Sir George Fistonich: How a South Auckland millionaire made it big

Sir George Fistonich at the Villa Maria Winery.
KYMBERLEE FERNANDES/FAIRFAX NZ

Sir George Fistonich at the Villa Maria Winery.

Going from apprentice carpenter to multi-millionaire might sound like a fairytale.

But that's exactly what Sir George Fistonich has done - not withstanding a few bumps along the way. 

Growing up in the South Auckland suburb of Mangere, Sir George Fistonich recalls a humble childhood. Before turning his passion for wine into a giant business called Villa Maria, he was a certified carpenter for almost five years.

Wine produced by Villa Maria.
KYMBERLEE FERNANDES/FAIRFAX NZ

Wine produced by Villa Maria.

"I built my first winery, so, that was quite useful," he says.

READ MORE:
Rich list shows NZ wine wealth climbed

* The journeyman: Sir George Fistonich

Of Croatian descent, his parents moved to Auckland in 1926. His older brother went to university and became a lawyer.

Villa Maria vineyards in Mangere, South Auckland.
KYMBERLEE FERNANDES/FAIRFAX NZ

Villa Maria vineyards in Mangere, South Auckland.

Family tradition dictated professions back then.

"I was the second son, so I had to be a carpenter ... to build a house. I didn't particularly want to be a carpenter," Fistonich says.

He was part of the Croatian community and "Croatians, all drink wine," he says.

Fistonich received the country's first knighthood for services to the New Zealand wine industry.
KYMBERLEE FERNANDES/FAIRFAX NZ

Fistonich received the country's first knighthood for services to the New Zealand wine industry.

"I fell in love with the vineyards and the wine, and started doing a lot of tastings. I decided that after my apprenticeship I wanted to be a winemaker."

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His father used to make wine on one of the five acres of their property. Fistonich leased the five acres from his father in 1961 and eventually bought it.

Over the next 50 years his company expanded exponentially, he almost lost the firm, but got it back, and continued to see it grow and win international awards.

Fistonich admires people who have great leadership skills such as former All Black captain Richie McCaw.
CHRIS SKELTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Fistonich admires people who have great leadership skills such as former All Black captain Richie McCaw.

The fall and rise

But business hasn't always so good. In late 1985, Villa Maria was $4 million in debt because of its significant growth but low profits.

"I lost the company at one stage," he says, and he even sold the family home in Remuera and mortgaged the land he bought in Clevedon. His staff stepped in, working late hours to drum up support and to get the business back.

But he stayed positive and emerged a survivor.

"It was very stressful for 12 months. I took up meditation and did a lot of walking ... I lost [a lot] weight. When you go through something like that you come out stronger."

According to the National Business Review's latest 'Rich List' Fistonich is now worth $160m. 

His advice to potential or young entrepreneurs is "make sure you get into a job you're passionate about, you can make it your hobby, and then you can be successful".

"By nature, if I see something I go for it. I took opportunities and started growing quite fast in life," he notes.

Some of the major awards that Villa Maria has won include the World's 8th Most Admired Wine Brand 2016, New Zealand Winery of the Year 2015, Wine Company of the Year 2013, NZ Sustainable Business Network Awards Supreme Winner 2012 and Winery of the Year 2006.

"A business is about people, and if you surround yourself with good people, you will have a good company," he adds.

In 2009, Fistonich received the country's first knighthood for services to the New Zealand wine industry.

He says he was quite "embarrassed initially. I'm used to it now".

Fistonich looks up to people who have great leadership skills. He admires Richie McCaw because "he's quite a humble person, but is yet a great leader. He's a great role model. He rejected knighthood because he was too young".

Looking towards the future, he says it has taken a while to reach the top and to a become global exporter.

The plan is to "maintain quality and keep on adding value. You can't stay still," he says.

While his opinions on wine always make it to the public ear, he shares his view on the land that stands next to his - Ihumatao.

Over the last few years, a small settlement near Mangere called Ihumatao has been a hot topic. 

Fistonich says it would sad to see the culturally important and picturesque area turned into a Special Housing Area.

"I think it's a pity .... it has a lot of history," he says.

 - Stuff

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