In this article, we catch up with former scholar Athol New, who’s rising through the ranks and giving back at the same time.
Overseeing four farms with 4000 cows, 1000 young stock and a team of 25 staff, Athol New is stepping further than most out of his comfort zone.
But he’s thriving in the challenge, thanks in part to his own ‘can do’ attitude, good mentors, and some strong professional development along the way.
Athol is one of three operations managers within the Purata structure in mid-Canterbury. The 30-year-old has made a determined ascent through the company’s ranks since he started cupping cows in 2007, after he finished studying at Lincoln University.
He became a farm manager after two years, and has steadily moved up in his role and in the size of the business units he oversees.
Athol’s pathway to large-scale dairying began at Kamo High School in Northland, where his agricultural teacher encouraged him to consider farming as a business and combine it with his obvious academic ability.
Fast forward little more than a decade and Athol’s not only climbed the ladder into a senior management position, he’s also recently claimed the coveted title of Young Farmer of the Year 2016.
This has come despite early efforts by some advisors to talk him out of farming. But he stuck with the decision to pursue studies at Lincoln, choosing a Bachelor of Agriculture Commerce, majoring in farm management.
Athol says Lincoln’s broad-based approach early in the degree, with an emphasis on the sciences and good mathematics base, provided him with a solid foundation that translated well to the realities of farm management.
It also strengthened his natural talents, identified quickly by his employer who saw the opportunity to grow Athol’s ability through professional development.
Boost from DairyNZ scholarship
During this time, Athol also successfully applied for a DairyNZ scholarship to cover his university fees.
“That involved submitting your grades, and an essay on why you thought you were a suitable candidate for it,” he says.
He found the DairyNZ scholarship invaluable on both a financial and personal development level.
“I was one of about 29 recipients that year, and it covered all our study fees while at university, so it was very valuable.”
He also appreciated the networking and professional opportunities made possible by the scholarship. Recipients got to meet industry professionals and successful farmers at special dinners, and become known within the industry.
Athol now enjoys speaking regularly to rising DairyNZ scholars, and spending time talking to school students about his career, the industry and pathways within it.
He’s also employed another DairyNZ scholar, who he teamed up with this year to speak at a careers day for city kids.
“The students were fascinated at what the industry could offer for careers, and it was something most had not really considered before.”
Stay humble, keep learning
Athol has attended many professional development courses over the years, often recommended to him by one of his key mentors, Juliet Maclean, his former chief executive.
“I think Juliet saw something in me early on that I did not see in myself, and she worked to build on that with the challenges put up in each new position, and the additional courses she pointed me towards.”
With a large team, of whom very few are New Zealanders, human resource skills have proven valuable for Athol.
He acknowledges that managing people is not his natural space, but one he’s become more confident in over the years.
“I can’t say it ever really gets easier, but you do learn to switch on to the mode you need to be in when dealing with people, and switch off again when you’ve finished.”
It also helps that Athol is happy to pitch in on the daily jobs when needed.
“I think your team really appreciates seeing the leader getting their hands dirty too.”
Athol has some valuable advice for aspiring dairy professionals, which he’s happy to pass on with a good level of humility and understanding.
“I think you need to remember you can always learn from anyone if you know your strengths and weaknesses. If you learn not to get defensive about your weaknesses and instead be humble enough when someone who may have come from thousands of miles away has a better method or approach, you can be happy to learn from them.”
As he and his wife Jane work towards their equity goals, they remain open to the many opportunities offered by modern dairying.
“If you have the goals in mind, you can accept that the pathway to achieving them can change over time, which is fine.”
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy November 2016