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Sir Douglas Myers: A Fond Tribute

On the anniversary of Sir Douglas' passing, I wrote an article for the National Business Review on his times and legacy. Shame there aren't more like him in NZ - the current generation of business owners seem to be averse to "rocking the boat" and content to enjoy the "good life" rather than shake things up for the better.

You can find the article here or read it below:

Over a decade ago I had a chance encounter on the streets of London with Sir Douglas Myers, who created the Lion Nathan brewing empire. Douglas loved talking about economics and New Zealand. We subsequently met up from time to time, in between his travels on Senses, the superyacht which he later sold to Larry Page, the co-founder of Google. Douglas would sometimes start his mails with lines like “Greetings from Tetiaroa, Marlon Brando’s atoll in Tahiti. I’m here for 8 days fishing being guided by one of his sons”. It would put me in my place straight away. I’d be thinking “How can I possibly compete?”

Douglas had an uneasy relationship with NZ. He was born and bred here. His wife was Tahitian. He loved this land. He owed his fortune to it. But what got him going was the complacency, as he referred to it, of many Kiwis. It was a factor that drove him away. Not to mention the fact that there were few folks here of comparable wealth to him with whom he enjoyed hanging out.

Kiwi complacency still drives away lots of bold risk-takers and brilliant minds from our shores. Douglas' close friend was Arne Naess, from the billionaire Norwegian shipping family. Arne's uncle was a famous philosopher who founded the “deep ecology” environmental movement. Arne married Diana Ross, the singer, and died at 66 years old whilst soloing a rock-face in South Africa. These guys took risks, pushed the limits. Health and safety rules were not for them.

The state of our company boards alarmed Douglas. At least back then, being local and from the right school was the main qualification. Although he was brought up fully part of the Auckland “establishment”, Douglas wasn’t much into hanging out with those types and would instead scour the globe for top talent. He wasn’t keen on lawyers. The proliferation of them on the boards of many large Kiwi organizations was one source of their poor performance in his view.

Douglas celebrated success, his own and others. The more the better. Mediocrity and politicians wanting us all to be more equal were not for him. His view was that the fortunes of many old Kiwi families had been lost partly because their descendants had wanted to fit in, be like others and not stick out as tall poppies.

Before the rest had worked out the value to Brand NZ of yachting triumph on the world stage, Douglas financially backed Sir Peter Blake both in his Round the World Yacht Races and first time win of the Americas Cup for this country.

The acid test of success for a place is the extent to which it can retain its talent. Douglas witnessed how a large chunk of our highest achieving youngsters are now leaving NZ immediately upon finishing school to pursue their studies and careers abroad. Almost every one of the winners of the Myers Scholarship which he endowed to send young Kiwis to Cambridge University in the UK has stayed overseas since graduating. Douglas knew that NZ will only truly have matured as a country once it is sufficiently abounding with opportunity and stimulation that our top achievers wish to live here. We’re still a long way from that ideal.

When I came back to NZ, Douglas asked me to represent him on the Initiative, the successor to his cherished advocacy group, The Business Round Table, of which he was once the Chairman. His instructions were to stir and not “take any crap” from the other members, who turned out to be a who’s who of corporate New Zealand. I did so and suffered the consequences. Being labelled a stirrer turns out to be "social suicide" in NZ, at least in Epsom, to quote a London phrase. The incentives here are to get along and go along with the status quo.

Cynics may argue that Douglas’ actions on the policy front were self-serving. But the regulations that existed prior to the 1984 market reforms in NZ had helped his family’s business. Even so, sitting in the Northern Club over long lunches, resting on past successes, was not for him. Instead he got stuck in, throwing his weight behind the reform program, even though it held out threats, as well as opportunities, for those of his ilk. The reforms meant more competition. They were pro-consumer, not pro-business. Regulations that kept others out of one’s industry were ended. Given the spiralling cost of living in NZ nowadays, we could clearly do with a new round of pro-consumer reforms.

Things could have gone pear-shaped for Douglas, as they did for many other big players from old Auckland families. But he had no intention of losing Lion in the same way another prominent family who he knew lost control of the NZ Herald.

What of the future? I’m looking out for a new generation of business hero. Someone who’s not afraid to speak out and challenge the status quo. A high profile, successful business owner who wields clout. Someone willing to throw their weight behind reforming the large parts of our economy that are long overdue for it. A person who lends their private support to bold new ideas that are in the public interest. Maybe it’s too much to ask for.

Not everyone appreciated Douglas’ tactics in business. Yet he was a savvy, cultured and worldly person who was an acute observer of NZ. He had a great ability to surround himself with the best and was right about Kiwi complacency. We need more folks like him who have the confidence to rock the boat and shake up the system. So here’s to you and your legacy, Douglas, a patriotic, passionate Kiwi and famed NBR Rich-Lister, on the anniversary of your death.


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