Cliff & Dyan LeComte – Farmyard Zoo – CEO Business Marketing Interview 26

The transition from employee to business owner, where the idea for starting the Farmyard Zoo came from, creating a point of difference in the market by allowing children to interact with animals, the importance of hand raising animals to the farmyard experience and why keeping entry affordable keeps families, rest homes and students coming back.

PLUS learn about how Cliff & Dyan are giving to the community through the Zoo Helper volunteer scheme for kids 12+ and older learning retail and customer hospitality at the zoo!

Farmyard Zoo Pricing
Under 1 FREE
Children $7
Adults $10
2 Adults, 3 children $35
Punnets of food $1
Pony Ride $5
Train Rides $4 a ride

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Ryan: This is the Ryan Marketing show and you’re listening to episode 26 of 100. Today, I’m at a zoo, with Dyan and Cliff LeComte and we’re going to be talking about how you guys got into this business and well, let’s start with what it’s all about. So what is Farmyard Zoo all about? What, why do people come out here and what’s on offer?

Cliff: To interact with the animals. Dyan came up with this idea one night while working at the freezing works. We were both working at the freezing works and Dyan came up with this idea to start a business so that she could get out of a position that she was in that she could see herself stuck in for the rest of her working life. And so we decided to start a zoo and our point of difference was going to be the interaction of animals with children as opposed to a normal zoo.

Dyan: Yeah, where it could be more of a hands on here, so the type of animals that we have in the business have got to be user friendly for small children and so they could feed them. So goats are always real good value, so I hadn’t worked with goats a lot before that but we’ve got every kind of breed of goat that you can get. We tried to stick with the purebred breeds rather than mixed breeds, it’s got to be interesting for the adults as well. We’re always trying to display them two of each breed, split like Noah’s Ark because it’s, you know, the male and female of each breed and yeah, that’s just the way they’re displayed.

Just getting back to when we first started the zoo, Cliff and I had been working at the freezing works. I was there about eighteen years and that’s where we met and of course got married and had children, we’ve got an orchard, both of us had two jobs at the time and we found ourself in a position financially that I could look for a job. Get out of that meat industry because I had gone as high as I was going to go and I found there was no challenge there in that area so I wanted to do something else. Had no idea what I was going to do because I left school when I was sixteen, wasn’t qualified in anything, spent eighteen years at the freezing works. Started at the bottom, work right to the top as far as I was going to go so I started to get bored with that job and anyway we found ourselves in a position financially that I could choose what I wanted to do rather then having to be in the job for the financial side of it and I had no idea what we were going to do but I did notice that a lot of people were coming in off the road and asking to take photos of the animals that we had in the paddocks which were our normal animals; kids ponies, chickens, pigs, which can be seen from the front paddock and being on that main tourist route going to Cape Kidnappers made me think that it was location of where we were that it would be in a good position to open up a business like that, and that’s what gave me the idea so then I had to drag Cliff around a few other petting zoos just to get an idea and show him that people were making money. That it was an actual business.

Cliff: I was one of the original skeptics.

Ryan: (laughs)

Dyan: He was pretty skeptical.

Cliff: I could see that I was actually going to have to build this thing.

Dyan: So anyway he was very good, he said okay you can have this little block of land out the front here, and I sort of looked out there and though oh well no, that’s not big enough and so I said to him if we’re going to do this I’m going to do it right. So I want all this side of the property to build this petting zoo on because he had that side with an orchard and so anyway we stayed at the freezing works as long as we could, but the first year we had about 18,000 through. The first year we opened, and Cliff could go, that’s worthwhile doing so and also we had just got to the stage where we couldn’t do the work load here and the work load at the freezing works as well.

Cliff: Yeah well I was running two orchards at the time, I’d had a cleaning contract at the works, I was running two orchards, I’d built the zoo and mind you we had a little bit of help, we had farmstays living with us all the time. We had both been travellers all our lives and so we had farmstays, have done for many a year, infact we’re just off to England to catch up and live with them with the friends we’ve made with that over the years. It means we’ve got people coming to our house that are travellers all the time, at a time of our lives where we haven’t been able to travel like we would like to and so that is another – and with them coming in and being able to work in the zoo, it’s a volunteer labour that’s a work experience scheme or Helpx, Farmstays.

Dyan: Helpx, Farmstays type thing.

Cliff: It creates a real good environment in the house having travellers here all the time, they tend to come for a fortnight, some of them stayed up to a year. One of them stayed the entire time and helped me build the entire zoo and so as I say we’re just off to England to catch up with a lot of those people that have helped us over the years. So that’s another advantage of having the zoo, another one is the children coming in. When I built it I had never thought that I would appreciate the fact of the enjoyment that people get out of it. I did it because I could see a financial reward in it, but in hindsight when you walk outside and you can hear people screaming. Usually when people are screaming it’s because there’s something wrong, what’s gone wrong, but it’s because people are so happy with the animals eating out of their hands. It’s an experience they’ve never had before and it’s quite rewarding to hear that.

[00:06:47]

Ryan: I mean that’s quite a big journey you’ve been on, and I think, a couple of things that I’ve taken out of that is that, you didn’t start from scratch. You already had some of the farm animals here and you saw the tourists going past, and it’s kind of made that first jump a little bit easier.

Cliff: Very few of them. We had pigs and horses and chooks, but most of the animals we have here have been hand raised which is our point of difference so that they will interact with the customers so when we started we actually had to get these animals as babies and a lot of the animals that are here now still after thirteen years are original residents when we first opened. So that has been quite a process to get that in and to continue that as the animals get older and pass away, then we must get younger ones. We can’t just go and buy them from the commercial.

Ryan: Right because you want to care and love them so they can give that back.

Cliff: We feed them and look after them so that they think we’re their parents and so they will just walk straight up to you whether they are deer, cattle, goats or whatever. We had a riding school here for nine years with two instructors, and closed that. We got twenty horses on which is a big commitment but that’s our recreation as well, we both hunt and trek. And we have girls that come that like riding that volunteer to work in the zoo and ride the horses and they love it, their parents love it, their schoolwork lifts. Their parents can’t, Dyan is a great teacher she teaches them how to run the till, how to interact with the customers, they arrive here as twelve year old, shy little girls. Some of them have been here ten years, started at seven, leave at seventeen.

Ryan: So it’s more then just the animals, this is helping young people grow up, it’s the confidence thing.

Cliff: It’s the whole thing, it’s the whole environment. Their parents get them to work on time, it’s their first job. Dyan’s out there saying why are you five minutes late? You might be volunteer but this is your first job, you treat it like a… and those girls as they grow up, when a paying job becomes vacant, then they get it. It’s not a full time job but it’s a bit of money to keep them going while they’re..

Dyan: It’s a voluntary job, just getting back these zoo helpers, this was how I was when I was a kid. I was one of those kids, and like horses are such a big part of our business, having twenty here, and when I was a kid I was one of those kids who absolutely loved horses but I didn’t think I was ever going to get a horse. I didn’t come from a horsey background, and so I used to go down to the local riding school, help out as much as I could. Pick up poos, clean saddles, anything just to be around the horses and when we got this riding school I could see that there were kids that just wanted that little bit more but the parents couldn’t afford it so they started to come as volunteers. So this volunteer thing that we’ve got going is a big part of our zoo, we have eight volunteers and they start at, Cliff said twelve, they’ve got to be big enough to be able to western saddle on a horse, physically big enough.

I do treat it as a proper job, I say that when they come in here, you can’t just come whenever you want to. Minimum requirement is one day a fortnight, that’s their minimum to keep their position because there’s other kids that want to come here and get this opportunity, but I do treat it like their first job. It is a voluntary position, but when they leave here they know about what it’s like being in the workforce, and I give them a reference which is a stepping stone into their first job. I’ll be a referee for them and I’ll teach them how to use the eftpos and the till. The main thing is interacting with the customers, you know kids learning to talk to other adults in the zoo and they take the llamas out and they’re showing the kids. They’re doing the lamb feeding, they take pony rides. The parents, as Cliff said, they just said it’s been really beneficial for them to come here and work here and we have, just like everything else we have our little works dos and outings and stuff, and the paid staff and the volunteers are all treated the same, so that’s a big part of it.

Cliff: We have quiz nights here at home every now and then, pizza nights. The girls bring their tents and sleep out with the horses, which is an opportunity that they can’t get. We supply them the horse, each to go to the Hairy Horse Competition, and if they’re in the school equestrian thing then they can take horse from here and compete whereas they’d be unable to otherwise.

Ryan: Right so it’s quite a fortunate thing for these young kids to be able to do that.

Cliff: It’s a whole involved lifestyle, not a business. It’s run as a lifestyle.

Dyan: Yeah it is, it’s a lifestyle this business.

Cliff: And it pays the bills, it’s a viable business, on top of it.

[00:12:16]

Ryan: It sounds like you’re giving quite a lot back, which is becoming increasingly rare around the world, being able to have that direct interaction with animals, farmyard animals. Being able to take a horse and go horse riding without necessarily having to own one as a family, that’s a big ask. Dyan that’s from your background, wanting to give to other kids.

Dyan: I was one of those kids that used to go and pick all the horse hair off the fences and take it home and put it in my keep sake box but it’s the same opportunity that I had when I was a kid going down the local riding school, being able to help out there in return for my horse fix. That my parents, I didn’t come from a horse family.

Cliff: The other side of the lifestyle is that in dealing with animals it’s not like a paint shop, or a CEO or business, you can’t just walk out and close the door on Friday night and turn up and open the door on Monday morning.

Ryan: Right like everyday, you’ve got be feeding and looking after those animals.

Cliff: The animals are your prisoners, they rely on you solely and so they’ve got to be looked after 24/7.

[00:13:29]

Ryan: So what does a day out here look like from start to finish?

Cliff: Daylight till dawn, I start at six in the morning to go and collect food for the animals and Dyan starts doing bookwork and running the zoo. Dyan runs the zoo side of it, she does all the hiring and firing.

Dyan: Not that there’s a lot of that. (laughs)

Cliff: Not that there’s a lot of firing, I don’t know if we’ve every fired anybody I don’t think. And I run the other side, I rule the maintenance building, the irrigation, the pastoral management, the shearing, the crutching. I do sheep shearing demonstrations for the schools and I do the horse shoeing, I don’t do a lot of the riding myself, we get the girls to do that. I do ride a lot myself but I take the odd trek, we have a trekking business on top with the horses as well, although it’s not the main part of our business, it means that they aren’t as big costs as what they could be. So I do that during the week, the staff do that during the weekend.

Ryan: And what animals cause the most trouble for you?

Cliff: Ostrich.

Ryan: Ostrich?

Cliff: He will try and kill you every time you go into his pen.

Dyan: Yeah don’t go into the ostrich pen, that’s what we tell everybody. They’re very territorial.

Cliff: It’s padlocked up.

Ryan: And which ones recognise you, and know you the most?

Cliff: All of them.

Dyan: Everyone.

Cliff: Every one of them.

Dyan: Every one knows Cliff because..

Cliff: I can’t go near most of the animals, I have to get them caught for me. Everybody else can go up and hand feed them, or probably can go and hand feed them, as soon as they see me coming they’re gone, because I’m the guy that sheers them, drags them. Every time they see me coming, there’s something wrong with them and they’re getting an injection.

Dyan: They’re either going to get an injection or a drench down their throat.

Ryan: So you’re the tough love.

Cliff: When I walk around the zoo everybody puts their heads up, going who’s going to get it next? But that’s just the health of animals, it’s not that they’re scared of me, it’s just that they’ve got to be shorn, they’ve got to be drenched and they’ve got to be injected whether it will be 5-in-1 preventative or they’ve got a foot rot and they need tipping up and foot rotting so when they see me coming then. Yeah, there’s animals kind of standing up on the fences waiting for me to come around going, well if you come in my paddock I’m outta here or I’m going to have a crack at you.

Dyan: Yeah but on the other hand, all the other animals.

Cliff: All the kids go and lead them in.

Dyan: We feed them when we catch them, in the morning, everything gets a slice of bread. That’s just a time saver so that the animals are there hanging over the fence rather than being at the end of the paddock cause we’ve got to get all these animals into the pens, they start at nine o’clock in the morning, takes us an hour to set up. We open at ten o’clock, so during that hour we get all the animals in the pens for the public display because they all go out to the paddocks at night, and clean all the pens, so that’s all done within an hour. Then after that during the day once we’re open, we get on to getting the food because we eat a lot of bread, and so all the wrappers have to be taken off that, getting all the food prepared and all the horses are fed.

Cliff: Getting back to the business side of it, yeah it’s a unique business.

[00:17:02]

Ryan: How do you get people here, how do they find out about Farmyard Zoo?

Cliff: Advertise.

Ryan: Where do you advertise to?

Dyan: Internet, newspaper, brochures, but a big thing is word of mouth. We have a comments book out there that people write where they heard about us and a lot of it’s passing, which is the location of your business. A lot of people coming out this way and word of mouth.

Cliff: Eighty percent of our business would be local, people think we’re set up as touristry.

Ryan: That’s what I thought as well.

Cliff: No, we’re not. We will have people come from Wellington, if you come six times you get your –

Dyan: Discount, we got discount. Seventeen percent discount.

Cliff: You get your sixth one free, they will come from Wellington and get a user friendly card, and they’ll come every day until they’ve used that card. They will come every day.

Ryan: Wow.

Cliff: We had a vet come one day, I saw him on the third weekend. I went out and saw him, and I said I thought you were here last weekend and he said, I was here the weekend before that too. I’m over your place, but when I get home, all the kids do is want to come back again. And I said well, aren’t you able to take them to work? But with OSH regulations now, the days of going and visiting your uncle’s farm and playing in the woolshed or mucking around in the shearing shed or doing the hay combing, they’re gone.

Ryan: Right.

Cliff: So this has been, although every body is against the political correctness of that, myself included in the cotton wool syndrome, that has been the crux of our business. Because these kids, and everybody says the people in Auckland have never seen a sheep. The people in Haumoana, half of them haven’t patted a sheep either. They’ve seen them going past in the bus windows going to school every day, but they’ve never actually touched one.

Dyan: But even the lamb feeding you know that used to be something that most Kiwi kids could have access to years ago, but now they don’t you know, so a lot of parents and grandparents will bring them here and we sell lamb bottles for the public to feed and they just go like hotcakes, we can’t get enough lambs for everybody to feed. They’re fed four times a day.

Cliff: One thing that did surprise me is the amount of farmers or ex farmers that come in, and when they leave because they, some of them won’t pay the extra they will sit out in the carpark and send the family in because they’re a farmer so they don’t need to go and see an animal, but the ones that actually pay that little bit extra to get their selves in with the family, come out and go, I have never realised how animals could react in an off farm situation.

Ryan: Wow.

Cliff: And things like, I’m an ex shepherd, but wasn’t till running this place, I used to go out, I’d muster five thousand sheep, put them through the yards, take them back again. I never realised that sheep had little family units, out of those five thousand sheep, this sheep of those five, and I can see them out here because they live here, one of those will mix with those little group over there. And one of those will mix with this other group over here out of twenty sheep in the paddock, but these two you will never see in that group. They have their little social crews.

Ryan: You’re maintaining what used to be, human nature, animal nature here that’s practically disappeared through industrialisation.

Cliff: That’s happening on the farm. But when you walk in with a mustering dog, you collect five thousand sheep out of the paddock, you never even visaged that they’ve got little family groups inside that system. Not that you would change your way of farming because of it, it’s just something that –

Dyan: That you don’t notice when you’re doing it.

Cliff: When you’re doing it on a commercial basis.

Dyan: Another thing I’ve noticed here is how different animals will friendly up with animals of not the same breed, like if you do end up with one animal. Like we had a highland steer, we’ve still got a highland steer out here but he was on his own, he didn’t have a mate, and we had one goose in the paddock and this goose loved this highland steer. He’d be sitting down and this goose would climb up and sit on this highland steer and they were mates.

Cliff: Or it would sit on his hay and he wouldn’t eat it.

Dyan: Yeah, and things like that you see and –

Cliff: And everybody thinks that animals need two, but they don’t they just need something else.

Dyan: I like to display two of a kind, but if there isn’t, they’ll friendly up with another animal in the paddock or in the pen.

Cliff: It’s quite amazing.

[00:21:51]

Ryan: So for people coming through do they get to, what’s .. do they get to feed, and how much is it? Is there different packages?

Cliff: Yes there is. That’s Dyan’s side of it.

Dyan: Well we have punnets of food that people can purchase for a dollar, and that’s maize that we feed out and they can, basically the feeding spiel is that you keep your hands flat when you’re feeding and you can hand feed all the different goats, sheep and llamas around the zoo because they’re safe. They’re safe for kids to feed because a lot of the kids that are coming here are like three years old and they’re holding out their hands to these animals and so that’s why I’ve sort of stuck with the goats because they’re so gentle and careful.

Cliff: Goats and llamas.

Dyan: The difference between like going to the Auckland zoo is that, you see a lot of the animals but having an animal sort of lick the food out of your hand, take the food out of the hand and they’re so careful when they do it.

Cliff: And that encourages them to come right up to you, that’s what it’s about. It’s not about feeding the animal, it’s about having him not sitting at the back of the pen, but having him lean over the rail.

Ryan: So there’s the interaction there.

Dyan: Yeah, they are leaning over the rail wanting to be patted, wanting the food.

Cliff: That’s the interaction, when you can put your hand through the deer pen and the deer will lick it out of your hand, right as opposed to going to a deer park and they’re all standing on top of the hill.

Dyan: Cliff said it was screaming but I wouldn’t say it was screaming, laughter. You know, it’s a lot of the parents. Like we get a really good view form here we can see what’s going on in the zoo and you can hear the parents enjoying themselves just as much as the kids are when they’re here and that’s, I feel that we’ve achieved what I wanted to set out to do.

Cliff: But that’s before what we’ve got now, there’s, like you’re always looking ahead. What we’ve talked up to know is looking back but as in a business, it’s not about looking back it’s about looking forward and what you can do in the future because otherwise you stand still, you go backwards.

[00:24:04]

Ryan: So what is coming up next? Like I see on your website it’s not just for kids you’ve got retirees or retirement villages that come through as well.

Cliff: That’s just the public, we have pensioners come through, we’re wheelchair friendly so we have a lot of elderly groups.

Dyan: It’s just the different groups that come through, like rest homes, they come here as a rest home group and we cater for the different types of groups that come through like with the rest homes, a lot of them aren’t as mobile and so we actually bring a lot of the animals to them and they sort of stay around that picnic area there. Even though a few of them you can go right around the zoo in a wheelchair, the ones that don’t we actually bring a lot of the animals to them as part of their group visit. We have different age groups, we have EIT students come here as a group to do certain things and they’ve been here and learn’t to drench goats and stuff like that.

Cliff: We have EIT to come in to do work their experience every year, they send two people twice a week for ten weeks to get the hands on experience, so that’s another avenue.

Ryan: So it’s almost like an apprenticeship here, practical apprenticeship.

Cliff: Yeah they’ve got to go somewhere to do their practise but that’s only a ten week thing, it’s only a small thing and so they’re trained up to get the animals in and clean the pens and brush the horses and lead the llamas and that. Then as the exchange for that they end up doing the poop scooping and the leaf raking which is the other side of it, it’s not all about patting rabbits. There’s a lot of work that’s not as nice to do as patting rabbits, it’s got to be done by everybody as well, but getting back to looking into the future. Last year we bought a train, that was our thing last year.

Dyan: The Farmyard express train, so we’ve got that going around.

Cliff: Have a train that takes people around the zoo. Next year we’re putting in a pirate ship, and a birthday shed because up until now we haven’t, although we’ve got shelter, as rooftop we haven’t got anywhere sheltered so if there’s a birthday party booked in then they tend to cancel if it’s a day like this which means a disappointment for everybody.

Dyan: An indoor birthday area that people can use.

Cliff: So I’m just approaching the council now for that, so that’s our next years step forward.

Ryan: And are you open throughout the year?

Cliff: Yeap.

Ryan: 365 days? 364 and a half?

Cliff: Not Christmas Day.

Dyan: But the thing the people always say to us, are you open during the winter? You know we still have to feed and clean all the animals so to set up and put away, you’re only talking like two hours extra work a day, and I like to have a reputation of being open, not are they open today?

Cliff: So even today it’s raining today we’re forecasted for heavy rain warnings, and the zoos set up and going. So its someone comes out with their umbrella they can go through.

Dyan: Because there’s still people in hotels and motels here on holiday and they’re looking for something to do and if the weather clears, they’ll be out and you only need a couple of families to come through and you’ve pretty near paid for your labour for the day so you might as well just set up. It’s easy to set up.

Cliff: Keeps the routine going.

[00:27:50]

Ryan: And is it possible for people that are listening and thinking hey I actually want to go through this, do you have gift vouchers that people can buy for birthday presents and so on?

Dyan: Yeah, that’s for the horse trekking and the zoo, family entry and stuff like that, yeah.

Cliff: And one of our philosophies is to not take a lot of money off people, we’ve always been careful of that. That is why we have got very little food available, you can only buy a drink and an ice cream. Because you can come here and you pay your entry, and a dollar food and bring your own food and so a family can come here and for thirty dollars they can spend all day here. Where can you go for thirty dollars.

Dyan: Thirty-five dollars.

Cliff: And so next weekend they will all come back, if you try and take top dollar like in Rotorua, we’ve been to quite a lot of petting zoos and quite a lot of them are expensive to go through, then the locals won’t go back next weekend.

Ryan: Right, so you’re making it a second home if they want to make it a second home.

Cliff: We are looking at it so they can come out twice in the holidays rather than go this holiday and say oh next holidays, we might go to the next one. We’re thinking well maybe they will come twice in one holiday.

Ryan: And I guess that’s the beauty of having a farm attraction, is the animals will react differently every time so there’s always something different for the kids when they come out.

Cliff: You can walk around now and every time it will look different.

[00:29:21]

Ryan: Just run through the pricing again, for the price of entry.

Dyan: Under ones are free, children are seven dollars, adults are ten dollars. And we have a family pass, two adults and up to three children, for thirty-five dollars.

Cliff: So that works out seven dollars each.

Dyan: On top of that you can purchase your punnets of food for a dollar, so it just depends on how many of those you go through. The ponies rides are five dollars and the train rides are four dollars a ride.

Ryan: And the animals you’ve got here, you’ve got the goats, the llamas, sheep, ponies…

Cliff: Deer, alpacas.

Dyan: Ostriches, emus, turtles, rabbits, donkeys.

Cliff: A lot of horses.

Dyan: Lots of horses. Highland steer.

Ryan: Is there any animal that you haven’t got that you would want to have, that you’re..really like to get that?

Cliff: Ah yes there is, most probably a wallaby. As at the moment, we’ve got all commercially farm animals, so no lions or tigers or anything but we did have ferrets. We would like to get another one of those.

Dyan: But you can’t get them.

Cliff: Yeah, but if you catch them in the wild you can. If you take them out of the wild you’re allowed them.

Dyan: Cause’ they’re classed as a pest now.

Cliff: You’re not allowed to breed them or buy them but if you catch them in the wild you can have them, because you’re actually taking them out of a wild environment, but they’ve got to be neutered. But those, I would’ve always liked a zebra, but I can’t see that happening.

Ryan: I guess you’d have to import those?

Dyan: Once you start going that way you have to have special permits.

Ryan: And that’s different form your farm yard, isn’t it?

Dyan: Hence the name, Farmyard Zoo.

Cliff: In all honesty, there’s most probably not a zoo in the country that’s got a zebra that’s making money, they’re all funded by the councils.

Ryan: Whereas yours is self-funded.

Cliff: It’s a private business, if it doesn’t work, then we have no income.

Ryan: So you’re keeping your prices fair, so people can..you actually get one or two visits, making sure you open as often as possible because you have to be open to look after these animals.

Cliff: That’s right.

Ryan: What a fantastic story.