What will Alasdair Cassels do next?

BOLD ENTREPRENEUR: Alasdair Cassels has become well known as the man behind Woolston’s Tannery arcade.
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ
BOLD ENTREPRENEUR: Alasdair Cassels has become well known as the man behind Woolston’s Tannery arcade.

Alasdair Lorne Cassels' grim biblical image of shoulder-length hair and waterfall moustache conjures up some interesting possibilities. Give him a different hat and he could be a doomsday prophet or a firebrand wizard.

Cassels, 62, in person, is large, tall and certainly a presence. He is, however, hatless, gunless, has a firm but gentle handshake, and is wearing fawn soft shoes instead of kick-arse boots.

He was brought up by strongly Christian parents - his father ran the YMCA in Northern Ireland and Nottingham - and has a moral code that does not go much past the Ten Commandments.

His five children attended the Steiner school in Opawa because he likes the way Steiner children care about each other.

"That's the way it should be," he says.

In Christchurch, Cassels has become well known as the man behind the Tannery, a meticulously built Victorian-style arcade on a former tanning factory site in Woolston, which will eventually house about 30 shops and cafes.

He also set up the CBD Bar in Madras St in a building owned by his brother Ian, one of many family connections in the Cassels empire. The eldest of his five children, Zak, is involved in the brewing side of the business, as is his son-in-law Joe Shanks. Two other sons-in-law are tenants and his daughter, Madeline, is a partner in one of the Tannery shops.

Lately, Cassels has been in the news because he has agreed to house Michael Swann, who was jailed for defrauding the Otago District Health Board of about $16 million and will be released on parole this month. Pictures of Cassels' Governors Bay house, which he describes as small, cold and uncomfortable, suggested Swann would be leading a life of luxury with an old mate.

What is it about Cassels and criminals?

He also employed (and sacked) boat painter Scott Watson not long before the disappearance of Ben Smart, 21, and Olivia Hope, 17, who were last seen in Queen Charlotte Sound on New Year's Day 1998. Watson was found guilty of their murder in 1999.

A man known as Zappa, now dead, who looked after Cassels' Marlborough property at Erie Bay, also had a criminal past and used the property to grow cannabis.

"Very embarrassing," says Cassels, who made his pile in the tough but lucrative trade of industrial painting. While doing his engineering degree at Canterbury University, he realised where money was to be made and with his brother Ian went out to buy an airless sprayer on credit.

That business grew into Airless Spraypainting and Industrial, the largest sandblasting and industrial painting company in New Zealand. Business took off during the Think Big projects and Airless had more than 100 mainly men on the payroll. He and his partners sold part of the business in 1984.

As Cassels says, jobs such as sandblasting do not attract the cream of society.

"If I wanted to count how many murderers and rapists worked for me, it would be a lot, but I'm not an underworld person and, although I'm a person who's probably had a life on the edge, I don't make a habit of knowing crims or liking crims."

He does not want to say much about Watson, other than he was a good worker, a likeable bloke, "but there were two sides of him".

"He was really flip-flop, and when he went flop, he was capable of anything.

"If he came out of jail, I wouldn't want to be anywhere near him," Cassels says.

Swann, he believes, is a different story. He has known him for about 15 to 20 years and they have sailed, hunted and fished together.

"I got to know him and I thought he was all right."

A lot of people would have washed their hands of Swann when his offending came to light, but Cassels visited him in prison and now is putting a roof over his head.

"I've got to say ‘why not?' The guy's done a crime and done something really bad and he's served a fairly long sentence and he's got to come out and get his life back together.

"I'm just giving the guy a break and I know his family and I know him and if I can help him get back on the road, that is all I'm doing," Cassels says.

"I give people a chance. I don't know about murderers and rapists, but someone who thieves . . . they might get over that."

Cassels' business record is, as he says, straight, and he puts his success down to not taking financial risks and to trusting his instincts. Unusually for New Zealand entrepreneurs, none of his companies have gone into liquidation and he has never bounced a cheque.

"I never needed to and I never would," he says.

He even ended up making a tidy sum from a development in Sydenham in which he partnered the notorious Christchurch debtor Bernard Whimp.

"Bernard came to me with a proposition and asked me to lend money for this property. It was a good deal, but I took 51 per cent and stayed in control."

A life on the edge has not then involved any strife with the law. Risks, however, have been taken.

About 16 years ago, he bought a 28m wooden motor sailer called Galerna, then moored in Spain, took his children out of school and sailed the yacht back to New Zealand with them aboard. Cassels was a good sailor, but had not done any ocean sailing. They came close to hitting several reefs and were chased and machinegunned by pirates in the Red Sea. Frightening stuff, but "the kids loved it".

Although the $24m Tannery project might be seen as similarly risky, he is not losing any sleep.

"When we opened The Brewery, people said it wouldn't work, but it worked from day one. The Tannery has already got 60-odd tenants. Of the whole site, 90 per cent is leased and some of those leases are for six leases. A lot of experienced retailers have confidence in the site."

Cassels had virtually retired before the earthquakes, which delivered him $9 million in insurance money and the momentum and political will to get the zoning on the Woolston site changed. He does not miss the easy days of retirement and, in a way that still appears modest, says he enjoys the fact he has inspired people.

"I don't think anybody else could do anything as good. They would take shortcuts. I haven't done it with money; I've done it with a community of really dedicated and artistic people that have given me a hand and that wouldn't happen again. I think it's a gift that happened after the earthquake."

Cassels' particular aesthetic is strongly reflected in the Tannery project's woodwork, tiling and stained glass. He respects craftsmanship and preserving heritage. By turning the old tannery into smaller rentals and retail businesses, he has increased its income potential and created the revenue to justify reusing the factory's bricks and trusses.

"I just think you've got to save things. You can't throw old things away. Heritage is what we are," he says.

His "beautifully crafted" century-old Sumner house has been red-zoned due to cliff fall danger, but Cassels is determined to save it.

Other projects loom. He is already talking about cleaning up the Heathcote and recreating some of its history as an important waterway. From others, it would all sound a little unlikely. But you can see Cassels belting on his gun and heading out for another adventure.

The Press