Entrepreneur with vision of an eagle

The Peeches, over four generations, have seen their family fortunes wax, wane and wax again.

Chris’s grandfather, Percy, came to Zimbabwe working for the Beira Railway in 1899. He acquired ranching and mining interests and developed businesses. He owned Nyadira River Ranch in Mutoko, a mica mine near the Mazowe River, the Odzi Store and Hotel, the Mining Machinery Company and Harare office buildings in Angwa Street and what is now Robert Mugabe Road.

In 1915 he became a Harare town councillor.

Having arrived he decided to build his dream house, on 199 acres he bought off Arnold Edmonds of Glen Lorne, just 15km from the town centre. This land had two kopjes and a bit of the Manyongo River, but thinking it was the nearby Rumbavu River, Percy Peech named his estate Rumbavu Park.

Hiring Harare’s best architect, D’Arcy Cathcart, he quarried vast quantities of stone on Arnold Edmonds land across Enterprise Road, infuriating Edmonds when he returned from war service; the two never spoke again.

But in 1929 the family fortunes changed. Percy Peech was all but wiped out by the stockmarket crash and the banks took his house. They leased the house and then sold it. It was even used as a tea house. From 1941 to 1950 it was owned by Justice Vernon Lewis and on his death a contractor bought it. In 1954 it became the home of Sir Albert Robinson, a future Rhodesian High Commissioner to London. He subdivided the second kopje and developed Glenwood suburb.

But in 1981 it returned to the Peech family. Chris had approached Sir Albert, but received a very frosty reception when he offered to buy it. But later Sir Albert wanted to leave, thought about Chris and contacted him. The house was home to Percy for its first 20 years, and home to his grandson for the last 25.

For the family was not destroyed by the depression. Peech’s father, born in the house, grew up in the Nyazura area and later on Waterloo farm in the Murewa area next to Mangwende communal lands.

When Chris’s father returned from World War II, just about penniless, he started rebuilding the family fortunes.

He started off as a hawker in the Murewa and Mutoko districts with 44 trading stalls. Here communal farmers could bring their crops and cattle and buy goods. It was the start of the Metro Peech business.

Peech’s father, however, had some problems. He was told he could not live in the communal lands since he was white. So he moved first to Nowe Mission, just outside the boundary, and then found an abandoned and derelict farm. The district commissioner let him buy it and Peech married and moved in. Four children were born and brought up in that house.

For the second Peech found honesty paid. “My father was the first to use scales,” said Chris. “He won the people’s confidence and he paid cash on the spot.” In 1948 he bought oxen and branched out into tobacco, pioneering Katambura grass growing as a rotation crop for fattening cattle. That was so successful that he was able to sell grass even in the Far East.

His relationship with the people he traded with endured right to his death when a huge number turned out at his funeral.

The local cattle attracted Peech, and he set up the Mashona Cattle Society whereby top indigenous stock could be put into a breeding herd and pedigrees worked out.

Chris went to Cambridge University to study law and on his return entered the trading business, and decided to buy the old family estate.

But the land is not just decorative. It is worked. Chris is a racing enthusiast and breeds thoroughbred horses, going as far as Australia for stock. He has been chairman of the Zimbabwe Thoroughbred Association and is a steward of the Mashonaland Turf Club. His wife is an Australian champion show jumper at World Cup level and now a champion trainer.

While his wife ran the stud, Chris pushed the family business. He acquired the Macro and Woolworths South Africa franchises but later became a minority shareholder. The franchise businesses started struggling in 2004 when Zimbabwe changed the rules on foreign exchange and the banking sector hit hard times.

But Peeches are resilient. The estate became the centre of new businesses. A very upmarket vegetable store, Green Park, was built. Vegetables come from the estate and from the Macheke family farm, now farmed by Chris’s brother-in-law, Andrew Huck. That farm was run in partnership with the Makombe family for some time until former Parliamentary presiding officer Cde Nolan Makombe died.

Green Park is also now a partnership and not just between Chirs and his brother-in-law. Peter Mubi took up a big stake in the equity of the land and will becoming more and more involved in the business. And that business is growing. A coffee shop and restaurant has been added (Green Park is the centre of a very up-market suburb) and there are plans to develop the property further.

Sitting back on his hillside, and looking at gum trees his grandfather planted almost a century ago, Chris Peech still has the vision of an eagle.

July 2006
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