Michele Hewitson Interview: Sir Graeme Douglas

By Michele Hewitson

Sir Graeme was honoured for services to philanthropy and athletics. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Sir Graeme was honoured for services to philanthropy and athletics. Photo / Steven McNicholl

The newly-gonged Sir Graeme Douglas might be described as the loveliest gentleman you are likely to meet, and the one you are least likely to know anything about. He wouldn't object to the last part of that assessment.

He might baulk a bit at the first. But I know it's true because his receptionist, the equally lovely Linda, told me so. He accused me, in his amused fashion, of having asked her "searching" questions but her offering was unprompted. Being so described made him laugh in a slightly embarrassed way but I think he was rather tickled.

Another nice lady (it's a fair bet that he only employs nice ladies) who offered drinks called him Mr Douglas. I said, mock outraged, "Mr Douglas?" That made him laugh too - he has a delightful gentlemanly chuckle - and he said his staff do call him Mr rather than Graeme. That wasn't what I was getting at. He is now Sir Graeme, after being made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen's Birthday honours. Still, even being called Mr, never mind Sir, is almost unheard of in the modern day workplace.

He runs a company made in his image: Douglas Pharmaceuticals, set up in 1967 because, basically, he was bored. "Putting it succinctly, you're right." He was what was then called a chemist, now a pharmacist, and he had a shop (regulations stipulated you were only allowed one shop) in Te Atatu and he loved his customers and made friends with many of them but it was limiting, for a clever chap. He denies he was ever particularly clever and says he was "anything but an outstanding student" as a boarder at New Plymouth Boy's High.

He has been described as an entrepreneur, but he doesn't appreciate being called that any better than he likes being called clever. "Well, you see, I don't think I really fit into that mould. I'm too conservative." He means that he doesn't believe in debt and so doesn't have any.

When he was a chemist, so the story of his non-entrepreneurial beginnings goes, he brewed up a cough medicine in the dispensary, branded it, and sold it. "It was certainly the first product that we made and made under very basic conditions - conditions that certainly would not be permissible today."

He called it Kofsin because, "well, sine is without in Latin, so: without cough. Ha, ha. We had a subtle little chuckle over that for a day or two."

That's oversimplifying the story (but it's a good one) which led to him owning a company which now has 470 staff, all of them, no doubt nice ladies and gentlemen, which produces and exports pharmaceuticals, supplements and cosmetic products and to him being worth $180 million. This is according to last year's NBR Rich List. He says they got it "pretty close". Although, "we didn't make $180 million in profits, of course!" That $180 million is an assessment, and "they make the assessments, which is not easy for them because we are a private company and because we publish as little as possible."

Because it is a private company and he is a private person? "Well, precisely right." By nature? "I think so." I figured that, because his eldest son (there are two boys) is a company director, that Sir Graeme must be worth, say, half of that $180 million. He said, "we should just straighten that out. I still own the business." All of it? "All of it."

He's 81. You'd think he might have retired. "I could offer all sorts of facetious comment, but I will not. I still enjoy coming to the company every day."

I was thinking about that "all of it". I wondered whether he was a control freak who couldn't let go. "Oh. No, no, no. I'm confident I could let go, but then I wouldn't know how to fill in seven days. I don't have a boat. I don't play golf. Playing bowls seven days a week doesn't appeal." Does he play bowls? "No!"

His retired friends say: 'Douglas, you're the only smart one among us.' "They get bored, if they're still physically alert and most of the neurones are still moving in the right direction."

I managed to drag a few more titbits of personal information out of him - he regarded my attempts with his habitual mannerly amusement. He does have a cell phone, but he keeps it, mostly, in his car. He has never sent a text. He dictates emails to his secretary.

He used a wonderful, and little heard, word on the phone to me: cogitated. "It's a good word. No, one doesn't hear it too often. One wonders whether the younger generation could spell it." Then he thought for a moment and said, "no, no. I'm certainly being facetious and not kind to the younger generation because they can run technical things that I don't even understand. I don't even understand the words!" So he is not at all crusty and if he is old-fashioned it is in all the right ways.

He laughed when I asked whether he had any extravagances. "No!" He doesn't have a flash house. He and his wife, now Lady Ngaire, have just moved to a Remuera apartment - without stairs is a slight concession to age - from the Waitakere house where they raised their two children, so that was rather a wrench. Their new home, is "a very pleasant apartment, but I wouldn't call it pretentious." He wouldn't, of course, go for anything pretentious. "Well, we don't feel we need it." Using his Sir to book a restaurant table would be "pretentious". He drives a Mercedes 500 which "is a very comfortable car, but that again is not pretentious. I'm starting to sound very bland and uninteresting!" I suppose he might, if you consider pretension interesting, and I certainly don't. He gets his suits made by an Indian tailor in New Lynn. He takes his wife breakfast in bed every morning. He said, after he told me this: "Is anyone going to be interested in this?" I am. It says almost everything you need to know about him.

He'd have preferred that we didn't know anything about him, but he doesn't mind a bit, of course, that we know quite a bit about his company (well, as much as he thinks you need to know about his private company.) So I had nothing to do with persuading him to be interviewed. I figured out as soon as I talked to him on the phone that would have been a waste of time. He is much loved by staff and is lovely to meet but he didn't get to be on a rich list by being a push-over. Because of those manners he was terrifically courteous when I phoned him, but he said he really hated talking about himself. (Lots of people say that; he really means it.) Perhaps he could ask his wife, I suggested, thinking if anyone had any sway over him, it might be Lady Ngaire.

He phoned back to say that he had "cogitated" with himself, and his son. "When you asked: 'Are you going to check with your wife?' ha, ha, the actuality was that I wished to check with son Jeffrey. We always like to play it off the one page." And what did he say? "He said, 'oh, I don't think it would do any harm.' Ha, ha! And you never know. It may help the company." Not that it needs any help. "Well, yes. It is doing quite well."

He got his gong for services to philanthropy and athletics. What a lovely thing to have. "Yes, it is that and you don't want any false modesty." No. "But I feel, and this gets a bit hackneyed, but it's recognition first of all for the pharmaceutical profession ..."

I wouldn't want to be so rude as to disagree with him, but it was for his philanthropic work, which includes being very generous to athletics. The Waitakere Trust Stadium we can see from his boardroom window has an all weather track named after him. That must be a nice thing to see. "Well, that is. And, of course, that's our logo, as you may have noticed." Yes. And I may have mentioned that he's rather good at business. The track cost $27 million. And how much of that did he provide? "Ha, ha, ha. I'll classify that one."

He and his wife support a number of causes, quietly, including the neurological foundation. It is not a glamorous cause, which is one reason they support it. The other is that his wife's sister, who they "loved dearly" had Parkinson's.

Giving stems from sense of duty, one he was raised with. He was obviously nicely brought up. "Yes, well, I think that's a compliment to my parents."

We talked for a bit about the nature of philanthropy. "It does give satisfaction. Your donation of funds does allow something to proceed, which may not have so easily proceeded if you hadn't." On the nature of that satisfaction, he said, "oh boy! This is getting deep. How do I answer that Michele?" I suspect he has thought about this, but that it's private like his concept of God. "This is getting deep, isn't it? I wouldn't really want to get into that."

What he really wanted to tell me about getting his gong was that his great friend, from boarding school, David Levene, (they married sisters) got the same honour, on the same day. And, "truly, hand on heart", neither of them knew about the other.

The Douglas' had planned a "little" housewarming party on the Monday, and of course Sir David came, and so that turned into a triple celebration. I hope they had French champagne? "Yes, we had French champagne. Do you know David? Oh, you must go and interview David!"

He did warn me he hated talking about himself. I suspect he's just not that interested in himself which is probably the best definition of a true philanthropist, and a truly lovely gentleman.

- NZ Herald

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