Who are the Fiskens? It’s a simple, yet most profound question. And, it would take a lot more than one article to even begin to answer. HR Fisken & Sons may be widely known throughout Franklin as suppliers of high quality animal feeds but what lies behind the company is a rich history, and a most interesting chap, too, as JON RAWLINSON discovered.
It’s 1926; Bob ‘Fuff’ Fisken’s heart is in his mouth. This butcher boy’s going the distance – sulky and all – as his American-bred trotter, Peterwah, thunders him down the home straight.
This harbinger assures Fuff’s place in history, bagging victory in the Dominion Handicap at Addington, becoming the first to complete the two mile race in four and a half minutes. But his victory heralds much more than that.
It’s Fuff’s passion for horses which was to fuel a similar fervour in his son (Harold ‘Chappy’ Fisken), his grandson (Graham) and, today, his great-grandson (John). The result is Buckland business, HR Fisken & Sons, which has stood the test of time.
“Poppa [Chappy] actually started the business 60 years ago, but in a way it’s his dad’s legacy,” says John Fisken, director of the present day HR Fisken & Sons. “Sure, we may now sell a wide range of animal feeds, but old Fuff’s passion was the driving force and where it all began.”
There’s no shortage of men to see about horses when writing for Rural Living, but few talk with such zeal about all things equine – or family history – as John.
“Chappy carried on Fuff ’s passion for harness racing and was a successful trainer and driver in his own right. He had his horses here – he was right into trotters – but there was nowhere nearby with good feed. He started bringing up quality oats from the South Island. People wanted to know where he got his feed, so he thought ‘I’ll build a shed’. It went from there.”
While the business may have grown from roots set down by Chappy, his son Graham and his wife, Marie, developed it further, even leading the way into diversifying the business as a saddlery.
“Dad’s still here; he’s really helpful,” says John, who now runs the business. “Of course, we’ve seen plenty of changes. When I was growing up, the shed was dark and dusty, like a 19th Century cotton flax mill! Mum and Dad have done a hell of a lot to improve the whole customer experience. They were schoolteachers and have always been really good with people.” The nature of Fisken’s customer base has also changed.
“When I was little, the bags of pig feed were 62.5kg – that’s hard to lift when you’re a kid. Then it went to 50 kg, then 40 and now we’re at 25. I guess mankind’s getting weaker and weaker! In all seriousness, it’s really because of the changing needs of our customers. These days we service the lifestyle market as much as larger farmers and breeders.”
JOHN TAKES THE REINS
Locally born and bred, John Fisken settled down to work fulltime for the family business in 1997. However, before that he had more than just a few wild oats of his own to sow. From large scale grain farms in the United Kingdom, to waiting tables in Austria, and even working with the UNHCR – (the UN Refugee Agency) in Bosnia and with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, John’s was far from the typical OE.
“Probably the most important lesson I learnt was ‘don’t step into a minefifeld’, but I guess that’s not so much of a problem around here!” he laughs.
This Massey Bachelor of Agriculture graduate also spent some time on the West Bank. “Having some Israeli soldier cock his M16 and point it at my chest was certainly interesting! I can tell you, the size of the bore on those things seems much bigger when you’re looking down the barrel of one! That was actually after I’d started working here. I had three weeks’ holiday, you see.”
John doesn’t go into much more detail. He tells me those are stories for another day.
“A lot of my experiences didn’t really have much (if anything) to do with horses or even farming but they helped me understand the world a lot better. It meant, when it came time to come home for good, I was ready.”
During John’s time, in particular, Franklin itself has changed. However, he remains resolute that HR Fisken & Sons is staying put. “Houses are steadily marching towards us but I just wouldn’t move. That’s it!” Although it’s too early to tell whether John’s children, Sienna (12) and Lulu (10), will carry on in his footsteps, they are most certainly keen on horses and, in some ways, already developing at least one business strategy.
“Lulu’s always telling me I’m too soft. She says ‘you need to be tougher, Dad’, and that’s the youngest one! I don’t know if they will take on the business but they definitely love horses. They’ve even made up a rap song which goes something like: ‘We want a pony, yeah, we want a pony, yeah, we want a pony… oh yeah!’ along with a bit of beat boxing too! That can get rather annoying on a long car journey!
“I feel like the ‘mean dad’ sometimes, but Sienna has ballet five afternoons and nights a week. Maybe, one day, when they’re a bit older. We’ll see.”
Feeding the need
While HR Fisken & Sons started out selling horse feed 60 years ago, today the company offers much more.
“Our core range is still horse feed – and calf feed to dairy farmers – but we’re even selling dog and chicken feed now. The range has grown gradually. We now have feed for almost any type of animal you can imagine,” John Fisken says.
Asked how much the right feed plays in turning horses (whether gallopers, harness racers, equestrian horses, or jumpers) into champions, he laughs and says:
“You’d like to think it makes a huge difference, that’d make a good story. Put it this way, if the horse doesn’t win, it’s generally down to the feed; but if it does, it’s really down to the horse and the trainer.”
Far from simple oats, which made up John’s grandfather’s original feeds, today’s varieties are developed with the assistance of experienced nutritionists to help ensure all the right nutrients are delivered in one.
“The big difference between our feed and many others is that it’s made fresh every day. Some feed is made to last such as plutonium, but this stuff is natural,” John explains. “Having said that, no horse feed really is ‘all natural’, if it was it would be grass, and you can’t race on grass; well, you can race on grass, but you know what I mean!”
John says Fisken’s new Ultra Low GI feed is a good example of the company’s modern scientific approach.
“Unlike grain-based feeds where starch is the energy source, Ultra Low GI have been expanded greatly to meet provides ‘Super Fibres’, which give horses a gentle and reliable source of energy. It’s especially well suited to horses intolerant of grain.
” In addition to feed, Fiskens has made a name for itself as a saddlery, sourcing and stocking top quality products, from saddles and tack to clothing.
“I remember Poppa [Chappy] sitting on the steps of the once chatting to people who had to get past him to go in. He saw that,when they bought their feed, they’d often want something else. He had huge experience with racing gear, so he knew exactly what we should be selling.”
The Fisken’s saddlery range has also increased markedly over the years. “Just in the last year, the premises have been expanded greatly to meet growing demand. We try to source the best products and sell them for the most reasonable prices we can,” John says.
Ultimately, however, the secret of Fisken’s success comes down to its people – generations of them. “There’s an old saying in which, if someone isn’t your number one fan, they’ll wish you ‘many staff’ !” he laughs.
“I’m only joking, of course. A business is only as good as the people working in it and luckily we really do have an awesome bunch of people working with us who are almost part of the family. Some have been with us more than 20 years, and that makes a world of difference at the end of the day.”