In what is perhaps the fastest corporate start up ever, the funds for Tūroa Skifield were raised in one year and the skifield was built and opened 18 months later.
"We opened for six weeks in 1978 and had the official opening in May 1979," says retired Tūroa chief executive officer Tony Wright.
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It was 15 years since the Ohakune Mountain Rd had opened, providing access to Tūroa. In that time a tow rope was operating, however Tongariro National Park Board had issued a worldwide prospectus for the development of a skifield at Tūroa.
Four years earlier Tony, a Masterton chartered accountant was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) in Zambia. A senior partner had asked Tony if there were any skifields in New Zealand as a Swiss consortium was interested in investing in southern hemisphere tourist ventures.
The seeds were sown and in 1974 Tony was in Ohakune carrying out a feasibility study for Tūroa for Swiss company Populaire Investments.
"For my client it was a choice between investing in a skifield in South America, Australia or New Zealand."
To test the skifield, Populaire were bringing out Austrian ski expert Hannes Strolz. Tony was on his way back to Zambia and met Strolz at Melbourne Airport. Tasked with impressing Strolz were Wairarapa farmer Brian Cameron and Ohakune chemist Bruce Wilde.
Now living in Tūrangi, Bruce recalls how nervous they were. It was late June and there was no snow. Three days before Strolz arrived a "dinkum storm blasted Tūroa".
During the ski season Bruce regularly hiked up the Chateau skifields at the end of the day, walked through a wind tunnel and skied down Tūroa, with an arranged pickup at the top of the Ohakune Mountain Road.
"It's incredibly dangerous at the top. In spring it can be like a glass bottle. Scary!"
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It was miserable in Ohakune the day Strolz came to assess Tūroa. When the trio got to the end of the Ohakune Mountain Rd, the sun broke out and it was perfect.
"The skifield looked like a huge stack of diamonds. The whole mountain was glittering."
Taumarunui helicopter pilot Otto Gram picked them up from the carpark and they set off in the early morning. Cold drafts of air were drifting down the mountain and they got to 5000 feet but were having trouble gaining altitude so went out to the west side and managed to land on the Mangaturuturu Saddle.
"We put our skis on and off we went. Hannes had the experience of a lifetime. He was fizzing, he was elated."
When they got to the upper Tūroa skifield, they encountered little wee knobbles of ice slightly bigger than wine corks, created by the storm. Bruce thought the snow conditions were 'horrible'.
"I could never ski through it straight, I always had to side-slip them. They gave me loose fillings! But Hannes said 'Sastrugi!' and shot down through it like a rocket and had the time of his life."
Back from Zambia and committed to Tūroa, Tony had a multi-headed project on his hands.
Tony organised the 1976 share float for new company Tūroa Skifields Ltd. They raised $1.6 million with an option on a 45 year operating licence. On behalf of his clients, Tony opened a shell company Populaire New Zealand and shares were nominally in his name.
The Populaire investment was to follow but the Swiss had gone off investing in New Zealand - they didn't like the 1975 Labour government policy that all new tourism ventures in national parks first be offered to the Tourist Hotel Corporation. The Swiss pulled out and PWC offered Tony a London position. But he was determined to make a success of Tūroa.
"I like the challenge of starting something."
With Populaire's departure, the Tūroa Skifields Ltd shares remained solely with Tony. He now owned the promise of a ski field.
"I had skin in the game whether I liked it or not."
Alex Harvey Industries (AHI) became a major backer, even though tourism was outside their core area of business. A move that Tony says was somewhat ahead of their time, he says they were motivated to invest because they wanted to put something back into society. Tony was appointed CEO of Tūroa Skifields Ltd and answered to Peter Mulgrew, mountaineer, who was a group general manager for AHI.
The government came out with another directive - there were to be no physical changes made to national parks.
"A difficulty when you are about to build ski lifts and tows. We had to do everything by air," says Tony.
At that time there was no helicopter in New Zealand with the power to lift the Doppelmayr towers for the Parklane and Giant chairlifts. For weeks the towers lay on Massey Flat until Tony told Doppelmayr he was going to cut them in half so they could be installed.
"Next thing a great big Bell helicopter turned up from an offshore drilling rig near Dunedin. But they still had to remove the helicopter batteries after they started it so it could lift the weight."
The Park Board had drawn up plans for the skifields, and these were refined in the year leading up to construction.
"Every day we walked the lifts and during the winter we placed hundreds of stakes to see where the snow falls and record the depth."
Changes were made to allow for slope capacity and relieve congestion.
Those who have gazed longingly at the superb snow out west of Tūroa skifield boundary can only dream about the two T-bars that were planned but never built. They dropped off the list as getting diesel out there was problematic.
The planned skifield capacity at 7700 people per hour would make Tūroa the biggest commercial skifield in New Zealand, more than double what was on offer at Whakapapa (known then as the Chateau Skifields).
The initial buildings were designed by a mate of Peter Mulgrew's, architect Neville Price who designed three snow flake modules.
"The idea was to keep building the modules but the cost was diabolical. In the end we constructed square buildings made out of glass as they were low maintenance and the reflections from the glass were in keeping with the environment."
Getting the Ohakune locals involved in service provision was fundamental. Initially the administration office and ski rental shops were based in Ohakune, partly because there wasn't a lot of space on the mountain but also because they wanted to stick to the core business of running a ski field.
They also knew they had "no show" of getting skiers without accommodation because the vast majority of skiers per day would be from out of town. The Park Board management plan was for accommodation at Massey Flat and Tony was well into the planning phase when the Park Board said they didn't want a village at Massey Flat, sewage was too problematic. So 50 acres [20ha] was purchased to build Tūroa Alpine Village on the outskirts of Ohakune, and accommodation was built for the 1980 season.
"Tūroa Alpine Village wasn't built for the 1978/79 season. While flying between Raetihi and Auckland I looked down and saw a caravan factory in Otorohanga. So in 1978 we bought 180 caravans and set them up at Rochfort Park, Ohakune, and ran them as a motel out of our Ohakune office. Two years later we sold them off."
After that, Tony says, locals began to build accommodation to meet the demand.
"Just before AHI was sold, a serious joint venture was being planned to build a big hotel on Snowmass Drive. We also had proposals to put a second story on the Ohakune Hotel."
A day's skiing cost $12 when Tūroa opened for skiing in 1978. Around the other side of the mountain, an all day lift pass cost $8 in 1978. Tony says the price differential didn't worry him a bit because the skifield was always at capacity.
"We had to price a pass at $12 because of the cost of the equipment. Then inflation set in and we were up around $40 within a few years."
Tony says thanks to Ohakune locals, Tūroa always had a point of difference compared to Whakapapa - Ohakune has a nightlife.
In 1985 AHI was bought out by forestry company Carter Holt which became Carter Holt Harvey (CHH). It was not a happy match and a few years later Tony initiated a Tūroa buyout by NZ Skifields Ltd with Sir Andrew Grimwade as a cornerstone shareholder. Tony was issued half a million shares in the new arrangement.
"Grimwades owned a third, AHI owned a third with Wilson Whineray as group general manager, and we floated one-third."
A $5000 investment gave shareholders a bonus valet parking service, drive to the top and drop off your keys. It was a key selling point!
Buoyed with fresh capital NZ Skifields Ltd should have been successful, but 1987 to 1989 were terrible snow years and by 1990 the company was strapped for cash and bought out by Sir Andrew Grimwade for $7 million.
This was the end of a golden run for Tūroa and Ohakune, with Tony bowing out in 1990 and moving to Taupō to set up an accounting business.