A lot has changed for Morgan and Shirley Donelley, since the early days when they started their family run forestry business over 45 years ago. The couple founded Donelley Sawmillers, a thriving sawmill, located in Reporoa on the edges of New Zealand’s remote Kaiangoroa forest.
Now run by their son, Aaron, Donelley Sawmillers is one of New Zealand’s leading producers of high value, clear wood from quality, pruned radiata pine sought after by customers, including Abodo, around the world.
The sawmill now employs 45 people and produces over 230 cubic metres of high quality export grade timber per day. A far cry from the two man band operation that Donelley Sawmillers used to be in the early seventies when it was producing a modest two cubic metres of skinny fence posts a day.
The humble batten and a small bank loan marked the beginnings for the couple. Morgan, then in his early twenties, and newly wed to his wife of 45 years, Shirley, was driving trucks for the local dairy company as a way to make ends meet for the family.
But a spate of bad road accidents (none of which were his fault, recalls Morgan) and a feeling of lacklustre for his job prompted him to re-evaluate the direction life’s course was taking him on.
With Morgan having always had a strong interest and background in wood, the couple decided to purchase a small batten mill located in the Waiotapu Forest, not far from where the current sawmilling business is located. And to fund their new enterprise, they took out a small bank loan amounting to $2,500.
“I had always been involved in bush work and trees working with dad, and the opportunity to buy a batten mill came up” says Morgan. “So we decided to head out to the forest. Much to the disgust of my father in law at the time!”
But just a few years into the new business major changes occurred in the New Zealand’s forestry industry prohibiting operators like Morgan from processing timber products like fencing and battens in the forest. “They didn’t want people processing timber in the forest anymore. So everyone had to move out and have timber carted out to another location”.
While it didn’t seem like it at the time, this turn of events was somewhat serendipitous for the couple in terms of the growth of the business and the next chapter of their life. Closing down the forest to small producers like Morgan prompted the couple to buy 30 acres of land on the edge of the Kaingaroa forest, equidistant between New Zealand’s beautiful great Lake Taupo and Lake Rotorua.
There they set up their own sawmilling operation. Instead of low value battens, they could now process larger logs into timber – and a lot more of it. Further, since the mill was positioned right on the edge of the forest, they didn’t have to cart the logs far for processing which meant more throughput as well as creating less transportation, waste, and noise related pollution.
With three children in tow the couple built the family home – now the company’s office, right next to the mill overlooking a series of snow capped mountains in Tongariro National Park – a dual World Heritage area that later became the children’s playground while growing up as well as solace for Morgan and Shirley.
“We’ve had a lot of time fishing and hunting. So it hasn’t been all slogging away”.
With the committed couple at the helm, the Donelley sawmilling business went from producing the equivalent of one container of timber each day in 1977 to more than four containers in the early 2000s. The high number of long standing staff that have remained at the sawmill as skilled craftsmen since its founding years, is testament to the couple’s passion for people as much as timber.
And as production grew, they purchased the bordering land to prevent any run-off and noise encounters with the neighbours. But for Morgan and Shirley there was never any resting on their laurels for long. The original carriage mill that had been processing all the company’s timber until the early 2000’s was now no longer suitable for producing the smaller diameter logs being felled, so the couple had to find something that would fit the bill.
“They (corporate foresters) were knocking the forests down at such a rate that the logs we were getting were a lot smaller (in diameter). So we had to get something that could produce the logs a little quicker. The current carriage mill just wouldn’t do”.
Thankfully a nearby local sawmilling equipment company told Morgan about a piece of sawmilling equipment in Sweden that might be perfect. He knew he had to see it and in 2000 the two hopped on a plane and travelled to Hovmantorp, a small locality south west of Stockholm, to investigate. Within one week Morgan knew he had to have it.
“We decided that was what we wanted, what we needed. And we bought it. Then we returned home and rounded up a crew of nine guys from the (timber) yard to collect it with us. We also had two girls (including Shirley) come over to do all the cooking and the washing for us” laughs Morgan.
The only catch being that the equipment was in Sweden and it was all in one piece. Too big to ship as a whole, the most economical way to get it home was to dismantle and transport it all the way back home to New Zealand in containers for reassembling. “It was like a big Meccano (power tool) set” says Morgan. “We pulled the whole thing down, pulled out all the wiring – everything! Then labelled the whole lot, loaded it into containers and put it back exactly how we found it when we got back home six weeks later”.
But for the six weeks it took Morgan and his team to pull the equipment down in Sweden, it took another twelve months and ten people working full time to put it back together.
“An awful lot of Morgan’s time was spent down at the sawmill, which was fine because it had to be. He’d spend up to fifteen to sixteen hours a day down there for that whole twelve months” recalls Shirley. “It’s pretty hard to imagine the mill as it is now” says Morgan. “Every piece of the mill had to be cut down to a certain width to fit into the container. It was quite a mission! But we had a lot of photos of the old mill, of how we cut it, how we pulled it down”.
Each night, for one year, when everyone had finished for the day Morgan would spend endless hours pulling it out of the containers and laying it out yard of exactly how he wanted it to go in the sawmill so his staff would know what to assemble the next morning.
“Then when the morning came I would go back down with a forklift so they could start putting everything together and I’d go back to reassembling”. An arduous process, but the couple never doubted the hard yards would pay off. Today the sawmill’s equipment produces between five and six containers of wood daily – nearly forty percent more than what they were producing before they bought the machinery.
While much of the company’s production is exported off shore, Abodo are amongst some of the sawmill’s largest customers and supporters who prize the sawmill’s clear focus on producing New Zealand’s highest quality milled timber. Forty five years on, Morgan and Shirley have since retired from the day-to-day operations, handing over the reins to son Aaron. He is now the managing director of Donelley Sawmillers after fighting for years to become involved in the business. “I had to kick and scream to get in there but it was worth it. I love it”. “He’s certainly brought it up to another level” says Shirley.
She is right. In the five years since Aaron started he has successfully doubled the output and turnover of the family business. He also takes pride in the fact that neither he nor his father have had to let go of one single staff member in the entire history of the business. “We’ve never made anyone redundant within the forty years we’ve been going. If you’ve got a job with Donelleys, you’ve got a job for life”.
Knowing the business has been left in good hands, Morgan and Shirley now spend their time on more leisurely activities including fishing with friends on their boat in the Coromandel and spending time with family in their recently built home nestled in the hills overlooking farmland and the tranquil Lake Rotorua. In the warmer summer months the couple’s five grandchildren are often found splashing around in the pool which is framed with Abodo Decking in Sand.
“Originally we were going to go with concrete outside, but I convinced mum and dad that Abodo (decking) was the way to go. Plus, it’s pretty special having timber that we originally milled back in our own home. They couldn’t be happier”. Morgan certainly looks it. “I can do what I want to do now. I still really enjoy restoring my old truck and hunting” he says pointing to his “pride and joy” – a set of 19 pointer deer antlers proudly displayed on the wall of his man cave at the back of the couple’s new property.
“I have a great hunting block that I go to with a mate. It’s where we go to get back into the bush. I cut firewood, shoot a few deer and drive a bulldozer – all the things that I enjoy really”.
Family oriented, the couple love nothing better than to soak up the sun and relax in their newly built home situated on the Eastern side of Rotorua. With sweeping views of Lake Rotorua and Mount Ngongotaha, the 500 sq meter house is a charming balance between modern and homely, designed to accommodate their growing family, including five grandchildren.
Both the exterior and interior boast a blend of beautiful stone and timbers, including Fijian Kauri, Italian rumbled stone and Abodo Decking in Sand. “We couldn’t not use Abodo” says Shirley. “It’s just such a great timber for the outdoors”. Morgan’s “man cave” beside the house was designed as a spacious area to home his beloved restored truck and as an additional spot to enjoy a quiet whisky with friends.