Flying the flag for cider
Gisborne personality and cider producer/entrepeneur Brian Shanks informed and entertained members of U3A when he spoke of his life in the industry. The Gisborne Herald’s Wynsley Wrigley was in the audience.
'I enjoy having a drink every now and then' . . . It's a statement many Kiwis make, on any given day.
But Brian Shanks turned his liking for a beer or cider into a successful career, where he has been head-hunted by Britain's iconic Bulmers cidery, and by an American, all because of his successful local Harvest Cider business.
Brian told U3A members he and his wife Irene owned a small apple orchard and sold direct to the public seven days a week which allowed them to “get the money before the bank did”.
But there were frustrations.
He said orchardists needed to pull out a number of “perfectly good trees which are impervious to drought and changes of government” to plan ahead in anticipation of changes in the market — “or what you think will be wanted (by the public) in five years time”.
“That's quite daft — it doesn't make sense.”
One idea suggested to him, but not recommended, was to go into cider.
But Brian said he liked the idea because it added immense added value, “and I enjoy a drink every now and then”.
“It sounded like fun.
“If you put your heart and soul into something that you really like, you do it really well.”
Their Gisborne cider business, started in 1989, soon took off.
The couple produced 5000 litres in their first year, 5000 litres a month in the next year and then 5000 litres a week.
The next four years was “a brilliant adventure” with yearly income increasing from around $120,000-150,000 to $4 million.
It was then that two men wearing bowler hats knocked on their door.
They were “the bosses of Bulmers”, the largest cider company in Britain, in business for over 200 years.
Brian became a director, and using New Zealand techniques, helped the “empire” grow, including by developing a cidery in China.
There were many complexities in operating a business in China “where the boss was a little general in the Red Army.”
Brian also encountered cultural issues in Britain — the class system.
He said you could tell where a Bulmers employee worked in the factory from their accent.
The various groups did not speak to each other and communicated by using emissaries.
“I could talk to anybody at any level of the workplace.”
Brian returned to New Zealand where he ran what was now known as Bulmer Harvest. He became a director of Fosters when the Bulmer family sold their business to the Australian beer group .
In 2010 he was rung by American farmer John Washburn who was looking for help to start a cider business in Virginia.
“Any idea is a good idea until it's proved right or wrong,” said Brian.
The American rang again six month later.
“He seemed serious,” said Brian, who travelled to the US and helped establish Bold Rock cider.
Today the company is the largest independently owned cidery in the country. Bold Rock distributes cider to 10 states, employs 250 people and has a turnover of nearly $50m.
Brian said the American gun culture was a shock.
He initially did not notice them.
“I thought they were little telephones.”
Early on in the development of the Virginia cidery he went to an excise officer for advice.
Instead of a New Zealand office-type tax officer, he found a man sitting in front of an American flag armed with a baton, a taser and a gun on his hip.
Thinking like a Kiwi businessman, Brian asked, “what if I do it this way?”
The American leaned forward, moved his arms and said, “what part of 'no' don't you understand, boy?”
Brian replied: "I understand it all".
Five years later, the man works for Bold Rock, advising the company on how to negotiate the legal complexities in the US.
Despite some challenging cultural experiences in the US, he has immense respect for the country.
“I found out Americans are, on the whole, really hard-working, honest people and not at all like some of the idiots that you see portrayed in the media,” he said. “The US deserves better PR!”
He estimates 40 or 50 percent of Bold Rock staff carry a gun and 60 percent have a gun in their car.
Today, in the world of Covid-19, the Shanks are home in Gisborne.
Brian conducts business all over the world by Zoom.
But it is not the same.
He laments that you can't get to know people.
“You can't look them in the eye and make an evaluation.”
But looking back over his career in the cider industry, Brian says, “It's been a great journey.”
■ U3A — University of the Third Age — is an organisation of mature-age people who join together to enjoy a range of learning experiences.
The next monthly meeting is at the Cosmopolitan Club on March 4. The guest speaker at that next meeting will be race relations conciliator and former Gisborne mayor Meng Foon.