Ross 'fills his brain' for inspiration

CATHERINE FOX
Last updated 05:00 25/11/2012
Geoff Ross
THIRSTY WORK: Geoff Ross put his money where his mouth was.

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Geoff Ross, executive chairman of Ecoya and chief executive of recently listed Moa Beer, talks to Catherine Fox about what inspires him.

I grew up on a farm in Happy Valley, New Zealand, and went to Lincoln University to do an agriculture degree. I visited an advertising agency and thought "this seems more fun than farming". So I went into an ad agency and fell in love with the whole advertising world . But I didn't want to become bitter and twisted because clients would turn down your ideas.

So I put my money where my mouth was. I saw an ad for a US vodka and I thought if you could make vodka in the US you could make it somewhere clean and pristine like New Zealand, and we launched 42 Below. By 2006 we got an offer of $138 million from Bacardi - we had a rapid rise because of the brand story we grew around it. Then a business contact in Australia said his brother was making candles in his garage, [that I] should have a look, and I thought "you are mad". Then I thought about the rise of beverages and food with MasterChef, and popular culture was swinging towards quality over quantity.

People were showing more pride in their home. And through vodka and cocktails I'd learnt about flowers, distillation and fruit, and it got me really interested in the process of making fragrances - there's a lot in common. I thought "what about the forgotten sense of smell?" and from a business point of view I could see a growth category.

I'm a marketer who has become a CEO; I watch where popular culture is going and what brands should work. I got some people around me to build the company and we raised capital on the New Zealand stock exchange. Ecoya is now in the UK in Harrods and Harvey Nichols, and in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Not long after we listed Ecoya we were approached by Trilogy. Now they are under the same roof - natural skincare is an interesting category which has much more transparency [about ingredients].

I read a lot of lifestyle magazines like Vanity Fair and fashion magazines from Europe and the US. A friend said to me, "fill your brain with as much stuff as you can and have a break, then ideas start popping out". I think that's true. You need to keep shoving stuff in. The ideas I have now have more of a commercial understanding to them. I read Fast Company and biographies like the Steve Jobs book. History fascinates me. I am not a great blogger and Twitter user, I take an iPhone and iPad when I travel. My daily reading is The International Herald Tribune to get a bit of a world view. I love London's weekly newspapers.

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I love seeing what good fashion designers are doing. When you travel, you see all the brands. I am interested in movements like modernism and minimalism - a good way to think is putting opposites together. I love art galleries; I was in the Saatchi Gallery in London recently and saw a cool exhibition - Google sent people all over the world to photograph streets; they were looking for moments captured by accident. It was amazing.

There's some really interesting TV out of the US - it has been reinvented thanks to series such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad. In my spare time I also do a lot of spear fishing and free diving.

I watch other entrepreneurs - it's pretty easy to chat to other entrepreneurs because we are kindred spirits. There's a guy in the US, Rich Frank, who was running Paramount Television and he's a mentor for me. He's based in Los Angeles, but I see as much of him as I can. It gives me a bit of adult supervision and it's amazing how insightful he is, even from thousands of miles away.

I grew up in a country built on meat and wool. I realised Australia and New Zealand couldn't just dig up coal, that there were creative opportunities too. We're in good shape for creative thinking and there's no reason the next Apple couldn't come out of Australia. We're more innovative here. The wheels of commerce seem slow in the UK, but in the US it's a little faster. But Australians probably have more confidence than New Zealanders.

Geoff Ross spoke to Catherine Fox of The Australian Financial Review's BOSS Magazine.

- Sunday Star Times

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