Johnny Stevenson - Tough times don’t last…

4 minutes read
Posted 29 November, 2023
JakJ JohnnyJ Lana and Yvonne at Milford Sound in 2022

Jak, Johnny, Lana and Yvonne at Milford Sound in 2022

Johnny Stevenson learned a hard work ethic growing up in a Southland dairy farming family – one that paid off. He may have always missed the finish of Hogan’s Heroes on TV due to evening milking duties, but that resourcefulness saw him go on to own a substantial chunk of commercial downtown Queenstown.

“Growing up I thought farming was specifically designed to wreck your weekends. Everything stopped at 3pm and we went home to milk the cows,” he says.

Eldest of four – in a fifth generation Whakatipu farming family, Johnny was steering the truck down in Mokotua, aged six. His Lake Hayes family homestead still features odd windows that his dad, Noel Stevenson – son of the legendary Crown Range ‘Waggoner Jak’, swapped for pigs. “Dad was always bartering things.”

“We didn’t know if we were rich or poor. Small treats were Buzz Bars and we wore clothes from the Salvation Army. Everybody did.” Noel took him to his first movie in the 1970s – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “We went after we’d milked the cows, and had fish and chips. We thought, ‘Wow!’” Johnny trapped possums before school, skinning them at night.

At 12, he’d race the converted farm bike – a Yamaha DT175, at Oreti Beach.

Boarding at Southland Boys High was “survival of the fittest”. “You learned to keep your mouth shut. It was good training for life,” he grins. Johnny may have been class captain of “the D class” studying metalwork and agriculture, but he never made it into Mr Furlong’s English class, instead banished to the corridor.

He was a prefect in sixth form “because everybody else failed School Cert” but left to work, sometimes 18-hour days, on farms for $90 a week.

Working on a wealthy Tapanui farm at 17, playing rugby for West Otago, driving his own Land Cruiser and boxing competitively, Johnny dated the mayor’s daughter. “She was pretty flash. I thought I had it made.”

However, mum Alma filled in his application for a Diploma of Agriculture at Lincoln. Johnny was then off on a uni ag exchange to Minnesota, followed by several years driving and towing combine harvesters and learning ‘trucker language’, following the wheat belt from California to Canada. “I took a crew up to Idaho and the boss gave me a big bag of cash. I was 19 and in charge of all these guys.”

Adventures included riding a small motorbike across Canada and down to California, then working in Scandinavia. Crossing Checkpoint Charlie in the Berlin Wall, Johnny was strip searched and detained for concealing money he’d earned in many different currencies. After three months on a prawn trawler in Far North Queensland it was back to NZ in 1985 where farming subsidies had been lifted and times were tough.

Johnny opted for a career with AMP Insurance, assistant manager in Invercargill where he met wife Yvonne, then manager in Dunedin.

His parents sold the farm and moved back to their Whakatipu roots, that rich heritage beckoning Johnny back too, where he worked with Ken Swain in insurance and financial planning from the early 1990s.

Johnny had bought Invercargill rental properties which he sold to buy a couple of Queenstown houses. “I had lots of property, but I didn’t own much of it,” he grins. He’d worked extra jobs, including delivering pizza, to get there. “I’d do the Dee Street shuffle to swap cash around so that my mortgages didn’t default.”

“Queenstown was full of entrepreneurs. You never said, ‘It won’t work’, or someone got off the plane and proved you wrong. There weren’t the regulations there are now. The Kelly boys got a digger and put a boat ramp in and started K-Jet.”

Johnny bought a commercial property in Wānaka in 1994 then later bought and converted a Queenstown joinery workshop in Industrial Place into Wholesale Market. He then purchased Armada House with his Westwood Group investor partners.

The World building was next in his sights and by 2004 he worked full-time on property, owning three Queenstown commercial buildings.

The nationally famous Lynch property in Shotover Street was a coup – the last house to sell downtown. “My friends were waiting to celebrate my birthday in Arrowtown and I was sitting around the coal range drinking champagne with the Lynches celebrating the sale.” Several more landmark buildings followed, including The Mountaineer, Steamer Wharf, then the Bradley Building - totalling seven.

Westwood Group had 115 tenants when Covid times hit, but only lost one. “It was tough. One day I woke up to 45 missed calls like we knew the answer, but bad times end.”

Johnny’s been a member of Queenstown Rotary, Shotover 4WD Drive Club and president of Arrowtown Tennis. He also donned high heels for the “rite of passage” Winter Festival Drag Race, and fought successfully in Thriller in the Chiller – easier than surviving in business in Queenstown.

“Tough times don’t last but tough people do.” The main thing is to “live honourably and treat people fairly”, he says

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A much younger Johnny riding through Death Valley in the Mojave Desert in California with Swedish girlfriend of the day Christina Erikkson


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