Monday, April 22, 2024

Ten million wool bales later, Cochrane hangs his hat

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Rob Cochrane started his career in the stock and station industry sorting mail. After 50 years in the industry and perhaps 1000 auctions, he retired this month.
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Time has flashed by – “50 years in fact” – for Rob Cochrane, who started his stock and station industry career fresh out of school with Dalgety New Zealand in Christchurch.  

“I was the mail boy sorting mail, licking stamps and running errands.” 

He went on to spend time in both the wool and livestock divisions, as well as familiarising himself with other sectors of the company.

His livestock training centred on what were then the Addington saleyards, learning to assess different classes of stock. 

“Wool gave us plenty of opportunities to earn a few extra dollars working at night in the on-site wool dump. Daytimes we spent in the bin room, learning wool types and classing. 

“Local wool auction sales were an important part of the training.” 

In 1975 Cochrane became a junior livestock agent in Rangiora, gaining promotion and shifting over the following few years to Culverden, then Southbridge.

Working as an agent enabled him to develop auctioneering skills, covering all aspects of livestock, including clearing sales. 

“At the start you were given pigs to auction. If you could do that, you were moved on to sheep, then finally cattle. 

“Once I was even asked to auction off a couple of racehorses from the birdcage at Riccarton racecourse. It was a good job, there was an expert handy and I kept a close eye on him.”

Rob Cochrane, pictured here in the 1980s, estimates he would have sold 10 million wool bales over the years.

Come 1982, and Dalgety’s Christchurch wool department needed an auctioneer. 

Developing wool-valuing and sales skills, Cochrane also learnt all aspects of the wool business, including on trips with local livestock agents to canvas wool growers in Marlborough, Nelson, the West Coast and wider Canterbury. 

With his patch extending far to the east, visits to the Chatham Islands were a special feature. 

In the heyday of wool in the early 1980s the industry supported eight wool auction centres – Auckland, Napier, Whanganui, Wellington, Christchurch, Timaru, Dunedin and Invercargill. 

“That’s down to two now [Christchurch and Napier]. I was auctioneer at the last Timaru wool auction, held in 1983.”

Consolidating the auction centres was a big change.

“Back then wool was displayed in broker stores for exporters to value, shown in farm bales with the cap sewn on and one corner opened to reveal the wool. It was auctioned in the town where the wool was stored. “Grab sampling technology led to plenty of change, enabling centralisation of a show floor to value the samples, a reduction of auction centres, less need for the exporters to travel, and smaller exporter teams.”

While not keeping an exact count, Cochrane suggests he would have conducted between 800 and 1000 auctions through the years, selling some 10 million bales.

“Compared to livestock, auctioning wool is totally different. With stock many people in the gallery are essentially amateur buyers, farmers going in once or twice a year to buy store stock. 

“Wool buyers attend many more auctions and are basically professional. They know what they can spend and are focused on what to spend it on. 

“There were around 45 at Christchurch wool auctions when I started, down to around 15 now.”

In 1984 Crown Corporation bought Dalgety NZ and the company became Dalgety Crown, then in 1986, after merging with Wrightson NMA, it first became Wrightson Dalgety, then Wrightson.

In 1991 Cochrane co-founded a new Christchurch-based wool auction brokerage trading across the upper South Island.

“Starting a new business from scratch, developing and growing that business at a time when we had a young family, was challenging, though rewarding.” 

It paid off when the business sold in 2000 and the new owner appointed Cochrane to manage its South Island-wide wool broking operation, which he did for the following five years.

Rob Cochrane conducts his final auction on February 15 flanked by Dave Burridge, left, and Grant Edwards.

 More change came in 2005 when the newly merged PGG and Wrightson offered him the role of South Island Wool manager.

“During 2006 I had the opportunity to travel to Melbourne on several occasions to auction wool for the NZ Merino Company, then 50% owned by PGG Wrightson. 

“They were different to NZ wool auctions. There were more bidders in the Melbourne auction room than we had in Christchurch, the auction tended to go quicker and you had to get used to the Aussie twang.”

Shortly after the final merger a new entity, Wool Partners International (WPI) was established, including the PGG Wrightson Wool business. 

Cochrane became wool procurement manager for WPI. 

“We were aiming to bring growers and brokers together to give the industry the resources and momentum it needed to make wool more profitable again in export markets. 

“Our initial objective was to float the company with a nationwide capital raise through a series of roadshows, involving extensive travel from Whangārei in the north to Tuatapere in the south. 

Along with everyone else involved with WPI, Cochrane was disappointed when the capital raise fell short.

“It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a difference. We had large numbers of farmers at several of the meetings, obviously in favour. 

“Younger farmers might have another crack at it in future and change the way the wool industry does things, though that’s for another generation to work out.”

After WPI Cochrane again donned the PGG Wrightson uniform and resumed his role as South Island wool procurement manager. 

While it has been tough to remain positive during the recent past as wool prices remained low and the number of sheep producing wool continually reduced, Cochrane said as he put down his gavel for the final bid on February 15, “the wool industry is still a good one”.

“Although I’m looking forward to enjoying more time with my family, maybe more bowling and some tripping around, I’ll miss my fellow staff and wider industry contacts.”

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