Malcolm Saunders

I first struck Malcolm Saunders thirty-five years ago when I started cycle racing.  He officiated at every race, I presumed, because his son, Craig, was involved as a competitor. Two years ago, when I attempted an ill-fated comeback, Malcolm was still officiating, even though Craig had long since moved to Australia.  One morning I encountered Malcolm working on the new Great Taste Trail, and it became apparent that he was a quiet giver.

Malcolm with his wife, Janet, worked together at the garden centre at the Warehouse in Nelson.  Twenty-three years later, Janet is still there, serving customers.  In the interim Malcolm has had a few career changes.  Cast back a bit further, and you may remember Janet and Malcolm as the owners of Saunders Garden Centre in Stoke.  Also, for six years, Malcolm was a Nelson City Councillor.

Born in 1946, he was an early baby boomer. He had a brother and two sisters who were born pre-1940 and another sister who was born after him.  His parents avoided having children while Japanese invasion was imminent.

His family milked seventy cows on land near the village of Halswell, southwest of Christchurch.  They were ‘town supply’, meaning that they supplied milk seven days a week, 365 days a year, with twice daily milkings.  This provided a reliable income, but was relentless.

Load-sharing children helped ward off insanity.  Malcolm’s job before cycling to school was bringing in the cows.  Hagley High School was a fifteen-kilometre ride, often made easy because of a ten-wheeler owned by the nearby quarry.  It frequently gave an exhilarating boost to Malcolm’s commute.  The big truck had the aerodynamics of a brick, ideal for pulling along a mass of air. It was slow to build up to its maximum speed of 50km/hr, so it was easy, on a bicycle, to get in behind for a free ride in its slipstream.

In the 50s and 60s people would line the streets to watch cycle races go by, and Malcolm’s elder brother, Gavin was a strongman of Canterbury cycling.   Malcolm was his greatest fan, and was set to follow suit.  He had his fair share of wins, but when he came to Nelson as a teenager, he stopped racing and took up softball.

School certificate was the final milestone for Malcolm and the vast majority of high school students in the 1950s and 60s.    Having finished his formal education, for a change of scene, he moved to Nelson and landed a job at the Nelson car factory doing finishing work (installing windscreens, interior trim etc.) on Triumph Heralds, Triumph 2000s and Leyland trucks. 

After three years he was ready for another change, and secured a job as school supplies officer for the Nelson Education Board.  Far more significantly, however, he met an effervescent ginger haired lady at a dance at the Stoke hall.  They married in April 1968, bought a house and then sold it to buy a green grocery on Main Road Stoke opposite what is now the Elim Church.  Their new business was sited on one acre which bridged the gap to the railway reserve.   There was a good house near the front of the property.

The Business prospered thanks to a contract to provision squid boats, of which there were many working the waters beyond Tasman Bay.  The boats powerful lights, used to lure the squid to the surface, gave a glow to the horizon throughout the 1970s.  Then quite suddenly the lights went out and so did Janet and Malcolm’s lucrative business supplying fruit and vegetables to the boats.

When they bought the business, vegetable seedlings were already part of the product mix. Janet and Malcolm, both able gardeners, expanded into more plants; quite literally sowing the seeds of their ongoing success.  As the fresh produce faltered, the plants surged, as did potting mix, fertiliser, sprays, garden tools.  In less than a year the green grocery had morphed into a garden centre.  Flowers and Teleflora accreditation followed.

Their neighbour, high-profile vet, Peter Malone, was Mayor of Nelson of Nelson from 1980 to 1992.   The big issue during his tenure was the Maitai Dam, and whether or not to proceed with it.  Malone was unequivocal. In his view it had to go ahead.  Malcolm was totally in agreement.   At Malone’s urging, Malcolm put himself up for election and for six years he served as a Nelson City councillor, alongside a forceful team of progressives including Mel Courtney, Seddon Marshall, and Kerry Neal. They initiated much of the infrastructure that we see today.  The dam went ahead, and Saxton Field was started.  Malcolm was a signatory to the purchase of the first part of that huge recreation facility.

By the mid-1980s, what had been a lucrative business selling plants and garden supplies had lost its gloss.  Eight or nine competitors had set up around the district, also being open seven days a week business serving the public and maintaining plants and fresh flowers was more wearing than the town supply farm of Malcolm’s childhood.  When a good offer came along to buy the business.  Janet and Malcolm took it.  Though the buyer initially intended to continue the business, he then changed his mind, and Saunders Garden Centre was for one weekend the site of a massive clearance sale.

For Malcolm, ‘Life after Garden Centre’ initially consisted of being a real estate agent, then three and a half years with Janet at the garden shop at The Warehouse, and finally a stint working for Tata Steel (now a part of Steel and Tube) at the port.

All the while, however, Malcolm had been turning up on Wednesdays and Saturdays to officiate at cycle races.  The value of this is immeasurable, but substantial.  Flaming off raw energy in young men helps the rest of us to live peaceful lives.  The alternative for many competitors would have been reaping havoc on four wheels and with a thousand times more horsepower at their command.  All vigourous sport serves a useful purpose of sublimating teenage angst, but cycle racing has the advantage of involving a machine to be loved.

The shore of the Waimea Estuary in the vicinity of the MDF plant and the Ravensdown fertiliser depot had for years been treated as a handy place to dispose of old tyres, steel and concrete.  It was regarded as useless and indeed that was close to the truth, due to sediment washed down from inland land clearance.  The days of apocalyptic land erosion are behind us, and the sediment has dispersed. But the rubble dumped at its margin remained.  It was however ‘out of sight and out of mind’ until the opening of the Great Taste Trail.

Inspired by Janet’s brother, Ian Johnson, Malcolm pitched in to clean up the mess.   Ian has removed 920 tyres from the estuary margin.  Heavy equipment was needed to lift out the worst offending debris, and one weekend Higgins Contracting reported for duty with two trucks and a digger.  Malcolm manned a stop/go sign.  All the Higgins operators and people on the ground did the work for no pay.

Malcolm is on the board of Waimea Village, a 170-residence community with shared amenities, but private home ownership.  Waimea Village has the type of structure oft talked about as a way forward for caring communities.  It works because fairness and sustainability are it’s guiding principles, rather than extracting profits.  It is unique in New Zealand.

 ‘Unsung’ is the word that comes to mind when I reflect on Malcolm Saunders.  For decades he has been giving, not in grand gestures but in steady reliable effort.  My mother used to say that if you did something good and then kept quiet about it, then it was extra good.  My mother would have liked Malcolm Saunders.

Saunders Garden Centre in 1977.

That's Malcolm behind the Shovel

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