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Sir Clifford Skeggs. Photo: Skeggs family.

The Boy from Bluff – from apprentice boat builder to owning a fleet

Wednesday 11 November 2015

By Debbie Hannan

"The boy from Bluff" has a big story to tell about building a large and successful business from scratch through hard work and a vision for future opportunities. Raised in Bluff, Sir Clifford left school at 16.

"I didn't think my family could afford to keep me on at secondary school and in any case I was keen to start making my way in life."

He moved to Port Chalmers and an apprenticeship at Miller and Tunnage boat builders with the goal of moving to becoming a naval architect.

"It was a daunting prospect as a teenager starting out as an apprentice in Port Chalmers, not the least because of the financial hurdle I faced."

His apprenticeship with Miller and Tunnage paid £1 a week and there wasn't much left over after living expenses. The young Cliff began to show his entrepreneurial skills scouting round for work, landing a range of small jobs at the local picture theatre and then "moonlighting", fixing small boats. A keen sailor he built a number of yachts for others. But he wasn't too busy for socialising and met his future bride Marie at the waterside workers Saturday night dance. Marie lived in nearby Deborah Bay with her fishing family, the Ledgerwoods.

"I was a bit nervous of Marie's father Bill and was always scared I would run into him and his brother Syd who owned the fishing boat Awatea when I was seeing Marie home. The boys at Miller and Tunnage always used to have me on as Bill Ledgerwood was a well-known and highly reputable fisherman."

Having completed his apprenticeship, he and Marie married at the Dunedin registry office on March 21, 1952.

"I knew then that she was the one for me and after 62 years' marriage she still is." It was around that time that Sir Clifford spotted an opportunity with the emerging boom in crayfishing.

"I could see the boom was coming and instead of pushing on with earlier plans of becoming a naval architect I put my new skills to use, recruiting four boat builders I had served my apprenticeship with and started up a business specialising in the conversion of fishing boats for crayfishing on the West Coast and around Stewart Island.

"I was 22 at the time and I invested my life savings of £240 to get the business going."

After two years he moved on from that and embarked on a bold venture with his father-in-law Bill Ledgerwood to purchase and take delivery of a 14m Australian vessel the Marion Bay which he described as a "clapped out old heap" they got very cheaply.

"Bill and I and a navigator sailed her from Hobart to Bluff, a distance of 950 nautical miles. Sir Clifford reckons that ship today would not have been allowed to leave port.

"We had no life raft, no dinghies, no support of any sort." On arrival at Bluff they were met by Customs and Police wanting to know where they had come from and were rebuked for not making a customs declaration prior to arrival and failing to report their arrival to the harbourmaster.

"We got the bullets from both sides, but fortunately as an ex-Bluffie I knew the customs officer otherwise they might have flung us in jail and asked questions later." They eventually got clearance and sailed for Port Chalmers where they converted the Marion Bay for crayfishing. Sir Clifford scotched rumours that his father-in-law financed him into fishing.

"I had scraped the money together for my 50 per cent share even though there were rumours that my father-in-law helped me go into business. That definitely wasn't the case one iota, and I was able to come up with the funds myself through the various work I had on the go."

Ledgerwood and Sir Clifford chased the crayfish around the West Coast and after four years fishing he came ashore to manage Otakou Fisheries Ltd fishing fleet where he watched very closely how they processed fish for export. As he was entitled to half the catch from the Marion Bay he decided to take the share and try his hand at exporting them himself.

"I managed to persuade Johnson's Fish Supply in Dunedin to let me use the back of their shop to pack the crayfish. There is no way that would be allowed today because of the conditions in the fish shop and the current hygiene regulations. But it worked at the time and Marie and I spent an entire weekend packing our first export order. We packed half a tonne, that's 1676 cartons of cray tails altogether. It was extremely hard work washing and wrapping the individual tails which had to be kept frozen and later stored in a cool store, awaiting the arrival of the overseas freighter.

"So here we were Marie and I, working on our own with no money to speak of, taking on a financially sound company like Otakou as well as a major New Zealand company, the National Mortgage & Agency, which was also in the fishing business."

"It was 1958 and I was ready to launch my own company and take on the fishing industry big boys. Skeggs Fisheries Ltd was born. "The fishing business escalated over the years to having at its peak a fleet of 68 boats operating out of Bluff, the Port of Otago, Nelson and Wellington. A major milestone occurred in 1967 with the purchase in 1967 of a Southland fleet of 27 fishing vessels. And in the 1970s the company began "eyeing up" Nelson as a deep water fishing base with moves into squid and orange roughy fishing. He reckons these days you couldn't buy on the scale he did then because banks aren't nearly as sympathetic to risk taking. Fishing was a risky business. Sir Clifford acknowledges that he may have been regarded over the years as a risk taker, but he says he was never a trader.

"When I acquired assets my plan was to hold on to them and grow them. This in turn created widespread employment opportunities. At its peak Skeggs Group employed as many as 890 people throughout New Zealand."

Sir Clifford spent the rest of his working life expanding the business into other areas to create Skeggs Foods and the Skeggs Group. As well as leading a large, diverse and successful business he became prominent in local government, serving as Otago Harbour Board Chairman and Mayor of Dunedin. His lifetime of service to business and the community earned him a Knighthood in 1987.

And in 2000 he entered the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame: "Both great honours and highlights of what has been a very long and stimulating journey for the boy from Bluff." He and Marie live in semi-retirement in Central Otago.

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