The Spencer family: How the other half lives

By Anne Gibson

John Spencer at the High Court in 1996. Photo / Brett Phibbs
John Spencer at the High Court in 1996. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The Spencer family, which controls a lot of of prime Hauraki Gulf land, rarely reaches public prominence - the Spencers like it that way.

Heirs to a substantial dynasty, patriarch John Spencer and his grown children are able to roam the globe in a search for winterless lives, publicity-shy to the point where inquiries must be made via lawyers.

Three generations of wealth accumulation has left them with an estimated $675 million.

But a flurry of legal moves has changed their wall of silence.

On Thursday, the Spencer's lawyer Brian Joyce said the family would appeal an Environment Court ruling against a house that Berridge Spencer wants to build at remote Owiti Bay on Waiheke Island.

A project his sister Mertsi plans at the nearby pohutakawa-lined boat-access-only Cactus Bay is likely to be appealed to the Environment Court after resource consent was refused.

Near Devonport at Stanley Point, the family has objected to new restrictions on their beach head collection of clifftop properties, a land bank QV says is worth $20 million.

Takapuna's high-rise tower Spencer on Byron takes its name from the family, a joint venture with the Covington Group on land in the family for years. "I am pleased to have found such a fitting use for the land," said Oenone Bidwill, former wife of multimillionaire Auckland entrepreneur and investor Charles Bidwill, sister of John Spencer, for years the country's richest man.

Three generations of the family might have reason to be aggrieved with the authorities.

In the Second World War, Berridge Spencer senior's boat Manawanui was confiscated by the Government and donated to the US Navy. The vessel - it's name meant Great Power or Great Fortitude - was sent to the South Pacific and used at times for entertainment for officers, although the original purpose was to assist in picking up moorings for battleships. The 55 foot motor sailer also played an important role with the Australian Coastwatchers, volunteers stationed in the islands who maintained a lookout for enemy forces. The yacht's shallow draft enabled her to slip through minefields on secret missions.

Berridge's son, John Spencer, then fought and eventually lost the battle of Stony Batter on Waiheke.

Now his grown children Berridge and Mertsi are battling the authorities to build at Waiheke. The Spencers were not in New Zealand when inquiries were being made.

Resource management action is being fronted by barrister, Martin Williams who won't say if John or his son and heir Berridge instructs him.

Those opposing the Spencers in court say Mr Williams refers to his client as Berridge. Brian Joyce of Clendons North Shore agreed to meet The Herald to say the family would announce when they had lodged an appeal to the Owhiti Bay Environment Court loss.

The family's main residence is a mansion on a half-acre (2226sq m) Takapuna's dress-circle street overlooking the Hauraki Gulf which QV puts at $6.4 million.

The family name appears on Takapuna's high-rise tower Spencer on Byron, a joint venture with the Covington Group on land in the family for years. "I am pleased to have found such a fitting use for the land," said Oenone Bidwill, former wife of multimillionaire Auckland entrepreneur and investor Charles Bidwill, sister of John Spencer, for years the country's richest man.

John Spencer

Baby-faced jet-setting septuagenarian and heir to his grandfather's Caxton paper empire founded in 1890, Mr Spencer spends our winters in the Northern Hemisphere's aquatic playgrounds particularly around Monaco aboard one of the world's finest motor yachts, T6. Hidden beneath her aft deck is a $2.2 million sleek black Eurocopter AS 350 B3. In a breath-taking Thunderbirds-style manoeuvre, the watertight hanger opens, enabling the multimillionaire to rise magically out of the deck and be airborne in minutes.

His 48.5m superyacht can reach 15.5 knots or 29km/h. Last year, he reportedly put T6 up for sale for 39.5 million euros after Whangarei's Flyghtship Construction took nearly eight years to build her. The teak fitout of her futuristic white cabins was finished just three years ago but London's Daily Mail reported Mr Spencer frowning on viewing superyachts as status symbols or mere playthings: "I don't want to sit here and drink gin and tonic," he reportedly told the newspaper when he was moored in Monaco. "I want to drive the thing!"

T6, with sophisticated satellite navigation and banks of computers on her bridge, was designed by Holland's Pieter Beeldsnijder and said to be New Zealand's only non-military vessel able to refuel a helicopter at sea.

Mr Spencer's fortune came from the forestry and milling business he took over from his father Berridge in 1981 but he sold out to Carter Holt Harvey in the late 1980s for about $300 million. For 19 years, he waged a battle with Auckland City Council to prevent public access to his Waiheke farm, stopping tourists getting to Stony Batter gun emplacements in a fight which went to the Privy Council.

Mike Lee, Auckland Regional Council chairman, was delighted to win the battle of Owhiti Bay.

"John Spencer is an unusual man. He lives in New Zealand but it appears to me that he doesn't really seem to see himself as a part of New Zealand or a member of New Zealand society. The same goes with his attitude to Waiheke Island. Clearly there were the years of needless, hugely expensive litigation with the Waiheke County Council and then the Auckland City Council over a public road on Waiheke which in 1992 John Spencer barricaded under mounds of earth and effectively appropriated for 10 years until the force of law finally intervened - behaviour one would expect more from young radical members of an aggrieved iwi with a valid, long standing historic claim.

"But actually aggrieved land claimants have never to my knowledge gone as far as barricading and seizing roads. On the other hand the fact that John Spencer has amassed such large land holdings on places like Waiheke means that this land has been protected from the usual coastal subdivision pressures, the trophy house projects at Owhiti Bay and Cactus Bay notwithstanding). The Man O'War Station on Waiheke also includes a very valuable area of Kauri forest and I would like to see an olive branch offered to the Spencers and while respecting their privacy would like see them become included in things like conservation projects such as native bird reintroductions on Waiheke. We are all different and I respect Mr Spencer's right to live his own life the way he wants to," Mr Lee said.

During our summers, Mr Spencer, now in his mid-70s, is at the family's main New Zealand residence at Takapuna.

Mertsi Spencer John Spencer's daughter runs a specialist business in Dubai.

With 57 Facebook friends, the blonde youthful woman is described on her Dubai Falcon Coast bed linen and home accessory business simply as "owner". In April, she wrote that she was looking forward to seeing Falcon's new range. Falcon Coast offers luxury bedding including brands such as Domani and Flaxfield and even one with a New Zealand name: Tolaga Bay Cashmere Company.

"The fleece gets sent to Scotland to be spun and dyed and then sent back to New Zealand to be woven," her company says of the prime products. "Falcon Coast has searched the globe to find the softest, most luxurious cashmere available and we found it in New Zealand, from the boutique suppliers, Tolaga Bay Cashmere. "

Falcon Coast's name was inspired by the United Arab Emirates area and the company sports a coat of arms with a golden falcon. Mertsi has 20 years experience in the textile business and profiles say she aims to provide customers in the United Arab Emirates with access to quality linen and accessories at the most competitive prices. Her friends work at The Walt Disney Company and Emirates Airlines.

She is no longer a director of a single New Zealand company, Companies Office records show, progressively resigning in the last few years. She has even left the main family holding company, Clime.

But she hopes to build a house at Cactus Bay, where architect Jeff Fearon has designed her flat, low single-level place on grass near the beach. Cactus is just a few kilometres from Owhiti Bay, considered by many Waihekeans as the island's most perfect beach but accessible only by boat or kayak.

Berridge SpencerThe keen cricketer and yachtie who runs the award-winning Man O'War Wines on Waiheke is handsome and charming, splitting his time between Auckland, the US and Europe.

In February, columnist Rachel Glucina reported: "Last Sunday, as news broke about her relationship split, Sally Ridge was rumoured to be hobnobbing with Nicky and her Rich List on-again, off-again boyfriend Berridge Spencer at his exclusive Waiheke pad." Berridge Spencer later denied he was with those people.

He is keen to build at Owhiti Bay on Waiheke and is intimately involved with authorities over the Stanley Point land.

"He uses helicopters like I use cabs," said one friend of his lifestyle.

The vineyard expects to produce 300,000 cases of wine by 2012 and a separate house was to be used for exclusive marketing functions, according to his resource consent application at Owhiti.

In 2001, the Herald reported the 21m Mertsi Louise has cruised the world, sailing as far north as Alaska and down to Antarctica.

"Owner Berridge Spencer and his sister Mertsi, the boat's namesake, decided that entering their 72-footer in its first Sydney to Hobart would be an exciting thing to do together," The Herald said.

The aluminium-hulled yacht designed by Bruce Clarke is listed as being up for sale on Warwick Yacht Brokers' site for $1.1 million.

- NZ Herald

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