RON DAVIS – THANKS, TEACHER!
By Des Williams
The career of Ron Davis in the wool industry started with a phone call from his older brother Len, who had left their Coromandel home a couple of years earlier to work for George Potae at Milton.
“It was 1963 and Len rang me to see if I was interested in coming down to work in the sheds. My immediate thought was, ‘That sounds like a good idea’.”
But Ron’s school teacher didn’t quite share that view. By his own estimation the young Davis ‘wasn’t doing too badly at school in my fourth form year’ and teacher Rod McMorran tried to talk him out of it.
“Mr McMorran spoke to my Mum and Stepfather and reckoned I had potential to do well in a more orthodox career and that would be wasted in a shearing shed. So, while my parents were keen for me to go and start work, Rod did his darndest to hold me back. He even said to me, ‘Look boy, I’ve never known anyone to make it in the shearing industry and you will find it very tough.’”
In a sentence, the well-meaning teacher had provided Ron with a life-long motivation for working hard. “His words were the catalyst for me going down south and adopting a head down, bum up attitude’ to work. I’ve never regretted my decision and his words have always been in the back of my mind, pushing me to do my best at whatever is in front of me.”
So, Ron ventured down south at the age of 15 and for the next two or three weeks was wondering if teacher McMorran might have been right after all. He did find the going tough and wondered if he should go home and resume his high-schooling. Before those thoughts became too dominant in his mind he found some much-needed support.
“I’d come down with a little haversack on my back, wearing my school shorts and roman sandals and I had about ten quid in my pocket. I remember getting off the train and going to the quarters which was known as The Ranch. The biggest house I had ever seen!
“In those days you joined the gang and were virtually ‘chucked in at the deep end’. After a brief introduction to the mandatory straw broom, you were expected to pick it up and work it out for yourself. If you were told to do something you weren’t given very long before you were expected to be putting it into practice.
“Then I met up with the Russell twins, Graham and Ken, who were working in the gang. They were known as ‘Monday’ and ‘Tuesday’ respectively and it was Tuesday who took me under his wing and started educating me in the way of the sheds.”
Before long however (time passes quickly when you are having fun) Ron had graduated from picking up fleeces to pressing the bales and from there to the end of a handpiece. By the age of 17 he had done his first 200 on lambs.
“People working at Potae’s all had great work ethics and they were tally-driven. They went to the sheds each morning hell-bent on doing a hard and full day’s work and that just rubbed off on newcomers. And when people achieved tally milestones the gang would celebrate the occasion. That attitude got a lot of people up and running.”
Ron found himself mixing with and being inspired by the gun shearers who worked for George at that time. Ben King, Arthur James, Brian Quinn, Eddie Reidy …
“Eddie became very important to me. Like me, he wasn’t very big and at the time I weighed about eight stone[50kg]. He spent a lot of time with me developing technique, footwork, positioning of sheep and all the things he used to do differently himself in order to compensate for his lack of size.
“I remember Eddie shore 500s fifteen days in a row and I’d like to know of anyone else who’s done that. But he never sacrificed quality to get them out the porthole, whether he was doing 300 or 500. For me it was such a good era to be learning the trade.”
There came the day when George put young Ron Davis out in Norrie Eason’s two-stand shed with Snow Quinn, their mission to shear 4500 “big fat ewes”.
“Snow was ‘pinking’ about 300 every day and I was struggling through about 170. ‘By the time we have finished this shed you will be doing 200 a day consistently,’ Snow said to me.
“How the hell am I going to do that? I asked myself and Snow at the same time. ‘You will race me! At the start I’ll be doing six or seven more than you every half hour and you are going to cut that back to five or six every half hour!’
“That tactic seemed to work and on the fifth day I had my first 200. But then first run next morning I could only manage 46 and was wondering where I would find the energy to do 200 again. Again, Snow encouraged me but warned I was not to sacrifice skin or leave wool on just to keep up the numbers.
“You really need to look at your tallies from the perspective of what they look like outside. Rough sheep generally means poor technique.”
Ron also noted (later on) how Ivan Rosandich used to spend the first 20 minutes of each day working on his rhythm, control and testing his gear. He would pick the best sheep in his pen to shear first and by the time he got onto the tougher ones he was already in full swing. “He usually dropped a few sheep behind the others while he was doing that, but he’d always caught up again by the end of the day.”
By absorbing the lessons on offer, Ron was occupying a stand full time for Potae’s by the time he was 18. Then within a couple of years he was married to Jenny and decided he (with another shearer) would go out shearing an open run around Balclutha. When his shearing partner moved on Ron set up a small contracting run, still learning everything he could as fast as he could.
“Then in 1972 Jenny and I bought a run-down dairy farm at Wangaloa and began milking cows. Everything we made went back into developing the farm, fencing, drainage, water scheme. Interest rates were rising and it really put a strain on our resources so I would milk in the mornings and be at a shearing shed by morning smoko, while Jenny did the evening milkings.
“As if that wasn’t enough to keep us busy, I started as an instructor with the New Zealand Wool Board in 1974 – a part time role that would continue for the next 23 years. Then with the dairy farm improving all the time I went back to doing some open run shearing in and around Wangaloa.
“One shed I did had 4000 ewes and lambs to shear so I set up handpieces on three stands with 25 sheep in each pen and I would just go like the clappers and work through to about 6.30pm before knocking off. I would be in bed and sound asleep by 9.00 or 9.30 most nights!”
That sort of regime meant keeping a close watch on personal health and wellbeing, Ron recalled. That was another thing George Potae had been very good at – assessing the physical condition of shearers who were going hard day after day in order to manage their workload.
“If someone looked like they were getting ‘run down’ he would subtly adjust their workload or change the crew or do something just to ease the pressure.”
As well as being highly competitive every day in the sheds, George was a great supporter of the competitions and making sure staff had the opportunity to go to shows when they wanted. It was in that atmosphere that Ron, fellow woolhandler Herb Brown, George and Ben King (shearers) won themselves a trip to Australia in 1966 as a result of winning the YFC regional teams event at Golden Shears.
“Each region sent a team of two shearers and two woolhandlers to Masterton for the national competition and we just happened to win it that year. We went to Aussie just for the trip – there were no events or formal commitments to undertake while we were there.
“By that time  I was shearing full time but I was still getting tuition in the sheds from Tuesday Russell and entering the woolhandling competitions because of the on-going focus on quality in our day-to-day work. As well as top woolhandlers in his gangs, George also had plenty of top competition shearers like Quinn, Reidy, Harry Hughes and Co.”
Ron’s involvement with shearer training for the Wool Board also led to his involvement in developing woolhandler training programmes with Robert Pattison, Mavis Mullins and Bill Morrison, among others. The first moves in that direction had also come from George Potae but it was soon realised the role better rested with the Board than with an individual contractor. Ron remained closely involved in that work for more than a decade until he handed over the reins to Bruce Walker.
Having set up as Ron Davis Contracting Ltd in 1985, it followed as night follows day that he would become involved with the New Zealand Shearing Contractors’ Association.
“The Association was a great body of people working for the good of the industry as a whole. When I came into it part of the Association’s role was to meet with farmer and workers’ union representatives and negotiate awards and conditions of employment.
“But at the end of the day it was contractors who were employing 70% of the country’s shed staff and the staff looked upon contractors as their advocate for wages and conditions. This was not ideal, but that was the relationship we had. The farmer employed the contractor to shear his sheep according to agreed terms and conditions but providing the staff to do the work was our responsibility.
“And of course, things changed quite dramatically with the demise of compulsory unionism in the 1990s. That led to greater emphasis on training and qualifications in the industry.
Ron’s involvement with the Association led to him serving a term as President and eventually to life membership. He and Peter Lyon received the honour together at the Association’s 2009 Annual General Meeting and they remain the only two be so recognised at time of writing [January 2018]. He has also served as the Association’s Patron since 2012.
“There were a lot of memorable issues we got involved with over the years, including health and safety, changes in employment legislation, industry standards and training, codes of practice, immigration requirements for overseas shearers to come and help us shear the national flock.
“Apart from our annual meetings, the executive committee meets regularly if necessary. It was never too onerous but always interesting and challenging, working with the likes of Peter Lyon, Ewen Mackintosh, Brendan Mahony and others (Don’t let me leave anyone out,’ he implores!) And I know Jamie McConachie is playing a magnificent role as the incumbent President. Jamie has that ability to listen to everyone and analyse their views before making decisions that benefit the industry.”
It’s coming up some 15 years since Ron handed over the contracting business to son Jason and his wife Shara. He’s never struggled to find something else to do since then and acknowledges that the shearing industry fits you up for just about anything else in the way of work.
In more recent years he’s served on the Clutha District Council, was a real estate salesman for about six years and is now green superintendent at the Balclutha Golf Club, having previously filled the role of course convenor for 15 years.
“Lessons from the shearing industry were clearly applicable to selling real estate. In that business everyone has to be happy with the quality of your performance because personal reputation and trust is everything and if you get a reputation for shabby work you are very soon facing disaster.
“In golf course management all the budgeting and forecasting of expenditure and income is just the same as being a shearing contractor. You have to be able manage people and teams, get along with all sorts of people and generally make your systems work to the best advantage. Everyone else in your team needs to know and understand the goals and objectives they are working towards.
“Even looking after the mowers that cut the greens resembles closely the way you look after your shearing gear. I learned as a youngster from Snow Quinn all those years ago about when to change gear. He reckoned most shearers left their gear changes too late. Change when it’s 80% worn and you make it sharp again with the lightest of grinds. Leave it too late and you have to grind the hell out of it to get the edge back again.
“These big expensive mowers we use to mow the greens are just the same – leave it too late with the sharpening and it’s a major job. Do it before they get blunt and it takes half the time and cost.
“As a District councillor I thought there might be more opportunities to bring my 35 years of business experience and financial management to the Council table, but Council has its own set of rules and procedures to follow. It was an interesting experience nevertheless and all the major towns in the district – Balclutha, Milton, Lawrence, and Tapanui have seen improvements in amenities and infrastructure in recent times.
“There’s not a lot of things I’d do differently if I was starting all over again. I remember suggesting to Jason there were four things key to being successful in our business. Looking after the well-being of people you employ, running quality vehicles, having a good source of supplies, and giving thought to succession planning well in advance of when you might actually want to pass it on yourself.”
Apart from Jason (47), Ron and Jenny have three other grown ‘children’ – Kirsty Warman (49) is an artist, living Dunedin; second daughter Melissa (42) owns a giftware business at Invercargill and Paul (39) lives at Balclutha and works as a linesman. Paul too was a good shearer, doing 300 in his first season and later well capable of 400 on big, woolly ewes.
“The disciplines from the shearing industry can be applied everywhere. Get to work 10 minutes before you have to and leave 10 minutes after you’re allowed to. If you are meant to be on the job at 8.am, don’t be just coming through the gate at 8.am.
“I take my hat off to the people of our industry who are prepared to work hard for the money they earn and use that money wisely. I think of the example set by one young bloke that worked for me. No matter how much money he’d made during the week, he allowed himself a budgeted amount each week for discretionary spending.
“If he didn’t spend that full amount he would just allow himself enough to make up the balance. That’s the way he lived and that’s why he now owns a big farm. What other example or role model would you need for some young person just now coming into our industry?”
© Des Williams 2018