The First 40 Years

When Roger and Anne Hill started Hill Laboratories, they had no idea what was ahead of them. Roger had been working as the manager of a small, private soil testing lab in Cambridge, but when it was clear the promised significant shareholding was not going to happen, it was very unsettling. Anne finally said to him “You know what you are going to have to do. You need to leave and start your own laboratory, otherwise you will just grow into a grumpy old man, wondering what might have been.”

With two young children in primary school, they took the leap into the unknown, and with a family loan of $25k coupled with a similar bank loan, the adventure began. Their goal was to secure enough work to be able to afford two full-time technicians, so Roger could concentrate on developing the services and attend to customers, while Anne would run the office during the school hours. This goal was achieved within that first year and the business just kept growing.

In retrospect, the timing could not have been better. Fertiliser subsidies had just been removed and farmers were wanting more soil tests, and environmental contamination from industry, including the new gold mines in Waihi, needed regular monitoring. Rogernomics was also in full swing with government science organisations being downsized, while the need for rapid, reliable testing services continued to grow. It was a perfect environment for the fledgling laboratory.

The success of Hill Labs can be attributed to the people who have joined the business over the years. Many were young recent graduates from the nearby Waikato University, and they brought enthusiasm and took pride to be applying analytical chemistry to support NZ industries. The feeling was very much “we are chemists first and businessmen second” and any profits that accrued were quickly spent on the latest instruments to improve and expand the laboratory. As well as providing a challenging and rewarding work environment for the staff, this philosophy also ensured the laboratory was at the cutting edge of analytical technology.

This same enthusiasm and energy also meant the laboratory was very responsive to unexpected events in New Zealand. When the container ship Rena hit the Astrolabe reef outside of Tauranga, the team stepped up and provided the many thousands of analyses needed by the authorities to assess the environmental impact. Covid testing and kiwifruit maturity testing were also examples of responsiveness, when new processes had to be set up at very short notice.

The commitment of the staff to ensure the customers’ interests was paramount, and the desire to “do it right” was always foremost in their minds. Robust quality systems and international accreditation were part of the business right from the start, and that culture still flourishes today.

The atmosphere/culture of the company is something the management is very proud of. It has always had a family feel and people do care about their colleagues. This can be attributed largely to Anne Hill, who naturally fostered an informal, caring environment during her time in the business and it is still very evident today. Many staff who had left the business have come back, saying how they missed the friendly atmosphere at Hill Labs.

The family culture is also strengthened with Anne and Roger’s elder son, Jonno, now leading the company. He joined the business after completing his studies at Canterbury University, and having held a range of positions over the past 18 years, he understands this business very well. His brother Geoff, a consulting engineer in Christchurch, has also recently joined the Board, ensuring the laboratory will remain a family owned enterprise for some time yet – a fact appreciated by the wider team and the diverse customer base.

It has been a wonderful 40 year journey so far, and the business is as strong now as it has ever been. The existing markets remain buoyant, and the lab continues to grow its scope of services in those markets, and also into new markets. The laboratory has a reputation for doing things well, and the team work hard to continue earning and protecting that reputation. With the recent rejuvenation in the leadership team, the future feels exciting and positive, and Hill Labs looks forward to whatever new challenges and successes the future might hold.

Pictured from left: Dr Roger Hill, Dr Jonno Hill

28 May 2024

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