BioMag millionaire 'humble Kiwi'

Flying below the radar: Takapuna’s Yvonne and Brent McCarty.
Flying below the radar: Takapuna’s Yvonne and Brent McCarty.

Brent McCarty - despite his penchant for racing Porsches, recently gifting his wife a $325,000 Bentley convertible, his Takapuna cliff-top mansion and his 60ft luxury launch especially designed to allow golf swings off the loading deck - insists he is just humble Kiwi and would prefer to remain anonymous.

"We're very much people who just like to be under the radar. We're not social scene people about the city. We're just doing our best to keep the economy working," he said.

Before this week the moustached McCarty had never given a media interview, despite being - along with his wife, Yvonne - behind one of the most persistent marketing campaigns New Zealand has seen.

To a large extent McCarty's success has been on the back of Woolrest BioMag, a mattress-cover-and-magnet piece of bedding that is praised by Murray Deaker and written off as pseudoscience by the Skeptics Society.

Advertising for BioMag, relying heavily on advertorials promising "drug-free pain relief", have been regularly subject to complaints to the Advertising Standard Authority - BioMag has won nearly all of the cases, partly by emphasising its therapeutic claims are heavily caveated.

Dr Michael Edmonds (an earlier version of this story incorrectly said Dr Simon Edmonds), a chemistry lecturer at the Christchurch Institute of Technology, is firmly in the sceptic camp. "I'm not sure slick is the right word - it's very well-thought-out advertising," he said.

Edmonds said a review of scientific literature shows only a few patchy and dubious studies showing positive effects of magnet therapy - and larger studies broadly showing no difference in effect from placebos.

Claims made that magnets help blood circulation and stimulate melatonin production also appeared to be lacking scientific support, Edmonds said.

The United States' National Institute of Health is more blunt in its pamphlet warning about magnet therapy: "Magnets have not been proven to work for any health-related reason, yet static, or permanent, magnets are widely marketed for pain control."

McCarty defends his mattress covers.

"Magnetic therapy goes back a long way - to Roman days, and the Chinese. Cleopatra used it."

McCarty said there are many doctors who recommend BioMag to their patients.

"It's not a cure, we're not saying it's a cure - but it certainly provides a huge amount of pain relief to a lot of people," McCarty said, citing testimonials, which he said are unsolicited.

Regardless of the controversy, BioMag has been a roaring success. Advertising manager and former BioMag director Edward Borrie described it as "a bit of a wonder product".

McCarty was unwilling to talk numbers, but said: "It has been, by New Zealand standards, reasonably successful."

The company's website boasts one in 10 New Zealand

households has purchased the product, and total sales of nearly 500,000 mattress covers. With prices for the company's flagship magnetised products ranging up to $789, annual revenues can be reasonably inferred over the past 10 years to average in excess of $10 million.

Margins are also high, McCarty said.

The origins of the company date back to the early 1990s when McCarty, who controlled the rights to the Woolrest brand, was grappling with ways to spin his fibre into gold.

"At that point, woollen underlays had became a commodity, and the market price-driven. We could have moved it offshore and taken production to China, but we didn't want to do that," he said.

Instead, he teamed up with Australian Thomas Blackhurst, who ran BioMag, and the two products were combined. In 2002 Blackhurst was bought out and the McCartys became sole owners and operators of the company that recently expanded its presence into the United Kingdom and started advertising magnetised blankets for pets.

("Give your best friend drug-free pain relief!" advertising for the dog underlay - costing £59 for the deluxe version - says on the company's UK site.)

BioMag isn't McCarty's only trick. The family business was textiles, and various holding companies he controls have the New Zealand and Australian rights for fashion labels such as American Apparel, Black Apple and Minty Meets Munt. For a time, he worked with King Kapisi on the rapper's "Overstayer" label.

McCarty said it was his reputation for direct marketing that encouraged Wayne Tempero, later to become nationally known and charged with firearms offences for his role as Kim Dotcom's bodyguard, to form a partnership distributing a self-defence DVD.

Company filings with the ASX show McCarty has taken punts on biotech start-ups, and still holds a A$2m stake in listed real estate vehicle Audio Pixel Holdings.

And, still with textiles, McCarty recently partnered with his son to move into golfwear in the US. Jason McCarty was a hot golfing prospect, in 2001 earning a tour card on the Australian PGA Tour, before settling down as a club professional at exclusive courses charging eye-watering fees.

McCarty Jr split his time between New Zealand's Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs and Long Island's Sebonack. The two local courses are owned by billionaire hedge fund owner Julian Robertson, while Sebonack was famous when it opened for its world-leading membership fees of US$625,000.

He married Diane Duvall, then Robertson's director of New Zealand operations, and bought a US$1.1m home in Long Island. The couple then joined forces with McCarty Sr in 2011 to distribute Swedish sportswear Cross Golf into the United States.

McCarty plays down his empire, dismissing questions about whether he should feature on the National Business Review's rich list.

"I don't know about that," he says. "I get three square meals a day. And so does my dog."

Sunday Star Times