Peter Holley: Man on a mission

06 Nov 2023

Nearly 30 years after he joined Mission Estate, Peter Holley says every single day has been exciting. “It’s all been wet concrete, vibrancy, developing offshore markets, and working alongside the most extraordinary people,” says the Chief Executive of New Zealand’s oldest wine company, established in Hawke’s Bay in 1851 by French missionaries.

Sophie Preece

Since 1996 he’s become well versed in district plans, urban development, commercial property, orchards, silviculture, and viticulture, not to mention hospitality and events, with a busy restaurant and the annual Mission Concert, which has been running for more than 30 years. There’s also been plenty of governance, with Peter recently announced as a New Zealand Winegrowers (NZW) Fellow for his services to industry organisations. “If ever you think about a job that would offer diversity, this would be it,” he says. When Peter and his family moved to New Zealand from South Africa in 1996, Mission was a very different company to today’s successful wine brand, with orchard and forestry interests, along with a lot of unproductive land and non-strategic assets. Peter’s brief was to sell the assets and get the ship in shape.

He’d come from South Africa with an abundance of business acumen, thanks to an honours degree from Rhodes University, gained after three and a half years in the military, followed by Master of Business Leadership from the University of South Africa. He was then chosen to do a management development program at Richardson-Vicks, a wholly owned subsidiary of Procter & Gamble. “That was the start of my business learning”, Peter says. He went on to work for pharmaceutical multinationals for eight years, during which time he established his own business in the field.

He also came to New Zealand with a love of wine, and saw “huge potential” in the wine arm of the Mission business, thanks to a highly undervalued reputation and decades of diligent work being done by the winemakers. “They had a suite of very, very good products that just hadn’t really seen the light of day,” says Peter. “There was a lot of potential here that just needed to be unlocked.

It “needed a spark” and strategic direction, which started with jettisoning “some very average vineyards”, while continuing relationships with “very good growers”, many of whom they’re still working with. High vigour sites were shifted to other opportunities, while Mission developed vineyards on the Gimblett Gravels, then expanded into Marlborough’s Awatere Valley in 2012, with the acquisition of a 100-hectare vineyard, “aligning our production and capability with our markets”, Peter says. For the past nine years viticulturist Steve Wheeler has been ensuring Mission’s fruit quality continues to meet targets, he adds. Meanwhile they’ve developed a winery with “great capacity”, a lot of technology, and a consistent focus on energy efficiency. “And all the devices you can think of to produce quality wine.”

“You can never walk away from the past and there’s a huge story here that still needs to be told. But going forward, you need that balance of being current, progressive and environmentally conscious.” Peter Holley

At the helm of that is winemaker Paul Mooney, who’s been at Mission for nearly 45 years, having joined the Marist brother winemakers in 1979. There are good reasons why people stick around at the company for so long. “I think there are some really good fundamental values around mutual respect and recognition,” Peter says. “A lot of purpose around growing better fruit; around making better wines; around finding different ways of doing things; around alignment; around getting wines around the world, and across New Zealand for that matter – domestic is still the number four market as a country. So many people are aligned so closely with what we are trying to do with quality and delivery.”

As well as his work at Mission Estate, Peter has also been deeply involved in governance, including working on local tourism with the Hawke’s Bay Chamber of Commerce for more than five years, and with Hawke’s Bay Winegrowers in the early 2000s, at which time they launched the Gimblett Gravels. Mission was a founding member of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association, and Peter was Chair of that group for two years. Then in 2012 he was voted onto the New Zealand Winegrowers board, which was “absolutely invigorating”, he says.

The board work offered him levels of insight regarding the resources available, and the “remarkable” value generated by the NZW staff and board for members. “Again there was a great sense of alignment.” It gave him a macro perspective of the industry and deeper understanding of changing legislative and regulatory frameworks, which he would not have had in his management role. “Stepping out of that shadow into a different space was invigorating.” Peter was a director of Bragato Research Institute in its foundation years, which was “challenging but very special to be part of ”. And he is excited by its future. “I think it’s marvellous what’s happening down there. It’s a real feather in the cap of Winegrowers.”

More recently, he has taken on the role of Chair for the Bragato Trust, filling a void left after Kevin Moore passed away, although he says the experienced and committed trust members make his role as chair “relatively straight forward”. Meanwhile there’s more to do at Mission, including tree planting for emission offsets. That’s the latest in a long line of environmental initiatives that began when he arrived, Peter says, recalling an alarming number of people in Hazmat suits, and spray signs on small vineyard blocks being worked by busy people. Peter warned that the behaviours were not sustainable and began to search for a system to bring rigour, resulting in Mission being one of the first wineries in New Zealand to adopt the ISO 14001 environmental management system in 1997. Mission subsequently joined Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, “which is a brilliant programme” Peter says, but kept the ISO 14001 “because it’s a bit more confronting around objectives and what are your goals going forward?”

The standard has allowed for a lot of business improvements, including the winery’s energy efficiency. Now there are plans to plant 16ha of hillside in native trees next year, beautifying Mission’s eastern ridgeline, while protecting it from future development, Peter says. “It’s also around seeing if we can take that road to zero, or even become environmentally positive.”

NZW has been a driving force around increased sustainability and carbon zero targets, he adds, increasingly certain that such moves are “absolutely essential” in terms of market access. On a recent trip to Europe, the change in environmental consciousness was tenfold, he says. “The more we can do, the more we will align with our offshore customers. That’s an imperative really.”

For a business steeped in tradition, the future still needs to be the focus, he says. “You can never walk away from the past and there’s a huge story here that still needs to be told. But going forward, you need that balance of being current, progressive and environmentally conscious.”

More than quarter of a century after he arrived in New Zealand and took on the mission of Mission, “unlocking” its potential has proved a constantly interesting experience, Peter says. “It’s fun, to be honest.”

This was first published in New Zealand Winegrower magazine issue 142 and is republished with permission. 

NZW Fellows 2023
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