Rich lister Gavin Faull has a piece of advice for those under 35.

"Look for jobs with opportunities, don't look for jobs for money," says the head of hotel chain Swiss-Belhotel International.

His wealth - put at $70 million on the NBR Rich List - comes mainly from a chain of nearly 150 hotels the company manages or leases in 21 countries, and from dairy farming in the part of the world dear to his heart, his Taranaki homeland.

"I always say to people you should not try to make money before you're 35. Before that it's opportunities. If you've been successful you'll start making money," says Faull.
When he joined Swiss-Belhotel nearly three decades ago, he worked three months for nothing. He went on to own the company.

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And on the subject of his own estimated wealth?

"I don't take much notice of that. It depends on how you balance things on your balance sheet. The tax department is the only one who takes notice. There are probably 20 times as many people who should be on that list."

The workaholic 69-year-old mostly flies economy class on his frequent international flights around the hotel network.

"I think I'm generous. I'm too soft on my staff but probably a little bit stingy with this [flying economy]. But I just have to wait three minutes [to get off a plane] and I save $5000."

The hotel company is expanding in New Zealand with two properties in Queenstown and Auckland, where Swiss-Belsuites Victoria Park has a role in Married At First Sight, as accommodation for the couples. He has plans to open more hotels in New Zealand throughout the range, including budget accommodation.

Angel and Brett from Married At First Sight NZ, at home at the Swiss-Belsuites Victoria Park. Photo / Supplied
Angel and Brett from Married At First Sight NZ, at home at the Swiss-Belsuites Victoria Park. Photo / Supplied

Faull is one of five brothers who grew up in the Waitara River valley town of Tikorangi.

It was there, at his father's Four Square store, that he got early exposure to commerce.

"That's where I got my commercial training and my marketing training. We started working life at five years old as delivery boys as soon as we could ride a bike."
He went on to be educated at Waitara High School and New Plymouth Boys' High School before a commerce degree at Victoria University, where he majored in accounting.

His first job was for EY in Wellington, where he stayed a year before spotting a job ad for KPMG in Hong Kong in 1973.

"Really it was a dynamic opportunity. I wasn't even sure what Hong Kong was. But you know it was a twist of fate that I ended up there."

He entered the hotel business two years later when a client, Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, was looking for a financial controller.

It was an entry to the top of the industry: the group owned the Peninsula Hotel, famous for being the world's biggest customer for Rolls-Royce cars, which it dispatched to the airport to pick up guests. It was run by Swiss, who had a reputation as great organisers, and staffed by Chinese who had a commitment to service.

"I learned the goal of excellence. It was an unbelievable training ground," he says.

The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong where Gavin Faull learned the trade. Photo / Suppiled
The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong where Gavin Faull learned the trade. Photo / Suppiled

Faull had married a local woman Carol Managh in 1971 and after eight years working for Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels, the couple (who by then had "two and a half" children) decided it was time to come home.

Aged 34, he became what was then the youngest head of a listed company, Kingsgate International, which owned about 30 hotels in New Zealand and Australia.

"It was a baptism by fire for a young guy."

One of his first executive decisions was getting rid of the company Rolls-Royce, used to pick him up at the airport.

"I thought 'there's something wrong here'. In Hong Kong it looked like another car, here it was arrogance."

But it was the opportunity to get involved in the fledgling Swiss-Belhotel company, started by a former Peninsula Hotel boss, that drew him back to Hong Kong.

It was around then that Faull started a tourism school business in Taranaki and began the expansion of the family dairy farm into what would become a massive dairy operation. It now has 1150 cows being milked and is seen as a model farm.

The Swiss-Belhotel business expanded, with the help of investment from Swissair, but ended up being squeezed by the Asian financial crisis during the late 1990s.

"It was a bloodbath."

Swissair was also being restructured (the carrier ended up collapsing in 2001) and Faull says it was difficult to know where his company was going.

In 2000 he was called into a meeting with his boss, aged 80.

"I went into a meeting expecting to be fired - I came out owning the company. It was totally unplanned."

It was back to basics. The company had two hotels in Indonesia and one in northern China, and operated out of a three-person office in the backstreets of Hong Kong..

We had absolutely nothing. I left my Mercedes Benz and climbed into a 20 year old Honda living in the YMCA but its actually not all that tough

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"We had absolutely nothing. I left my Mercedes-Benz and climbed into a 20-year-old Honda, living in the YMCA, but its actually not all that tough,'' he says.

"I started looking at Indonesia a lot, mainly because my partners are very good there. I just started running."

Indonesia proved to be a lifeline for the company and now it has a hotel in every major city there. Expansion by the private company into other parts of Asia, the Middle East and Australasia has followed.

"I'm trying to look at Europe at the moment," says Faull. "To open up is real hard work and big investment and because of such challenges, most of my decisions to go to these places would never get through boardroom scrutiny. An accountant would look at the numbers and say you're nuts."

In New Zealand, Faull is riding the unprecedented boom in tourism, hence the enthusiasm for expansion.

Swiss-Belsuites Pounamu Queenstown. Photo / Supplied
Swiss-Belsuites Pounamu Queenstown. Photo / Supplied

There are also pressures within the sector, including finding staff. One of his Queenstown properties is staffed completely by overseas workers.

The Kiwi approach to service has improved since the 1980s, in what is a tough sector to work in.

"New Zealanders are the most fantastic people in the world, they put on the best parties in the world, the best barbecues. They're so hospitable, but put them in a uniform and pay them to serve food and they were the worst in the world. We've come a long way from there," he says.

"The key thing here is the person you get and it's my hardest job is to get real passion in their jobs - they are real tough jobs."

Faull says that just as fast as tourism is growing, so is the disruptive threat to established businesses from new players such as Air BnB.

"We just have to be smarter and do things better," he says. "So that's why we have to promote ourselves just as well."

He says that what makes a good hotel is the same as what it was 2000 years ago: comfortable beds, nice bathrooms, showers and TVs that work and power points in the right places.

''All I have to do is know what the guest wants - they're relatively easy to satisfy, they're easy to upset. You remember the little things.''

All I have to do is know what the guest wants - they're relatively easy to satisfy, they're easy to upset. You remember the little things

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He loves returning home to the 'Naki. Last weekend he went to the 70th reunion at his old high school in Waitara, the place that turned out to be a launchpad to owning a major global hotel management chain as well as his other interests.

Waitara High principal Daryl Warburton says Faull remains a big supporter of the school, where Faull spoke at a dinner attended by about 180 people.

''He spoke about his years here and it was really special,'' says Warburton.

Faull says his achievements are a reflection of a good education.

"Being educated in the '60s, the world was literally your oyster. It is exciting and shows what can be done."

Gavin Faull

Married to:

Carol

They have three sons working in the business:

Matthew, an IT expert; Oliver, a chartered accountant; and Edward, a civil engineer.

One of four brothers:

Allan, who's retired as a teacher at Auckland Grammar; Bernard, an Anglican Priest; Richard, who has just been knighted for his brain research work at Auckland Medical School; and Nigel, a technology expert in Australian aged care.

Last holiday overseas:

A family holiday to Bali for two weeks - he ended up working half the time: "I don't think I've sat on the beach for 30 years - I'm an active relaxer."

Last movie:

A documentary watcher - he's half way through the Richie McCaw movie.

Most memorable book:

Rich Dad Poor Dad,

Robert Kiyosaki