New Zealand gets its first female billionaire

By Alice Hudson

Eight New Zealanders have made Forbes magazine's top 40 Australasian richlist - including our first female billionaire.

Lyn Erceg, widow of liquor magnate Michael, sold her late husband's drinks empire, Independent Liquor, in December and is worth an estimated $1.28b, according to the magazine.

At number 19, she is the highest-placed new entrant and the second-richest woman, after oil heiress Gina Reinhart, an Aussie who battled her stepmother for 14 years to inherit her wealth, now estimated to be $1.47b.

Erceg still lives in Drury, Papakura, south of Auckland. Her husband founded Independent, best known for its top-selling alcopops, in 1987. A keen pilot, he was killed in a helicopter crash in 2005.

New Zealand's richest person remains Graeme Hart, who jumped two places on the Australasian list to number three. With an individual wealth estimated by Forbes to be $4b, only James Packer, son of late media magnate Kerry Packer, and Frank Lowy, a deli owner turned Westfield mall midas, outrank Hart.

Graeme Hunt, author, commentator and former editor of the National Business Review's Rich List, said this year's top 40 proved New Zealand had "joined the real world" in financial terms.

"A few years ago, New Zealand was never much part of the action at all."

Hunt said the figures listed were almost certainly correct, though he thought the figure on Hart's wealth was perhaps a tad generous.

He said while our wealthiest were still not rich in world terms, the list and the people on it showed it was possible to make a fortune here in Godzone.

Businessmen like Hart, who had repatriated former New Zealand assets like Good-man Fielderback home, were very rare and should be commended. "We can support as many millionaires as we can provide opportunities to make money.

"But if tax rates were lower, we might have more [millionaires].

"We need to stop people going overseas and encourage them to come back and invest in New Zealand."

With the exception of Erceg, whose billion-dollar wealth reflected what people were prepared to pay for a top-notch firm with no clear successor, the list candidates hadn't made their millions overnight, he said. "The common ingredient has to be property."

The value of the top 40 fortunes was $69b, up 30 per cent on a year ago. Securing a spot on this year's list required riches of $559 million, while $404 million would have nabbed a place last year.

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