New Zealand’s Hutchins and Real Journeys: pioneering and inspirational entrepreneurs

This article on Real Journeys and the Hutchins was published by the Irish Times today.

I recently visited the South Island of New Zealand for the first time – an achingly beautiful part of our planet. My most memorable day was a trip to Doubtful Sound, in Fiordland (the south west of South Island) – reputedly named by Captain Cook in 1770, who doubted whether he could extract his sailing ships from the narrow inlet and fjords. To reach Doubtful Sound, you are brought by bus from the local town Te Anua to Lake Manapouri, then by boat across the lake to the West Arm hydroelectric station, then by another bus over the 670m high Wilmot Pass (the only road in New Zealand not connected to the rest of its road network), finally down to Doubtful Sound and the Tasman Sea. The travel company involved is Real Journeys, founded by Les and Olive Hutchins in 1954. They have received many honors, and Sir Leslie passed in December 2003.

Real Journeys is a preeminent tourism company in New Zealand. It runs the vintage Edwardian steamship TSS Earnslaw; many day and overnight cruises in Fiordland; sight-seeing flights; a ferry service; treks; tours and lodging. There is also an associated foundation named promoting education on conservation.

However back in 1954, Fiordland was extremely remote, and tourism there was almost non-existent. Les Hutchins, aged 29, a demobbed WWII air force pilot, sold up his furniture business to found his new tourism company with his wife Olive. They bought two elderly launches, two crumbling huts and a dilapidated lodge, all of which had to be refurbished. They also upgraded the 18km trek across the Wilmot Pass. What I recently experienced as a day trip to Doubtful Sound was then launched as a four day expedition by the young Hutchins.

A major challenge to their business came in 1960 when the national Government formally decided to undertake what became New Zealand’s largest construction project, the Lake Manapouri hydroelectric station at West Arm. This involved an impressive 230m vertical tunnel from the lake down to the 68 cubic metre main turbine hall, and then a 10km long tailrace tunnel (to Doubtful Sound), all of which had to be excavated from hard granite. But in particular the plans involved raising the depth of Lake Manapouri by a further 30m to merge it with the neighboring Lake Te Anau, which then would obviously have flooded the surrounding land and almost certainly ended the Hutchins fledgling business. The Hutchins campaigned vigorously on conservation grounds, and eventually won against the Government: the lake depth was not to be increased. The hydroelectric station became operational in 1969, and today an underground visit to the impressive station is included by Real Journeys.

Ireland, and almost every economy in the world, is desperately keen to cultivate more entrepreneurs and hence employment. But how do you go about creating a greater pool of entrepreneurs ? What is it that inspires entrepreneurs to take the risks that they do ?

In my own view, there are two categories of entrepreneurs: “pioneers” and “followers”. I view the Hutchins as examples of pioneering entrepreneurs since they showed that it was possible to create a new business when most thought it had absolutely no chance of success. But the Hutchins showed otherwise, and they have spawned an entire new industry in their particular region. Other entrepreneurs were inspired to follow the leadership example of the pioneering Hutchins, thus creating a new tourism sector, a cluster of companies and resultant employment in New Zealand. The Hutchins are widely honored and revered as the inspirational founders of much of the current New Zealand tourist industry, particularly those companies involving adventure sports and exploration of New Zealand’s wonderful natural spaces.

Leading entrepreneurs stimulate further entrepreneurship. While entrepreneurship can be, and is, taught nevertheless the best learning comes by understanding the personal stories of other entrepreneurs. Students of entrepreneurship may undertake MBA courses. Universities may adjust their academic courses to promote entrepreneurship. Governments may demand that educationalists produce graduates ostensibly more suited to the needs of the national economy. However, in my view, the key catalyst to creating entrepreneurs is the inspiration of others.

Meeting with, and discussing the experiences of, successful entrepreneurs inspires others to follow. People start thinking if a guy like Les can be an entrepreneur well then I almost certainly can do so too, and maybe even more successfully than him! People who may consider themselves “ordinary” may feel encouraged if they believe that since other “ordinary” people have achieved extraordinary results, well then maybe there is a reason for hope and optimism.

The more entrepreneurs that are clustered together in a particular region, the more there will be others inspired to become entrepreneurs. The more that inspirational entrepreneurial stories are told, the more that others will be tempted to follow and do even better. Silicon Valley works because it has an immense pool of entrepreneurs, built up over the last fifty years, with both pioneers and followers. If Ireland wants to develop an entrepreneurial culture, it is so important to attract and retain experienced entrepreneurs who are willing to personally tell their stories and inspire others.

Les Hutchins published his autobiography “Making Waves” in 1998. It is now out of print, but I recommend it to you.


About chrisjhorn
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