By Chris Ellison | Posted: Sunday September 23, 2018
I have come a long way since leaving Otago Boys' High School in 1972. And it took persistence to get here, and I am not just talking about getting to Perth in Western Australia, where I now live.
If my career has taught me anything - and if there's something I am most proud of and hope others can draw inspiration from - is the knowledge that hard work pays off. Have a dream and then work hard to give it a go. Roll your sleeves up and don't give up. Be persistent.
For me, it all started on the outskirts of Dunedin, where my family lived on a small farm in the shadows of Mount Cargill.
I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to attend Otago Boys’ and my time there helped shape the person I am today.
The school itself is an iconic building and a real presence in Dunedin. Otago Boys’ was founded in 1863 and moved to its present location in 1885. The imposing 123-year old main school building certainly stands as a testament to the prowess of the master builders of the past - it is both intimidating and exciting on first view and that is exactly how I felt when I walked through the school gates for the first time in 1971.
The passing parade of good men who went through Otago Boys’ -not just athletes and successful businessmen but soldiers and good, ordinary New Zealanders who got the best out of life, and gave a lot back -was what I take to be the hallmark of the school and its history. When I consider the names and deeds of those past students I am proud to say that I, too, was an Otago Boys’ student - even if only for a short period of time.
I was enrolled as a day student at Otago Boys’. Back then there was only one bus travelling from near my home to the school in the morning and another one home again in the afternoon. That didn't give me much of a chance to engage in the extra-curricular activities of the Otago Boys’ regiment and sporting teams, though that failed to dent my passion for rugby and, like all boys my age, I developed a deep admiration for the All Blacks.
My lasting memories of Otago Boys’ are of a traditional school with traditional values -values that have stood the test of time and remain as secure in their foundation today as they were then.
When I turned 15, I decided to leave school to chase my dream. My dream was to earn enough money so that I could buy my own farm.
I may have been armed with only the basics of an education when I left school. But I took with me a deeply instilled capacity to look after myself, to be aware of differing personalities and backgrounds, and with an innate belief in my ability to compete in the world.
I also retain fond memories of my commerce studies at Otago Boys’ in (what was referred to as the 3rd and 4th form) that taught me the basics of profit and loss, cash flow and the balance sheet. My understanding of these key parameters is much greater now, of course, but I remember what a brilliant introductory course it was.
When many years later the greatest All Black of all time, Richie McCaw, said "I don't believe in magic, I believe in hard work", he neatly summed up the approach I have always adopted.
Yet even though I had a dream, I didn't really know how to achieve it, nor really where to start. My family instilled in me the value of hard work.
And Otago Boys’ taught me the attributes of integrity, fair play and mutual support and respect as well as the ability to stand up for my beliefs.
These are values I still draw upon today when difficulties arise in business - whether I need to provide guidance and support to my staff or hold difficult discussions with clients.
Given my dream, it seemed like a natural progression to seek employment on the land.
I spent the next four years after leaving Otago Boys working on merino sheep and cattle stations in the South Island's High Country, first in Central Otago and the Lakes District and then later on the famous Molesworth Station.
It was an exciting and rewarding time battling the elements and protecting the herds. But I realised that this was an impermanent existence for me because my long-term future was not going to be in New Zealand - I knew I had to venture beyond the Land of the Long White Cloud to fulfil my dreams and ambitions.
So aged 19, I crossed "the ditch" for the first time with another young Kiwi friend and, after landing in Sydney, we bought a car and travelled to Darwin to seek our adventure.
Even though I still had a dream to own my own farm, I knew the money I had to earn was most likely to be eamt in the construction sector.
When we arrived in Darwin in 1976 the major construction boom to fix the devastation and destruction caused by Cyclone Tracy over Christmas 1974 was still in full swing and, along with many other Kiwi lads, I started working as a trades assistant, or TA. Much as it still is today, a TA was a position for an unskilled worker that was predominantly used by many young workers as the gateway into the construction industry.
I was the quintessential TA. I had no formal trade skills nor qualifications. But I was keen to work and learn, and I was always willing to roll my sleeves up and get going.
Through energy, determination, enthusiasm and persistence - and an unwavering belief that a bit of sweat and the right attitude get you rewards - I became a crane driver before taking on the role of rigger on a power station construction site in Darwin.
I quickly learned that a willingness to work hard and long hours was sufficient pedigree to secure jobs and promotions. It was only then that I gained an inkling of not only what I was good at and capable of, but what I enjoyed most and what wanted to do with my life.
Attaining the crane driver's job was the first time in my life I had been given a high degree of responsibility and control. Notwithstanding my still young age, other workers and management alike responded to my directions and attitude. They wanted to work with me and for me.
I think what they saw in me was a determination to get the job done, and an approach that saw obstacles tackled as opportunities, and not treated as reasons to give up.
This in tum not only opened my eyes to the likely direction my career would take. It also allowed me to recognise that my formative years at Otago Boys’, and later in the High Country, had given me the insights, strength of purpose and self-confidence to compete with those from all walks of life.
It was also at this point that I realised education was about more than just the traditional three "Rs" - reading, writing and arithmetic. I discovered that education was a life journey of continuous learning - in all its myriad meanings.
After 18 months in Darwin I headed south-west along the coast to Port Hedland, in Western Australia's Pilbara region. I spent a year operating cranes in the Pilbara mining industry before being transferred by my boss further west along the Pilbara coast to Karratha, where there was optimism that construction of the massive North West Shelf natural gas project would begin in the next few years.
These were exciting times for those chasing business success. I quickly realised that I wanted to be part of this construction boom -but as a business owner.
In many ways, this was a line-in-the-sand moment that has defined my career ever since.
Starting out on your own is a massive risk. Yes, the rewards can be great but only if you stick to your plan, persist when the going gets tough, and never ever give up.
I was confident a strong work ethic, a willingness to find solutions and a positive, can-do attitude would see me through.
So in 1979, 12 months after being transferred to Karratha, a Kiwi friend of mine and I set up our own business, Karratha Rigging. When Woodside Petroleum and its partners gave the construction go ahead for the North West Shelf project in 1981, we were in prime position to pick up some of the rigging work. Within months, our start-up business of six workers employed a crew of 300 and operated 13 cranes.
We were providing rigging and heavy lifting services at the North West Shelf plant and on offshore gas platforms. It was a far cry from mustering merino sheep in Central Otago less than 10 years earlier.
Business was going well, we were growing strongly and employing more people, and sharing the success of our hard work with all those involved. The hard work was rewarding.
And just as this proved a monumental business lesson for me, the next chapter in my learning was about to begin when the largest crane operator in the southern hemisphere knocked on the door with an offer to buy my business. By that stage I had bought out my Kiwi friend with whom I established Karratha Rigging, and I thought I would try something new and work for a big corporation.
I sold my business to Walter Wright Industries and became an employee again - albeit a senior manager.
But the thrill of running my own business, of being my own boss, hadn't left me and within a couple of years I bade Walter Wright farewell and set up a mining services business. It was a different service offering to Karratha Rigging but with the same attitude and culture. And before too long I had a workforce of about 450 and was again attracting the attention of the bigger players.
So I once again sold my business to a bigger player but in return for shares in this bigger player, so I could retain a close involvement in the future growth as both a shareholder, with "skin in the game", and again as a senior manager.
Unbeknownst to me, however, this company had been less than straight with its profit and loss and balance sheet reporting - I knew the Otago Boys’ lesson on commerce would come in handy - and the financial situation ended up so dire that receivers were put into the company. All my hard work building up my mining services business, and my wish to remain involved in the bigger company, were threatening to go up in smoke and wipe out all that I had worked so hard for to achieve.
But I refused to give up, and helped the receivers trade this company back onto an even financial keel, which allowed me to not only recover some value from my investment but leave with satisfaction that hard work had again paid off.
If anything, this latest lesson with big business only sharpened my appetite to strike out on my own again.
For me real success was being able to be my own boss, train and motivate my employees and devise innovative and entrepreneurial methods to solve my clients' problems and challenges.
So with $10,000 cash, a credit card and a whole bunch of ideas, I set up my latest business.
By now, in the early 1990s, the economy in Australia was in a bad shape. But I had a vision to build a mining services business that could supply equipment and deliver a service, unlike anything any other contractor was doing.
It was another big gamble but persistence and hard work paid off. I found some like-minded, hard workers to join my business and away we went.
Together, we successfully created three complementary mining sector support services businesses, which each gained a well-deserved and enviable reputation for performance, professionalism and customer service and support.
As the success of the three businesses grew, my partners and I made the decision to combine them into a single entity -Mineral Resources Limited - and list it on the Australian stock exchange in 2006.
Today, Mineral Resources is the largest specialist mining services company in Australia; a Top 100 company on the ASX; the largest specialist contract crushing company in the world; the owner of what will be the world's largest hard rock lithium mine - and the proud employer of more than 3200 hard working men and women.
As importantly, our company pays strong dividends to every one of our almost 10,000 shareholders and generously helps many underprivileged people in our community through a philanthropic programme that assists children's education, medical innovation, unemployed youth as well as workers and their families in the mining sector.
Four years ago, I was granted a tremendous personal honour when I was invited to become the inaugural Honorary Consul for the Consulate of New Zealand in Perth -where my family and I now live.
This honour enables me to give something back to both the Australian and New Zealand communities that have been so supportive of me, as well as assisting those Kiwi brothers and sisters in Western Australia during their times of need.
The success of Mineral Resources represents a proud achievement for me as an ordinary hard-working Kiwi, who has learnt so much since walking through the doors of Otago Boys’ for the first time back in 1971.
I hope it also serves as a valuable lesson for those young men who are about to leave Otago Boys’ and unsure about what to do next.
Not every school leaver has - or can have - their career path mapped out. There is nothing wrong with not having a plan, as I did when I was 15.
All I knew was that I had to find my own way, even if it took me to the High Country during inclement weather and to a new country without the support of family and a familiar network to fall back on.
But I was armed with a willingness to give life a go, a determination to view challenges as opportunities, content with the knowledge that breaking into a sweat would not kill me, and a commitment to give it my best shot.
As the Otago Boys' High School motto so aptly states, the right learning builds a heart of oak.
Otago Boys’ helped build my oak-strength foundations, which is why I have been a passionate and long-term supporter of the Otago Boys' High School Foundation and its aim to support and prepare the next generation of young men for whatever challenges await them.
I was only a relatively short-term student at Otago Boys in the early 1970s. But my memories of our school, its values and culture and the long line of outstanding men it has produced make me exceptionally proud to call myself a member of its alumni.