Eldred Bruce Smith was a wealthy Auckland businessman who gave millions of dollars to religious and welfare groups, including one run by a former Soviet secret police agent.

Preferring to be known as E. Bruce Smith, the retired textile industry giant died earlier this month aged 87.

He had suffered mild strokes for some years and at the end was having heart trouble, said friend Graeme Cameron, a member of the charitable trust set up by Smith.

Soviet KGB agent-turned evangelical preacher Sasha Tsutserov, who runs a Moscow seminary, received funding from a charity founded by Auckland philantrhopist Bruce Smith.
Soviet KGB agent-turned evangelical preacher Sasha Tsutserov, who runs a Moscow seminary, received funding from a charity founded by Auckland philantrhopist Bruce Smith.

Smith was raised in a Salvation Army family in Wellington and later Christchurch. His mother ran boarding houses - two at once.

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He got a start in the textile industry and by the early 1960s had founded his own business and was building strong relationships with overseas suppliers, including in Japan.

Smith ran a large and profitable business at a time when the New Zealand textiles industry was at its peak, employing tens of thousands of people - far more than today after decades of free trade policies.

Auckland textile magnate Bruce Smith stipulated that two-thirds of the money donated by the charity he founded should go to the Third World. Photo / Supplied
Auckland textile magnate Bruce Smith stipulated that two-thirds of the money donated by the charity he founded should go to the Third World. Photo / Supplied

Neil Morrison worked for Smith and some years after his boss sold the business, Morrison and colleagues acquired it in a management buy-out.

Morrison remembers his former employer as a business leader: "He was instrumental in introducing the textile industry of New Zealand to the dyed yarn trade."

And he had "very large government contracts for supplying the Defence Force for fabric."

In its later years, Smith's Auckland-based operation diversified into importing cassette tapes for home video players.

In November 1972, Smith was involved in a plane crash that would change his life.

The Japan Airlines DC-8, on flight 446, crashed 30 seconds after taking off from Moscow, 150m beyond the runway and on its way to Tokyo. Of the 76 people on the plane, 62 were killed and 14 survived.

The plane had stalled in the air, fell 100m to the ground and broke apart. Pilot error was blamed, investigators pointing at an engine anti-icing device not being used, despite winter conditions, the accidental deployment of a landing spoiler mechanism, and the excessive nose-up angle of the plane.

Smith survived, suffering a fractured back. He had surgery in a Russian hospital and spent months in a full-body cast.

Cameron said he met Smith through the Youth for Christ organisation about five years after the crash, by which time he was "more or less fully recovered and walking again".

Smith had wavered from his Salvation Army roots by his early 20s, but his near-death experience over Moscow jolted him back to his Christian faith. It was a story he seems to have shared widely, including with Morrison.

"He told me this," Morrison recalled: "'Lord, if I survive this, I will serve you for the rest of my days' - and that is exactly what he did."

In a death notice published in the Herald, Cameron wrote of Smith: "You kept that promise to honour God and produced and gave millions, mostly to the Third World and all above board and under the radar."

Cameron, despite wanting to proclaim his friend's philanthropy, kind of wants to keep it under the radar too, not wanting the trust named in the Herald.

"After Bruce sold his main business in 1993 to Ross [Thompson, a nephew] he concentrated on the charitable trust. He doubled its value while giving at the same time - and personally investigating every request for money.

"It almost got out of control with people showing up at Lucerne Rd [in Remuera, where Smith lived] with their hand out - some wonderful opportunities and the occasional rat-bag.

"Bruce was always determined to build up the equity in order to protect the future giving."

He achieved his aim. The trust, which he left to others to run seven years ago, by last June held net assets of more than $18 million, of which $9.564 million was the rent-generating Henderson land and buildings that serve as a base for public mental health and addiction services in West Auckland.

The trust made donations of $728,000 in the 2017 financial year, and $788,000 the previous year.

Its stated aim is to support people or organisations "engaged in the promotion of the gospel of Jesus Christ whether by preaching the gospel or providing educational, welfare or social support and training …"

Cameron said the mandate was that two-thirds would go to the Third World and the rest to New Zealand.

Recipients had included Youth for Christ, World Vision, Tear Fund, Women's Refuge, Family Life, Bible in Schools, Parents Inc, and Christian broadcasting.

"Overseas, Bruce was largely responsible for the provision of SAIACS [South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies], a theological university in Bangalore [in India]," Cameron told Smith's funeral at St Mary's Church in Parnell.

A post-graduate institute, SAIACS was now largely self-funding owing to Smith's business advice and early financial support.

Then there was Smith's support of missions, orphanages and other theological colleges, from Myanmar to Russia; medicine and surgery in North Korea; "and even an ex-KGB officer running a Moscow seminary".

The latter is Sasha Tsutserov, director of the Moscow Evangelical Christian Seminary, who, earlier in his life, had been an atheist, joined the Communist Party and got a job in the Soviet Union's spy agency and secret police.

Married twice, Bruce Smith was described in a Herald death notice as the father of three children and the poppa of two.