A Star Rises from the Sawdust

An interview with Marlena Martin, written by Kerris Browne

We all see the attractive models used to promote machinery. But do those models actually work for the company? And have you ever seen one who actually runs the equipment? Petersons can say “yes” to both of these!

A second generation employee of Petersons is about to travel to American Samoa to compete in the Miss South Pacific Beauty Pageant as New Zealand’s representative. This is Marlena’s story.

Marlena with her mum Marama
Marlena with her mum Marama

Family History at Petersons

My mum is Marama Christie, who first walked in off the street to land a job at Petersons 11 years ago. During high school and university, I also worked evenings and holidays at Petersons. Even Dad has helped at various demonstrations, running the mills. We have all become one big Peterson family over the years, looking after each other through the good and the tough times – something that is very hard to find in larger companies.

I am very humbled to be asked to write a little about myself.

Growing up in the Forest

I grew up in the bush, living with my family in Minginui Forest Village. My two sisters, brother and I had fun playing in our back yard tossing marbles, and running around with our 6 dogs. We had a rich culture and good family values. Growing up we tended the vege garden, mowed lawns, scrubbed the floors and chopped wood.

Marlena's Dad with an eel catch
Marlena’s Dad with an eel catch

The cupboards were not always full, but Mum made sure we always had plenty of bread to keep us fed. She worked at the local mill, filleting and stacking timber. Dad worked in the forest that surrounded us, planting, pruning, harvesting, and driving logging trucks. He was also a great hunter and brought back plenty of eels to smoke.

At the age of 13, my parents knew we needed more opportunities so we moved to Rotorua

Moving to the City

It was like moving countries; a complete contrast to home life in Minginui. The biggest difference was the people. At home you were always part of an extensive Maori family; family gatherings were large and often, and we knew everyone. If the parents were working, you were always sitting with Aunty or laughing with Uncle Mike. But in the city it was just us in a sea of strangers.  I found it very hard to make friends. My upbringing had made me a strong person inside, but I didn’t know how to portray that in a ‘modern’ world. I had no idea what a fashion magazine looked like, how to wear heels, or even what the chicken dance was.

Marlena (centre) practising Kapahaka
Marlena (centre) practising Kapa Haka

Modelling Course

One day when I was 14 my mum told me about a modelling course that Kerris Peterson was running. I wanted to be more confident so I decided to do it.

I remember the first thing we had to do were introductions where we had to tell something interesting about ourselves – I was so nervous just saying my name in front of the group.

Over the course of 12 weeks I gained confidence, self-esteem, communication skills, and how to carry myself with pride. That modelling course with Kerris taught me the skills I needed to portray beauty from the inside out.

After that I started part-time modelling with a local Maori designer. In my final year of High School, I was even lucky enough to become a Class Prefect and the school Soccer Captain.


I had made my life plan – a degree, a career, my own home etc. So after high school, I took up a business degree at Waikato University. However reality is sometimes very different to what you plan – I lost interest in subjects that didn’t relate to my life. I greatly enjoyed modelling the indigenous outfits though, so I decided to pursue that and take up a Fashion degree at the Waikato Institute of Technology. It took 3 years and it was an awesome experience! But as I was graduating, life threw me a huge curve ball.

The Day My Life Changed

On July 22nd 2010 my younger sister was involved in a motor vehicle accident. She had life threatening injuries and it was then I learnt what a brain injury was. Two years on, she has various difficulties but her progress has been amazing. I have had the wonderful blessing of being able to see her growth over the last two years as her fulltime caregiver, support person, guardian and teacher aide.

As her independence and quality of life have improved, I have been able to invest more time in doing the other things I love too. It’s been very enjoyable taking part in cultural activities such as kapahaka and getting involved in the community.

And it Just Keeps Changing

Recently, I was given the opportunity to be one of 6 women from throughout New Zealand to compete in the Miss Aotearoa New Zealand pageant. I was extremely blessed to have won. Since then the last few months have been a blur of preparation. I’ve been meeting with mentors, borrowing gowns, finding shoes to match, organising gifts for the other contestants, and designing and practising my talent showcase that I will perform. In my preparations I have been fortunate to meet with the team at Petersons and the help I have received has been priceless.

Wharekapau Marae in the Whirinaki Forest
Wharepakau Marae in the Whirinaki Forest

The JP Mill

Growing up in the heart of Te Urewera National Park, I’ve always been surrounded by trees and the forest. It’s on my bucket list to build my own home.

So when I heard about Peterson’s new Junior Peterson mill, I was excited to learn how the JP could have a very important place in our Maori villages. As a low-cost portable sawmill, it could be used to help rejuvenate our many Marae (meeting houses). Most Maori land is covered in native forests with fallen trees rotting away. There are no resources or roads to extract the logs. But with the JP you can simply go to the log and carry out the sawn timber. Maori carvers also have a great demand for slabs to make their carvings. If they could obtain slabs off their own land instead of having to buy them, the Junior Peterson would very quickly pay for itself.

Dad worked his entire life in the forest, so I am used to seeing logging trucks and big machinery. It will be a nice change to use something so much smaller. It takes out the middle man and the process is so much shorter. It’s amazing that you can do what the big commercial mills do, in your own back yard.

I am really looking forward to running the Junior Peterson when I get back.

Dad running the loader in the old days
Dad running the loader in the old days

The Future

I would like to get into Television Journalism in the future – I am comfortable in my own skin, can communicate well, and love helping others. Who knows, maybe I can help Petersons doing that.

I am very grateful for the loyalty Peterson has shown my family. In bigger companies you are just a number, but we have never felt that here. During my sister’s accident, Petersons allowed mum the time off she needed and have always supported us in our time of need. My gratitude to them is boundless.

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