Gibbs lives a life of 'serious fun'

ON THE FARM: Alan Gibbs at The Farm.
ON THE FARM: Alan Gibbs at The Farm.

Rich-Lister Alan Gibbs, with an estimated $420 million fortune, is one of New Zealand’s most colourful and outspoken businessmen. National MP Paul Goldsmith charts the entrepreneur’s career in this new biography.

I have a confession to make. I was somewhat daunted at the idea of interviewing Alan Gibbs, whose fierce intellect and take-no-prisoners approach once matched former prime minister David Lange' s penchant for eviscerating journalists who asked dumb questions.

But the 72-year-old has obviously mellowed with age. On the phone from Detroit, where he's developing a range of amphibious sports vehicles, Gibbs was all affability and charm.

The only sticky moment was when I asked a question about the book pointing to his perpetual "restlessness" and Gibbs asked, "Did you just say ruthlessness?"

I replied, "I didn't, but I could have."

He seemed proud of either moniker.

What Paul Goldsmith has captured in this biography, paid for by Gibbs himself, are the many facets to his character. Best-known for his entrepreneurial activities, the Christchurch-born Gibbs has been a failed car manufacturer, a diplomat, a retired hippy living in West Auckland, a merchant banker, a founder of the Right-wing ACT party, a key figure in the Rogernomics reform of the 1980s, a successful businessman and a patron of the arts.

His business successes include founding New Zealand's largest car yard, Tappenden Motors, helping Trevor Farmer build Freightways into a major transport force, buying into Telecom when it was privatised, and being an early backer of Sky.

But as Goldsmith said: "He's not a one-dimensional character. He has something interesting to say on every topic and my goal with the book was to get that flavour across."

While most of his contemporaries are checking their pace-makers or playing golf, Gibbs is still following his entrepreneurial bent. In two months he'll launch to market in the United States the first of his long-awaited amphibious sports vehicles, the Quadski.

Goldsmith said he went to Detroit and had a spin on an early version of the quad bike/jet ski hybrid Quadski and has also test-driven the first amphibious vehicle, the Aquada, up the Thames to the cheers of pub-goers along the river. No wonder the biography is entitled Serious Fun. As his former wife, Jenny, said, life with Gibbs was never boring.

Gibbs' love affair with cars began early and he and his elder brother, Ian, tried to build what they called "the first New Zealand car" - the Anziel Nova, in the 1960s. By 1970 they were forced to pull the plug, thwarted by bureaucracy and a heavily protected automotive industry.

It gave Gibbs, the libertarian, a life-long hatred of bureaucracy and a belief in free markets.

He began work on the amphibious vehicle project in 1997, and it's been a long and bumpy road to commercialisation. He and Neil Jenkins, his partner in Gibbs Technologies, have spent millions of dollars to get it to this point, although he won't say just how much. They have eight amphibious vehicles under development, with three, the Quadski, the military style SUV the Humdinga, and the Phibian, an amphibious truck mainly for rescue purposes, due to be launched this year.

Keen on the technology, Gibbs dubs the commercial side a "pain in the arse". "Worrying about warranties and spare parts is the last thing I want to do but it comes with the territory once you've made that decision to put them on the market. I want to test whether it is useful."

He's pretty proud of the fact no-one else in the world, including the American military, has been able to crack this technology.

The Quadski will probably sell for about US$30,000 (NZ$37,000). "It's a rich man's toy," he says. Then hastily added, "Or a rich woman's toy."

THEIR first vehicle, the Aquada, was launched with great fanfare in 2004 and Virgin boss Richard Branson broke the amphibian cross-Channel record in one.

But Gibbs withdrew the car from sale after a fellow entrepreneur had to be rescued while attempting to travel from Land's End to the Scilly Isles, and got dragged half-way to France. Gibbs decided product liability made it too risky to put the car into production and returned buyers' deposits.

"The product is excellent but people can, if they're not careful, get into trouble, as they can with any boat. Basically the market for this particular product is the US and product liability is a huge issue over there. The thought of having to spend my life in court on product-liability claims doesn't thrill me very much."

He kept all 25 Aquadas built at the time, a personal fleet the biography says "would make the Sultan of Brunei proud". They're housed on The Farm, his expansive Kaipara Harbour estate, along with the Anziel Nova prototype still in pristine condition.

The Farm has been called one of the great sculpture parks of the world. Over the years Gibbs has added to his collection of sculptures, most of which he enjoyed for the engineering challenge they represented. The farm also has a full-scale wild west town and, as a designated zoo, is home to several exotic animals. Anyone can visit the farm by appointment, although Gibbs wasn't too keen on having that made public.

He returns home every Christmas to spend summer on the farm and divides the rest of his time between Detroit and his Thames-side apartment in London.

His restlessness is perhaps best demonstrated by his burning desire to travel - he's been to 130 countries and says he'll keep travelling for as long as he's fit enough to do so.

Gibbs retains his interest in New Zealand's political landscape and economy. He's frustrated with the lack of progress on economic reform since the mid-1990s and that ACT, which best reflects his views, has fallen in relevance at the polls.

But he says he will continue funding ACT as long as it continues to stand for small government.

"The majority of New Zealanders want government to look after them from the cradle to the grave . . . I certainly have no expectation our views will be accepted by a majority of New Zealanders any time soon."

But he's adamant his money has been well spent to date, claiming the party has had an influence on policy and legislation and "probably changed a few minds as well. All of that is worthwhile".

Although he claims to have never been in business for the money, in his biography Gibbs says: "Business is like a yacht race: the only enjoyable place to be is in front and if you're going to be a businessman, you judge yourself by how many bucks you've got in the bank."

Telecom Sale

The Government's partial asset sales have drawn controversy nationwide but Alan Gibbs, as you would expect, is a firm advocate. "

New Zealand seems to be the last depository of expecting government to run efficient enterprises."

In the late 1980s, Gibbs formed the view that Telecom's privatisation would be the biggest and most exciting deal in New Zealand for many years.

Along with fellow "rich-listers" Michael Fay and David Richwhite, Gibbs got American giants Bell Atlantic and Ameritech interested in a joint bid.

Their $4.25 billion bid won, the sixth largest deal done anywhere in the world in 1990. Gibbs, via Freightways, ended up with 5 per cent of the stock, which they eventually sold down.

There has been much debate over the years on the merits of privatisation and Telecom's mixed performance, with investment analyst Brian Gaynor arguing Gibbs had been part of a small group who had benefited unreasonably from the privatisation programme.

He claimed the Government got too little for Telecom considering its subsequent value and should have kept a share of the company, as it is doing now with the partial sell-offs of the energy companies.

But Gibbs said the combined market capitalisation of Telecom and its recent offshoot, Chorus, was about $6.2 billion in March, which is less than the Government received for it in 1990 after adjusting for inflation.

It was an open competition, he said, with anyone in the world able to bid and pay the highest price.

"The idea that we ripped anyone off for a business that is only worth what it was 20 years ago is sheer nonsense."

Serious Fun: The Life & Times of Alan Gibbs
Author: Paul Goldsmith
Released: 3 August
RRP: $45.00