Ex-cop Graham Wilkinson is now a multi-millionaire with plans to double his hotel and retirement empire.
The Queenstown-based Wilkinson's Generus Living Group already owns four big retirement villages in New Zealand and a large, luxury Queenstown hotel. Now he plans to double the number of retirement villages by building on two Auckland sites and one in Tauranga, as well as planning the tourist mecca's largest new hotel.
But he remembers his family's struggle to buy their first chest freezer.
"When I was 12, my mother picked rosehip berries at 9c a pound to buy it. We'd put the rosehips in sugar sacks. It was about $100 to buy a chest freezer," he says, telling of his family's efforts to make ends meet.
"There were no handouts then," he says.
"There were five kids and with my dad an Anglican minister, the salary wasn't huge. When I turned 15, I had earned enough money from working to buy a brand new motorbike: a Honda SL125. I worked 6am to 8am before school and 3.30pm till 7.30pm later, mainly in orchards, picking, pruning, thinning."
After a gap year following his last year at Otago Boys' High School, he joined the police "because I liked playing rugby, the variety and challenge, being with people."
But he soon realised the limitations of his career choice. So after four years as a constable, he enrolled at Otago University to study commerce, inspired by his wife Liz's father, the managing director of rope business Donaghy's, with whom he often discussed business.
"He would talk sharemarkets and I wanted to learn about that. It took me three years to do a degree. I worked full time all through that," says Wilkinson.
Once he was qualified as an accountant, he left the force to join what was then the Dunedin accounting firm Lawrence Anderson Buddle "and I did an MBA with their encouragement. Then I became a developer. The first big project was a time share resort in Wanaka. I was the managing partner with the Government-owned Development Finance Corporation and we built and sold 26 units."
Using one project to leverage up to another, he expanded, developing and buying hotels and apartments throughout the country.
By 1994 he was in the consortium which bought the Peninsula Club retirement village at Whangaparaoa, and later purchased three other Auckland villages and one in the Bay of Plenty.
When these villages were sold to Australians, he decided to run his own show, Retirement Assets. He wanted to build villages with character and individuality - something he found lacking in many other retirement villages here. Now, as president of the Retirement Villages Association, he has become a leader in his field.
"We like to think that we're within the one or two that build the best in New Zealand and one reason is because we're not publicly listed and don't have to satisfy investors' demands," he says, referring to fellow private developer/owner Fraser Sanderson of Tauranga as being in a similar league.
"We promise people 'we'll look after you for the rest of your natural life and then sell your unit and give the money to your estate in a reasonable time'. At the end of the day, it works a treat."
Generus' -- and Wilkinson's -- assets could easily total several hundred million dollars, yet he has never featured on the Rich List and is not highly leveraged.
"We like to keep our debt below $50m," he says.
The Generus retirement village empire is:
• Ranfurly: The war veterans' home and hospital, Three Kings, Auckland. Wilkinson formed a joint venture with the Ranfurly Veterans Trust which owns the land, now leased to a Generus business for more than a century. The original historic veterans' home Ranfurly House is undergoing a $10m refurbishment and will soon open as a new community centre for that village at 539 Mt Albert Rd, opposite Fletcher Living's Three Kings apartment project.
• Pacific Coast Papamoa: Tauranga, an 18ha site opposite the beach where initial residences rose seven years ago. More than 300 people now live there and a new $10m community hub was opened in March. A new $50m, 36-unit serviced apartment block and 74-bed hospital is rising beside The Beach House, the new hub. The village is a joint venture with Mangatawa Papamoa Blocks Inc, a Maori entity dating back to 1957. Generus has leased the iwi land for more than a century and the iwi gets half the village return. "A property like this will return substantial sums to them over the years."
• Pacific Lakes Papamoa: A bigger new village of around 350 residences, planned next door, also on Maori land but in terraced, three-bedroom and two-bedroom configurations with an environmental theme. Marketing will start soon;
• Holly Lea, Fendalton: A partnership with the charitable McLean Institute in Christchurch. "Currently I own half and will own 100 per cent on completion of the development in about two years."
• The Russley, Burnside: A joint venture on the site of the former Russley Hotel, with prominent local developer Anthony Gough on a 50/50 basis.
Wilkinson says alliances allow relatively quick expansion and also allow his partners to benefit from his experience.
"We do partnerships because it limits our exposure, gives access to premium sites, helps my partner and because I can as I'm not listed. We would not list Generus because we don't need the money and don't want the hassle. I want to have the ability to make decisions without worrying about what others think."
Generus villages have about 500 residences, and Wilkinson plans to develop new Auckland villages, probably medium height vertical villages in premium suburbs. Between Tauranga and Auckland, he foresees developing a further 750 residences in the next five years.
"We're actively seeking the right partners in Auckland."
At 30 per cent, the Generus deferred management fee is equivalent to Metlifecare's, the highest in the listed sector.
"But we stage that. We do 6 per cent for the first year so if someone changes their mind it is not punitive, 12 per cent the second year and 12 per cent the third year. We also don't take village fees once a resident leaves in any Generus properties. The model is no different to any of the listed ones except we will rebate the DMF if a place takes longer to sell. We say if it is good enough for us to charge a fee when you live at our village, then we should give some back if we can't resell the unit in a timely manner."
Wilkinson estimates that almost 800 residents live in Generus properties, and says his family trusts own 100 per cent of the company.
Towards the end of March, Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell opened a new $10m centre at Papamoa with main reception, cafe, restaurant, meeting and games areas, salon and other amenities. Matt Chaplin of Sumich Chaplin designed the Pacific Coast village, giving it a Cape Cod-style, beachy look. And Chaplin also designed Wilkinson's southern home.
"We have built in a style appropriate for the environment," says Wilkinson. "The big listed brands have a more homogeneous style with the efficiencies that brings, but we built specifically for the environment."
He is also planning Queenstown's largest new tourist accommodation project -- 400 rooms-plus over seven levels, on Brecon St on the site of a mini-golf business, next to the Queenstown Cemetery and Lakeview Holiday Park, at the base of the peak where the Skyline runs.
The Brecon St Partnership development has proposed two hotels across four buildings, a piazza and shops. A December 1 report from a planner for the Queenstown Lakes District Council recommended the application be notified and Wilkinson has reduced the scale to take into account the comments of the planning regulators.
Top Auckland barrister Russell Bartlett has acted for the partnership in legal proceedings. In 2015, Bartlett told hearing commissioners: "Mr Wilkinson developed Hotel St Moritz in the late 1990s and still retains management of the property as well as ownership of the bar/restaurant."
Wilkinson has also bought other hotels including the Sofitel Queenstown.
He says his family's values were based on hard work and high achievement. That, he says, has paid dividends that are much more than just financial.
"My parents had their 60th wedding anniversary in January and it was with pride that we held the event at one of the properties and they could see what their son had done."
GRAHAM ROSS WILKINSON
"In my 50s"
Cromwell College, Otago Boy's High. BCom, MBA, Otago University
Hotels, retirement villages
Director, Christchurch-headquartered Generus Living Group (formerly Retirement Assets)
Married to Liz, two grown children
2ha lifestyle block, Speargrass Flat between Wanaka and Queenstown
Assets owned by Wilkinson entities:
• Ranfurly Village, Three Kings, Auckland
• Pacific Coast, Papamoa, Tauranga
• Holly Lea, Fendalton, Christchurch
• The Russley, Burnside, Christchurch
• Hotel St Moritz, Queenstown
• Site for Queenstown's largest new hotel
• Planning to build two new Auckland villages and one new Papamoa village