High-profile hotel magnate Earl Hagaman dies, aged 92

Earl Hagaman began buying New Zealand hotels in the 1980s to build the Scenic Circle empire.
DEAN KOZANIC/FAIRFAX NZ

Earl Hagaman began buying New Zealand hotels in the 1980s to build the Scenic Circle empire.

Multimillionaire businessman Earl Hagaman​, who recently sued Labour Party leader Andrew Little, has died, aged 92.

The hotel magnate passed away peacefully at his home in Christchurch on Thursday, surrounded by family and friends. His death effectively ends the possibility of further legal action against Little.

"There will never be another Earl. I loved him immensely," his widow, Lani Hagaman, said.

Hagaman with wife Lani after receiving his CNZM award in 2014.
MICHAEL BRADLEY/FAIRFAX NZ

Hagaman with wife Lani after receiving his CNZM award in 2014.

"He was a visionary and loved this country."

He put all his energies into developing New Zealand's tourism industry, as well as bringing much needed jobs and income into the regional economy where most other hotel companies did not want to take that risk.

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Lani Hagaman gives evidence at the Andrew Little defamation trial.
MONIQUE FORD/FAIRFAX NZ

Lani Hagaman gives evidence at the Andrew Little defamation trial.

The American expatriate built the multi-million dollar Scenic Circle hotel empire after arriving in New Zealand in the 1980s and going into partnership with his friend Ralph Brown. The pair bought their first hotel on the South Island's West Coast – the 48-room Graham Motor Inn which is now the 130-room Scenic Hotel Franz Josef. 

Hagaman went on to develop a high profile in his adopted homeland as a philanthropist, entrepreneur and the face of television ads for his hotels.

"Scenic Hotel Group continues to operate like a family and he was our King," Lani Hagaman said.

Earl and Lani Hagaman outside their Ilam mansion.
LIGHTWORKX PHOTOGRAPHY

Earl and Lani Hagaman outside their Ilam mansion.

"He will be greatly missed by all of us. Today was a very peaceful and loving end to a remarkable story."

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Hagaman and his wife made headlines recently when they sued Labour Party leader Andrew Little for defamation.

The couple made a $101,000 donation to the National Party during the 2014 election. One month later Scenic Hotel Group won a tender to manage the Matavai resort in Niue, which receives funding from the New Zealand Government. Little released a media statement last year saying the deal and subsequent contract award "stink to high heaven". He made similar comments to individual media outlets.

The Hagamans gave Little a deadline to say sorry for his comments. He apologised "unreservedly" - months after the ...
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

The Hagamans gave Little a deadline to say sorry for his comments. He apologised "unreservedly" - months after the deadline had passed.

The Hagamans sought $2.3 million in damages. A jury in a civil trial cleared Little of defaming Lani Hagaman. It ruled he defamed Earl Hagaman in one case, but could not decide whether he was covered by qualified privilege. Jurors could not reach a majority verdict on four other allegedly defamatory statements against Hagaman.

That stalemate raised the spectre of another trial for Little, which now seems very unlikely. The Law Reform Act 1936, which allows plaintiff's causes of action to survive their death, does not apply to defamation.

Hagaman was described as "critically unwell" during the trial. He was suffering from heart failure and a pre-leukaemic blood disorder, and had broken his pelvis after a fall.

Giving evidence, his wife said he deserved the right to "die with dignity" and have his name cleared.

"My husband has a matter of weeks to live and I'm sitting in Wellington fighting a battle I should not have to fight at all . . . and all it would have taken was an apology."

The Hagamans lived in Christchurch and, with rich lists estimating their worth at $180m, moved easily in the city's high society. Their opulent Ilam mansion features black and white marble staircases and a piano-shaped swimming pool. They were often seen in their bright red 1959 Cadillac convertible. When they threw a lavish masqued ball for Earl's 80th birthday, their outfits alone were said to cost $12,000.

The Hagamans' benevolence extended well beyond political donations to charities including the Child Cancer Foundation, the Christchurch City Mission, Family Help Trust and Batten Disease NZ. They gave money to small towns and local rugby teams and once gifted St Andrew's College, their children's school, $250,000. Their donations totalled more than $10m.

"I have been around the world a lot, and I don't think you would find anything better than Christchurch," he once said in an interview. "It's a superb little town."

In 2014 Hagaman was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to business, tourism and philanthropy.

Hagaman is survived by Lani, his fifth wife, and their three children Zane, Toya and Skye. He has four other children.

 - Stuff

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