Billionaire's playground: Insurance chief serious about wine portfolio

By Michael Dickison

Luxury lodge Wharekauhau in the Wairarapa is one of Bill and Carol Foley's investments in New Zealand.  Mark Mitchell
Luxury lodge Wharekauhau in the Wairarapa is one of Bill and Carol Foley's investments in New Zealand. Mark Mitchell

American billionaire Bill Foley has thrown his clout behind New Zealand, pushing to increase his winemaking business here 16-fold.

Mr Foley, the chairman of two Fortune 500 companies, told the Herald he saw an opportunity to build up exports from wineries around the country. He would push New Zealand wines on his global distribution channels and expand production from 60,000 cases a year to a million, he said.

"When I got involved in New Zealand three years ago in the wine business, I thought about and looked at Argentina, China, France and Australia," he said. "New Zealand is, for me, a natural place to do business. As long as you comply with the process, I find it very fair, and I've found New Zealand and New Zealanders to be very receptive to Americans and what we're trying to do."

Mr Foley has been one of the world's top-paid chief executives - US$180 million in 2007 - during the past decade, building up insurer Fidelity National Financial and banking technology company Fidelity National Information Services, while overseeing about 50,000 employees.

The 68-year-old has recently turned his focus to his winemaking enterprises, which began in California.

Foley Family Wines NZ owns six brands - Clifford Bay, Goldwater, Dashwood, Redwood Pass, Vavasour and Te Kairanga - and a 50 per cent stake in wine distribution company EuroVintage. Mr Foley also owns luxury lodge Wharekauhau, near Te Kairanga. To tie his businesses together, he recently started a food and wine society - free to join at thesociety.co.nz.

Mark Turnbull, who manages Mr Foley's operations here, said the society's mark would be put on the bottles of Foley's wines as a mark of distinction, and members who bought them would get discounts at the lodge.

"We can have more New Zealanders go to the lodge and think, 'Shit, I never thought I would be able to go to a place like that'."

Having Mr Foley behind the business gave it clout, Mr Turnbull said. Mr Foley was a decision-maker and had the assets to back it up.

Mr Foley said he was committed to his enterprises here.

"We're hiring people, supporting the local community, establishing scholarship programmes in the arts, wines and food," he said. "It's significant from a New Zealand perspective. New Zealand is really an export country and this works perfectly for it."

BILL FOLEY

* He also has networks in Australia, Canada and the UK.

* Is a graduate of West Point and has homes in Texas and Montana.

* His wife, Carol, accompanied him on a two-week visit to New Zealand last week.

ON THE WEB

thesociety.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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