Paddy reflects on 50 years at Pukeuri

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For Paddy, Pukeuri is all about the people.

Paddy Ford went to work at the Pukeuri freezing works at age 14.

Now aged 70, he’s still there as supervisor of the slaughter board, or as it is more widely known, the board walker.

This season, the well-known North Otago identity celebrates 50 years at the Alliance-owned plant.

Chatting on Tuesday, he said he started as a ticket boy in the 1957/57 killing season. He was not long out of St Patrick’s Primary in Waimate.

“I worked on the old east chain in the middle floor; it was a two-chain shed. In 1959/60, it went up to a four chain shed.

“I left and went away in 1960/61 and was at Mataura and came back in 1963.”

He came back and stayed.

And it is a move he has never regretted.

“If I had my life over again, I’d do it again. I’ve enjoyed Pukeuri, and Alliance has treated me very well.”

Before talking about himself, Mr Ford wanted to emphasise some of the most significant moments about the plant during his time there.

“In the 1990s when Waitaki Refrigeration went under, if it wasn’t for Sandy Murdoch (he was the manager here), we were lucky to survive. He’s now in Australia and not in the meat industry, but my thought is we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

A devastating fire in 2006 around Christmas time was also memorable.

“I’d been in Auckland over Christmas. When I got home, Chris McLeod, the foreman, had left a message saying there’d been a fire and that there’d be a meeting at 8 o’clock next morning.

“We arrived at work and the manager then, Danny Hailes, a very astute man, spoke for 10 minutes and then he took us for a look round. When we got inside, it looked like a war zone. Danny said to us, ‘boys, you’ll have to roll your sleeves up because we can’t bring outsiders in; it’s too dangerous’.”

It took three days to clean up the destruction left in cutting rooms and chillers and on the cooling floor.

“At the end of each day, we looked more like coal miners than freezing workers. But the amazing thing was, we were in the height of the season and we got it going again in six weeks. I give credit to Danny Hailes and his organisation.”

Mr Ford credits also Chris McLeod and then production manager Bill Stevenson for helping the plant branch into a new area about 18 years ago.

“Bill Stevenson and Chris McLeod decided to get calves; they flew to the North Island to Dairy Meats and they did a deal.

“The first year, they did 45,000, the next year 90,000 and only three sheds were doing them in the South Island. Today, there are 15 sheds around the South Island.

“That gave work to 600 people here; it gave 10 months’ work. That meant a lot to the business community and the town.”

For 38 years, Mr Ford has, as he describes it, been “board walking” and he modelled his approach on that of one man.

“My first boss was Ray Luke in 1963. I watched him for 12 years. He was a man who liked discipline and set standards and they were high. But he was very fair and he gained respect. That’s what I tried to follow in the next 30 years as a boardwalker.

“I’ve done 50 years but there are a lot of people here close to 50 years. There’s one family with three generations, the Te Maiharoas from Glenavy. Peter is still working here, coming up 40 years.”

After 50 years, he said the plant was in fine shape.

“Pukeuri has never been run better; it’s been well managed by Geoff Proctor, a man very strong on health and safety, and the plant is of a very high standard.

“Last week, we had visitors from Europe and they were very impressed by the shed standard.”

When Mr Ford started, 38 men were processing 3500 lambs/sheep a day. Then it went to 66 men and it is now down to 32 workers due to new slaughterboard technology. In the past also some of the work was physically hard and he said some workers were “buggered” by the time they were aged 48 to 50.

He has encountered many characters over the years and recalled several, one of them a man named Red, who enjoyed more than an occasional nip of whiskey during the day. Mr Ford could not understand how Red became more intoxicated as the working day rolled on. He looked everywhere to find where Red stashed his whiskey.

“I hadn’t been long supervising but I found it – he hid in a cistern in the toilet.”

Red saw that day out and that was it.

Mr Ford is well known in North Otago rugby, also having played 100 first class matches for the province, including three Ranfurly Shield challenges. He was a goal-kicking flanker and he can still rattle off the scores from those shield losses.

Married to Jill for 46 years, he has two daughters and four grandchildren.

He said for the last 12 months people had started asking him when he was going to retire.

“I tell them they’ll be the first to know and then they don’t ask so much. Next year Pukeuri is 100 years old and there’s going to be a preliminary function. I’d like to attend that and then I’ll decide when I’ll retire.”

Retire or not, he said the most important thing about Pukeuri to him were the people.

“The people make it; the guts of Pukeuri is the people.”

By CHRIS TOBIN