Leaving corporate life for the country

by Mike White / 09 September, 2018
Photography by Mike White.

Laura Douglas was taught to crack stock whips by her grandfather and says most people can get the hang of it after a short lesson.

Southlander Laura Douglas gave up high heels and corporate life to establish a tourism business with a difference. Mike White headed to Kingston to meet the 31-year-old who’s determined to show visitors a more authentic New Zealand.

There’s this point in the arc of a stock whip, when you change its direction, bring the handle back across in front of you and, as the tip flicks round, a crack explodes out of nowhere. It’s not random, takes a while to learn, but if you get it right, it’s brilliant.

It sort of sums up Laura Douglas’s life path thus far.

Two years ago, she was working in Christchurch managing a team of data scientists creating a new cyber tool. One day at her desk, she took a refill pad, turned it on its side and began sketching. “Laura’s Life In 5 Years”, she titled it, and the finished drawing saw her standing on the deck of a house she owned, a glass of whisky in her hand, a dog at her feet, and looking out to the horse in her paddock, her ute and jet boat in the driveway, and the mountains all around.

“At the time, I had a great life in Christchurch, I really did. But I had none of those things. And it kind of dawned on me that no matter how much money I was making, no matter how many promotions I got, I was still not going to have that life, living in a city, working in an office.”

Until then, she’d been on a fast-tracked corporate life, with an MBA and stints with top companies. But at that moment, as she stared at the imaginary place she’d drawn, she knew she had to give it all up if she wanted to be happy.

The sketch Laura Douglas drew in 2016 of her ideal life.

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The corporate world was a long way from the family’s sheep and deer farm in Mossburn, where Douglas grew up. She rode horses, was taught how to crack a stock whip by her grandfather, started shooting ducks and rabbits at 13, and stuck her first pig at 16. She was going to be a physiotherapist but, after doing a science degree at Otago University, ended up running Dunedin bars.

“And then a drunk doctor came in one night and said, ‘You’re wasted on hospitality – you should do an MBA [Master of Business Administration].’ So I Googled what that was, applied, and got rejected because I was too young.” But with letters of support from businesspeople she knew, Douglas was eventually accepted and, at 23, became one of the youngest people to graduate from Otago with the degree.

She then beat off hundreds of others to gain a corporate finance job with Deloitte, and quickly found herself in the heart of Wellington’s business world. “I was behind a computer all day, in a tall office building, in a suit. I thought that’s what grown-ups should do. And at the time it did feel good, going, ‘I’m out of Mossburn, I’m out of Southland, look at me, look at me.’”

She followed a rugby-playing boyfriend to Ireland, then South Africa, then Hawke’s Bay, worked in advertising, real estate and property management, and moved to Auckland for a job with a global software company. It was after she transferred to Christchurch that Douglas drew the sketch of where she wanted to be in five years. On another refill page, she began listing all the things she got satisfaction from, and one of them was hunting and fishing, which she’d grown up doing. Gradually an idea evolved to create a business where she could show people fun things from rural life – target shooting, archery, clay-bird shooting and whip cracking – plunging city folk into a completely different world for a few hours.

In August 2016, she quit her career, moved to Queenstown, and started refining her business plan while learning how to do things like GST, marketing and making a website. As soon as the website went up, she got an inquiry, despite not being ready to start tours. “So late that night, I was at The Warehouse getting a chilly bin, a thermos, coffee cups, and was up until midnight making scones and a bacon and egg pie. I hadn’t even had a practice trip.”

But it went brilliantly, with the four American tourists wanting to know all about her, and about rural life in New Zealand. “At that point, I realised it wasn’t about the activities I was providing, it was about the overall experience, and people wanting to interact with a local, not someone who’s here on a work visa.”

When Douglas was planning her business, everyone insisted she needed to base herself in Queenstown, where the tourists were. “But that just never sat right with me, because my whole premise was wanting to show people the real New Zealand. Queenstown, to me, is fantastic but it’s not the real New Zealand. It’s an adventure playground put together for a certain tourist. And I’m from Southland. I believe Southland’s always been very undervalued, and I wanted to do my part to bring more business into Southland.”

When searching for an alternative location, she got lucky. A cousin knew a farmer just south of Kingston who was looking to diversify a bit. “So I cold-called him, drove out, jumped in his farm truck, cracked open a Speight’s and he said, ‘I think I’ve got a spot you’re going to like.’”

What the farmer had was a maimai on the edge of a pond, with incredible views to the mountains and Lake Wakatipu. Kitted out with a pool table, Sky TV, a bar, barbecue and dart board, the duckshooting hideaway is where Douglas now runs all the activities for her guests.

Despite operating for only a year, Douglas has already caught the attention of major tourism operator Contiki, which has contracted her to run a farm experience for their passengers as they head to Te Ānau. So that will see Douglas ride her horse Ellie (a racehorse that wasn’t fast enough) and use her heading dog Lad (recently retired from farm work) to muster some sheep and provide the tourists with a little taste of the country.

Douglas has also set up an information centre in a disused shop between Kingston’s garage and cafe, promoting the secrets of Southland and Queenstown that visitors might not have heard about – the amazing cafe at Orepuki; the woman who does yoga classes at the golf club; the walk up to Shirt Tail Rock above Kingston.

“It’s a place where people can come in and talk to an actual local who’s lived here a long time and find out what they’ve done and what they like. Because I’m passionate about the area. We don’t jump up and down and promote ourselves very well, but we’re fantastic hosts.”

Tourists use air rifles to shoot targets, and shotguns for clay birds, at the maimai near Kingston that Douglas uses as a base for her business.

When Douglas walked out of her Christchurch office and the career she thought she’d have, she knew she was also abandoning security. “I had a lot of self-doubt about my abilities to pull this off and whether it was something people wanted. It’s very difficult to go from quite a substantial salary to $400 a week. And life has been tough for the past couple of years, financially. I don’t have money behind me, I haven’t taken out any loans. The way I’ve grown the business is, I make a little, I invest a little bit, I make a little bit, I invest a little bit. Sometimes in really hard times it’s been, ‘God, why don’t I just go back and get a job and take all the pressure off.’ But it’s never compelling enough for me to actually take it seriously.

“And at some stage the self-doubt went away. I think it was when I had my first local stag do, my first group of Southland guys. I thought they were going to think it was lame – air rifles with scopes when these guys are used to hunting rifles – but they had such a great time and I had such a great time. And that was a turning point for me. It was, ‘People love this, there is a market for it, I just need to find that market.’ And since then I’ve never looked back.”

Douglas, who dubs herself Southern Girl and calls her business Real Country, always wears her Red Band gumboots and takes Lad to business meetings. “I’ve staunchly continued following the path I set out on, which is to promote the real New Zealand in a very rural, colloquial, authentic way.”

Douglas still has that sketch she drew in her Christchurch office in 2016, which led to her life’s dramatic change in direction. And she’s pretty close to the ideal world she imagined, having recently bought a house in Kingston with mountains all around her.

“I did have a truck, but I had to sell it to get a van to take more people, so the only thing I’m missing is the jet boat. It’ll come. I had five years to do it – and it’s only year two.”

This article was first published in the July 2018 issue of North & South.

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