Anne Gibson

Property editor of the NZ Herald

US billionaire's Kiwi empire growing

Bill and Carol Foley. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Bill and Carol Foley. Photo / Mark Mitchell

California-based billionaire William P. Foley II is expanding in New Zealand, upgrading two Wairarapa vineyards, building a new Marlborough bottling plant, buying a gin label, Land Rover Discovery vehicles and the owners' cottage at the Wharekauhau Country Estate where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge stayed this year.

Soon, he might expand south of the Wairarapa and Marlborough, possibly buying a Central Otago vineyard if the right opportunity came along.

And next year, his business will move from the NZAX to the main board, although no date has been set.

Mark Turnbull, chief executive of NZAX's Foley Family Wines headquartered in Auckland's Britomart precinct, cited big growth and said the sharemarket change was one of the keys.

"Once it's on the main board, there's more of an opportunity for people to buy into a great New Zealand-listed company, with a strong US financial backing and distribution capability in the [United] States," Turnbull said.

On July 1, Milford Asset Management bought a stake in Foley Family Wines, putting it into its active growth wholesale fund and Turnbull said that was a vote of confidence.

"Milford has a 7.75 per cent holding in Foley Family Wines," said Milford's Brian Gaynor.

"We like the wine sector, particularly companies with strong distribution in the US."

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About $1 million will be spent on the 100ha Te Kairanga Wines just outside Martinborough.

That has already been raised in the $10 million private placement on June 30 and is part of a general expansion of Foley's interests in New Zealand, Turnbull said.

Foley owns the majority of Foley Family Wines which has just under 400ha of vineyard land in the Wairarapa and Marlborough.

An upgrade is already under way to the 50ha Martinborough Vineyard Estates' cellar door and public reception area.

Turnbull said maintenance staff from Wharekauhau were working there, an example of the synergies between Foley's businesses which also include Auckland and Wellington restaurants.

Foley is a big part of what the locals call the "Wairarapa vineyard renaissance" and Te Kairanga is the venue for the area's monthly Sunday farmers' markets, held from Labour Weekend to Easter but not in the winter.

Foley and his vineyards are also involved in Toast Martinborough, the area's annual promotional event, and Wharekauhau staff say he and his wife Carol are due to visit this November for their listed company's annual meeting in Wellington.

The couple stay from mid to late February for a few weeks, living in a cottage which is styled on the main lodge but about 1km away.

Prince William, his wife Catherine and son George stayed in that cottage after arriving in Wellington this year and met lodge manager Richard Rooney.

Last month, Foley Family Wines bought the rights to the existing Lighthouse Bach Distilled Gin, exported to Australia and Britain. But Turnbull also announced at the time that a new distribution agreement had been struck to sell the label in the United States.

Turnbull said the lodge was not owned by Foley Family Wines but complementary to the listed business because it was often used as a venue to promote the region's wines, produce from the Foley operations was served there - meat from the country estate and wine from the vineyards - and the gin is in the suites.

Also outside of the NZAX business is Bill Foley's quarter stake in Nourish Group, a chain of high-end restaurants including Princes Wharf's Euro, Fish, Shed 5, Wellington's The Crab Shack, Pravda, Jervois Steak House and Bistro Lago.

Turnbull said that Nourish stake was also beneficial because those restaurants were a channel to promote and sell the wine labels.

John Kavanagh, Te Kairanga's winemaker formerly of Neudorf, introduced his 2013 vintages to six wine writers on Monday, all at Wharekauhau which hosted them. The wines included $23 bottles of sauvignon blanc, riesling and pinot gris, a $25 chardonnay and $50 John Martin Pinot Noir. Kavanagh said a new $1 million barrel room would help him control wine ageing. "Bill and Mark are focused on doing things right and being very profitable as they do it," he said.

An existing barrel room is beneath the vineyard's main office and the vineyard also has a more modern storage area with about 60 stainless steel tanks from 13,000 litres to 50,000 litres.

Dave Shepherd, Te Kairanga's viticulturalist, said the colonial style shepherd's cottage on the vineyard was done up about two years ago. Foley sells some of his American-made wine from there.

Kavanagh and Shepherd said last year was one of the best years on record, a mild spring helping good bud set and ideal summer and autumn weather giving top crops.

Te Kairanga has seven frost fans, each covering about 7ha of the vineyard.

Internal roadways around the main buildings have been paved with light-coloured compacted limestone, dug from the surrounding area, providing a startling contrast between the vineyard, grass and roading areas.

Just down the road, on Martinborough's outskirts, is the Martinborough Vineyard Estates, Foley's most recent $1.9 million addition to Foley Family Wines, where a rundown cellar door and office area sports a bucket hanging from the ceiling to collect rainwater.

Turnbull acknowledges the difference in appearance between the two vineyards.

"Two years ago, we did a refit of Te Kairanga.

"It was pretty rundown," he said. A similar upgrade is planned for the Martinborough Vineyard.

In May, contractors began work at Marlborough on a new bottling warehouse at Waihopai Valley Rd.

The new building will be able to store more than 1.6 million bottles of wine and is due to be finished in December.

Turnbull said Foley was strongly committed to New Zealand and earlier last year had bought an existing cottage on the property, now the owner's cottage.

Wharekauhau alone provides employment for about 20 families, Turnbull said.

Last year, two black Land Rover Discovery 4WDs were purchased to take the lodge's guests on farm tours and to and from Wellington Airport.

The vehicles are now so busy that Wharekauhau guide Alison Sim this week was having one fitted with mud flaps.

About 120 people with carpet-maker Godfrey Hirst - now running a promotion for its customers to win one of 20 weekends at Wharekauhau - camped at the country estate a few weeks ago.

In February, Turnbull announced an unaudited net profit for the December half year of $1,036,000, 215 per cent up on the $329,000 for the previous corresponding period, thanks to revaluation gains and the inclusion of significant non-recurring costs in the year.


Anne Gibson was a guest of Wharekauhau Country Estate.

- NZ Herald

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