No sooner had Greg Brownless arrived at a dinner recently when he got a text.

"Be wise," it said. "No bread, no cheese, no ham, no processed food. But enjoy your dinner."

He laughs heartily telling the story, clearly incredulous at the suggestion he should enjoy a dinner without all these things.

Chocolate and ice cream are his favourites, he says, but the only treat he's been allowed since beginning his bid for Tauranga mayor is a sugar-free, dairy-free, wheat-free avocado cake.


His partner, Li-Jong Liao, made the cake and says he was so excited to see it, he told her he loved her.

Liao is the one responsible for Brownless' strict new diet, telling him, 'If you're going to be the mayor you have to lose weight and you have to co-operate".

Her regime is paying off: Brownless has lost 9kg in two months and is a markedly different size from a photo he shows me from earlier in the year.

He admits feeling better, saying he can walk up the steep hill to their Otumoetai home without stopping now, but also makes it clear that adhering to the diet, focused on vegetables from Liao's garden, does not come without a fight.

"I've got no choice," he says. "I'm losing weight due to enforced dietary requirements I react against unsuccessfully."

Tauranga mayor elect Greg Brownless has lost 9kg thanks to a strict diet enforced by his partner Li-Jong Liao. Photo/John Borren
Tauranga mayor elect Greg Brownless has lost 9kg thanks to a strict diet enforced by his partner Li-Jong Liao. Photo/John Borren

Liao says it is necessary for his heart, and when I say he'll live a long and healthy life, Brownless retorts, "I'll live to be bossed around."

Liao is also making the 59-year-old do yoga each morning, saying it will help him de-stress in the mayor's job.

He says he'd rather not go into it because some people feel funny about yoga.

"You," Liao retorts, "you feel funny about yoga."

Brownless sighs in frustration and holds his hands in prayer pose, saying, "I'm not sitting there doing this" while demonstrating Om.

"So you do stretches?" I ask.

"Yes, that's what I do - stretches - until I just about can't stretch any further and just about die," he says, with another hearty laugh.

Brownless and Liao have taken their relationship to a new level in the past few months, living together fulltime for the first time since they met.

Liao tells the story of their chance encounter on The Strand before Brownless arrives home for our interview.

Liao moved to New Zealand from Taiwan almost two decades ago and, with teenage children in 2008, had just finished her Bachelor of Education at Waikato University's Tauranga campus.

A single mother of three, she was persuaded by her classmates to celebrate the end of their degree with a few drinks.

"That was my first time ever on The Strand," she says. "I drunk a lot of hot water because I had to drive myself home."

It was a Friday night and Brownless was out with a group of journalists from the Bay of Plenty Times sitting at a table adjacent to Liao and her classmates.

One of the journalists was tasked with finding out about Liao from her friends before Brownless approached her table.

The pair spoke for 20 minutes, during which Brownless asked Liao for her phone number and when she would be free to talk again.

She told him she had one more essay due the following Monday at 10am.

"Right after that, he rang me," she says. "He did pay attention."

Liao says her first impression of Brownless was "two very thick eyebrows like caterpillars", but she liked the way he called and as time went by, she felt like she had known him a long time.

"That intuition stayed with me, even till now," she says.

Brownless has arrived home by now, fresh from a morning meeting about plans to develop the Phoenix car park at Mount Maunganui and replace it with an urban park.

We talk briefly about the pressure on car parks at the Mount, including on Marine Parade, and he gets impassioned at a suggestion there may come a time when the Tauranga City Council has to impose time limits at the beach.

"But if council suggests it," he says, "I'll guarantee there'll be outcry and an angry person will be photographed [for the newspaper]. It's all about how you handle it."

I steer him back to the subject of Liao and their first meeting, and she says she wanted to let him know her age and told him at their second meeting.

Liao was then 43 but even now looks incredibly youthful and felt it necessary to spell out she was not as young as she looks.

"I just needed to let him know the fact," she says, with a laugh.

Brownless fires back with wit: "I thought you were older than that."

When Liao says she had the feeling she had known Brownless for a long time, he sighs and says, "Oh god, next topic."

He also plays the grumpy old man when telling us how he now has to fetch eggs from her hen coop, saying he does it reluctantly.

Liao mocks his faux annoyance, saying, "I don't know whether this is old-school men, denying their love, but he's actually very loving to my chickens and two cats. He's a loving man. I don't know why he denies it."

Li-Jong Liao, Greg Brownless' partner of eight years, says he is solid, consistent and achieves whatever he sets his mind to. Photo/John Borren
Li-Jong Liao, Greg Brownless' partner of eight years, says he is solid, consistent and achieves whatever he sets his mind to. Photo/John Borren

Brownless admits: "I've got to know the chickens now. They're very friendly."

The banter between the pair continues for the rest of the interview, but their mutual respect is obvious.

Liao says of Brownless, "He's very solid and consistent and whatever he set his eyes on to, he will achieve it, no matter how hard."

And Brownless of Liao, "She's a thinking person [and] very creative. She's been a brave person to come and live here 18 or 19 years ago, and learn a new language, English, but still retain two or three other languages she speaks fluently. I admire that. I think it's a real skill, and she has by herself raised her three kids and they are all really great people."

Liao was an architectural draftsperson in Taiwan and retrained as an early childhood teacher at Waikato. She says she and Brownless are both goal-oriented and community-focused people.

She straightens his collar and nestles into his neck during photos, her affection a good foil to his stoical side.

Brownless has never been married and it is a little difficult to pry into past relationships in front of Liao, but when asked if there have been any long-term ones, he mutters "reasonably" and "one" (I think) in a voice so low it is hard to hear.

"No children?" I ask.

"No," he confirms, "But I've taught two of her kids to drive."

Brownless says he is quite like his father Gordon, who died in 2011 at the age of 91.

Gordon fought in World War II and was twice seriously injured, once in the Battle of Monte Cassino.

"He went through quite a bit there," Brownless says. "We have a similar quirky humour and I know that's how he would've coped. Like guys of that era, he was not that communicative."

Gordon was a teetotaller but, says Brownless, a great supplier of wine to his comrades.

"He seemed to know where to find the vineyards and the stashes of wine in Italy in that time and he was very popular with his mates for that. He had vast chocolate rations due to swapping his beer ration. Perhaps that's where I got my taste from."

Brownless' mother Margaret is 92 and lives in a rest home in Tauranga, and he has a brother, Derek, in Brisbane.

Before moving in with Liao this year, Brownless spent several years in Sydney, albeit with frequent trips home.

Part of his reason for moving across the Tasman was a desire to find out more about his grandfather, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1920.

"He was a pretty go-ahead sort of guy and got his accountancy qualifications in both New Zealand and Australia at a pretty young age."

Brownless also went to Sydney to establish another funeral business, having already established others in Tauranga.

He was born in Hamilton and went to Hamilton Boys' High School, his induction into the undertaking industry coming through relatives in Auckland with a funeral business.

While doing a Master of Arts in English and history at Waikato University ("I'd love to say advanced mathematics and physics," he jokes), he worked part-time at a parlour in the holidays.

After university, Brownless got his secondary teaching qualification in Auckland and then moved to London, again working in a funeral home there between relief teaching and a five-year stint as a Contiki tour guide in Europe.

"I used to know how many rivets held the Eiffel Tower together," he says. "I still do a lot of talks today [called] 'Confessions of a Tour Guide'. It gets me a lot of dinners."

"So what's one of your confessions?" I ask.

"Tour guides are expected to know everything," he says. "Give the answer very confidently, even if you're unsure."

"Does that apply to the mayoralty?" I say.

"No, because there you'll definitely get caught out," he replies.

Upon returning to New Zealand, Brownless headed to Tauranga to see his parents and immediately landed a teaching job at Tauranga Boys' College.

The Tauranga mayoralty is just the latest challenge for Greg Brownless. Photo/John Borren
The Tauranga mayoralty is just the latest challenge for Greg Brownless. Photo/John Borren

He spent two years there before moving to Bay of Plenty Polytechnic to teach business studies.

He established his first funeral home in 1990 at age 33, saying he wanted the challenge of starting a business and refuting any suggestion it is a macabre industry.

"The reality is that it's more about helping the living people survive as a family. That's the real reality. ''

Brownless is heavily involved in Tauranga's performing arts scene, having appeared in about 30 plays and musicals.

"You'd be just as likely to see me on the stage at the Repertory Theatre on 16th Ave or Tauranga Musical Theatre [than in a funeral home]."

Brownless is also known for his accordion playing and says his musical bent comes from his mother, a self-taught pianist. His father also played the violin "but not particularly successfully".

For Brownless, theatre - despite the pressure of learning lines and performing - is a form of relaxation.

"It's a release," he says.

His last production was five or six years ago but he says it is something he would do again.

"While you are mayor?" I ask.

"Yes, if some suitable role arises and there are not too many lines."

Brownless believes people can always find time to do things they really enjoy and says he gets bored if he has nothing to do.

Liao says he thrives on a challenge and Brownless agrees he lives by a philosophy of keeping busy.

"When you want something done, don't ask the person who's got nothing to do. You ask the busiest person. It's true."

Brownless has certainly kept busy over the years, including serving as a Tauranga City councillor and running as local candidate for the National Party, losing out on the nomination to then newcomer and now incumbent MP Simon Bridges.

Politically, Brownless describes himself as a "compassionate conservative", saying he believes strongly in people taking responsibility for their own actions.

"But at the same time, I think we've got to take care of our most vulnerable disadvantaged people that are in [such circumstances] due to none of their own doing."

Brownless, as many people in Tauranga know, has gone out of his way to take care of others.

In 2007, he handed over ownership of his two funeral businesses in Otumoetai and Pyes Pa to a charitable trust.

The Legacy Funeral Trust has since given $2.2 million to community groups including Waipuna Hospice, Surf Lifesaving Bay of Plenty, Tauranga Foodbank, and the Foundation for Youth Development.

Schools and individuals have also benefited and Brownless says sometimes the smallest amounts net the best results.

At the time he made the decision, it was reported he would draw rental income from the Legacy land and buildings until his death, when the properties would be gifted to the Acorn Foundation.

He says this is still the plan and the reason behind his generosity is simple: "I've got enough," he says.

"Some people are different. You see many businesspeople, they go on the acquisition pathway, the Trump types, and they just get more and more and more and they're even not satisfied then. That's fine, everybody's different, but I considered I had enough."

He says he is happy having enough to travel and enjoy himself and cares little for possessions and more for people.

"I enjoy meeting friends, perhaps having a meal with them, having convivial discussions, that's the sort of thing I enjoy. Going in plays, going to see things, rather than sipping tea from a Royal Doulton china set and sitting in a leather recliner with a fake library surrounding me that you see in Home & Garden or whatever the latest books are. Those things are lovely but for me they're not important."

The home he and Liao share is sparsely furnished, just two blue armchairs and a couple of office chairs in the lounge.

The armchairs bear the marks of cats' claws and pictures done by preschoolers at Liao's last kindergarten job decorate a wall.

She and Brownless share an interest in photography and there is a photo album of their recent trip to Sri Lanka and a couple of shell mobiles hanging from the ceiling.

"We live humbly here," Brownless says.

Liao says they focus on sustainable living and she recycles everything she can, throwing out just one supermarket bag of rubbish every three to five weeks.

Food scraps go to her chooks and grey water on her garden, while fire ash is used as fertiliser.

"To be honest, material possessions lose their lustre very quickly," says Brownless. "You do reach a stage where a new car is new for one day, and that's it."

Tauranga mayor elect Greg Brownless on the balcony of his Otumoetai home. Photo/John Borren
Tauranga mayor elect Greg Brownless on the balcony of his Otumoetai home. Photo/John Borren

Brownless' attitude is also borne out of a pivotal experience.

In the wake of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Brownless volunteered to help retrieve and repatriate the bodies of 3500 tourists killed in Thailand.

Far from being traumatised by the grisly scene, he says the task was incredibly rewarding in that the end result was helping families.

"People were so grateful that you could get their loved ones back home. That was the biggest thing. In many cases, they weren't able to visually see them at all, but they knew that they were back on their home soil."

Brownless says he could cope with the reality of the disaster, including the overwhelming assault on the senses, because of his profession. He was also equipped in dealing with people of different cultures and the meticulous paperwork required.

"I could do that whereas other people could build a building."

He downplays his actions, saying they were little compared to the hardship suffered by his father and other soldiers in World War II.

"When people say to me, 'This great thing you did over in Thailand and you were there for six weeks,' well, they were away for several years and saw far worse than I ever did.

"I get a bit bemused. Today the things that are considered traumatic are the things they had to cope with without any help."

So what has prompted his return to local body politics now?

Brownless says he was looking for a challenge after setting up the funeral home in Sydney and decided to stand for mayor knowing Stuart Crosby was not seeking re-election.

"I thought I had a good chance of being in the top three, but as I was only running for mayor, silver or bronze wouldn't have cut it."

Messages of congratulation began flooding in at 2pm last Saturday as soon as the result was announced.

"The phone rang so many times I couldn't even listen to the messages. I had about 80 texts and 150 emails. It was really nice."

He was at the council headquarters by 11am the next day to catch up on reading and get to grips with changes in legislation since he was last on the council.

He has organised a meeting with the other elected councillors this week and has a Local Government New Zealand new mayors' training day before his swearing in on October 31.

"I don't think it's ever going to be boring," he says. "It's going to be challenging, all a challenge."