Trust worthy

Greg Mulvey
Greg Mulvey

Twenty years ago, more than just a few folk were fretting that the Invercargill Licensing Trust had chosen a boy to do a man's job. It didn't turn out that way at all.

Here's the one question Greg Mulvey stonewalled.

For the past two decades, he has managed the Invercargill Licensing Trust through the upheavals of new laws, social change, economic hard times and recovery.

SKILLS SESSION: Sacred Heart School pupils give it heaps at Stadium Southland. The ILT built the giant facility and buses they city's children there.
JILL McKEE/ID 126110
SKILLS SESSION: Sacred Heart School pupils give it heaps at Stadium Southland. The ILT built the giant facility and buses they city's children there.

The country's oldest licensing trust wields enormous influence through its activities in liquor, gaming machines, dining and accommodation; it has proven reliably profitable and disperses $10 million in grants each year to, let's face it, a fairly small community. It initiates major community projects of its own, crucially supports others, satisfies a blizzard of requests for handouts, and generally operates on a scale you won't find in any other surviving licensing trust. It's been a hell of a ride.

So just how seasoned does a man have to be before Ray Harper stops calling him "the boy" ? Mr Mulvey just laughs.

"You'll have to ask Ray," he says.

Mr Harper, who was Mr Mulvey's chairman for nine years and a board member for twice that, growls his explanation cheerfully. If he's ever called him that, and yes, he might have once or twice, it's just an older man's joke, not meant unkindly and certainly not disrespectfully.

Mr Mulvey was just 34 when he became the trust's manager. Internally appointed, too, having risen through the trust ranks. All of which was nothing if not a talking point at the time, given that that job was a very big deal in this town.

There was a widespread, just about worldwide, corporate trend at the time for strikingly young chief execs to be favoured. Such notions tended to strike nuggety Invercargillites as perilously fashionable. But the trust board was staunch. The boy was the man for the job.

Ray Harper: "He's very, very astute. Gentle manner, but very firm in his decisions." If we're doing a profile on young Greg Mulvey, it's not before time, Mr Harper adds.

"He's often there in the background so he doesn't get the shining arse that sometimes the chairman gets." No argument, either, from his first chairman, David Harrington.

Both men attest that Mr Mulvey is mightily respected in his field, and has resisted the predations of headhunters.

Small point: he's a local.

Invercargill-born, January 1954, raised in Princes St, went to St Patrick's, Marist Primary and Marist College. At Otago University he completed his Bachelor of Commerce degree majoring in accounting and market management. He met his wife Lee (nee Milne) there, followed her back to Invercargill and began working for Delloittes, then in 1977 joining the ILT where he proved to be every bit the workaholic as general manager Ron Henderson, who retired for health reasons.

Greg Mulvey went at the job like the clappers.

"We'd say," Mr Harrington says, "that he'd worked his 40 hours by Wednesday and the rest of the week was complementary." Much of that was research. Mr Mulvey isn't a fan of rap music, the America's Cup, or consultants.

"One thing I learned very quickly; you do the work, you put up the recommendations and you live by them. Not by what some consultant said." Mr Harrington: "It was almost embarrassing ... times when we didn't think we could take an idea much further, but he'd be insisting that, no, there's more work to do.

Like a terrier with a rag doll." David Harrington and Greg Mulvey took the helm at a time of turbulence.

Electors had voted off the longstanding board chairman Ollie Henderson, who had become famed for his terse, dismissive responses to letters to the editor.

Mr Mulvey, however, remembers him "a brilliant man; he'd made some bold steps — the Ascot Park Hotel and the shareholding in DB South Island brewery — the benefits of which are still being felt today".

So why the clamour for change? "It guess it wasn't so much what the trust wasn't doing but the way it reacted or responded to, in some cases, fair criticism. People didn't like to be told what was right for them."

Nationally, the sands were shifting, too. The Sale of Liquor Act was being completely dismantled and the Roper report on violence, which cautioned against liberalisation, lost out to the Laking report which heralded a proliferation of liquor licenses and much wider trading hours.

"It was all done on the belief that went let's be like the Europeans, demystify this thing called alcohol, and we'll all be mature and there won't be the social problems that, it turns out, there undeniably were." Nowadays the social mood is taking a conservative swing and Greg Mulvey has no problem with that. In the Laking days, the trust had argued a conservative line, reminding the authorities that it came into existence smack after prohibition, created by a community that wanted not to ban, but to control as far as possible, a dangerous drug.

"We didn't support this quantum shift from protectionist liquor laws to almost total liberalisation. It went too far." Another change that coincided with Mr Mulvey's rise to leadership was the creation of a trapdoor under the trust. The community could, at any stage, require a poll on whether it should lose its statutory protections.

Ask Greg Mulvey his foibles and he'll admit this: "They tell me I have a bad habit of repeating myself too often. I probably talk too much.

What else? Foibles ... I'll only tell you the superficial ones ... I have got a habit, certainly, of repeating myself. Perhaps I'm given to over-emphasis on occasions." If there's one issue he just erupts in frustrated desire to articulate, it's to counter the impression that the ILT is now so strong that its remaining limited trade protection could safely be dispensed with. That would mean competitors could open up private taverns in the city, and selling wine in supermarkets, while the trust would be free to trade outside its own borders.

Would that be so terrible? Lose a little profit locally, but pick up some more further north? The trust makes much from liquor and gambling and returns money to the community, but such things don't of themselves guarantee either balance or sainthood. Al Capone ran soup kitchens, and all that. It's competition that keeps everyone honest, right? "People," Greg Mulvey says, "might see the trust as big, hard, steely eyed and capable of taking a punch. You know what? We've got a fragility." It's not a flaw, it's a focus. Inward looking, for the welfare of this here community. Intense, purposeful, beneficial ... but something that can be broken and, if so, cannot be refocused.

"It's not as though we have exclusive rights in lots of our areas of endeavour," Mr Mulvey says.

"Anyone can open motels, accommodation, nightclubs, licensed restaurants, license cafes, catering venues. I think there are a hundred other liquor licences in Invercargill.

We have exclusive rights in taverns, hotels and pretty much in off-premises apart from chartered clubs and their bottle stores." Take away those strategic protections and it would be the trigger for inevitable and irreversible change.

Hard-nosed commercial imperatives would stampede over the trust's social agenda and its sense of accountability to the owners — Invercargill folk.

Mr Mulvey has "absolutely no doubt" that if the borders are opened and the ILT starts to look elsewhere for profit, as it would find it must, the trust's essential character would shift to something quite different from the tightly focused and community-responsive local organisation it is now.

As for that Al Capone analogy, sensitive products like alcohol and gaming machines are best handled by community-owned organisations, Mr Mulvey says. The ILT distributes far more of its gaming turnover to the community than other gaming societies in New Zealand.

Open the border and the trust would also no longer have the obligation it feels to spread its own premises around the city for community rather than commercial reasons. Instead, it'd sell off under-performing assets as a matter of economic necessity.

Sure, it might also be able to repatriate some profits earned further north back home "but what makes us think that there's a big gap in those markets? We might be clever enough to find some but where would our focus be? Away from Invercargill".

As things stand: "I'm convinced that we've got the best of both worlds. However, that equilibrium was achieved, by accident or design, it's working.

"What's the anchor in this? We're responsible back to our community.

Mulvey can sit here and talk his head off, but we're driven to perform by our community. If we don't, they can get rid of the board and get rid of the trust's trading protection." Those $10 million in grants each year, much as they make the trust high among the most thanked outfits in southern history, do tend to overshadow what Mr Mulvey sees as the research benefits.

It wasn't just the funding for the new stadium, folks, or just the building of it; it was the mountain of work that went into determining whether it really was a good idea.

"After all, we already had the Centennial Hall, and it wasn't used very much, so why did we need a stadium?" Seems obvious, in hindsight, but four years of planning research went on beforehand.

If he says so himself, the trust was a key player in the city's recovery from the slough of despond in the late 1990s.

"That's when the ILT really started making a difference moreso than any other time in its history. Invercargill was almost on its knees, people couldn't sell houses. We were the fastest decaying city in Australasia.

Out of that adversity the ILT found a new lease of life and with others lead the charge.

"The stadium was conceived during that period. Southern Sting was created during that period. You had the inner city upgrade, Splash Palace, the SIT (Southern Institute of Technology) free fee scheme — the ILT was the vanguard for those, either leading them or involved as a major funder."

In front of him is a wee skite list and he picks through it.

"Smoke alarms in every home. The learner's pool at Splash Palace. The velodrome. The MRI scanner ... we're one of very few provincial cities in New Zealand that have that. Defribrillators — (ILT Foundation manager) Ann Eustace's idea.

Now we've got 50 of them around the city. We'll get more if there's a need. That project saved a life in the first couple of weeks." He pauses. "People forget ... I forget ..." What's more, it's one thing to open stadiums and pools, but the focus can't be allowed to waft away afterwards.

"I was appalled to learn very few schools were participating in regular structured swimming lessons.

Three years ago we decided every 5 to 12-year-old in Invercargill was going to learn to swim. We worked with the city council and Splash Palace.

And we paid for the buses.

Same at the stadium, so the kids can learn basic sport and recreation skills." He uses the stadium himself, as it happens, of a winter's Wednesday night, playing a brand of tennis that leaves his opponents, shall we say, unintimidated.

"Our kids are quite sporting.

That's from Lee's side. For my part, I'm often held as an example that sporting ability can jump generations." About 15 months ago, the workaholic found a recreational passion.

"I never played golf in my life until February last year when I stumbled upon it. Now I just love the game, and boring people to tears about it." Call it extracurricular, but he's also on the board of the Southland Building Society.

"I'm passionate about that, too. Its essence is its mutuality. It's owned by the depositors and borrowers so it aligns very closely with the principle of the ILT." Regarding his directorship in DB South Island Breweries, he's unguarded about that one.

"It's fun." As for those working long hours, part of that gets back to the trapdoor threat.

"It does get you up early in the morning and put you to bed late at night.

"If not for that there could be an opportunity for us to become lethargic.

There's no chance of that happening.

"I'd like to tell you what drives us is that we want to run a great business and make a huge difference to our city — and I will. I can. That really is our goal.

"To make Invercargill the best place to live work and play. But I could look you in the eye and tell you if we didn't have this threat that we would still be as sharp as we are today? "It does keep you sharp."

Greg Mulvey's 20 years as ILT manager is scarcely out of line with the trust's senior management team — of Gary Muir, Neil Affleck, Terry Laidlaw and Greg McElhinney. The newest of them, Mr McElhinney, has been there just 15 years. But you won't hear Greg Mulvey calling him the boy.


The Southland Times