Real Life Business Lessons # 11 The ‘Professor of Landscape Magic’

Many years ago I discovered a simple business success strategy.

Talk to successful business people and ask them two things.

1: What did they do to build their successful business?

2: How did they handle the many challenges along the way?

Whenever I do this, I’m amazed at the terrific ideas I get.

And that’s the purpose of ‘Real Life Business Lessons.’

I have been interviewing a wide range of successful business people around the country and finding out what worked well for them.

And how they handled the many challenges along the way. With the goal of uncovering some helpful ideas that you can use in your own business.

In this issue of Real Life Business Lessons you’ll meet a person I call ‘The Professor of Landscape Magic’. He’s both a University Professor and a successful business owner.

* AUT professor Max Abbott resigns in wake of sexual stalking claims
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* Casino boss tells of friendship before failed Nelson winery investment

And he shares some great lessons on how creativity and good design can work well together to build a successful business.

I was chatting recently with Mick Abbott the owner of Wildlab.

Mick has an unusual background in that he has done well in both the business world and also in the academic world.

Mick was very passionate about the outdoors through his teens and twenties and beyond and he spent a fair bit of time climbing and tramping.

Early on he had some jobs working on an orchard running a pack house and picking operation. He lived in Australia for a while and did a lot of rock climbing. And he paid for that by working in a bar and also driving taxis

While doing this Mick took his time to study architecture. He ended up dropping in and out of his course. Which meant he took eight years to complete it rather than the normal five years.

In the end Mick left with his degree, getting his strongest results in the design aspects.

In his late 20s Mick did a solo traverse of the South Island which took 130 days and crossed the main divide multiple times, as well as lots of other passes.

After that he got a job at Arthur Ellis and Co who had sponsored Mick on his solo traverse. His job was the lead equipment designer for Fairydown designing their backpacks tents and sleeping bags.

He also did this for the Hallmark brand they had purchased at that time.

After doing this Mick decided he was keen to do his own thing rather than continue working for a large corporate.

With his sister and brother-in-law, Mick set up Gondwana creative kits, which made paper recycling kits, soap making kits, candle making kits and a whole range of other products that young people could use to express themselves and their creativity.

While they based this business in Dunedin, they set it up from the start as an Australasian business, with freephone’s in both countries, and weekly airfreight runs of stock sent out across both countries.

They worked with great retailers including Whitcoulls, Paper Plus, Australia Post, Australia Geographic, Myer, David Jones, and Target.

For a short while they also sold their products into the USA, and even had a French language version of one kit selling in Europe.

Mick’s role involved both the design of the kits and running production.

They had six kits sell over 100,000 units each and one kit sold over 250,000 units.

This experience really brought home to Mick that a good design isn’t just about the look and feel of something, but also understanding how things are to be used and implemented.

As everyone will tell you, being in your own business is very time-consuming and all encompassing. So after 10 years they sold the business and followed other avenues.

This meant returning to University in a teaching role and in time it’s expanded also into university research.

Mick’s academic work has always been in the field of Design – whether design strategy, experience design, communication design and especially landscape architecture and spatial design.

During this time at university Mick completed both a Masters and PhD in landscape architecture, and has also undertaken accreditation as a Hearings Commissioner.

And he has moved steadily upward in the University. From starting out 20 years ago as a lecturer, Mick is now a Professor. And he now works part time at Lincoln University as a Professor in Landscape Architecture.

Mick finds that he really enjoys teaching design to students.

Often ‘design’ seems like a mysterious artistic endeavour.

Wildlab is all about people’s relationship with the land, and how they can create ‘amazing value’ out of that relationship.


Wildlab is all about people’s relationship with the land, and how they can create ‘amazing value’ out of that relationship.

But Mick says that it’s really something all people can do, and we can all learn how to think and create innovative ways to produce some really amazing outcomes.

Mick found that it’s great working with students as you have young, motivated and highly optimistic people who are driven to do exciting things that can make a better future for all of us. It’s this sense of optimism and possibility which underpins the business he started called Wildlab.

Their mission is ‘growing a place where people and nature thrive together’

Mick loves the fact that there are many ways that people and nature can be mutually beneficial for each other. (Rather than more nature being possible only in places with less people, or more people meaning less or inferior nature.)

Mick and his team do this by using some of the really useful design processes he has been involved in developing while at the University.

Mick knows that University is a great environment and is focused on developing cutting edge research.

But he has also found it very satisfying to apply this research to real-world projects.

In many ways, the test of the knowledge that Mick gained from his University background is if this knowledge can then be converted into producing real value for local businesses and communities.

Mick (along with Woody Lee and Cameron Boyle) established Wildlab to do just that.

Wildlab is all about people’s relationship with the land, and how they can create ‘amazing value’ out of that relationship.

This ‘amazing value’ can take many forms.

For example, many farmers can use their relationship with the land to create new revenue streams.

They can offer an amazing visitor experience that people love to participate in. (And will happily pay good money for this experience.)

They can also share the wonderful background stories that come from working closely with the land and this can add huge value to the money that a farmer gets for their products.

Amazing value can also be created by making farms more productive by restoring the land.

A lot of Wildlab’s work is about regenerative farming – working with the land to grow its value and with it the value of everything that is produced on the land.

The usual way people think about this is to take inferior land and use native plants for ecological restoration.

Wildlab find people are always keen to share their love of a place with others and are often driven by this, and the desire to leave the landscape better than they found it.


Wildlab find people are always keen to share their love of a place with others and are often driven by this, and the desire to leave the landscape better than they found it.

Wildlab takes this a step further and looks at how you can do this type of planting and directly create economic value at the same time

For instance, can a layer of tourism activity be integrated across a property in ways that build revenue streams, while also strengthening what is grown on the property?

Or can restoration planting be done in such a way that means the food that’s been produced has an inspiring story so that people will pay more for this food?

Wildlab also work a lot with conservation groups and conservation managers to design nature-based experiences and stories that increase the number of people who support this country’s conservation mission.

An interesting project that Wildlab did was with Conservation Volunteers New Zealand.

They have been working with them to grow the ways people can be looking after nature while having a great holiday break.

This is called Voluntourism.

WildLab has designed WildHeartProject.Kiwi.

And while Covid has impacted the number of overseas visitors getting involved they have found Kiwis love the idea of taking a week out to plant trees, maintain trails, and soak up the amazing locations this takes place.

As well as developing the branding, communication materials, website, and booking system for WildHeart Project Kiwi they have also been developing the signs and interpretation panels.

A while ago they developed with DOC a pilot programme to get young kids to connect with the special places found across public conservation lands.

Kiwi Ranger, was piloted in 16 sites and had 20,000 kids involved.

The booklets and badges they received were all about designing simple experiences that connected kids to conservation, and at the end they got these great badges.

After the pilot DOC took on the full rights to it, and from that it evolved into Toyota Kiwi Guardians.

For Wildlab it’s all about working with people and their landscapes to grow the value of what can be produced.

And yes some of that value is economic in terms of more people visiting, produce being valued more, and so on.

But there’s also a deeply social aspect as well.

Wildlab find people are always keen to share their love of a place with others and are often driven by this, and the desire to leave the landscape better than they found it.

And ultimately, it’s this that can grow our countries wealth.

Mick explained that their services are about working with people to realise the added value that nature and the places/landscapes they farm/manage can bring to all they can do.

They design visitor and nature-based experiences that are regenerative, and mean people are contributing something worthwhile to the environment while having an awesome time.

This can include things like paths, trail design, native planting, restoration planting and visitor experiences and supporting materials including interpretation panels, app design, websites, communication, branding.

They also design landscape plans for farms, and lifestyle blocks that are also regenerative. They also design parks and other public spaces, and also do trail design at both local scales and also at a more strategic regional scale.

I asked Mick about some of the challenges he has faced in growing his Wildlab business.

Mick said that a lot of the work Wildlab does comes from word of mouth. So they will do a project for a large vineyard or farm or conservation group and that leads to projects with other large vineyards and farms and conservation groups.

The challenge with relying on word of mouth is that Mick and his team are often so busy in getting the projects for their clients implemented, they don’t have time to market their services to new clients.

Another challenge is that many potential clients think they need to make a massive investment in time, money and other resources to create a worthwhile outcome.

Wildlab has done some interesting things to solve these challenges.

They run workshops and field trips taking people through the steps of creating awesome outcomes for communities and landowners through improving the environment and connecting with nature.

This helps educate people about how they can create amazing value from their relationship with the land.

To help solve the challenge of clients thinking it will take a massive amount of money, time and other resources to use the services of Wildlab, Mick does something very clever.

He gives clients the opportunity to have some ‘quick successes’ with small projects that don’t take a lot of time or other resources to complete.

At the same time, he makes sure that these small projects fit in well with bigger and more ambitious long term goals and outcomes for each client.

Here’s an example of this approach:

Wildlab has a large vineyard client based in Marlborough.

NZ First MP Shane Jones and Labour MP Damien O'Connor visit Hoddy Estuary Park, during an announcement as part of the One Billion Trees program. The Waimea Inlet is the largest semi-enclosed estuary in the South Island. It provides habitat for rare and threatened native plant and animals.

Braden Fastier/Nelson Mail

NZ First MP Shane Jones and Labour MP Damien O’Connor visit Hoddy Estuary Park, during an announcement as part of the One Billion Trees program. The Waimea Inlet is the largest semi-enclosed estuary in the South Island. It provides habitat for rare and threatened native plant and animals.

Wildlab started out with a storytelling project, developing interpretation panels, wayfinding signs and seating for visitors to enjoy their drive through the property.

It’s one of the few vineyards in the country the public can drive through and the project that Wildlab did was to create panels that would share and inspire visitors about the company’s longstanding sustainability values.

This small project worked very well for the vineyard.

So based on the success of this small project Wildlab have now undertaken a whole of vineyard landscape masterplan and strategy.

The purpose of this project is to link the 250ha not in vineyards in a meaningful way and tie it into the vineyard’s story.

Currently this land is used as pasture.

Wildlab designed an extensive restoration planting strategy and plan so that it was eligible for funding support from the Billion Trees project.

And they have done the planting and layout in such a way that it creates future wine stories (including label/branding options) for the vineyard.

These stories connect consumers with their great wines and values of sustainability and closely caring for the environment.

The strategy is designed to be implemented over 10 years but is done in a way that it generates stories and value throughout its implementation as well.

One of the expressions that Mick often uses is 1+1= 3.

This means that when you do several things in your project you can actually get a lot more benefits than if you did just one thing by itself.

So for the Marlborough vineyard a part of the landscape masterplan is that it includes creating a public walking trail from the nearby township of Seddon all the way to the coast.

This is both a benefit for the community and also draws visitors into tasting and purchasing wine and other company’s products.

A great example of 1+1=3.

One of the keys to the success of Wildlab is they use clever design processes developed at University to help their clients get amazing value from their relationship with their landscapes.

A good example of this clever design is a High Country Station Wildlab works with.

This station is investing in tourism services, and Wildlab have undertaken the landscape master planning for both the development and across the property as a way to link farming, conservation values and tourism experiences.

It has also included specific site planning for the visitor facilities, including roading, siting of all elements and such like.

It also includes the design of an interactive ‘living nature’ trail which includes the use of great photomontage techniques.

The clever design of these photo montages allows people to see what the landscape used to look like centuries ago, compared to how it looks today.

And this creates amazing value for the people who experience this ‘living nature trail’.

The consistent message I get from talking with Mick is how to create ‘amazing value’ from your relationship with the land.

Mick gave me another example of creating ‘amazing value’ for another vineyard.

This vineyard produces premium organic wines, because of the amazing soils found there due to the underlying band of limestone on which travels under the land.

However only a third of the land is suitable for wine, and in this project Wildlab developed a masterplan, and implementation strategy for the whole vineyard.

This integrated native species as both part of a restoration project and also to support the vineyard’s productivity.

This include planting tussock as water catchers, and also a tight band of totara not only for restoration, but also so they can be progressively thinned out with the non-treated timber being used for the vineyard’s future fenceposts.

So Mick and his team are helping the vineyard not only with sales of their premium priced organic wines, they are also helping with the long term sustainability of the vineyard by making everything they do environmentally friendly.

I asked Mick what advice he would give other business owners based on his own business experience.

He had some comments I really liked.

He told me that ‘everything grows your skills.’

People look to Mick’s University training in terms of the skills he has.

Yet Mick told me that he has learnt more about consumers, systems implementation and processes from his various jobs than from his University education.

For instance, working with a team of people to pack over 10,000 punnets of berry fruit every day, along with multiple other grades has shown Mick ways to implement large scale planting plans, and other production systems.

Likewise, it was from driving cabs in Sydney and meeting hundreds of Aussies that gave Mick and his business partners the confidence to immediately sell their creative kits into Australia

As a designer Mick has learnt that insights can come from anywhere, and it’s important to listen to everyone.

Mick had some inspirational thoughts that he also shared with me.

The thing that gives him the greatest value is knowing that many hundreds of thousands of native trees and plants have been planted from the projects his business has been involved in.

Mick’s great-great-great-grandfather had been one of Christchurch’s leading nursery men between the 1860s and 1880s with 19 acres of nurseries.

Mick often smiles when he thinks that while his great-great- great-grandfather was growing all the exotic trees now full size around Christchurch and the Canterbury Plains, Mick is involved in the reverse of this by focussing on native plants

In one project with Ngai Tahu this involves over 1.3 Million native plants being grown on their Canterbury Plains farms.

Mick said that while we often hear in the media of disagreements in terms of land-use proposals he finds pretty much everyone is trying to do the best for the land.

And his job is to show that improving nature and biodiversity is both good in an altruistic way, and that also it directly leads to better economic returns and amazing value at the same time.


I really like what Mick has done in his Wildlab business.

His business is doing work that makes a major difference to the environment both now and long term.

Wildlab have inspired thousands of people to get involved in improving the environment through voluntourism.

And they helped dozens of businesses to create amazing value from the relationship they have with the land.

Mick makes it easier for potential clients to use the services of his business with things like education through workshops and field trips.

And he used creativity and clever design to create some remarkable outcomes for his clients.

He shows clients how they can enjoy easy successes and get quick wins by doing small projects to start with that also tie in well with any long-term goals they have.

And I love the idea that ‘everything in your life’ is helpful in some way to make you more successful in business.

And to me, Mick is always ‘The Professor of Landscape Magic.’

Take Action:

What ideas did you get from this issue of Real Life Business Lessons that you can put into action in your own business?

Graham McGregor is a marketing advisor. You can get his free marketing guide ‘The Plan B Sales Solution’ at