In an extraordinary move, the family of the late construction pioneer and philanthropist Hugh Green has gone to court to lock up his massive legacy for nearly five decades at which time a majority shareholding will be transferred to his charitable foundation, a fortune set to be worth billions in the future. The family speaks exclusively to Jane Phare.
Hugh Green died a multi-millionaire, earned on the back of sheer hard work, but he never lived like a rich man.
Instead, he and his wife, Moira, now 85, lived a frugal, hard-working life. Money was either ploughed back into what was to become the Hugh Green Group, the enormously successful development, construction and investment companies, or used to buy farmland or given away to charity. They were not a family to splash money around.
They raised their five kids that way too; hard graft, no pocket money, living in the same Mt Albert house in which Green lived for more than 50 years before his death in 2012. Eldest son John remembers working every school holidays at his dad's business without pay. For two summers he spent eight-week blocks helping to build the Nadi to Suva highway in Fiji.
His father, a "tough cookie" by all accounts, never forgot his years of poverty as a youth in Ireland. He wanted to help others less fortunate, to make a difference in the world. Now, in a remarkable move, Green's 15 heirs have applied to the High Court to make sure their father and grandfather's wishes to give "a fair bit" back to charity are set in stone.
In a decision released this week the court granted the family's wish, that the Green fortune - currently worth hundreds of millions of dollars - be kept intact until March 2069, held in the Hugh Green Trust. On that date, 75 per cent of the trust's assets – largely the Hugh Green Group of companies - will be transferred to the control of the Hugh Green Foundation.
The foundation as it stands is worth around $200m and gives away about $10m a year to various charities, concentrating on relieving poverty, education and medical research. The new structure will enable it to be one of the most significant philanthropic entities in New Zealand well into the next decade.
Those involved in what has been a complex and lengthy process say tying up the Hugh Green Group for the next 48 years will give the board and those running the companies certainty, the ability to plan and reinvest. By 2069 the foundation will inherit what is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar business, with a controlling interest in the group.
In his decision released this week, Justice Matthew Muir said the spirit of philanthropy was no better demonstrated in New Zealand than by the Green family. They remained dedicated to supporting the community on a "hand up not a hand out" basis.
"They instilled in their children and grandchildren the same personal and civic values. Their charitable vehicle, the Hugh Green Foundation, has made bequests in the tens of millions of dollars."
Justice Muir quoted from Green's 2011 memoir, The Story of an Irish Emigrant Who Never Left Home, the proceeds of which Green donated to St Vincent de Paul.
"Inheriting a fortune can be as much of a burden as a blessing ... There's no greedy children in the Green family because there's no greedy parents," Green wrote. "They've been taught thrift and generosity and that what matters really is things you can't buy, like your faith and your family and peace of mind. There's nothing I want to spend money on for myself. I wouldn't mind spending money on having my 50-year-old slippers fixed if I could find someone to do it."
Those well-worn leather-and–wool slippers, never far from Green's feet when he was at home, live on in a display case in the Hugh Green Group's reception area, a reminder of their hard-working, no-frills founder.
Green died, aged 80, from cancer and towards the end of his life he made it clear that he wanted a good chunk of his fortune, held in two trusts, to go to charity. But the trustees and the family went a step further. Moira, four of her children and 10 grandchildren applied to the High Court to restructure the two trusts, The Hugh Green Property Trust and the Hugh Green Trust, merging them into one.
The Hugh Green Trust would then own and control the sizeable assets of the Hugh Green Group of companies, involved in residential subdivision and commercial development projects, farming, livestock auctions, quarrying and finance.
In 48 years' time when 75 per cent of that enormous portfolio transfers to the foundation, the remaining 25 per cent will be divided between living family members on the closure of the trust. That means the Green children, now aged between 57 and 65, will not be alive to benefit. And the 10 grandchildren, now between 19 and 32 years, will be aged between 67 and 80.
Missing from this arrangement is one of Hugh and Moira's daughters, Maryanne, and her daughter Alice. Green decided late in life to hand over the reins of his empire to eldest son, John Green, their sister, Frances Green, and lawyer Michael Fisher.
Two years after her father's death, Maryanne launched a civil case in the High Court, contesting her father's will and control over the trusts. Suddenly the private family that by choice remains beneath the radar found themselves embroiled in a bitter public stoush.
In 2017 the family reached a settlement over Green's estate. Maryanne retired from both trusts, and she and her descendants received about 14 per cent of its assets. Another 10 per cent, or $75m, went to the Hugo Charitable Trust founded by Maryanne in honour of her father. That trust has since donated millions of dollars including to the University of Auckland for medical research and bioengineering, neurological research and to the Liggins Institute for research into premature births.
Moira Green, the daughter of an Irish nurse, has had a life-long interest in medicine and health in particular and as a result the Hugh Green Foundation channels about 60 per cent of its donations to medical research.
Green, still very much the matriarch of the family unit, worked part-time at the now-demolished Cornwall Park Hospital and as a teenager was intent on becoming a nurse like her mother.
"But I met Hugh at 16 so I didn't get a chance to train."
That there will be plenty for the Hugh Green Foundation to donate is in little doubt. The group's fortune was built on the back of heavy-duty construction driven by Green and his then-partner, Barney McCahill. They formed Green & McCahill in 1953 which was to grow into more than 50 profitable companies involved in major construction contracts until the late 1980s, employing 500 workers at its peak. (The Green and McCahill interests were separated in 2002).
But rather than enjoy the proceeds Green gave millions away to charities, and ploughed profits back into the companies. And he began buying land, hundreds of hectares back in the 1970s to pursue two great loves – farming and cattle. That land, on the outskirts of Auckland and the Waikato, held little interest to developers back then. But roll forward the decades, introduce zone changes and a housing shortage and suddenly that land is worth many millions.
As Auckland grew, the Hugh Green Group began developing residential blocks in the 1990s. One of the group's latest projects is the 97-hectare Park Green, 1500 homes on the shores of the Hingaia Peninsula on the Manukau Harbour.
Another 1000 homes are being built at an ongoing development at Flat Bush, Ormiston, and planning is under way for more than 4000 dwellings at Redhills, Westgate. The group is also adding to its commercial portfolio with the new Pinehill Central complex in Albany. And there's plenty more land, enough property in the pipeline to last for decades.
Those landholdings are what Jane Porter, the Hugh Green Group's CFO, calls "patient capital", long-term investments spanning decades. Former senior auditor for PwC and independent trustee for the Hugh Green Trust David Randell says the family wished to leave a sustainable company to carry on in perpetuity, rather than close the trusts and sell off the assets.
"The last thing you'd want is this being held in a public company because they have short-term focuses. This is just an outstanding business but that's because it has strategic assets and it has a long-term view of the world. It is not like other property companies that come and go."
A large amount of business modelling was done to help prove the case for a cornerstone shareholder and considerable, long-term investment to shareholders, directors and trustees, he says. The difference will be enormous by 2069, giving future family members the chance of 25 per cent of an investment that will be substantial.
In the meantime, family members will not go without. The Hugh Green Trust's trustees can make distributions to the beneficiaries and will continue to donate to the foundation as the company grows.
Randell and fellow trustee lawyer Chris Darlow, of Grove Darlow & Partners, have been closely involved in the restructuring of the two trusts for the past four years. The act of generosity by Moira Green and her family is "truly outstanding and beyond anything we have witnessed during our professional careers", Darlow says.
"As Moira kept telling us, 'The money was never ours to keep.'"
I have an amazing family
Moira Green thinks her late husband would be well pleased with the court's decision and proud of his family.
"I have an amazing family. I am a very lucky person."
One of her sons, Eamonn, bought the old family home in Mt Albert where he now lives. His mother has moved to a retirement village but visits the home at weekends as do her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Her eldest son John, 65, also thinks his father would be happy with the outcome.
"I'm figuring he would have got it done a lot quicker than we have. He would have cut through a lot of the bullshit," he says.
Green, who is a director on the group's board, a trustee of the Hugh Green Trust and a trustee on the Hugh Green Foundation, says the restructuring has meant an enormous amount of work by many people.
Leading up to the High Court's decision was a four-year process of simplifying the Hugh Green Group, family consultation and dealing with legal issues. The group, the two trusts, the Hugh Green Group and each of the 15 family members all had legal representation, including a lawyer representing future unborn beneficiaries.
"It's been a much bigger journey than I envisaged it would be. One of the biggest hold-ups has been lawyers trying to talk family members out of it. But we've got there."
But the family were united, and prevailed against their own lawyers. The grandchildren, too, are old enough to understand.
"Not only do they respect their (Hugh and Moira's) wishes but they see the causes and the needs to be great."