Thiel just one of the Silicon Valley billionaires flocking to Godzone.

Barely a week after Nathan Guy's signature on his citizenship application had dried, a refreshingly unpolished Peter Thiel struggled to quote Tolstoy in Auckland.

The investor, already a billionaire but yet to gain the international profile that came from backing Donald Trump's successful presidential campaign, was speaking ahead of an Auckland University Business School Ideas conference in July 2011.

Speaking to the Herald before this talk, Thiel stumbled in quoting the opening lines of Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

He eventually got it right in response to a question about what made for business success, but waxed lyrical about New Zealand.

Advertisement

"There's a lot of incredibly talented people in New Zealand," he said. "New Zealand has some very interesting opportunities and it's also a place that's pleasant to spend some time in."

He threw red meat to his new base by rating the New Zealand tech sector more attractive than Australia's.

Thiel revealed that his first visit to the country was in 1993, for an adventure tourism jaunt in Queenstown, and he was looking to buy property both there and in Parnell.

But despite this public declaration of love, and a pipeline splurge of local investment (he appears to have invested more than $40 million in Xero and other local ventures in the 12 months before and after being awarded citizenship), he didn't make mention of his freshly-minted diplomatic status as a Kiwi.

News of this citizenship has caused waves in Wellington and abroad. Questions have been asked as to why he was granted "exceptional circumstances" dispensation, and shook up the National Business Review rankings by apparently claiming the title of third-richest New Zealander (worth $3.7b, according to Forbes).

In the United States, columns have sprouted asking whether his foreign citizenship harms his reported run as a Republican for Governor of California or contradicts his support for Trump's nationalist campaign.

Thiel, through representatives, has declined all requests for comment from New Zealand and international media this week. As has then-Internal Affairs Minister Guy, who would only say, in a brief statement issued late Tuesday, that he "couldn't recall" the application, but was advised he followed official advice on the matter.

Current Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne also drew a blank, claiming never to have heard of Thiel before news of his citizenship broke in the Herald earlier this week.

While politicians may have had trouble remembering him, in the United States Thiel has long been a major presence on the business pages and more recently on the national stage.

Thiel had been part of the wave of online entrepreneurs to survive the dotcom bubble collapse in the late 1990s. He founded online payments company Paypal in 1999, and sold it for tens of millions of dollars in 2002. He used the proceedings to kick-start a foray into venture capitalism.

His now-legendary Facebook play in 2004, investing less than $1m in the startup that turned into more than $1 billion by 2012, catapulted him from the ranks of merely rich to super-rich.

With wealth came profile, and the financial flexibility, to promote and resource libertarian causes close to his heart.

He invested in Seasteading, a movement promoting cities that float outside of the rule of nation-states, and expressed interest in research aiming to extend human lifespans.

The latter, particularly an academic interest in therapeutic blood transfusion, led to some particularly lurid headlines, as he recounted to the New York Times earlier this month.

"Out of all the crazy things in this campaign, the vampire accusations were the craziest," Thiel said.

The campaign he refers to was, of course, the United States presidential race, where Thiel was an early Trump backer.

His free-trade, zero-government views seem to jar with the populist candidate. However, he told the New York Times this month that he viewed Trump as an agent of creative destruction who could stimulate reform by shaking up the status quo.

Asked whether he rated the scandal-free tenure of outgoing President Barack Obama, Thiel said: "But there's a point where no corruption can be a bad thing. It can mean that things are too boring."

"They're likely to emerge from the back of the plane wearing a hoodie and asking where they can hire a mountain bike."

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

In some way his support for Trump represented another high-risk, high-reward investment.

Although he'd spoken at the Republican National Convention last June, his only financial contribution - $1.5m - to the campaign came days after the release of the infamous "grab 'em by the pussy" tape that led many commentators to write off Trump's chances.

With Trump's surprise victory in November, Thiel's early support was repaid with a place on the transition team and, reportedly, the offer of being the United States ambassador to Germany.

Former Minister of Research and Technology Wayne Mapp, who had known of Thiel's citizenship for years, noted as far back as 2013 that while Thiel's reputation made him exotic, he was hardly unique, and several ultra-rich tech magnates with a libertarian bent had developed attachments to New Zealand.

"There are quite a few who have exclusive hideaways in [the] Queenstown area and Bay of Islands," Mapp says.

While unwilling to name names, those who know of this unusual clique were willing to elaborate on their motivations and activities in New Zealand.

Mapp says Thiel, who he met in 2010 as part of a New Zealand Trade and Enterprise push to build better links with Silicon Valley, was "really engaging. And really interested in New Zealand. He was incredibly enthusiastic, like he'd cracked the secret of a good life."

Speaking more broadly of the Silicon Valley tourists, he says they're the sort to "visit New Zealand in their private jet and then bike around New Zealand as an expression of their oneness with nature. Work that one out if you can".

Real estate agent Graham Wall, who has brokered property purchases for Thiel, says he's met about 20 Silicon Valley tech industry billionaires in the past 10 years.

"They're likely to emerge from the back of the plane wearing a hoodie and asking where they can hire a mountain bike," the agent says.

Nineteen of the billionaires are men ("we've had only one woman from Silicon Valley") and in their 30s and 40s.

"They know more about tangata whenua than I do, most of them. They love things that are unique to New Zealand. All of them are so conscious of conservation, ecology. They all come so researched, extremely interested in history, how New Zealand was settled," Wall says.

"They're low key, very appreciative of everything, very polite. They have much more the character of backpackers than billionaires.

"They like to do the 'naked' stuff: bikes, views, skiing, walking. They look like Nike models.

"These young IT guys bring bikes with them or hire."

They don't always fly first or business but are often in economy "but some of them arrive in their own planes, you can see them parked up," Wall says, citing Queenstown Airport.

And they love property. "All of them are interested in buying. If they haven't bought, they're looking."

The group is drawn to Waiheke Island, Auckland, Queenstown and Wanaka.

In Auckland they prefer to live in the waterfront suburbs of Herne Bay, Parnell, Orakei and Westmere, and haunt exclusive Britomart restaurant the Seafarers Club.

For accommodation, Auckland's hotel shortage causes them problems, but they like the waterfront, either the Hilton or Sofitel, Wall says. In Queenstown, they stay in the same two chains, but exclusive lodges Matakauri and Blanket Bay are other favourites.

Wall arranges helicopter hires in Auckland from Albany or Mechanics Bay, and in Queenstown, the billionaires fly with Over the Top.

Radio Live on Wednesday was polling whether listeners wanted rich Americans coming here, and most said no.

But Wall says they could bring tremendous benefits.

"We're doing business with Silicon Valley people who are already hiring young Kiwis to do stuff for them."

A recent New Yorker article suggested at least part of the motivation for exclusive partial migration was a hedge against possible environmental or political catastrophe in the United States.

Wall says none of his clients are "preppers".

"We've not met one that's fearful or with any prophecy of doom," says the real estate man.

Mapp says the arrival of this curious clique, Thiel included, is a symptom of the times.

"Yes, it is an unusual part of the zeitgeist, but there you are."

Peter Thiel

New Zealand

•1993: Thiel visits New Zealand for the first time, as a tourist

•2006: Granted permanent residence

•March, 2010: Buys Parnell residence for $2.5m, sold two years later for $2.3m

•October 2010: Invests $4m into local technology firm Xero

•April 2011: Donates $1m to the Christchurch earthquake appeal fund

•June 2011: Thiel's citizenship is approved by Internal Affairs Minister Nathan Guy, despite not meeting requirements for time spent in New Zealand

•September 2011: Buys Queenstown's futuristic looking Plasma House mansion for $4.7m

•November 2011: Ups investment in Xero to $28m

•March 2012: Contributes $15m to partner with the government in the $40m New Zealand Venture Investment Fund

•August 2015: Buys the Damper Road estate, a 193ha property on the shores of Lake Wanaka, for $13.5m

•January 2017: The

Herald

breaks news of his citizenship, with the government refusing to explain the "exceptional circumstances" behind its approval

United States
•October 1967: Born in Frankfurt, Germany. Family emigrate to the US a few years later
•1999: Co-founds online payment service Paypal
•2002: Paypal goes public in February, and taken over by eBay in October. Thiel nets $77m from the sale. Uses proceeds to become venture capitalist
•May 2003: Incorporates big-data company Palantir. Today the firm is valued in excess of $25b and Thiel remains one of its largest shareholders
•August 2004: Invests $700,000 for a 10 per cent stake in a small web startup called Facebook
•August 2012: Sells out of Facebook following IPO, netting more than $1.4b - a 2000-fold return on initial investment
•July 2016: Speaks at the Republican National Convention in favour of Donald Trump. Later Thiel donates $1.5m to Trump's campaign. Following election victory becomes member of transition team