Michele Hewitson Interview: Garth Barfoot

By Michele Hewitson

Garth Barfoot. Photo / Greg Bowker
Garth Barfoot. Photo / Greg Bowker

Garth Barfoot, the patriarch of the family-owned real estate firm, Barfoot and Thompson, more often these days seen in Lycra, had, thankfully, put on his three-piece pin-striped suit. It was made by the tailors who made the PM's suit for the royal wedding: "Of course!"

He can still, just, get into the suit he had made, by the then PM Norman Kirk's tailors, for his wedding. He is pretty proud of that.

His newer suit is a very nice suit, and I was glad to see he'd splashed out on something other than running shoes. He is mad keen on triathlons and ironman races.

But I'd come to talk about houses, at least that was my ostensible reason for asking to see him. I thought he was the big boss, but he says he's not; he's a director. His PA and the chief executive decided he was going to see me and put me in his diary before telling him, so perhaps he really isn't the big boss. Still, who better to talk to about the madness of the Auckland housing market, and the obsession with houses, than the bloke who has been in the real estate business for 45 years. He was born to be a real estate agent.

His father, Val Barfoot, who started the firm in 1923, was joined by his brother a year later and in 1934 by Maurice Thompson.

He is the youngest of four boys and was always the one most likely to go into the real estate business. Of his siblings, he was the one most interested in money. The careers master at Auckland Grammar said he should be a statistician. He said: "I'm very good at mental arithmetic." He is really a statistician. What he is not, is a real estate agent. He can't sell you a house because his qualifications are out of date. I thought that was very funny, but it is also just as well, as it turns out.

Because, I said: "You're not actually very interested in houses, are you?"

"No," he said, which is about the straightest answer you'll ever get about houses from a real estate agent. That is just being rude, but that is what people are about real estate agents. He knows why they're loathed. "Yes. Because people can't resolve the dilemma that they've got themselves, which is that when they sell a house they want to get the maximum price and more than a fair price, and when they buy a house they want to pay the minimum and hopefully under a fair price. So it is a dilemma."

He has never had that dilemma. He is so little interested in the Auckland housing market (except in so far is it applies to his books, obviously) that he has only ever owned one house and it is the one he and his wife, Judy, built 42 years ago for $30,000; they paid $12,000 for the land. People joke that his house is a 1970s time warp, except it isn't really a joke because it really is. "Yes! It's brick and tile." He doesn't care. It's near the water, so he can swim, and "it sounds a bit funny for a man to say this, but it's got the birds".

His house is in Beach Haven, which was Birkdale when he bought the land. I didn't mean to be rude about Birkdale (or Beach Haven) but shouldn't he live somewhere posher? There is nothing posh or flash about him and he and Judy wanted to send their kids to state schools.

This did have a practical purpose: he thought it was good training for future real estate agents. "They were meeting people from both sides of the tracks and I sort of thought, 'Well, that's good, because when you become a real estate agent you have to mix."' He was making an assumption his kids would go into the family firm. No pressure then! "Two of his three work in the family business; daughter Kiri is a director. "I've done very well!"

He grew up in a funny sort of family, especially for a well-off business family. "We weren't into conventions. We went to school in bare feet, not because we couldn't afford shoes, but because my mother thought it was bad for our feet." His parents were early alternative life-stylers. They kept cows, in Panmure, because his mother believed pasteurised milk "killed all the good germs". They were raised to be "heathens" and he still is, although two of his three brothers are very involved in their respective churches. "My brothers look after that side of things. So I don't have to."

His mother refused to have a telephone because she didn't want people ringing her husband all the time about business. Now, of course, real estate agents have their smartphones turned on all the time and have their photos plastered all over the advertising. "My father went through his whole business career without ever having a photograph taken in a suit and tie. My partner Maurice Thompson went through his whole business career without having a photograph taken in a business environment, until right at the end when a journalist from the Real Estate Institute Journal wanted a photo of Maurice and Garth. And so he consented to that."

He is amused by the profile of modern-day real estate agents and his little joke is to get more publicity than anyone else - for his athletics. He usually wins his class, the 75-plus class, because he's usually the only one in it. "I have a little competition to get into the paper when I go overseas [to race.] I like to have an article written about me in a foreign language. And the really good ones are when I have a bigger photograph than the leading professional athlete!" Blimey, he really is competitive. "Yeah!"

Also, he doesn't mind a little attention. He said, the minute I walked in: "I've already written the introduction: Welcome to my 2501st interview!" Does he like being interviewed? "Well, I've been interviewed for 20 years."

He is a very rich man. How much has he got? "Plenty!" He is 76 and still works four days a week. He takes Wednesdays off and spends them relaxing: running or swimming or biking. The photographer, also a mad-keen sporty type, said they'd met before: "You're normally wearing Lycra." He said: "He's saying all the right things! So, Michele is seeing me behind my desk wearing my three-piece suit and when Greg sees me, I'm this one, here." He produced, with a flourish, two different business cards - one with a picture of him in his dapper suit; the other with a picture of him, rather sweaty, in his athletic gear. Why two? "Well, if I meet people in the social moment, like triathlons, I feel that it's a bit up myself to give them a picture of myself in a three-piece suit."

Everyone must know he's the Barfoot of Barfoot and Thompson. Why would it be up himself? "Well, it says that I'm the guy on the Rich List." He is the guy on the Rich List. (The family wealth was estimated at $110 million in 2010.) "That's right! It's an advantage being on the Rich List, because you can tell stories against yourself. I say to people when I go to the cinema I never ask for the senior citizens' price because that is not becoming. Wouldn't it look bad to be in the Sunday paper for someone on the Rich List to ask for the senior citizens' price? Ha, ha! I don't usually have to ask because they can see the hair! But sometimes very young girls can't see the difference between 50 and 75. So occasionally I have to pay the full price."

I really didn't need to ask, but: Is he careful with money? "Yeah, well, it's a business environment. I'm very conscious of costs and things."

You could say that. He buys his lunch at the Hollywood Bakery and always has: "A vegetable pie, a slice of ginger crunch and a medium flat white, no sugar." This costs him $11. Hey big spender! "You can make fun of me, but it actually does control the calories because, you know, I have the same thing two meals a day. Breakfast is in the same container I've had for 20 years." Breakfast is rolled oats. He said: "Not too many people can get into the same suit they got married in." He might be a bit vain about this; he did mention it twice. "It's useful from an athletic point of view."

He is a genial fellow, although of course he can be tough as boots. He's known in the office for having only two responses to agents with problems they want help with: "That's what you get paid 70 per cent for, to make decisions." In other words: sort it out and don't ask him to sort it out. And the other one is: "Look in the mirror." Which means the same thing.

He has a properly dazzling and surprising smile: a mouth full of teeth edged with gold, a look more commonly associated with rap artists and lovers of bling. He had his done 25 years ago because he is a teeth grinder and didn't like the idea of wearing a mouthguard to bed and he didn't want false teeth, so his dentist suggested the gold. I couldn't make up my mind whether it was a good look, or not, for a very rich real estate patriarch to have a mouth full of gold.

He said: "Yeah, well, it's part of me now. I didn't like it at first. It looked awful in photographs." Somehow the gold teeth suit him. He is a sober-suited chap who lives modestly and is given to flashes of what for him passes for flamboyance.

There was a photograph on his desk of him at a fundraiser dinner for John Key. He said: "I had to buy something!" This was a little dig at my digs about him being careful with money. What did he have to buy? "Well, a table of course. And as the biggest spender, I got two tables. I got one for my daughter. She got Trelise Cooper." There was an auction and he went really mad and bought a T-shirt signed by the PM. "And my daughter said, 'That's the only T-shirt you've ever bought in your life.' I once stayed with someone and after a day they said: 'Don't you have any clothing that doesn't have athletic things on it?"' He gets these T-shirts with athletic things on them from the athletic events. He has the very rich man's love of a freebie. He is a National Party supporter then, obviously. "Well, on Google I'm the biggest donor to the National Party! Ha! I think: 'How mean people are!"'

That wasn't a bad joke from a multimillionaire who buys his lunch at the Hollywood Bakery. I did enjoy him, not least because he wasn't the slightest bit interested in talking about boring bloody houses.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a3 at 23 Aug 2014 02:55:57 Processing Time: 469ms