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Business leader of the year: Lloyd Morrison

By Christopher Niesche

Astute investor

"While I don't think we were really qualified to run the company at that stage with our experience, I think we did a pretty good job," the Infratil boss recalls 20 years later.

Even after the crash Omni Corp remained financially strong, says Morrison. Indeed, it had undrawn banking facilities at a time when banks were calling in loans and putting pressure on other corporates.

But the business was majority-owned by Chase Corporation, the 1980s investment vehicle which by that time was in financial trouble and needed to sell assets, including Omni Corp. "We were in good shape but we had no control over our future," he says. "At that stage I made a decision that I would chart my own course."

That led Morrison to found the investment bank Morrison & Co in 1988, which in turn saw the formation of listed investment company Infratil in 1994. It is mainly Morrison's leadership of Wellington-based Infratil that has seen him awarded the New Zealand Herald Business Leader of the Year for 2006.

The company, which specialises in investing in infrastructure such as electricity, ports and airports, has proved a boon for investors.

A $1000 investment in Infratil when it was floated 12 years ago is now worth $17,000. Started with $50 million of investors' capital, it now has a market capitalisation of $1.1 billion and owns assets in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Europe.

And at a time when concerns are mounting about the increasing number of New Zealand businesses being sold to foreign investors, Morrison is doing the opposite - buying back New Zealand businesses and expanding overseas.

Morrison could have won the award in any of the past few years, so consistent has Infratil's performance been. It has made an after-tax, compound return of 20 per cent a year during its lifetime and over the past five years Morrison has delivered a total return of 180 per cent.

He is also an active citizen beyond his role at Infratil. He led the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to change the flag; he successfully fought the merger of the New Zealand Exchange with its Australian counterpart, and then joined the board and was instrumental in the appointment of chief executive Mark Weldon. He is also a supporter of New Zealand music though his music trusts.

Business Herald columnist Brian Gaynor - who gave Morrison his first job at stockbroker Daysh Renouf in 1976 - said in a recent column that Morrison had taken over Sir Ron Brierley's mantle as "king of the New Zealand listed investment sector".

"Sir Ron will always have a special place in the hearts of investors, but Morrison's performance, superior disclosure, youth, strong management team and better corporate governance structure suggest that the old master has a capable successor," Gaynor wrote.

To say the Infratil boss doesn't like talking about personal matters is something of an understatement.

"I was born in Palmerston North and I went to secondary school in Wanganui and university in Canterbury."

There, in 18 words, is Morrison's account of his formative years. A little digging reveals he went to exclusive Wanganui Collegiate and studied law at Canterbury University.

After university Morrison worked in stockbroking, which led to the chairmanship of Omni Corp and the formation of Morrison & Co, just around the time the then National Government was privatising state assets, such as power companies.

"In the 1990s we found we were advising foreign companies how to buy New Zealand assets and as an adviser we found we knew as much as they did, if not more, about how a reformed energy business might operate," says Morrison.

"So we decided we'd like to have a seat at the table and we could offer an opportunity to New Zealanders who wanted to participate."

Hence in 1994, Morrison formed Infratil and raised $50 million in a float to invest in infrastructure assets - ports, electricity, airports and the like.

Of all possible investments, why infrastructure? As with many of Morrison's answers, the explanation is long and encompasses his big-picture view of the world.

"What excites me about it is that it's a huge mature traditional industry that is having pressures brought to it that mean it has to be operated totally differently.

"So we can get right to the forefront of world thinking quite quickly - and have done - and be world experts simply because of early exposure to what happens in the sector," he says.

And the sector is large enough that he can cherry-pick assets "and find that there's plenty of opportunity. The actual big-picture view is very good for infrastructure".

This view informs Morrison's investment strategy, which is that the sector is more important than the specific investment.

To some, the $250 million purchase of Stagecoach late last year might have seemed a departure from Infratil's infrastructure focus. But as is his wont, Morrison puts the acquisition of the bus and ferry company into broader perspective.

He says Stagecoach is social infrastructure - public transport, hospitals, education facilities, prisons.

"There's no doubt that they are a type of infrastructure, but they only exist through subsidies or direct government support."

Because of environmental concerns and financially stretched governments "public transport is going to be a focus not only for New Zealand but for many economies around the world for the next 10, 20, 30 years", says Morrison.

In October Infratil bought another asset from a foreign investor, paying $465 million for the 23.8 per cent stake in Tauranga-based lines company Trustpower held by US energy investor Alliant.

The company has since made a $138 million profit on the transaction from the sale of some excess Trustpower shares and a higher share price.

This was the result of Morrison's long-term investment strategy allowing him to build up good relationships with the other major Trustpower shareholders, who were happy to see Infratil increase its stake.

Infratil's first investment 12 years ago was 11 million shares in TrustPower at 92.5c each. The shares are now trading around $7.50.

"The way we invest is long-term and my understanding of our opportunities and our outcomes are long-term only."

Morrison has used the experience gained in New Zealand to expand Infratil overseas. The company has added foreign airports to its majority stake in Wellington Airport, and now owns airports in Glasgow, Kent, and Lubeck in Germany. It also has a 20 per cent stake in the listed Australian company Energy Developments.

"There's nothing wrong with foreign investment. The tragedy for New Zealand is there isn't a counter- balancing New Zealand-based corporate sector which has invested internationally," says Morrison.

Although Morrison is best known as the boss of Infratil, he has also been a keen supporter of New Zealand music through his trusts, which support the recording of popular and classical music.

He describes these as "hobbies" and "business failures".

"I would love to see the arts get more support; I haven't been able to focus on it very much because that's not my job, my job is running Infratil.

"New Zealand is very strong in the arts area and there's a lot of talent there and a lot of cultural expression, which says a lot about how we feel about ourselves as New Zealanders. I can see a direct connection with business creativity and entrepreneurship as well."

Brian Thompson, who worked with Morrison in stockbroking and at Omni Corp through much of the 1980s, says what marks out Morrison is his self-belief. "He has always had a tremendous belief in himself. He's been quick to make up his mind on the big decisions."

And, as anyone who has met Morrison would know, he dresses well.

"Even when he was a junior analyst at Jarden's [stockbrokers] he was always the best-dressed person in the office," says Thompson.

Brian Gaynor says that even in the 1970s Morrison stood out.

"He was quite extraordinary at that time because he was very ambitious. He was ambitious in a broader sense than just to make money."

Morrison has certainly made money - this year's National Business Review Rich List estimates his wealth at $100 million - but as Gaynor says, he has broader ambitions.

There's an attitude in New Zealand that "when you've made enough money it's fair enough to sell out and retire - and nobody would blame me if I chose that route", says Morrison.

"But New Zealand needs some international-scale companies and I feel there's a little bit of pressure to support that outcome because I can see why it's needed for New Zealand; having that insight I wouldn't want to be hypocritical about it.

"What gets me up in the morning is because I really love the business; because it's satisfying as long as the business is successful and because I work with some really good people."

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