Rāniera Ellison was born on 13 February 1915 at Ōtākou on the Otago Peninsula, one of nine children of Te Iwi (David) Herehere Merekihereka Hape Ellison, a farmer, and his wife, Horīwia (Olivia) Karetai. Of Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe descent, with links to Ngāti Tama, he was the grandson of Rāniera Tāheke Ellison and his wife, Nani Weller (Hana Wēra), and the nephew of Doctor Edward (Ned) Ellison and the lawyer and rugby player Tom Ellison.
Rāni was educated at Ōtākou School, Otago Boys’ High School and Wesley College in Auckland. While he regretted leaving Otago, he enjoyed his time in the north and his family looked forward to his humorous letters. He returned to study dentistry at the University of Otago in 1937–38, but did not graduate. His right leg was deformed from birth, which resulted in periods of hospital care and prevented him from serving during the Second World War. While his brothers fought overseas in the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion, he ran the family farm at Ōtākou. Once the war was over his elder brother came back to take over.
Around this time, as he looked out over Taiaroa Heads, Rāni Ellison saw a number of fishing vessels returning for the day. He sensed an opportunity to move away from farming, yet stay within an area where his extended family had a strong interest. In 1946 he started a fishing business, which for the first couple of years operated as a co-operative. However, by 1948 it had grown steadily and was formally incorporated as Ōtākou Fisheries Limited. Ellison’s role as managing director was to last the rest of his life and gain him the respect not only of his family and friends but of the industry as a whole.
Initially the company concentrated on supplying fish to local markets, but at a time of abundant catches this was seen as restrictive and overseas markets were sought. Australia was the initial target, and in April 1947 the first shipment of fish, worth £353, was sent to Sydney. Later that year the company began exporting crayfish to Melbourne. When it was later discovered that some Australian buyers were re-exporting its products to the United States, from 1953 Ōtākou Fisheries decided to deal directly with American importers.
To supply its growing markets the company embarked on a dramatic growth strategy – with mixed results. Ellison introduced many innovations into the industry during the 1950s and 1960s, in particular mother ships and dories for harvesting rock lobster and a floating factory to process fish at sea.
A feature of the company was the involvement of the extended Ellison family. Initially most of the shareholders were relatives and Rāni believed strongly in employing family in all parts of the business, from cleaning fish tubs to overseas marketing. Although not always successful, it was a policy followed and supported by all the family. Ellison married Edith Adeline Mowat Asher in Dunedin on 5 September 1951; they were to have a son and a daughter.
At the height of its success Rāni Ellison’s company dominated the industry along much of the Otago and Southland coastline. It owned almost 50 vessels and operated factories at Bluff, Karitāne, Dunedin, Stewart Island and the Chatham Islands. It also had a share in an oyster-processing factory in Invercargill and depots stretching from Jackson Bay in Westland to Oamaru. Under Ellison’s shrewd management, it took on the larger fishing companies and competed very successfully.
Ellison was keen to promote the interests of the fishing industry. He spent much time in Wellington as a member of the executive of the New Zealand Wholesale Fish Merchants’ Association (later the New Zealand Fishing Industry Association), and attended many meetings as a representative of the Otago and Southland sectors. This work involved liaison with the government on many issues of fisheries management. It was only ill health that finally forced him to relinquish these roles.
Rāni Ellison was also committed to serving his people, and his judgement in commercial affairs made him a valued member of the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board, the Ōtākou Māori Committee, the Ōtākou Māori church and the Otago Māori Executive. He was a Rotarian and for many years was an elder of the West Dunedin Union Parish Church. An active fund-raiser for the church, he often contributed both his time and seafood – his oysters were a favourite – for fairs and raffles.
Despite his disability, Ellison had an intense interest in sports. He was a regular spectator at Dunedin’s rugby and cricket ground, Carisbrook, and was also a keen golfer, particularly at the St Clair Golf Club. Another great passion was horse-racing. The proud owner of a number of horses, he was a member of both Dunedin racing clubs (based at Wingatui and Forbury Park) and travelled extensively to race meetings.
Rāni Ellison died of a heart attack at St Clair golf course, Dunedin, on 29 March 1974; he was survived by his wife and children. A quiet, unassuming man who was devoted to his company and his family, he displayed a passion for excellence in everything he did. He started a small family business and developed it successfully in a difficult and complex industry. The first significant Māori involvement in modern commercial fishing, Ellison’s Ōtākou Fisheries was a forerunner of what has become a multi-million-dollar industry.