Michael Cox: Life and times of an unusual NZ legend

Entrepreneur and inventor Alan Gibbs never understood how politics worked, writes Michael Cox.

Alan Gibbs has invested more than $400 million into the Aquada. Photo / APN
Alan Gibbs has invested more than $400 million into the Aquada. Photo / APN

It must be impossible to be mates with Alan Gibbs. I've just read his biography written by Paul Goldsmith. His sheer intellect gets in the way of friendship. His continual thrust for perfection and his restless drive are obstacles that the ordinary man or woman just finds intrusive.

His voyage from being Fabien Socialist, a hippy and a public servant as a young man to merchant banking and investing millions into the far right of New Zealand politics is worth reading about.

His voyage covered many side trips as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, art collector, adventurer and inventor of the world's first viable amphibious car. But he never understood how politics worked. He couldn't accept that, in a democracy, you must win the centre to be successful. Having done that you can veer to the right or left, but not too much if you want to survive. He wouldn't understand that logic, and it frustrated him.

He headbutted the protective fortress economy of the early 1970s when he tried unsuccessfully to build and promote New Zealand's first home-produced car, the Anziel Nova. He took on people such as Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, a family friend and his National party Cabinet colleagues, when he tried to get a licence to go into production. Too many vested interests made sure that didn't happen.

He used the weaknesses of that system to make his first killings in the market place. He summed up Lane Walker Rudkin, a clothing manufacturer, as having "a terribly lazy balance sheet: no debt, under-geared and plain slack management". As a consultant, at a considerable fee, he helped them bat off a takeover bid. He learned from that. He and some mates took over Ceramco, selling off unproductive pieces of the business to finance the deal. This was followed by successful and lucrative arbitration contracts with the likes of Douglas Myers, followed by the privatisation of Freightways with long-time business partner Trevor Farmer.

Gibbs had become a follower of Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning American economist, adopting his laissez-faire capitalism as a virtue that should be followed by policy makers.

It wasn't until Roger Douglas, as Minister of Finance in the Labour Government, stormed the political scene, with his adherence to similar philosophy, albeit hidden from his leader David Lange, that Alan Gibbs saw his opportunity to "assist" Douglas. The selling off of many government enterprises, starting with the New Zealand Forest Service, was a golden opportunity for Gibbs to apply his free thinking to an organisation that had rotted away in the hands of politicians for too long. In 1984 it required a government subsidy of the equivalent of $600 million in today's money. Worse than that, it had been used by the likes of Robert Muldoon to hide his unemployment figures. Roger Douglas appointed Gibbs to be the establishment chairman of a new government structure called the Forestry Corporation. His first major move was to switch all the previously employed civil servants into "employment contracts" with his new company registered under the Companies Act. Staff numbers were reduced by 60 per cent and an operating deficit of the 1987 year was turned into a surplus of $61 million the following year.

He had a cap, which he gave to his fellow board members and senior employees which had on it: "You don't have to agree with me, but it's quicker."

He had less influence on the older, dyed-in-the-wool socialists such as David Caygill with his health reforms. Sadly it was a step too far for the left.

Alan and his wife Jenny became leading patrons of the arts. Jenny was more into painting and Alan sculptures. His favourite artist was Colin McCahon; I was in his office admiring two he had on his walls and said how pleased he must be that at an auction a McCahon had gone for double its listed price. "Not exactly Michael," he replied, "I was the successful bidder; some silly sod took me on."

His fortune took a huge leap after the successful sale of Telecom. He bought a farm in Northland on the border of the Kaipara Harbour. He worried about getting across the mudflats to his farm. This started a process in which he has invested more than $400 million - the Aquada, an amphibious car that can travel on water almost as fast as on land. I've seen no reports of whether this enterprise is returning on the capital invested, but knowing Alan Gibbs, one can only presume it will, in spades.

Meanwhile Alan still stops to buy his favourite meal on his way home - three drum sticks, small wedges and a small coleslaw from KFC. An unusual New Zealand legend.

Michael Cox is a former National MP.

- NZ Herald

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