For a time, Sir Owen Glenn's philanthropic activities in this country were carried out without fanfare. Few people outside the business world knew of him when he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2008 New Year Honours. Subsequently, everything changed. Sir Owen actively found recognition, whether through having his name attached to the new home of the University of Auckland's business school or his high-profile involvement in the Warriors league team. It is, therefore, a bit rich of him to now say that he has fallen victim to the tall-poppy syndrome and, consequently, plans to concentrate his charitable efforts overseas.
As often as not, philanthropists prefer their return of wealth to the community to remain out of the public eye. The likes of the Todd family have always steered well clear of the limelight. Whether by design or not, this low profile has meant they avoid criticism for, say, any ill-judged choices that they might make. But those who seek attention for their charitable endeavours also invite scrutiny of them. It has been Sir Owen's misfortune that several of his activities have been blighted by his own misjudgment.
That, and his current disillusionment, are unfortunate. There is no doubt that despite leaving New Zealand in 1966 and building a logistics empire with operations in 177 countries, he retained a considerable affection for it. As much was evident in the $7.5 million that he contributed to the university business school, the $1 million donated to the Christchurch earthquake fund, and the additional millions that he has given to educational, political, health, sporting and charitable bodies. Nor should it be forgotten that he cared enough to return here in 2008 to discredit Winston Peters' denial of his $100,000 donation to New Zealand First.
In that instance, Sir Owen's candour was a breath of fresh air for the country's public life. Subsequently, however, the value of his activities has shrunk in more or less direct correlation to the profile he has attained through them. It was always odd that he chose to finance an inquiry into child abuse and domestic violence. The statistics may, as he said, be a "national embarrassment", but inquiries like this are usually commissioned by governments.
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Private philanthropists direct their money into practical projects. Sir Owen's venture was undermined not only by questions about what it sought to achieve but revelations about his own past.
The fact that he had been accused of assaulting a young woman in Hawaii in 2002 led, understandably, to many of the senior figures involved in the inquiry quitting. This could have been avoided if he had laid all his cards on the table at the outset.
His involvement in the Warriors has invited even more ridicule. On taking a 50 per cent stake in the club for $6.15 million, he voiced unrealistic expectations. All that has transpired is a running legal dispute between himself and the other part-owner, Eric Watson. Neither knows a great deal about the game of league and both are accustomed to pulling the strings. Both are also viewed as having involvement in the club for reasons of ego and personal ambition, not its best interests.
It is easy, and asinine, to talk of being a victim of an imagined tall-poppy syndrome. If Sir Owen has become disillusioned with this country, it is fair to say that many New Zealanders have become disillusioned with him - with some good reason.
It was Sir Owen's choice to pursue a high profile. It is his misfortune that his obvious business skills are not complemented by a good sense of judgment in other of life's arenas.