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The early 1990s were the worst of times for Rolf Masfen, heir to one of Auckland's richest business dynasties.

When he joined in 1991, the family's listed company Corporate Investments was in the doldrums.

The sharemarket darling had struck big problems after the 1987 slump, lost big money and eventually changed its name to Montana Wines.

"It was a long, painful four years to sort out the public company," Masfen recalled this week from a black boardroom chair, overlooking the harbour and Britomart precinct.

For the past 20 years, he has been working with his father, Peter, and brother, Anatole. Together, the Masfens have come back from the corporate grave.

They are now one of the most influential families, controlling a fortune of at least $300 million spread across many sectors, from farming to natural resources, shares to real estate.

Rolf Masfen is an Auckland University commerce graduate, holding degrees in accounting and finance, marketing and management.

He also holds the world record for catching the heaviest striped marlin, a 171.2kg fish, on light tackle (8kg) at the Three Kings Islands and for the heaviest bronze whaler, a 214.2kg shark, caught on light tackle in the Bay of Islands.

"This involves a lot of tact, guile, skill, tenacity, creative thought and an almost meditative focus - ironically much like property does," said Masfen, whose boat Lady Alison is named after grandmother Alison Porter.

Life wasn't always this good.

Masfen told of starting in the family business when disastrous Australian property investments dragged down the family's fortune.

"I wouldn't want to rain on Peter's parade, but it was an incredible learning experience, year in, year out, until 1993, when I saw some light at the end of the tunnel," he recalled.

Masfen was talking of recovering the family's wealth and legacy through one of the country's more audacious 1980s companies which suffered during the crash, millions of dollars wiped off its balance sheet. In 1992, Corporate Investments lost $119 million.

"The family net worth was likely very negative at the time."

Such was the financial damage that for a full five years, the Masfens disappeared from the NBR Rich List, only returning late in the 1990s.

After a long struggle, the family pulled Corporate Investments out of the quagmire.

Masfen said his family made a "large" loan to the company. Properties were sold and Australian investments quit to turn the business around. The business was trimmed back hard. Big ventures like a stake in Nelson Pine Industries were sold for about $100 million to please the bankers and struggle out of the red.

Corporate accountant Michael Stiassny was called in to help, much to the shareholders' consternation. Asset sales in 1993 included half of Nelson Pine, Big Glory Seafoods and various tourism and travel operations, contributing $63 million to the bottom line.

Eventually, the company struggled back into the black. Corporate Investments was one of the few survivors from 1987, its main asset being a 21 per cent stake in Montana Wines.

Rolf Masfen takes some credit for the success, although he is more given to understatement. He fears being called a rich kid, or in his parlance a victim of "the tall poppy syndrome".

Rolf is named after his maternal grandfather, Rolf Porter. Rolf Masfen's father, Peter, was an accountant with the Auckland firm of Porter Wigglesworth & Grayburn and married principal Rolf Porter's daughter, Joanna.

Peter Masfen is one of the country's most influential businessmen. In the early 1980s, he consolidated various businesses, land and investments in Collingwood Holdings, which became Corporate Investments, with Masfen the dominant shareholder. Corporate Investments became Montana to reflect its most-prized asset.

Peter Masfen led the transformation of Montana Wines from local winemaker to a $1 billion international business. He sold his 20 per cent stake in Montana to international conglomerate Allied Domecq earlier this decade for $202 million.

Last year's NBR Rich List estimated the Masfen fortune to be at least $330 million.

Rolf Masfen runs a property business spread from Orewa north of Auckland to Southland. One of the largest assets is Eastridge shopping centre in Kohimarama.

"Many people described it as a dog with fleas on it at the time we bought but it's now a great success story," Masfen said.

The Masfens own a half share in one of the country's largest farms, the 12,000ha Mt Linton Station in Southland running 80,000 sheep, 4500 Angus cattle and with 400ha of forestry. They bought into this farm on the slopes of the Takitimu range in western Southland four years ago. More recently, they bought half of Motu Station, a sheep fattening farm to compliment Mt Linton.

Peter Masfen said he had been looking around for a substantial primary sector investment for some time and was attracted by Southland's freedom from drought. New Zealand also has a competitive advantage in lamb production over other countries, he says.

Mt Linton, which employs 20 people, is being developed, with fencing, irrigation, regrassing and management programmes.

The family owns a string of Newmarket buildings fronting Broadway including the cinemas above the Olympic Pool, neighbouring Wilsons carparking building, Freedom Furniture and Bond & Bond's premises.

They also own Maori TV's corporate headquarters on Davis Crescent: "I am proud of turning a relatively run-down building with a rabbit warren of numerous short-term tenants into a nicely refurbished Government tenanted building," Rolf Masfen said. It also owns the Cafe Rikka building behind the cinemas at 61-73 Davis Crescent.

A prized 40ha block on Sunny Heights Rd above Orewa is run as a deer farm ("they don't churn up the soil like cattle") but could take 450 houses or a large retirement village.

The family has an extensive industrial property portfolio in Mt Wellington, Henderson and Parnell and owns CBD office buildings on Wyndham St.

It also holds one of the eight largest share portfolios in the country. Investment Research Group estimated this month Peter Masfen's share portfolio was worth $201 million, having gained $594,000 in the three months to May.

The Masfens also have large oil and gas interests through Greymouth Petroleum, which bought two producing Taranaki oil and gas fields from Shell Petroleum and is actively expanding its exploration programme.

As for the future, Rolf Masfen is looking to expand: "It would be nice to double the size of the property division again in the medium term."


Rolf Hanbury Masfen
* Age: 38.

* Job: Director, Masfen Group

* Education: King's College, Auckland University

* Home: Lives in Parnell

* Interests: Big game fishing, New Zealand abstract paintings

* Family: Married with children