A dream now in tatters

SUSAN STRONGMAN
Last updated 05:00 25/01/2014
Peter White-Robinson stand
DREAM IN TATTERS: Peter White-Robinson

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Peter White-Robinson always dreamed of building superyachts in Taranaki and for more than a decade his dream came true.

But now the former high flying New Plymouth businessman's dream is in tatters, his $20 million fortune is gone and together with his family he has washed up relatively penniless and without a job on Canada's Vancouver Island.

Just 18 months ago it hardly seemed possible when Mr White-Robinson sailed into the horizon aboard his $7 million boat Kahu, bound for Canada. Back then he was New Plymouth's most audacious entrepreneur, the owner of Fitzroy Yachts, a man who did what everyone said could not be done, a man everyone wanted to be.

Now he's shut out of the company he built from nothing and its doors will almost certainly close at the end of next month leaving its 120 staff on the scrap heap.

From their rented home on Vancouver Island, Canada, Mr White-Robinson said he and his wife Sharon were themselves searching for jobs, while their two sons, Finn and Cole are at school.

"We're not sitting up here living the life of Riley. We're not destitute, but it's not easy," he said.

Their fall has been dramatic. When Mr White-Robinson sailed into the Pacific in August 2012, he was still the owner of Fitzroy Yachts, with millions of dollars in the bank and expansive properties in trust.

"I propped the company up when it was needed. I left trusted people to look after the business," he said.

Within a year his millions, his properties and his boat were gone. The White-Robinsons had nothing left.

Mr White-Robinson said he was not told how serious the Fitzroy Yachts' plight had become.

Without the means to keep the business going he sold the internationally respected firm to a buyer operating from a company registered in the tax haven of Vanuatu.

Mr White-Robinson, the man who had always beaten the odds, said he would have stayed in New Zealand and tried to keep the company afloat had he known the gravity of the situation.

"Any businessman has hard times and good times, and we have had hard times in the past.

"We put everything we had into that company. Everything we had in our trust, all our assets."

It was something he had done before. In 1991 Mr White-Robinson mortgaged everything he had to buy Fitzroy Engineering, the company he sold in a $30m deal in 2010.

Rodney Martin, Fitzroy Yachts' managing director, has blamed the falling international demand for super yachts and the rising New Zealand dollar.

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He declined to comment on Mr White-Robinson's claims that he was unaware of the reality of the company's condition while he was overseas.

The identity of the company's new owner remains confidential. He is rumoured to be the same man whose yacht, dubbed FY17, is the last Fitzroy Yachts will build.

"A lot of people speculate that that's the case, but the shareholder is a private investor and he wants to keep the details private," Mr Martin said.

However, the website super yachttimes.com lists a boat being built by Fitzroy Yachts with the same specifications as FY17 called Escapade, which will sail under Vanuatu's flag. Fitzroy Yachts Holding, the company that now owns Fitzroy Yachts, is also registered in Vanuatu.

Sources have told the Taranaki Daily News the boat was ordered by a mega-rich Swiss national who lives with his wife in Malaysia, where he runs his multi-national electronics company.

Back at Fitzroy Yachts, the prospect of 120 staff due to finish their jobs on February 28 is taking its toll.

"Everyone is a bit uncertain now," said Rob Watts, who started as an employee there in 2002, when it was little more than a dream.

In the beginning, he said, staff worked out of a shed on-loan from local business AJ Cowley, before moving to the current spot on Ocean View Parade in 2002.

They worked under a tarpaulin roof for a couple of years before the big, green Fitzroy Yachts shed was built.

"We started out with about 25 or 30 people," he said. "Sailing was a passion of Peter's. No one believed we could run a super yacht business from New Plymouth, but Peter had visions and dreams and we did it."

He and other staff felt an enormous amount of pride about the boats they had helped build and the awards they had won, he said.

"They come into the yard as sheets of aluminium and leave as superyachts. Everyone can take pride in what they do from the fabricator, to the electricians, welders, joiners and cabinetmakers.

"It's a loss to New Plymouth. The company brought a lot of kudos to Taranaki and to New Zealand, but this is just the way it goes. It's just a shame, really, that it's come to the end this way. I would have liked to retire here."

- Taranaki Daily News

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