The great outdoors is one of New Zealand’s greatest assets. But without safe and well-established access, there are many parts of our beautiful bush and coastline that we wouldn’t be able to explore.
Which is where Mike Osborne, and his recently established business Paparoa Environmental Services, makes his mark – all in the name of sustainable construction solutions.
“We provide quality new track developments for the government, local councils, community groups and individuals, as well as preventative maintenance, storm repairs and consulting services. My aim is to achieve environmentally-sensitive walking and dual-use tracks, so the public can enjoy everything on offer in our own backyard.
“It’s also important that we focus on preserving the history of the area. So when I’m working on historic tracks, I need to ensure I’m protecting both the stories and physical features.” says Osborne.
Achieving the right results, while reducing any potential impact, is one of Osborne’s key drivers for his business. He says there are often many different ways you could build a track, but it’s crucial to be conscious of the design, in order to keep the footprint to a minimum.
“The irony is not lost that you have to remove vegetation in order to create a walkway. But I am extremely mindful of how we can create access, with the least amount of ‘harm’ done to the natural environment. Good pre-planning from the start enables this to happen. Do it once, do it right,” Osborne explains.
“All my gear is small, and my background allows me to be innovative when it comes to this type of work.”
Constructing tracks on the West Coast wasn’t in Osborne’s original career plan. But then a summer placement for the Department of Conservation (DOC) ended up turning into a permanent gig and, as they say, the rest is history.
“After school I headed off to Lincoln University, to study a Bachelor in Recreation Management. And at the end of my first year, I went over to the West Coast where I worked for three months. Then I decided that finishing my degree wasn’t for me and because I kept picking up work with DOC, I was able to stay for the long term,” says Osborne.
Over his 17 years with DOC on the West Coast, much of Osborne’s time was spent working on the many historic tracks in the area (those constructed pre-1900s). As they are all protected by Heritage New Zealand, it’s important that any maintenance is carried out with extreme care, to ensure preservation of their historic features.
One of Osborne’s biggest achievements with DOC was being heavily involved in the construction of the Paparoa Track – New Zealand’s 10th Great Walk. From early investigations, to marking the feasibility line, project logistics and leading a DOC construction crew on the ground, seeing it open for public access was certainly a momentous occasion.
“It’s knowing that without these tracks, people wouldn’t be able to see some of the incredible locations we have here in New Zealand – both historically and naturally-significant environments.
“But it’s all about managing a balance of opening up these places of beauty and nature to people, all while taking a conservational-mindset to ensure the environment is protected for future generations. And this comes down to designing with an innovative approach,” says Osborne.
In 2022, Osborne began mulling over potential gaps he saw in the market. With his unique set of skills, there were a number of opportunities to put his niche experience to good use, and make a difference for a wider scope of organisations.
“From local government agencies to community groups, charitable organisations and private individuals, I knew I could help with all sorts of projects all over the South Island. And whether people only needed me to help with the viability and planning stages, or all the way through to the actual construction of the walkways, I wanted to set up Paparoa Environmental Services to offer a range of services.”
But as any business owner knows, the decision to make the move from the initial idea is very rarely taken lightly. And that’s what Osborne found the hardest part of the process, leaving full time permanent employment to become his own boss.
“Making the call was really difficult. I loved my job and the people I worked with.
“But I ended up asking myself how I would feel if in a year’s time I was still sitting in the same position, and hadn’t given it a shot. I realised there was no point thinking about it if I wasn’t going to follow through.”
So the next step was taking out a loan to buy all the equipment and gear required to establish his business, as well as upskilling on what it took to ‘be’ a business owner – understanding the financial side of things, finding clients and ultimately, being responsible for the day-to-day.
“Leaving for the unknown was a big leap of faith. I had only ever worked for the public sector, so there was a lot of researching and learning to feel comfortable with what I was doing. There are so many costs to cover and whatever I charged out would need to be sustainable enough in order to meet those costs, as well as earning an income,” Osborne explains.
To assist with the initial startup, Osborne completed a 10 week ‘Introduction to Business’ programme, called Co-Starters, through Development West Coast. Here he built key business skills, shaping the concept of his business, as well as meeting a number of advisors who were extremely helpful in terms of getting Paparoa Environment ‘off the ground’.
And while the first six months of business have required some hard graft (both literally and figuratively), Osborne has found strength from support of those around him.
“I’ve found so many who are willing to back me. My family has been awesome along with some close friends who have been on the journey too. Then there’s also those who have been in business for a long time and want to support me too.
“It’s pretty cool having those kinds of people in your corner, it really helps if any doubts start to creep in.”
But perhaps one of the biggest things that have helped Osborne get to where he has to today, as well as holding him in good stead for the future, is his mindset.
“There have been lots of firsts and I’ve just accepted that I will probably make some mistakes. In business, there’s always something new that you come across and I need to be okay with not always getting it right.
“No one knows the answer to everything, you often just have to run with what you have in front of you. But the good thing is, you can learn from it for next time.”
And as the days of being in business continue to tick over, Osborne says he doesn’t regret one second of heading out on his own – especially since he has been able to be involved in a wide range of projects, all over the countryside.
“So far I’ve been involved in some preventative maintenance on the Paparoa Track as well as some work over in Hanmer Springs. I also spent time fixing a few things in the Lake Sumner area where some access roads were washed out, and I’ve been building a big timber bridge and new track, alongside a historic mine site, in Blackball.
“It has been such an adventure and I’m learning so much, while being out there doing what I want to be doing. It’s great being able to make all your own decisions and undertake things how you see best fit.
“I’m so proud that I backed myself to create Paparoa Environmental Services,” he adds, a sentiment that no doubt many future track users will applaud.
Story by Erin Harrison in partnership with Development West Coast (DWC)