Peter FRANCIS Olsen was born in Taihape in 1930. Descended from Scandinavian stock, Peter’s father was a government worker in the social welfare department. Growing up in a white-collar family and a blue-collar town, Peter developed a strong social conscience. His outstanding empathy for others and his social values later became the backbone of his company. Peter’s sister June commented that Peter had “a great way of believing that everyone was special and everyone had a contribution to make”. “He always listened. He had a tremendous understanding of people.” She recalls their father’s insistence on being positive in the face of any challenge: “Father always said to us: ‘What do you mean you can’t do something? Just go and do it.’ For us, there was no such thing as can’t: we would always find a way.”
This philosophy, which rubbed off on Peter as a child, sparked several audacious enterprises and would cause many headaches for his forestry staff.
When he was about 16, Peter worked for a neighbour who was running a small sawmilling operation for native logs. This experience whetted his appetite for forestry work and at the age of 18 he joined the Forest Service as a junior labourer. After a period of time working on the National Forest Survey, Peter was accepted as a forestry trainee and attended Victoria University to do a BSc in botany.
There was a distinctly pioneering element about the New Zealand Forest Service at the time. Foresters were posted to remote regions in very basic conditions with minimal equipment. At a time when forestry was undergoing rapid development at nearly all levels, the young Peter Olsen with his fertile mind, innovative ideas, practical skills and innate sense of adventure found the perfect niche for himself.
After completing their science degrees, Peter and a few friends travelled to Canberra where they studied for a Diploma in Forestry at the Australian Forestry School in 1954 and 1955. In those days, there was no specialist forestry school in New Zealand so trainees were sent overseas to study. Peter was relatively young to be attending postgraduate study, but he was always ahead of the game.
Upon completing his forestry diploma and returning to New Zealand in 1955, Peter was posted to the Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Rotorua for two years. During this time he developed an abiding interest in science, particularly in genetic tree improvement. His commitment to research became an important part of the company culture and Peter’s fascination with genetic tree improvement was particularly fruitful.
After his stint at FRI, Peter was sent to Kaingaroa as a forester and rose quickly through the ranks. Even then he was recognised as one of the bright young prospects in the Forest Service.
Making his mark
In 1965, Peter Olsen travelled to the States to do a consulting job that involved assessing forest resources. While there, Peter also undertook a job for John Spencer to investigate a deal on a paper machine. Upon his return to New Zealand, Peter wrote a report for...