In 1961, stamp trader, cricket fan and sharemarket tipster Ron Brierley launched Brierley Investments, the business that went on to become New Zealand's largest listed company.
Fifty years on, Sir Ron looks back, and tells Yvonne van Dongen - who 20 years ago wrote his biography - he's not ready to fade away just yet.
It took 50 years for former Brierley Investments executives to throw a reunion party for the corporate raider who just about defined an era. The reunion was scheduled to mark the day Sir Ron Brierley registered his first investment company - March 30, 1961.
But when the big night came on April 1 this year, the guest of honour paced himself by eating and drinking minimally.
"I was concerned that the emotion of the occasion would cause me to drink too much and fall asleep. However then I found out it was a cash bar and that problem was solved," said Brierley in his opening remarks to the 100-strong crowd gathered at Dockside, a waterfront bar and restaurant in Wellington, his old home town and formerly HQ of BIL.
He is not entirely joking. Brierley is an inveterate sleeper, famous for nodding off at the most inconvenient times, and though he is not mean, he enjoys the game of literally passing the buck, especially with old friends.
As ever, Brierley was casually dressed, though he did drape a jacket over his trademark pale blue polo shirt. These days it's hard to get the man knighted in 1987 by a Labour Government out of his sneakers and into a suit.
He looked well, though he walks with a slight limp, courtesy of a problem hip. In a way, he had grown into himself. When he was young, people remarked that he had the demeanour of an old man. At 73, that demeanour now fits him and he appears more relaxed.
In his speech Brierley regaled guests with a story about registering his company. "At the time, the company registration office was manned by a chap who was a pseudo-anarchist. He hated his job but needed the money. This chap reserved a special dislike for me because I went there often to endeavour to research companies (for his tipsheet New Zealand Stocks & Shares). It cost a shilling to do this and I wanted full value for my shilling so I would ask for a list of shareholders, usually from a shelf covered in dust."
Brierley then sent his tipsheet out to all the shareholders on the list, seeking new subscribers. The average result was two acceptances out of every 100 letters for a £2 subscription. He describes it as "a successful activity but not a popular one."
The day before Good Friday 1961, Ron Brierley visited the office to register his company. "With the greatest reluctance, the company registrar accepted the registration. So, by Good Friday I'd had a meteoric rise in status since I was now the chairman of a public company."
He recalled how the businesses he wrangled with mistakenly assumed he headed a large company. Little did they realise he needed the proceeds of his tipsheet advertisements to pay for his investments.
Brierley ended by noting: "Perhaps the last few years at BIL weren't the greatest but we have had many years of friendship."
Never a truer word. Most guests were excited to be seeing one another, some for the first time in decades, but it was clear there was also some healing going on. One-time chief executive - and foe by the end of his BIL career - Paul Collins was seen crouching at Sir Ron's feet between courses, no doubt talking at machine-gun speed.
Deal junkie Bruce Judge, who worked at BIL during the 1970s and 80s and then went on to clock up one of Australia's biggest corporate losses in its day with Ariadne Australia, had also not been on good terms with Sir Ron when they parted. Having flown in from Brisbane for the party, Judge found himself seated at Brierley's table.
Notable for their absence were former GPG New Zealand director Tony Gibbs and one-time BIL chief executive and chairman Bruce Hancox. Hancox, now living in Sydney, and Brierley have only recently resumed talking after a 10-year freeze but Sir Ron didn't expect him to attend. Bruce is the sort of person who moves on, he says.
And no one expected Tony Gibbs to turn up, even though his image popped up frequently on the PowerPoint presentation during the meal. After 20 years working together, Brierley and Gibbs fell out spectacularly last year when Gibbs rejected plans to split GPG in two. Also not present was former BIL chief financial officer Herman Rockefeller, murdered in Melbourne last year after a swingers' tryst went wrong.
Although Brierley has fallen out with most of his chief executives at some time or other, in his defence he says the rift rarely endures. He's not on bad terms with more than a handful of people - pretty good after 50 years in a stressful, often acrimonious environment. Sir Ron expects that one day he and Gibbs will also kiss and make up. "We are not that far apart, Tony and I," he says.
Of course, most friends and colleagues are linked to Brierley through his investments. Many guests at the dinner have shares in GPG, since these were offered to BIL employees at a generous discount on the new company's inception.
GPG performed well in its early days, but the investment record of the past six years has been disappointing. Canvassed for their views on what to do with this problem child, a number of guests are unanimous: GPG should be wound up. "Sir Ron doesn't agree," I point out to general laughter. "Of course not", guffaws Denis Kelly, a former BIL company secretary. "That's because he never wants to sell anything."
"He's a collector," says Roger Beyer, Brierley's godson, who worked at BIL during the university holidays. "Just like the way he collects stamps."
But the thing is, he doesn't. Brierley is a trader and has been since he first bought stamps in his teens. While still at Wellington College, he acquired a dealer's certificate, launched the Kiwi Stamp Company and sold his first set of stamps to the teacher who ran the stamp club. The headmaster was not best pleased with this entrepreneurial activity. "That boy is using this institution for commercial gain. This has got to stop," he roared.
From the outset, Brierley has preferred to buy a grab-bag of stamps instead of a single rare item. He enjoys searching through the bag for that one stamp worth ten times more than he paid for the lot. Sometimes he buys as much of a special stamp as possible, thus cornering the market and forcing up the price.
He still trades stamps. On occasion, his trading can get out of hand in that he buys more than he sells, though he's never held on to any particular stamps or amassed a collection.
Perhaps he should have treated corporate trading the way he does stamps - buy and sell on. Brierley sighs. "The phrase 'selling on' slips off the tongue so very easily. But things are rarely that easy, in which case you must manage them sensibly and decide what the correct course of action is in terms of one's best judgment. There's no sense in selling for the sake of it. In those cases, the managers manage. I can't think anyone would hold on to an asset if it's prudent to sell.
"People criticise us for making bad investments but if you're not making bad investments, you're not doing your job. You're not a good investor."
To which the fund managers who moved against him would say in that case he's doing a spectacular job. Other critics complain that the investment world has changed since Brierley began and he has not. Brierley still scours company reports for hidden value but, alas, there are fewer such companies around. He admits this is partly his fault.
"There's not much left in New Zealand for a start," he says. "I can't complain because it was BIL that literally ripped out the core of traditional companies there. But if we hadn't done it, someone else would have."
As to how he is viewed by his loyal New Zealand following after so much water under the bridge, he says their opinions are likely to have been coloured by media misreporting.
Hence his wish to write a book on the history of his business from an insider's point of view, to put on paper what really happened.
He says he has occasionally asked himself whether BIL created history, or history created BIL. "I think it was a combination of both. If you look at companies like Dominion Breweries, Kempthorne Prosser and McKenzies, they all had a use-by date. Just because you're big is no guarantee of longevity."
Then, while he's in a philosophical frame of mind, he recalls that someone once wrote that Brierley started an investment company to make money for himself. The fact that he needed public money and made others wealthy along the way is purely an accident of history. "I thought that was an interesting way to look at it," he says.
Sir Ron and I had had our own reunion in Sydney the week before the dinner. I hadn't seen him since my unauthorised biography (Brierley: The Man Behind The Corporate Legend, Penguin Books) was published 20 years ago.
When we finally meet, he is surprisingly chatty and good-humoured, giving me more time that week than I'd had for the entire book. Why wasn't he like this before? He looks at his feet for a moment. "Well, it was all more an unknown then."
Not that he agreed with all my conclusions. He frequently reminds me how wrong I was with my prediction about his future with GPG.
The biography covers his early years in Wellington as a stamp trader, stock market tipster, failed politician and finally successful corporate investor with BIL and its Australian counterpart, Industrial Equity Ltd and, in Britain, Industrial Equity Plc. It concludes in 1990 at the beginning of the end of his role in each of his corporate creations.
Brierley's standing in the business community has altered subtly with each decade. He started in the 1960s as a pesky corporate gadfly with cheeky recommendations and bold assertions in the tipsheet he wrote while still in his teens. From his 20s on, he refined his techniques and became ever more adventurous until the sight of his name on a share register was enough to give company directors conniptions.
He was the scourge of fat, lazy boards and sought out hidden or undervalued assets, often in the form of property, which he then spun off and sold on. This Brierley was derided as an asset stripper and corporate raider.
In the "greed is good" 1980s, he was recast more favourably as an entrepreneur, made a knight of the realm and chairman of New Zealand's largest bank, Bank of New Zealand. By 1984, with Collins as chief executive, BIL was the largest company in New Zealand by market capitalisation, with 160,000 shareholders and investments in over 300 companies around the world, including French department store company Galeries Lafayette and Air New Zealand.
But just when he was at his zenith, everything unravelled in the wake of the 1987 sharemarket crash. BNZ posted its largest loss ever under his chairmanship, IEL imploded and in-fighting at BIL escalated. Eventually he left the helm of BNZ and was ousted as chairman of BIL and IEL.
By the end of the book I was not hopeful about his prospects. In 1990, after talking to dozens of Brierley's colleagues, I concluded that his motivation and energy had diminished. The general feeling then was that this new corporate baby, Guinness Peat Group - a company shell he extricated from the wreckage of Allan Hawkins' Equiticorp - would struggle to succeed.
The end days of BIL, IEL and GPG share familiar characteristics. The accusations are the same: Brierley doesn't know what's going on, has let other less talented folk take over, company discipline is poor and directors overpaid. Also, the philosophy has shifted from trading and raiding to operating companies. And finally, BIL and GPG have ended up being saddled with a single massive investment. With BIL it was Thistle Hotels (still owned by BIL's latest incarnation GuocoLeisure, and still regarded as a great investment by Sir Ron).
At GPG it is Coats, the thread-making company. Coats put pressure on GPG and changed the character of the company. Only after GPG purchased it outright in 2004 did the directors discover the more than 200-year-old company was a mess. GPG threw more money at it, and then some more. While the company is now on the up, it has yet to show a good return on GPG's massive investment. Even Sir Ron, not one for admitting mistakes, says in an unguarded moment: "I do regret Coats."
GPG now trades at a discount to its asset value, making it a classic target for one of Brierley's legendary raids. Brierley also promised that GPG would have a finite life, in accordance with his view that all companies have a date at which they come to the end of their useful life. Of course, the tricky part is agreeing on that expiry date.
As with BIL and IEL, the structure of the large, many-tentacled GPG has come under scrutiny. In 1988 BIL wanted to take over IEL but the Australians resisted. This time round Brierley and his right-hand man, Dr Gary Weiss, proposed a demerger whereby the British-listed GPG would house Coats, and a new Australian-listed company would retain other assets and focus on the shareholder activism of old. The dual structure became known as the good company, to be led by Brierley and Weiss, while the bad company, nicknamed RumpCo, was to be bequeathed to Tony Gibbs and Blake Nixon.
RumpCo was to be left with Coats and its EU fine for price-fixing, debts, liabilities, a few other odds and sods plus the tangled mess that GPG had become after 20 years of international investment.
But then, institutional shareholders - that is, the fund managers from New Zealand, Australia, the US and Asia - did something fund managers rarely do. They united to defeat the Weiss/Brierley plan, installed a new chairman, independent non-executive directors and announced their intention to divest GPG of its assets and return cash to shareholders.
The announcement horrified Brierley. As far as he's concerned, it's pushing the self-destruct button too hard. It's madness he fulminates. Madness. "That instantly put GPG into the lame-duck basket. As soon as the announcement was made, the switchboard here was jammed with bargain hunters."
"When GPG becomes Coats, it will be about the same time we establish world peace. When that happens, I'll shout you dinner."
Weiss later resigned, as did the Brierley/Weiss-endorsed new chairman, Mark Johnson. Brierley remains on the board - his views directly at odds with everyone else. So what is he doing there? "Making a bloody nuisance of myself," he says agreeably. "But a nuisance in a positive way."
Brierley also sees the parallels with BIL's last days and calls it the "curse of 20 years". After 20 years, relationships begin to "fray at the edges. Everything starts to fray at the edges.
"In a perverse way, success brings its own problems. Because the organisation is much larger than it was in earlier years, that creates issues in itself. More people, more diffuse responsibilities, personal tensions tend to occur with more people and a larger organisation. Growth becomes more elusive in a larger company."
GPG's story is not over yet, although Brierley acknowledges he may not be there to see what happens. "They may attempt to get rid of me at the next board meeting [next Wednesday] if they don't try to get rid of me beforehand."
Although he is in his 70s, Brierley has no intention of retiring, even though he could spend his remaining days cruising on his 30m gin palace Lionheart, catching up with old IEL and GPG mates and friends like Michael Parkinson, meeting cricket greats at Lords, shaking hands with the Queen for the 9th time and enjoying the play at Wimbledon. Or he could travel. His long-time friend Elizabeth Rich, with whom he shares ownership of a weekender at Mackeral beach on the New South Wales coast, is his holiday planner. With her and other friends, he makes regular trips to Europe. Italy is a favourite.
But Brierley is certain all that leisure would soon pall. His idea of a good day starts with him working at home, attending to business in his Sydney CBD office, returning home, walking to Double Bay's Redleaf pool, where he'll read some papers and then home again for a quiet evening.
With his skills and experience, he says he feels a responsibility to continue doing what he's best at - finding hidden value and making astute investments.
The information revolution means his extensive library no longer gives him the competitive advantage it once did yet, in his opinion, it is still not an even playing field.
"There's so much information out there it is equally difficult to identify information which is relevant and valuable. That requires judgment.
"In the 1950s the thought of investing in a country other than New Zealand was unthinkable. Now the geographical spread, the number of companies, the investment avenues are multiplied to thousands of times. To that extent it is a different market, a different culture now. Not a better one, just a different one."
So what's the outlook for a fourth Brierley offspring?
Few question his ability and intellect. Bruce Hancox said Brierley was the one true genius he had worked with and many BIL staff used to refer to Brierley as The Master. But whether at 73 and beyond, he still has the magic remains to be seen.
This time I won't be making any predictions. By now I've learned the same lesson as the late Robert Holmes a'Court. After a prolonged corporate battle with The Master in the late 80s, Holmes a'Court remarked that anyone who underestimates Ron Brierley does so at their own risk.
Amen to that.
The Master's Voice
Sir Ron Brierley on:
"People criticise us for making bad investments but if you're not making bad investments, you're not doing your job. You're not a good investor."
"I can't complain because it was BIL that literally ripped out the core of traditional companies [in New Zealand]. But if we hadn't done it, someone else would have."
GPG's investment in Coats
"I do regret Coats."
The announcement of plans to dismember GPG
"That instantly put GPG into the lame-duck basket."