Tasman Harvester Contractors Ltd

Reaping business success on both sides of the Tasman

  • Tasman Harvester Contractors

    A fleet of 20 tonne machines in action at pea harvesting time is an impressive sight.

From December to April, the sweet smell of peas permeates the air in Hawke’s Bay.  For Gary Cutts’ company, Tasman Harvester Contractors, this is the five month period its machines are busy harvesting 3000 hectares of peas and 500 hectares of beans for frozen food giant, McCain.

The Cutts family has been involved in the vegetable business for over 40 years, starting when Gary’s father Ross established a harvesting business with his brother in Tasmania in the late 1960s.  With expensive machinery needing to pay its way and the challenge of a short harvesting season, the brothers expanded their operation, moving with the seasons up the Australian coast, finally settling in Queensland.

In 1987, Ross received a call from Hastings-based processing plant, Grower Foods, asking if he had any pea harvesters for sale.  Ross travelled to Hawke’s Bay and saw potential in the area and offered to harvest the peas for them.  As son Gary explains, it was the start of a relationship with Growers and McCain that continues a quarter of a century later.  “Dad started harvesting for Growers and when McCain bought the struggling company in 1996, business grew rapidly.  Dad basically saw an opportunity and grabbed it,” he says.

Not being a Kiwi and confessing to knowing little about the business environment in Hawke’s Bay, Ross sought advice from then Markhams principal Paddy Donovan.  “I met Ross at the County Club in Hastings and he asked me what I knew about peas,” says Paddy.  “I said I knew quite a bit, explaining to him that most nights after rugby we ate pea, pie and ‘pud!” he laughs.

In 1987, Ross and Paddy set up a company to handle the Growers / McCain contract, shipping machinery back and forth across the ditch for each two month season.  As demand for tonnage increased, Ross made the decision to set up a base in Hastings, bringing over staff from Australia to run the operation.  Paddy continued to do the company’s book work and remained as a company director.

The business continued to grow and in 2000, when the Hawke’s Bay manager decided to retire, son Gary took over and has been running it ever since.

“I was only 23 years old at the time so I was pretty much thrown in the deep end,” says Gary. “For the next five years I divided my time between Brisbane and Hawke’s Bay, until Dad retired in 2005 and I bought the business, and moved to the Bay fulltime.”

Tasman Harvester Contractors currently has nine harvesting machines and with a price tag of around $1million each, it’s a serious business.  From December, the machines begin to earn their keep, harvesting 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  But it’s a fragile business, heavily dependent on reliable machinery and exact timing.

“Peas are a very delicate crop and only have a premium harvesting window of 24 hours.  Before that they’re too young, and after that they’re too old.  It’s an exact science to determine when to pick,” explains Gary.

“For a successful harvest it is also essential we can respond to demand from the factory and deliver on time, therefore we cannot sustain any breakdowns or delays.  To mitigate any problems, we spend the winter months in our Fernhill depot doing maintenance; completely overhauling each harvester, basically rebuilding it.  We also use this time to service all of our support vehicles including trucks, hoppers and tractors.  We have to make sure the harvest runs smoothly.”

The giant 20 tonne harvesting machines are manufactured in Holland and according to Gary, are “not the easiest” to service.  For this he relies on his permanent staff of mechanics and engineers who over the years have developed a comprehensive knowledge of their workings.

Markhams has been involved with Gary and his father Ross for 25 years now, taking care of all of the financial aspects of their business, including the day to day tasks of wages for the 5 permanent and 23 seasonal staff, and accounts payable.

“Having one customer (McCain) makes the business fairly simple to administer,” says Gary.   “But Markhams do pretty much everything.”

Gary credits Paddy Donovan as a great mentor to him in the early days.  “I was green, young and trying to run a business, plus I had just moved countries.  Paddy was a brilliant source of advice and local knowledge.  He gave me confidence,” he says.

When Paddy retired, Markhams principal Dan Druzianic and owner Gwen Rurawhe took over the account, continuing to do all the bookwork, wages, GST, tax and financials.  The arrangement suits Gary well, who credits Markhams with taking the hassle out of running the business, leaving him to concentrate on the harvesting.

“It’s simple.  Markhams runs everything very efficiently.  They are incredibly reliable – in 25 years we’ve never been let down. When I go away I know everything’s in hand and being done properly.  They have a good overview of the business and so I don’t need to get involved.  Having Markhams as part of the Tasman team works well.”

Published Spring 2012.


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