sometimes a concern has a perfectly good and valuable product to sell, but due to lack of finance or bad management, somehow no success is achieved. Quite a number of such businesses have become associate companies of Otakou Fisheries, with a fee charged for management expenses.

Nine concerns, in addition, have been bought outright and become subsidiary companies. Some of them were in the oyster or crayfish business, others were transport companies languishing until the association with Otakou's produce put new life into them.

Otakou Fisheries began to handle a lot of products other than fish. One of the latest ideas is to pack boneless lamb for the American market.

Factories and freezers run by the company are at Karitane, Otakou, Dunedin, Taieri, Waikawa (Southland). Bluff and Stewart Island. At the beginning of this year. Mr Ellison was thinking of a branch further north.

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The Maori community of Otakou are still deeply attached to their Maori past. The chapel is decorated with concrete casts of carved slabs from Rotorua.

Meanwhile new ideas keep coming up. The latest is a fish roll (somewhat similar to a Belgian roll) made out of oysters, crayfish and ordinary fish. The recipe was worked out by a member of the staff. The idea is to utilize a modern type of shredder which can cut up the coarser types of fish so that the coarseness goes out of it and it is then flavoured by means of this recipe. If the plan goes through, this fish roll should be one of the cheapest and pleasantest meals on the market.

One could say far more about the business schemes of Mr Ellison. The amount he turned over last year was well over £892,000 not including the other companies.

The greatest strain of his career as a businessman was the English strike which stopped his exports for five months. At the end of that period he had 33,000 cases of crayfish tails in storage…worth well over £100,000 and the bank overdraft reached a dangerous figure.

I asked Mr Ellison how he kept up-to-date on business ideas and methods. He told me that when he started up he found people helpful and talkative and prepared to tell him what he did not know. He regularly studies magazines on subjects such as packing and deepfreezing. The most up to date ones are from the United States.

Has the whole of the Ellison family now gone into big business? No, Rani's brothers did not like it. Rangi went back to the farm and when Otakou Fisheries bought the Ranui, George went fishing.

The future of Otakou Fisheries of course still depends to a large extent on the seafoods market. Last year half the company's turnover came from the profitable United States lobster market which seems stable and ready to absorb all it can get. Earlier in the year there was some threat of legislation outlawing the term ‘lobster’ for the imported species such as the New Zealand crayfish. This would have harmed the trade, but latest information is that the United States are not likely to pass this legislation. As long as the crayfish trade flourishes, this most spectacular of Maori business enterprises has every chance of continued growth and prosperity.

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One of the most successful money-raisers were hangi evenings. A number of amusement tents were set up and people had a good evening out, buying at stalls and playing games, with a delicious hangi supper to follow. This one was at Levin.


The Queen Carnival held recently to raise money for a £30,000 Maori community building in Palmerston North was an achievement in organisation and inter-tribal collaboration. All Maori people from the Rangitikei River down to Waikanae in the South took part. This large area was divided into four competing zones centred on Feilding (Princess, later Queen: Miss Rene Tapine). Palmerston North (Princess: Miss Charlene Brown), Levin (Miss Lana Heremaia) and Otaki (Miss Mary Hawea). Dances, socials, concerts, hangis and shopdays were held; funds collected; there were also special functions such as a huge indoor bowling tournament. As a result, £7,500 were raised in two months. Drive Organiser was Mr W. Parker, Maori tutor of the Wellington Council of Adult Education, who throughout exploited the many cultural and educational aspects of the enterprise.

The building is designed in very modern style by Mr John Scott of Hastings, one of the very few qualified Maori architects. The section had been bought prior to the campaign for £3,500; it is a splendid site right in the heart of the city. Apart from a community hall, the centre may serve as a hostel.

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The successful Queen was miss Rene Tapine, of the Fielding zone, who was crowned at a ball in the Palmerston North Opera House. (The Times, Palmerston.)

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Bring and buys were another popular feature at the carnival. The Levin princess. Miss L. J. Heremaia, is in the background. (Levin Chronicle Photographs).

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Mr Abie Mason, late elder of Ngati Parekawa, lifelong believer in the development of Hauhungaroa. In the 1920's an attempt was made with the help of Father Langewerf, with the Tuwharetoa Trust Board providing grass seed manure, and cream being carted on horseback to the now disused factory Waihi.


When Te Ao Hou visited Hauhungaroa, there was a grand dinner in the community hall, with many excellent speeches, followed by a dance. The master of ceremonies was Abie Mason, the elder whose recent death will be a great loss to the settlement.

Hauhungaroa is a camp with a difference. In most timber camps, when the trees are cut the workers disperse and their interest in the land ceases. At Hauhungaroa, many of the workers are owners and a substantial part of the royalties from the timber are being used to develop the land as an independent Maori incorporation. Ultimately, this land will be cut up into farms.

Mr J. Bishara who owned the mill for some years was a great help in the early development and is also responsible for the model shop and for the fact that the community hall has a Charter to sell liquor…Hauhungaroa is the only timber camp with a Charter, and very proud of it. People tend to stay in the camp during the weekends which benefits both them and the mill.

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Hohepe Takiwa, elder of Hauhungaroa, takes a short nap after the festivities.

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Chairman of the Hauhu ngaroa tribal committee and the social committee is Mr Wi Moku who comes from the far north.