Michele Hewitson interview: Craig Donaldson

By Michele Hewitson

After surviving for a decade on Wall St, a Kiwi banker comes home to throw himself into charity work because ‘it feels good’

After 25 years in banking, Craig Donaldson was keen to come home to a big Kiwi property and a holiday home, and likes to mow all the lawns himself on his ride-on. Photo / Sarah Ivey
After 25 years in banking, Craig Donaldson was keen to come home to a big Kiwi property and a holiday home, and likes to mow all the lawns himself on his ride-on. Photo / Sarah Ivey

"We did some work on getting a zebra here," said Craig Donaldson, who used to be one of those Wall Street bankers invariably described as high-flying and is now the CEO of Kea, which is a sort of high-flying business introduction agency for New Zealanders. He is also - I can't think of any other way to describe it - now a sort of charity worker, of the high-flying sort, of course. He has just been appointed to the board of the new Well Foundation, which raises funds for the Waitemata District Health Board.

He said: "This will sound like I'm name-dropping - I'm totally not - but last week they had the launch for the Well Foundation, so I donated a prize: lunch for four at the Takapuna on the Beach Cafe (he owns the building) with [Sir Stephen] Tindall. So I called him up ... He has lunch at the cafe most days anyway!"

He spent over a decade on Wall Street, and 25 years in banking, and he seems to have survived it without becoming particularly wolfish.

His wife, Vanessa, told me he used to come home and use his "banker's tone of voice, and I'd say, 'don't you use that tone with me'!"

He'd just grunt and be gruff, she said. He's recovered now, which must be a relief for everyone, but a bit of a disappointment for me, never having met a Wall Street wolf before.

He used to sell foreign exchange; now he sells relationships, although he would say that's what he always did. He said: "I'm a salesman." And: "I'm all about relationships." And, "I'm not really about the money. I'm about the game."

He says things like that; salesmen often do. He loved the adrenalin of the money markets and then he stopped loving it so much when things went sour and he had to be laying people off (50 in a day, once). Now he likes mowing his lawn on his ride-on mower - "it's a real zippy little thing". It takes four hours. He could get a man in, but he enjoys it too much. You can see that it might provide a pleasant contrast to his former life.

He had been away in Europe, for Kea and for a dad-and-teenage-daughter break with the eldest child of their three, Phoebe, and only arrived back the day before I saw him. He phoned his dad, who lives in Takapuna ("Taka") and asked him to come over and mow the lawn because "this really important lady is coming". I looked around for the really important lady and it was me. What a top chap he is! He's all about relationships.

We were in his house, which is on 2.8ha at Coatesville, and which he and Vanessa bought a year and a half ago for about $3.6 million. I think. That was the for sale price and I knew this because I Googled it before going to see him. He laughed and said: "It's just a house."

It is some house. It's bright white and everything in it is black or white or black and white. The sun loungers by the pool are black and white striped. The rug is made from the skin of an animal, presumably a cow, and is black and white. There is a life-sized plastic horse in the living room. It is black and has a lampshade on its head. (Of course I Googled it the very minute I got home. You can get one too - for a little over $9000.)

He was wearing black and white and so was Vanessa. They always do, although she does sometimes wear denim, and allows greys. She has platinum white hair, in a pixie crop, and her fingernails were painted black and she wore sneakers and an enormous sparkly ring with a diamond. The photographer, who knows about these things, said it must have been five carats, "at least!". I'd asked her husband, earlier, whether he'd be allowed to wear an orange shirt, if he so desired, and he said: "No." He said, about Vanessa, that she "wears the pants", which is an expression I haven't heard for a very long time.

I asked she who wears the (black and white) pants why she had to have everything black and/or white and she said: "I just like it." They have two dachshunds which are not black and white. I expressed surprise at this and she said: "I know! I'd love a Dalmation!"

Which is how we ended up talking about how they did some work on getting a zebra here. (The difficulty, in case you are thinking of getting a zebra, is fences: they jump. Also, you have to get approval from various bodies, including zoos.)

This, I assume, is the sort of madcap scheme only the very rich can entertain but he said, a number of times, that he wasn't really very rich. Or, at least not as rich as I was trying to make him out to be. "I don't have as much money as you think. I like simple stuff. I like outdoor toys and sports and bikes and skiing. We've got a beach house at Mangawhai."

He did have a share in a helicopter. "It was an investment!" He decided that what it really was, was "fun but also stupid" and sold his share. I asked what it was about rich men and toys (which earned me another admonishment: "Ha, ha! I'm not rich!") and whether he'd had some sort of mid-life crisis, resulting in the helicopter. He thought the crisis might have been the selling of it. "Maybe I'm still living through that stuff, because I'm still buying toys." He has the ride-on mower, and little motorbikes for the kids (and him, I suspect) and a jetski.

The "most stupid thing I've got is the truck. Ha, ha." It's an F150 Raptor which is another name for a bloody big truck. "The other day I got stuck on High St. I couldn't find a park for the truck ... and I thought: 'That's enough of the stupid truck thing'." The stupid truck was still in the driveway, black and gleaming. Vanessa has her own truck, smaller and less stupid and properly muddy. They met when she was 17 and he was 18. He was supposed to be an accountant but he decided it didn't sound exciting enough; she became a nurse. Once he'd had enough excitement for a lifetime (he's 46) he wanted to come home to Taka, and live on the beach but: "She's Hawkes Bay. She's into bees and chickens."

They keep the chickens in a coop in the shape of a mini-house. "It's where they make their eggs," he said. I don't know who wears the pants, but I'd guess that she's the practical one. He says he's "binary" and she's "zen". He doesn't do any housework and can't cook. They gave us each a jar of honey from their bees. "To sweeten you," said the salesman.

We sat in his office, which is the pool house. There are blinds which go up and down with the push of a button. (I said if he was properly rich he'd have blinds that you could work by giving them orders.) There were two pairs of sheepskin slippers under the desk which looked a bit manky for the house and weren't black; and a large television, muted, playing the financial markets. He still likes to keep up with the markets. Some people like chess, he said; he likes the markets.

The plan was always to come home eventually, he said. He worked in the hot house of "greed and anger and stress and drama", as he once called banking, for 25 years and in the meantime bought property here (they own the buildings the Department Store is in). When the rental income from the properties matched his banker's salary, come home they did. What was that banker's salary again? "I've forgotten."

He took a year off, for family and fitness, and ended up rearranging the pantry at which point Vanessa said: Enough! Go and find something to do. So he has taken up his sort of charity work, part of which is one afternoon a week at the university teaching students about relationships. He's breeding another pack of wolves. "Yeah! More idiots!"

I asked why he felt the need to do things like the foundation and mentoring and he said: "It feels good!" Which is the best answer I've heard anyone give to that question, and the most honest.

He has what I think should be a complicated, or at least cynical, view of his former life as a banker. But that is to over-analyse things. "I don't drive the car looking in the rear vision mirror. I think you'll crash if you do that."

Well, yes, because, after 25 years, the great relationship-maker "thought: 'Actually, I've got no friends'". (His first boss was John Key; he says to say he is a friend would be "too strong".) He had clients and he had spent his life playing a role: "The dumb, simple sales guy." He played this to the hilt because it worked. Nobody likes a cocky sales guy, he said. "I played the dumb Kiwi guy all the time."

Some dumb Kiwi guy. He took up golf because his clients liked golf and because you get to spend four hours with a client on a golf course. He is not a natural at golf - "I've got a short attention span" - but he got just good enough so as not to embarrass himself. A salesperson is a chameleon, he said, so he took up golfing, and wore the right clothes for the right occasions, and cared about the things his clients cared about. I wondered whether he came to dislike himself but that would have required looking in the rear vision mirror. He did say: "Actually, I think you just get sick of trying to be someone that you're not. You do realise there's more to life than being on the treadmill."

It is possible that he really doesn't think he's really rich. It's all relative, I suppose, and his clients were seriously rich people. I wondered whether he liked any of them, which was probably the wrong question. "Some billionaire hedge fund dude, he's a pretty cool dude, actually, to hang out with. They're all incredibly unique and actually quite weird and often ADHD. Some are incredible risk-takers, who can tolerate huge amounts of risk and be incredibly arrogant. They're so sure that the market is going to come that way." But did he admire that? "The ability to know you're right and run through lots of pain? Yeah." Can he do it? "I'm not a trader. I'm a sales guy."

He's an astute student of human nature, or at least the nature of the very rich, really. But as he's not really rich, he doesn't waste any time examining his own. He hasn't quite given up playing the dumb, simple sales guy, either. He claims to have finished only one book and it is Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. I thought he was joking, but he wasn't. He still believes in the Carnegie rules: "Never forget a birthday!"

He'd like to read biographies of interesting people but he doesn't have the attention span. So, or so he said, he just reads this column. He's good, all right! I'm amazed I left Coatesville without buying a share in a stupid big truck.

- NZ Herald

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