How did a Manchester girl who’d never seen an olive tree become Martinborough’s largest olive oil producer? Helen Meehan tells Susan McLeary.
When Helen and John Meehan bought Olivo olive grove they wanted a change from their busy corporate lives in Wellington.
“We aimed at creating innovative, top-quality oils to complement excellent food and Martinborough’s fine wines. Oils that are boutique, artisan and gorgeous,” says Helen.
Inevitably, they applied their business expertise. “Our approach is commercial; I want to succeed in whatever I do,” she says.
The path from Manchester to Martinborough was not obvious. Helen’s degree in medieval history, followed by a post-grad Diploma in Librarianship from Aberystwyth, morphing into information technology, is probably unusual. “A reference librarian finds out information, and Information technology is basically organising it. Working in academic and technically-oriented libraries was lucky for me, right at the beginning of computerisation and IT development,” she says.
“At British Aerospace I ran reference services for the research teams, working on UK Polaris submarine systems. Modern for its time, but none of the information was online: we searched directories and books. A bonus was seeing Concorde test flights nearby.”
Married to John by this time, they were posted to Atlanta Georgia for two years with accounting firm Price Waterhouse.The couple loved Atlanta, but Helen was not eligible for a Green Card so she asked the Atlanta Public Library to employ her for free. “I worked in their telephone reference service, where people phoned in to ask questions. I would search reference books and encyclopaedias to find answers, and it was a joke that callers asked for “that woman with the English accent.”
“My IT knowledge was useful in moving from catalogue cards to early computerised systems. I hated filing catalogue cards and was delighted to see their end!
“In 1980-82 we were posted to Wellington. I computerised the NZ Wool Board system to make information more accessible. It saved a lot of staff time, and IT’s possibilities became very clear to me.
After returning to the UK, in 1983 John and Helen decided to make New Zealand their home. “I was fortunate to work in the emerging IT world, first in helping to bring Teletext to New Zealand, then as the National Library moved to user pays online information services, and following that to an Information Policy role at the State Services Commission. “Joining Telecom, in an Information Management policy role, built on my IT and branding new services experience. We set up E-Solutions – an alliance with EDS, Microsoft and Telecom – as the first move away from purely telephone services. It was significant in its time for helping Telecom move from a telecommunications to an IT company.
By 2003 the couple had bought Olivo: Martinborough’s first commercial grove, pioneered by innovators Robin and Ian Lockie.
“I firmly believe every job teaches you something, and naturally we put our own stamp on Olivo. We re-branded with a modern sophisticated look and were delighted to win the ‘Best Brand Award’ by Olives New Zealand recently.
“Keen to expand olive oil’s usage, and position Olivo alongside food trends, we were among the first to offer infused oils.“Lemon is always a favourite, and we’re known for adventurous infusions like fennel, smoked paprika, vanilla, cumin and now saffron.
“John has retired from PWC and is our main man in the tasting room for tours and tastings. We love talking with our customers, with many regulars”.
Looking ahead, it’s unsurprising that Helen is turning to technology to appeal to millennial customers with easy online sales and recipe videos her latest innovation.
Olivo is the oldest commercial olive grove in the Wairarapa. It was planted by Robin and Ian Lockie in 1991 and first started producing awarding winning extra virgin olive oil in 2001. We - Helen and John Meehan – bought Olivo in May 2003 and have extended it to 1200 olive trees; the main cultivars are Barnea, Manzanillo, Leccino, Frantoio and Koroneiki. We are ably supported by our son, Nicholas when he is in New Zealand and his partner, Horacio Ramirez.
Our intent is to create innovative and top quality oils that pair with excellent food and the good wines that Martinborough produces – oils that are boutique, artisan and gorgeous. We want you to enjoy and experiment with them as much as we do.
We are proud to be a boutique, artisan and 100% New Zealand owned company based in Martinborough, Wairarapa.