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People Making Changes Issue 33 -
Barry Sligh, A Man Of Many Changes

Dorothy - 27/2/98

Barry Sligh - a man of many changes - entrepreneur, stone mason, nurseryman, philanthropist....

Barry and two Nepalese children
Barry and two Nepalese children
Barry Sligh has become a name familiar to many New Zealanders since he established his home, garden and nursery at Taunton Gardens at the head of the Lyttelton Harbour and they were featured on national television on Maggie's Garden Show. Again he was the subject of newspaper articles when he promoted a scheme to help the education of children in an isolated village in Nepal.

Barry's career
What sort of career path leads someone to Barry's situation? Barry would say that the answer is wide-ranging life experiences. I asked him to trace the path to his present situation.

The first venture - getting overseas
He grew up in Methven, a quiet country town, before the days when the ski industry put it on the map. The family then moved to Invercargill in the south of the South Island. Barry didn't much enjoy school and wanted to have what we Kiwis call his O.E. - his overseas experience. His father told him that if he passed his School Certificate and earned the money for a return ticket he would be allowed to go. He did both, earning the money in the school holidays at the Alliance Freezing Works.

Supporting himself and getting training
At seventeen he set out, working his way on a cargo ship as a supernumerary - doing the odd jobs. He did a trip on a three-speed bike around England and went to Norway, accepting any work he could find as he went. In Masume he sold chamois skins to tanneries and there began his interest in leather. Back in England he went to Smithfield College and completed a diploma in the meat trade. He moved on to Iceland and saw interesting sheep with long wool and leather without grease. Next in Canada at the Atherbasca oil sands he worked ten hours seven days a week. There he heard that his father had died.

Entrepreneurial venture 1 - quality leather fashion goods
He returned home and after working in Bowrons tanneries and being promoted to associate sales manager, he started his own business - a factory in Christchurch manufacturing leather hot pants and leather ties. This business in the late sixties employed fifty women and exported to Japan, to Canada, to the USA and to Harrods in London. The business earned a government export award. It was an industry with high pressure because of the changes in fashion and the varying quality of the skins. Barry aimed for quality, not quantity, and found he got the best results using New Zealand skins processed in Spain, but to patterns of Italian design and then exporting them to Japan! Even the buttons were imported.

The stone house Barry built at Taunton Gardens
The stone house Barry built at Taunton Gardens

Working as stone mason to build the house of his dreams
In 1972 he bought land at Allandale at the head of the Lyttelton Harbour. At that time it was used for growing apricots. There was a small house on the property where he lived while doing extensive reconstruction using stone from his own land and nearby Charteris Bay. The stones were all hand chipped. It took three or four weekends to chip enough stone for one weekend's block laying. The walls are 450 mm (18 ins.) thick.

Entrepreneurial venture 2 - quality wool and mohair
Barry sold the leather business and developed a business called Nature's Choice selling garments knitted from New Zealand wools and mohair for the tourist market. He gave up this business just before the sharemarket crash in 1987.

Entrepreneurial venture 3 - quality plants
Now he has developed a boutique nursery exporting plants, mainly catering for people who want specialty plants, hostas in particular. He has a collection of hybrid hostas and develops plants of good quality under stringent conditions using ultraviolet lights. He also produces a trillium native to North America working with the Mount Cuba Centre in the USA This is financed by the du Pont family solely to develop propagation techniques for Piedmont flora. The aim is to save them from extinction and to discourage collection from the wild.

Searching for rhododendrons in Nepal
Barry joined an expedition to Nepal organised by the Dendrology Society - a party made up of people from New Zealand and Argentina. The aim of the expedition was to look at rhododendrons in the wild and collect seed of daphne bholoua. These are growing extremely well and are being sold to raise funds the school. They are available at Taunton Gardens and at any functions where members of the New Zealand group are giving talks.

It was a 26 day trek into a totally isolated area. In three weeks they climbed and descended the equivalent of three ascents of Mt Cook, (New Zealand's highest mountain). The people on the trek, all specialists in trees, shrubs and alpines, studied an amazing collection of plants and took some 3,000 photographs. Much of the seed they collected was planted out and the plants are now 20 cms (8 ins) high.

Warm welcome at Pangkoma
En route they visited the village of Pangkoma. Sir Edmund Hillary had begun a school there and a Sherpa called Ngima Dorji had made it his responsibility to finish the school. The people from the Dendrology Society were accepted like family. The warmth of the welcome was all the more impressive because the people had so little. In return they wanted to increase the children's awareness of the surrounding flora. Before this visit they were interested only in what was burnable or edible.

The children in front of Pangkoma School
The children in front of Pangkoma School
(Click here for a larger version)

Primitive conditions at the school
The school had no floor, no toilets, and no adequate heating. The smoke from the open fire caused health problems for the children. In the coldest part of the winter the school had to close. There was little equipment for teaching or learning. Comparing this school with the advantages enjoyed by New Zealand children spurred the New Zealanders into action, they set about fund raising to improve conditions at the school.

Read Part 2 to see what this group of five Kiwis achieved...

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