Christchurch's Mr Personality

ANTONY GOUGH: The flamboyant Christchurch rich lister and central city bar owner
ANTONY GOUGH: The flamboyant Christchurch rich lister and central city bar owner

He dares to be different and challenges our image and expectation of how a rich lister looks and behaves in Christchurch. And best of all, this rebel with a cause, is prepared to put his money where his mouth is. JOHN McCRONE introduces the man who for many needs no introduction . . . the outrageous Antony Gough. 

What is the most shocking thing about Antony Gough, the flamboyant Christchurch rich lister and central city bar owner?

It is not the 63-year-old's outrageous dress sense, the electric blue and screaming yellow suits he pairs with even more wild leopard patterned shoes or paua cowboy boots.

ANTONY GOUGH: The flamboyant Christchurch rich lister and central city bar owner
ANTONY GOUGH: The flamboyant Christchurch rich lister and central city bar owner

Nor is it that this ex-Christ College old boy is a buddhist - brought to it by his Thai second wife, Vicki - attends regularly at the Wat Buddha Samakhee temple in Marshlands.

No. The real surprise is Gough has an honours degree in nuclear physics. That one knocked me backwards.

Many have been wondering about Gough as he has become about the most visibly enthusiastic supporter of the central city's rebuild. The one plunging back in.

ANTONY GOUGH: The flamboyant Christchurch rich lister and central city bar owner
ANTONY GOUGH: The flamboyant Christchurch rich lister and central city bar owner

As chairman of the Central City Retailers Association, Gough was instrumental in the getting the Re:Start container mall going in Cashel St. Few realise what a gamble that was he says. Did I know John Key had turned it down twice?

Then after the Government's recovery Blueprint finally came out last July, Gough was the first major land owner to start doing deals on the properties the Government said it wanted to take for the anchor projects.

He was also the first to start buying central city properties from others, consolidating his holdings to create his own whole half block development site - a Gough-zone! - centred around his old Oxford Terrace bar and restaurant precinct.

It is a confident reinvestment in the inner city, a statement of belief that is $40 million "going on $100m" Gough confesses.

The ambitions are still growing.

Gough plans an integrated mixed-use development built around an internal courtyard. Not just a parade of bars but behind it, running down Hereford and Cashel streets, shops, offices and a car park; possibly also a hotel, health spa and boutique cinema.

Four architectural firms were hired to draw up designs. Gough has just flown his own team to Melbourne to fine-tune their ideas by checking what actually works over there.

They got out their tape measures to discover details like the fact seven-metre wide laneways were more popular with pedestrians than eight-metre ones.

Gough intends it to be the best of the best.

"Each of the buildings will look individual. There will be views both out to the river and back facing into a piazza.

"People want a place they can promenade. Rather than trying to max out my site, I'm only building to 40 per cent of the plot ratio so there will be these public spaces to enjoy."

Gough says he believes in karma.

"There will be some who build back cheaply, I accept that. But I think you've got to give something to the city if you want it to give something back to you."

The push is on. Phase one of the precinct should be opening its doors by September next year he says.

"It's got to be ready for Show Week and the run-up to Christmas."

Yet could it be that this is a case of heart ruling head? Gough, safely backed by his family fortune, can afford to play the town's carefree impresario? Or instead evidence that the clever money can indeed see a bright future amid the current rubble of the inner city?

That degree may be the answer.

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Gough is grappling with figures when I catch up with him at his Merivale home, his office since the earthquakes. Two of his staff have desks right in the entrance hall.

More bad news, he exclaims rather buoyantly.

Gough shucks off a fabulous gold chinese brocade jacket to reveal an even more golden shirt and tie as we sit down among a clutter of marble-topped coffee tables and heavy leather chairs of a certain faded splendour in his living room conference area.

Gough is just back from a meeting in Wellington. There is a wrangle with the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) over carrying across the tax depreciation on his earthquake-destroyed buildings to any new ones.

Last year, the Government eased the rules as an incentive to get property-owners to reinvest their insurance payouts in Christchurch. However, Gough says the IRD now wants to interpret this in a narrow way that will wipe $7m off his rebuild budget.

There has also been a design setback.

Originally, Gough wanted to build his entire precinct on top of an underground car park - a lavish move, but one that would get cars and delivery trucks out of sight, while allowing the buildings above to be earthquake-proofed with base isolation shock absorbers.

But the engineers have come back and told him the water table is too high by the Avon River.

"At times it comes up to just a metre from the surface."

So it is back to the drawing board.

An above-ground car parking building in Hereford St is having to be costed in. Other kinds of foundation are being considered.

I remark it sounds like a lot of headaches to be taking on for a chap of his age and his wealth. Why bother? Why not simply bank the cash, leave Christchurch to its fate and go on a long holiday?

Gough appears faintly scandalised. This is the kind of thing he lives for, he says.

"If you didn't enjoy it, you wouldn't do it. Yes, there's problems. Huge risks. But a challenge, and I thrive on challenges."

His whole life could be seen as preparation to bringing off a development project of this complexity and magnitude. And besides, who could resist the chance to stamp their own personality on a corner of a city?

With it being such an "out there" personality, it seems time to discover more about Gough himself - the reality of that silver spoon upbringing.

The story is well rehearsed. He says the Gough family fortune started with an electrical goods business formed by two Gough brothers and a friend, Harry Hamer.

"They imported anything with a cord."

In 1929, his grandfather, Tracy T Gough, branched out after winning the New Zealand franchise for Caterpillar tractors and bulldozers. Despite family fears that no-one would buy machines that could put good men out of work during a depression, the dealership prospered, becoming a network said to be worth $300m, employing 900 staff, with branches from Auckland to Invercargill.

The business was handed down to Gough's father, Owen. His four children - Gough, his twin sister Avenal, older brother Tracy and London-based investment banking brother Harcourt - then became involved in the firm's running.

Now the younger generation are in control. Gough has no children, but managing the firm today are Ben Gough and Alex McKinnon, grand and great-grandsons of Owen, as well as Jamie Gough, the Christchurch City councillor for Fendalton/Waimairi.

The family talks about having "yellow blood" - the Caterpillar brand colour - running through its veins, says Gough. And with Mona Vale once being the family home, he agrees there might be the perception his many property adventures have been bankrolled by some Gough money tree.

"But not true at all. I've had to work hard."

His grandfather kept a tight rein on the cash and as a construction industry business, flash behaviour was not encouraged. His father sweated it out, living in caravans at the end of the airport runways he was building. Gough pedalled to university on a bicycle.

Most of the money gets ploughed back into the dealership, Gough says. And when it comes to the profits, "there are a lot of Goughs it has to go round".

His own interest in commercial property investment began when he was a 21-year-old student. An office building came up for sale on the river corner of Cashel St, right next to what was then the Gough's Christchurch sales yard.

Gough told his father it would make an ideal shop front.

"But he said look, we're in the business of selling tractors here, you're in the business of passing your exams, so you just get on with your show and we'll get on with ours."

The next week Gough turned up at the auction with his sister and bought the building anyway.

They cashed in a small inheritance at a loss, council bonds they were expected to hold for 20 years, and Gough set about overseeing the renovations.

The deal ended disastrously. Gough secured an insurance company as the tenant but the place was set alight by welding equipment during the building work and burned to the ground. The insurance company tried to wiggle out of the policy it had written.

It was some time before he could be sure of recovering any of his money. However he was left bitten by the investment bug.

Immediately after university, Gough went into the family business as a trainee computer programmer.

"I realised there wasn't going to be a lot of call for a degree in atomic physics in nuclear-free New Zealand," he remarks wryly.

With his maths background, he proved a natural and was running the mainframe department within seven years. But all the while, Gough continued to build up his own property portfolio.

His investments were varied. For a decade he ran a sheep farm at Chertsey in mid-Canterbury.

"My accountant told me there

were these great tax write-offs. You buy a sheep one day for $25 and the next day it's worth $5. So I thought that sounds like me." The farm went in a settlement when his first marriage broke up.

He also bought the Russley Hotel near the airport. For 15 years it lost money, but now has been redeveloped in a joint venture as a retirement village.

Then there was the Craigs Investment building on the corner of Armagh St, a black glass monstrosity, yet a shrewd buy. Gough says the office block was cooking because of all its glass. Buyers were being put off because it would probably need $750,000 for a new air conditioning system.

However, Gough got up on the roof and saw the existing plant was plenty big enough. Calling on his physics degree, he could figure out all that was wanted was a larger pump and fatter pipework.

Gough says probably his most hands-on investment was the Poplar Apartments in Chester St. He lent money to a developer who wanted to convert the building from offices to a hotel.

The developer went bust and Gough took over the project.

It was a struggle, he admits. The hotel had to have its own bar and restaurant, but being so far out on a limb, it was hard to make it profitable.

"That restaurant, the Oasis, was costing me $200,000 a year. I lost $1m on it over six years. It would've been better to stand at the door and give everyone $10 to go somewhere else."

Gough ran the hotel personally, determined to see it through.

"I have this philosophy - that ‘no' is not an answer - I reckon it should be etched on my gravestone."

By the time the quakes struck, Gough says he was pulling the restaurant around.

His investments were spread far and wide, wherever the opportunities arose. But eventually a focus emerged with his well-known parade of bars and restaurants along Oxford Terrace, a string of conversions he did in partnership with his sister Avenal.

Gough says Oxford Terrace was "the pits" when he started, clapped out buildings used for charity shops and autoparts. It took a lot of imagination to see it becoming a street of pavement dining like you would find in New York or Paris.

"The council only seemed worried people might get bird poo in their soup."

And it was important for the project to have scale, to make it a definite precinct with its own atmosphere. Gough says his sister got a shock when she returned from overseas and found what Gough had done.

"She thought it was only going to be one. She said, ‘gee Antony, you're being really slow about this restaurant'. So when she saw it, she said ‘you'll bankrupt us'. I couldn't get one restaurant to work and now I had a whole street of them."

Gough grins. "You've got to have nerves of steel in this game." Switching subjects, I ask the question which has replaced the old Canterbury standard of "what school did you go to?" - where was Gough when the February earthquake struck? With a tenant in Bealey Ave, he says. But immediately he knew he had to head to the Poplar Apartments which was full of overseas tourists.

"All the staff turned up there," he marvels.

Gough drove shaking old ladies back to his Merivale villa. Some 15 stayed as guests, cooking meat from the powerless freezer on his barbecue. You do what you can do, he says. He is just as pleased with how he managed eventually to get back into the hotel to rescue most of his guests' belongings.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) was insisting the building just be demolished. So Gough got himself officially employed as part of the demolition crew and organised a salvage that way.

"We emptied an eight-storey building in four days."

"Insurance didn't cover it or anything. Just to airfreight a couple of bags back to London it was $700 each. But it was the right thing to do."

Even so, he had some plaintive emails asking about the loss of some favourite jumper.

"I thought jeepers, creepers mate, you should have seen the state of the place."

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The clothes, the clothes. What about the clothes?

Gough smiles slyly. Undoubtedly he enjoys being noticed.

"I've always been out there," he says happily.

But a businessman can also do with a trademark. Like Donald Trump's mad hair, it is useful to give folk something to talk about.

He says it began when he met Vicki.

"I used to dress in jerseys and things and nobody took me seriously. So I thought I'd better dress better and started wearing dark suits, but it was boring. That's not my personality."

On his trips to Thailand, Gough noticed the bright fabrics in women's fashion stores and got the local tailors to make up outfits for him that became increasingly whacky. He now has about 40 suits hanging in the closet, including a few still waiting for a special enough occasion.

The shoes are another personal story. One of his pre-quake shop tenants was Glen Maher, the Christchurch shoe designer. He ended up buying pretty much a pair of everything Maher could invent.

"I probably have about 160. I come down in my socks each morning and think, now what will go with this suit today?"

It is only his clothes where he goes over the top, Gough confesses. He doesn't buy cars, houses or paintings to impress. An ordinary BMW is fine. The family bach is three army huts nailed together. He skis, collects coins and sails, but his work is his real passion.

And now he is gearing up for action. Under the Blueprint, central city property owners have to submit rebuild plans covering at least 7500sqm and Gough has assembled a block of 8500sqm.

He has bought out his sister's share in their company, Hereford Holdings, Avenal having had quite enough of sharing his risks, he says.

Then he bought the 10-storey NZI building in Hereford St from Christchurch investor Miles Middleton. His brother Tracy, who owned two other sizeable buildings in Hereford St, has come in as a partner to complete the package of land.

Gough says he had hoped to purchase Vero House, the office block on the corner of Oxford Terrace and Hereford St, but the owners weren't selling. However, he has his half block, everything all together for the first time, and in a matter of weeks should have the architect's sketches to show exactly what he plans.

He says it was the immediate success of the Re:Start mall that gave him such confidence. It showed Christchurch people wanted to be back in the city.

The container mall was a gamble, but central city retailers knew that something had to be done to support Ballantynes department store if it was going to survive. They considered plastic tunnel glasshouses and commercial tin sheds before hitting on the idea of converting containers.

The Government refused the initial requests for help with the funding.

"Cera didn't want the red zone fences down. I was at a dinner with the Prime Minister, John Key, and he said ‘yeah, I turned you guys down twice, but you were so damned persistent'. "

The container mall has become a survival pod for some of the city's most loved retailers like Johnson's Grocery and his favourite, Maher Shoes.

"I got Glen back into Christchurch and now he says it is doing the best business of all his shops."

Breaking ground on his precinct is the next step. Gough says it is a big risk, but calculated. There is a chance his own project could wallow if the neighbouring blocks don't also get their act together. Progress on the southern side of Cashel St in particular has stalled with there being several contenders as lead developer, however, no winner yet emerging.

But no is not an answer, he reminds me. He is seeing other key city landowners like Michael Ogilvie-Lee cashing up properties they own elsewhere in New Zealand to concentrate their efforts in the central city.

"Less than 10 of us will likely end up doing most of the building in town. And they look like being all locals."

Gough though, may become the one people remember. With his crazy suits and sunny optimism, he is fast becoming the public face of the central city rebuild. And you can see he is quite up for that.

The Press