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Life of a visionary: Lloyd Morrison

Lloyd Morrison. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Lloyd Morrison. Photo / Kenny Rodger

The death of Wellington businessman Lloyd Morrison at the age of 54 has robbed New Zealand of one of its business leaders and singular characters.

Morrison, the founder of infrastructure investment company Infratil, died of leukaemia.

He spoke candidly to the Business Herald about his disease in 2009.

After feeling flat and rundown, Morrison underwent tests that showed he had acute myeloid leukaemia. The disease had adverse cytogenetics (DNA abnormalities), which meant treatment in New Zealand wasn't going to deal with it.

In February 2009 he moved to Seattle, where he was treated with experimental drugs at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre.

By November that year he was back in New Zealand, having chemotherapy each morning and talking about the future.

"I've been lucky enough to be able to track down some experimental medicine which has effectively saved me.

Whether it keeps me alive for five years or more, that's another issue, but at least it has arrested what would have otherwise overtaken me."

Confronting death did not bring with it any great epiphany, Morrison said at the time.

"I'm not really worried about dying ... I worry about it from my children's point of view."

Morrison was admitted to the Fred Hutchinson centre in October last year, where he spent the last months of his life.

His contribution was significant in the cultural, social and political realms, as well as in the commercial sphere where he made the fortune that allowed him to indulge personal passions, ranging from a campaign to change the national flag to helping launch the Phoenix Foundation onto the national music scene.

He was an investor in the rescue of the Wellington Phoenix football franchise, and was helping to bankroll the Pure Advantage business lobby promoting clean technology.

By 1987, he was one of the new generation of entrepreneurs unleashed by the Rogernomics revolution, and a principal of pre-crash sharemarket darling Omnicorp.

Wellington public relations man Mark Unsworth remembers an early commission from Morrison to arrange for the Omnicorp logo to be carved in ice for the 1987 annual general meeting. Morrison also ordered up a South American band and had plans for a celebrity debate at the event.

"He wanted one of those celebrity AGMs, which were fashionable at the time," Unsworth recalled.

It never happened. Omnicorp was a casualty of the October 1987 sharemarket crash. Morrison lost his shirt and left for several years in London, where he gained early experience of the budget airline business that later inspired Infratil's less-than-successful forays into regional European airports.

"While that was a failure, it wasn't a dishonourable failure," says Rugby World Cup Office director Leon Grice, who knew Morrison for more than 20 years. "Out of it came some really amazing business, and business people."

He returned to form HRL Morrison & Co, an investment banking operation, in 1988, and took Infratil public in 1994 with a $50 million float, managed by contract with Morrison and Co.

The company went on to build up a portfolio of infrastructure assets, mainly in New Zealand and Australia, worth around $4 billion and employing around 4000 people internationally today.

Infratil's assets include stakes in Z Energy (the former Shell New Zealand downstream fuels business), the NZ Bus Company, TrustPower, Wellington International Airport, the Snapper cash alternative payment card and a portfolio of Australian energy holdings.

Unlike Omnicorp, Infratil survived the global financial crisis in 2008, when many of its peers "blew up", as long-time Morrison senior executive Tim Brown said recently.

"Infratil predated everything," said Brown. "In 1994, the only [company like Infratil] Lloyd was able to find was Foreign & Colonial Special Utilities Trust," a company run by Duncan Saville, a shareholder of Infratil and mentor to Morrison.

One of the keys to success was its patient approach to investment and a fee structure that didn't push the firm to buy assets "at any cost", said Brown. With TrustPower, its biggest investment, it took 10 years to go from a small holding to control.

And with Morrison at its helm, Infratil gained a lustre that went beyond commercial success and reflected its founder.

"Lloyd's the brand champion," Brown said, just days before Morrison died.

While Leon Grice admired Morrison's business achievements, he most respected his rounded view of life. Before the birth of Grice's first child, Morrison - a father of five - rubbished the theory that all children needed was "quality time" with their parents. "Lloyd told me what kids need is quantity time," says Grice. "That really stuck with me. I looked up to Lloyd for his all-round commitment to family, community, and business."

In contrast to the buttoned-up ciphers normally associated with the higher echelons of corporate life, Morrison was his own man and an energetic contributor to civic life at both a national level, and in his home town of Wellington, where Infratil inhabited the same eclectic offices at the top of Woodward St, between The Terrace and Lambton Quay, for many years.

Unsworth recalls bumping into Morrison while queuing in Woodward St to buy morning tea to celebrate a staffer's 50th birthday, but Morrison insisted they come up to the Infratil offices.

"We went out for muffins and came back with champagne and half a dozen bottles of pinot," he said, recalling Morrison's love of fine wine, as well as a dashing fashion sense and an impish sense of humour.

A peer in the Wellington investment community, Rob Cameron, knew Morrison well and the pair shared their experience of cancer in recent years.

"He had a great sense of humour. He took the cancer seriously, but you have got to enjoy life and he saw humour in things some people would think too sensitive.

"Lloyd was one of those rare, gifted, energetic, highly intellectual, patriotic New Zealanders," said Cameron. The loss of his "very, very rare" visionary capacity was "a huge loss for New Zealand".

"He could bring firepower and resources to bear and make a huge difference, and that's what he's done."

As former Act MP and Wellington lawyer Stephen Franks put it when Morrison was diagnosed with cancer: "If cities were listed Wellington's shares would have been as jolted as Infratil's by the news."

Morrison was a prime mover in the campaign in the early 2000s to ensure the local stock exchange was not sold to the Australian Stock Exchange, arguing that a country without its own exchange would hamper its own economic chances.

As an airport owner, he also wanted more flights landing and more competition for Air New Zealand, and sparked the initiative that brought Virgin Airlines to New Zealand.

However, he was less successful in his desire to see the old Whenuapai airbase north of Auckland turned into a commercial airport.

"It became obvious the local MP, John Key, wasn't a fan," said Unsworth.

Also unpopular, and surprising to Morrison for the hysterical reaction it provoked, was his enthusiasm for the infamous "Wellywood" sign, which he saw as a humorous and appropriate greeting for travellers to the capital city of the New Zealand film industry.

While his involvement as an owner of the Phoenix football club was recent, Morrison's passion for sport was lifelong and he shared private ownership of a corporate box at the Westpac Stadium with fisheries magnate Peter Talley.

Less well known was his backing for the Wellington High Performance Aquatics Centre, which encourages young talent to stay in the city and has hosted qualifying events for the Olympic Games.

Programme manager Luvaine McDonald, who taught Morrison to swim, hadn't seen him since childhood until a chance meeting at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006, and the centre gathered steam from there.

"He was certainly the driving force and didn't take no for an answer - he was just a wonderful person."

The National Business Review 2011 Rich List put Morrison's personal wealth at $100 million.

He was the Herald's Business Leader of the Year in 2006.

Morrison's brother, Rob, who heads the consortium that saved the Wellington Phoenix franchise, said yesterday: "It didn't matter what Lloyd did, he demanded people gave of their best. Once he got involved in the Phoenix, he was very passionate about the club."

The Phoenix and its fans can honour Morrison at tomorrow's game at Westpac Stadium, with a minute's silence ahead of the clash with the Brisbane Roar.

Morrison would have been expecting a win.

A big legacy
* Hugh Richmond "Lloyd" Morrison
* Businessman, philanthropist, patron of the arts and sports.
* Born 18/9/57, Palmerston North, died 10/2/12, Seattle, Washington.
* Education: Wanganui Collegiate, University of Canterbury.
* Survived by his wife, Julie Nevett, and five children: Isabella, Madeleine, Ottilie, Vita and Elliott.

- Business Desk, staff reporters

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