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Monday 27 March 2023 4:17pm

Tony and Barbara Johnson
Tony and Barbara Johnson

Fulfilling careers and a life-long partnership all started in Chemistry class at Otago for Tony and Barbara Johnson.

After meeting over the distilled water tap in Chemistry in the 1970s, Tony and Barbara went on to forge international careers in the pulp and paper industry, alongside raising their three sons.

Today, their extended family of eight includes six Otago graduates – their son Matthew and his wife Rudi met at Otago while studying Dentistry, and son Cameron also met his wife Sarah while both were studying Science. Their youngest son Padgett broke the mould and did Commerce and Arts at the University of Auckland.

Speaking from their home in Tauranga, Tony and Barbara have recently celebrated Tony's prestigious award from the Australasian pulp and paper industry – the Appita (Australasian Pulp and Paper Technical Association) L R Benjamin Medal (LRB), awarded periodically to encourage technical excellence, innovation and achievement. The contribution can be in research, development, engineering or management, and Tony was recognised for his international work in water conservation and innovation in pulp mill design.

“It was a complete surprise,” says Tony. “I've been a good servant of Appita, being on the committee, executive committee and president, and teaching courses over many years. A few years ago I got the Distinguished Service Award and I was pleased about that, but this award was completely unexpected.

“In consulting it's always very much a team effort. It's not one individual, there's a group of people working on something to achieve a new design or whatever it might be, so it's a bit humbling to be singled out for something like the LRB.”

Tony is also one of only three New Zealanders to be made a Fellow of TAPPI (the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry), the worldwide professional body.

Hailing originally from Dunedin and Alexandra respectively, as well as studying Chemistry, Tony and Barbara played various sports at Otago, Barbara playing for university netball teams and Tony playing social rugby. He graduated with a BSc (Applied Chemistry) in 1977 and Barbara gained her BSc(Hons) in Chemistry in 1978.

After University, Tony's first job was as mill chemist at Tasman Pulp and Paper in Kawerau, where he remained for 12 years.

“I was directly using my Otago chemistry degree and particularly the applied part,” he says. “People would come to you with some gunk that they removed out of a piece of pipe saying, 'this stuff's blocking our pipe, what is it?' so then I'd have to use my analytical skills to figure out what it was and then troubleshoot the process to understand how to solve the issue.”

When he was promoted to process engineer for the Kawerau kraft pulp mill, Barbara, who had been the Chemist at Rangitaiki Plains Dairy Company since graduating, took his job as mill chemist – and again when he was promoted to a production role Barbara took over as process engineer. “So you can imagine we always had lots of work stuff to talk about.”

Tony says Otago was a great foundation to build a career on, because there is so much chemistry involved in the processes both in the pulp mill and the paper mill.

“Understanding what was going through the pipes and how the process worked was pretty important. There was always a lot of mechanical engineers and civil engineers and structural engineers and operators that had come up through the ranks, but I think chemistry helped you to gain a pretty good basic understanding of each area of the mill.”

Tony receiving the Appita L R Benjamin Medal
Tony receiving the Appita L R Benjamin Medal

Tony was part of a modernisation project at the Tasman pulp mill, and when it finished the company that was the engineering consultant for the project, Beca Simons, offered him a job as a consultant in Atlanta in the southern United States (US).

“The job was offered to us and we thought why not, we were ready for a change. We had a kiwifruit orchard that we'd developed and we left that behind, we'd built a new house and we left that behind. We went to Atlanta, with three young boys. Padgett was only 11 months old, so it was quite an adventure for us really.”

While in Atlanta, Barbara completed her master's degree in pulp and paper science at the Institute of Pulp and Paper Science and Technology in Atlanta. After four years in the US, she was offered a job at Appleton Papers in Wisconsin as a Technical Specialist, so they moved and Tony kept working for Simons remotely.

“The company mag wrote an article on what I was doing and they called it Road Warrior. It was kind of unusual in those days to work from home, internet was just catching on. I ended up travelling a lot but I also worked from home a lot which was kind of neat. But it was busy, I was travelling up and down to South America and Barb had to travel to Appleton's mills across the US, so we were always trying to coordinate family life and work life.”

As well as South America, Tony's work took him to Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Australia, India, Syria, Sweden and across Canada and the USA. Barbara also travelled to Canada, Australia, Brazil, and Uruguay.

A chance to move to Simons' head office in Vancouver came up, and the family shifted to Canada. During this time, Barbara worked part-time as a consultant in wood pulping and bleaching.

“North America was wonderful,” says Barbara. “It opened our eyes to how the rest of the world works and introduces you to lots of different ways of doing things. But really we realised the Kiwi way is very innovative and almost world-leading in lots of ways and it was really quite amazing to see that. We're down here at the other end of the world and we really think that everything comes from outside and we pick it up, but we do a lot of innovation ourselves.”

Head of the family-owned company in Vancouver, Tom Simons, had a strong relationship with New Zealand businessman Sir Ron Carter ONZ, KNZM, who was a partner in Auckland company Beca. They set up a joint venture, Beca Simons, and when the family returned to New Zealand in 1997 Tony stayed with the company (now Wood Beca).

The extended Johnson family
The extended Johnson family, back row, left to right: Padgett Johnson, Charles Johnson; middle row, left to right: grandchildren Luca, Leo, Jackson, Tristan; front row, left to right, Sarah McIlhinney, Cameron Johnson, Matthew Johnson, Rudi Downs with daughter Annabel.

Throughout his career, Tony has also lectured on a voluntary basis in pulp and paper science at institutes in the different cities they've lived in. He is also an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Waikato, where he gives two or three lectures a year and a workshop on process safety.

“It's good to give back. You get a lot of support yourself when you're going through. We've got a mentoring programme in Appita which I started with a colleague and it's good to support the students and newcomers into the industry. They always want to talk about job prospects and real-world experience, which they don't necessarily get from university lecturers.”

Since being back in New Zealand, Barbara has worked at the Crown Research Institute, Scion, in Rotorua, in various science and leadership roles.

“Chemistry takes you to lots of different, varied places,” says Barbara. “You can do research or can get into the real world and do production jobs. I guess when we graduated we were very fortunate to work at a pulp and paper company in the North Island and that taught us so many practical applications, research and development, technical production. It was just a wonderful learning experience and it really set us up for the rest of our careers.”

After the job at Scion, Barbara became involved with the House of Science, a charitable trust set up by Tauranga teacher Chris Duggan which helps schools teach science in a practical way, by providing equipment and science lessons at an elementary level in a range of scientific disciplines. “It's a wonderful way to involve students in science learning at an early age and to build their confidence and understanding, especially girls.”

Since 2017, Tony has been working part-time as Wood Beca's Technical Director for Australia and New Zealand, and has enjoyed stepping back from fulltime employment.

“When you're working, you're trying to achieve, at university you're trying to achieve good grades, when you take a step back it makes you realise there's lots of other things – contributing back to the industry, your family, your grandkids and the community.”

Both Tony and Barbara are involved with a Tauranga charity, St Peter's House, volunteering and serving on the board, and finding new ways to use skills they've built up over the years.

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