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The man behind the Mt White sale

In his first interview since buying the Mt White Station pastoral lease, Lukas Travnicek talks to David Williams about his life, family and intentions for the Canterbury high country station.

In 1999, after completing his university studies in sociology and law, Lukas Travnicek borrowed money from his parents to fly to New Zealand.

He wanted to get away from Europe and learn law in a faraway, English-speaking country. Another attraction was the scenery. But his life in Auckland was so busy he didn’t see much. “During the weekdays I was working for free for a barrister, located near to the High Court, and at the weekends I was working as a kitchenhand in Devonport,” Travnicek tells Newsroom.

At lunchtime on weekdays, he earned extra money helping Czech students at an inner-city language school. During his year in New Zealand he took only one trip to the South Island. “I couldn’t explore New Zealand as I would like.”

It was a fruitful stay, however. He met his now wife, Somjai, a Thai-born New Zealand citizen, who was finishing her hairdressing training. The pair returned to Prague, where Travnicek had secured a job with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The seeds had also been sown for their return to New Zealand and, ultimately, the purchase of Mt White Station’s pastoral lease, announced on Tuesday.

Woven into the family business

After four years, Travnicek was enticed away from Prague to join his father’s business.

Pegas Nonwovens, founded by Jiri Travnicek in 1990, was Europe’s second-largest producer of non-woven textiles – lightweight synthetics used for the likes of disposable nappies, female sanitary products and clothing. Customers included global giant like Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark. Pegas was being readied for sale and Travnicek was appointed HR director and legal counsel.

It wasn’t just a business move: “It’s not our flavour to raise kids in the big city.” They moved to the South Moravian region, which borders Austria and Slovakia, near where Travnicek grew up.

In 2005, Pegas was sold to London-based private equity firm Pamplona Capital Management. A year later it was listed on the Prague and Warsaw stock exchanges. Pamplona sold out in 2007 and Travnicek left the following year.

“It was a very busy time and our second daughter was born and I didn’t have time for the family. I didn’t like it.” They moved close to Czech’s second-largest city, Brno, opening a “little business”, a day spa that also gave nutritional advice.

(While Travnicek doesn’t reveal the source of his wealth, his father did exceptionally well out of the Pegas sale. According to one report, Pamplona paid 6.4 billion Czech Koruna, about NZ$430 million, for the company and most of it went to Travnicek’s father. A 2006 investor presentation put Pegas’ 2005 revenue at €109 million, with seven manufacturing lines producing 53,000 tonnes of textiles.)

Culture trip

In 2012, the four-year cycle of restlessness re-emerged. The day spa was running well and Travnicek and his wife talked about a move away from the Czech Republic, a “homogenous” country, as he calls it.

“We wanted our kids to live somewhere where there is a pretty healthy mix of cultures,” Travnicek says. “New Zealand was a natural choice because we met there. We know New Zealand.”

The following year the family – the couple have three daughters, now aged 15, 12 and 9 – hired a camper van and toured the North island for more than a month. They spent only one night in New Plymouth but liked the “positive energy” of the place. After securing permanent residency for himself and the kids, the family moved to the Taranaki city at the start of 2014.

The first year was tough – the kids hardly spoke any English. But after a year they’d made friends and called it home. It took the parents a bit longer.

Lukas Travnicek plans to return to New Zealand with his family in August next year. Photo: Supplied

While he mulled business opportunities, Travnicek volunteered at the city’s health and youth development services hub, New Waves, teaching teen girls how to cook healthy and cheap meals. “Which was fun.” (The trust folded in 2015, after the district council pulled funding.)

After a year he set his sights on owning a farm. It would be a return to his roots.

As a kid, he’d grown up in a village at the centre of a huge cooperative farm in communist Czechoslovakia. “I was living in a tiny village surrounded by fields.”

When he was older, he spent a school holiday on the cooperative picking peaches. On a summer holiday just before the 1989 revolution he drove a combine harvester in Ukraine. Even now, rural life is in the family blood. After selling Pegas, his dad’s main interest is keeping racehorses. His mother and sister live on the farm.

Travnicek says his “detour” into law and business was enjoyable and important. “But now I feel like I’m coming back to this farming.”

‘Too dry, too many rabbits, too overpriced’

Travnicek read as much as he could about New Zealand farming, and high country stations in particular.

Initially he looked in Otago. He visited two or three times, looking at eight farm stations, but felt the investment wasn’t right – “too dry, too many rabbits, too overpriced”. They were more like lifestyle holdings and he wanted “the real thing”.

He’d noticed Canterbury’s Mt White Station during his Otago odyssey but dismissed it. He rang the agent. “Has it been sold? And they said no.”

In the summer of 2016-17, he flew over the station in a helicopter, landing next to a back country hut. He also spoke briefly to the manager. “That was enough. I knew that this is something very, very interesting but I also knew that I have to explore it more.”

He visited again two or three times before submitting his offer. He’d done his research and knew the sale would be a long process. But it was about to become more difficult – the family was on the move again.

In April last year, they moved back to Czech Republic. They wanted to re-connect with the wider family. Also, Travnicek says his daughters were speaking English only and had started losing the Czech language.

“I consider it important that they still keep it. The link to the language means that it’s a strong tie to your country and if you are losing it then you can come as a tourist, maybe, in the future, but that is it.”

As a lawyer, having studied the purchase process, Travnicek knew he’d have to go through the laborious and costly Overseas Investment Office process. “I decided to do it, because I knew from the beginning that it would be worth doing it.”

“I’m more than happy to find a compromise and to solve it.” – Lukas Travnicek

Travnicek, who’s 44, was at Mt White Station this week, as the announcement was made he’d bought the station’s pastoral lease.

Not everyone’s happy about the sale. Conservation lobby group Forest & Bird says the Government missed an opportunity to resolve a 117-year problem of 1000 hectares of pastoral lease, known as Riversdale Flats, that was meant to be added to the adjacent Arthur’s Pass National Park. Also, the legal roads on maps don’t line up with the physical roads.

Travnicek’s representatives will have their first face-to-face meeting with Land Information New Zealand officials tomorrow – the same day he and his 15-year-old daughter leave for the Czech Republic. The new Mt White lessee says it’s in his best interests to sort the outstanding issues. He doesn’t want to develop the farm and encounter problems every second day.

“I’m more than happy to find a compromise and to solve it.”

But he points out he’s paid for the lease and the Riversdale Flats are an important part of the farm operation. Does that mean he’d want compensation? It’s too early to say, he says. He repeats that the reserve land is an important part of the station. “If you get cash from something and you have no land, it’s a very, very short term solution. It doesn’t help you in the long term.”

When does he want to settle these issues? “I would like to grab it right away. I believe that politically it’s an issue, so I can feel the willingness from the other side to solve it. I want to use it, let’s do it.”

Travnicek is vague on his development plans for the farm, being pursued with farm manager Richard Smith and Arrowtown agribusiness consultant Guy Blanchard, who’s also a director of the Czech’s company, Southern Ranges Ltd. While Travnicek won’t talk about the size of the investment or details of what’s planned, he says it’ll be a “slow” three-to-five-year programme.

“It will be in line with the nature of the high country station,” he says, adding he’s not going to “do anything crazy”. “If you look at Mt White Station, how it has been for the past 50-60 years, it would be a very substantial development for the farm.”

There’s certainly no fancy accommodation planned. Travnicek says when they visit, he and his family will stay in the owner’s cottage – which needs “some fixing” – a few hundred metres from the manager’s homestead.

Pulled back to Taranaki

That’s right, when the family “visits” Mt White Station. They don’t intend to live there.

When they move back to New Zealand next August, they’ll move back to New Plymouth – where his daughters have friends and are familiar with the schools. It’s also a happy place for Travnicek, a tee-total ultra-marathon runner who likes to grab his stuff, shoot into the forest, and run the whole day, returning in the evening.

“I love nature more than money,” he says. “It’s my passion.”

One of the Mt White sale’s conditions is that Travnicek returns to New Zealand permanently. He says his family’s comfortable with that. But then he corrects himself to put it more strongly.

“If there is no Mt White, we would come back to New Zealand anyway. It is our home.”

His investment in Mt White is “substantial”, he says. “I’m not spending all my money on that, of course, but it’s a substantial family investment.” For him that means he’s not looking at it in financial terms, such as improving it and flicking it off after, say, five years. “This money is being invested within my family, within my children.”

Given it’s a Crown pastoral lease, though, is he willing to share this special place with the New Zealand public?

“The short answer is yes. The long answer would be something like there always has to a balance between farming operations and public access.” There are beautiful places on the farm that tourists can visit without interfering with the farm, he says. “I have no reason to change it. I’m happy with that.”

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