Businessman recalls his boyhood struggles in post-war Christchurch

Michael Watt set his sights on owning Ronnie Scott's Soho jazz club when he was still a teenager.

Life really got interesting, especially when I went to Europe. Probably it is character-forming but at the time you don't know that. Michael WattMichael Watt left Christ's College in Christchurch after only 15 months, when he was just 15 years old, to become a labourer.

Memories, memories ...


Does the human mind offer a more enticing quality than the recall button that in a flash can bring gloriously to life moments and events from decades past?

Today, Michael Watt is one of New Zealand's most successful businessmen. Yet the life he ultimately crafted of immense achievement and financial success began in the humblest of circumstances.

He still remembers, as a 5-year-old with his mother, scrambling along the railway track that passed at the back of their modest home in Fendalton, Christchurch, as a steam train bustled past around the midnight hour.

Like all New Zealand families in those post-war years, life was a struggle in the cold South Island winters. So a kindly friend of his late father who worked as a stoker would often help by tossing out a bag or two of coal from the footplate of the passing train. The bag might split on impact but not a piece was to be wasted. Watt would join the family crusade to collect every last nugget.

His father died when he was 5, and when he was 11 his mother moved north to Auckland, leaving him with an aunt. "I think I knew by the time I was 11 or 12, I might have to cut the mustard on my own in life," he says in his trademark philosophical tone.

Teenage difficulties quickly followed. He "lasted only 15 months" at Christ's College. "When I left school at 15, I went and worked next door as a tea boy and builder's labourer. On top of the scaffolding, we could hurl what we interpreted as amusing obscenities at the boys over the fence in school."

By the time he was 17, he'd been a labourer in various guises, the youngest tourist guide at Waitomo Caves and then crossed the Tasman to find casual jobs in Melbourne and in Queensland. At Surfer's Paradise he sprayed sun tan lotion on people. He also worked in coffee shops and even played rugby league for a while.

"But life really got interesting, especially when I went to Europe. Probably it is character-forming but at the time you don't know that."

But maybe that toughest of starts to life now defines him. A stranger would hardly detect his wealth if they met him today.

Only if you really push him will he divulge that he funds a dental school in Amman, Jordan and a group known as the "Burma Rangers", which helps villagers suffering an exacting time under the Burmese military.

Then there's the village in Mozambique, the creche for women and children on the main railway station in Dacca, the Bangladeshi capital, and the support for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Syria, all of which exist chiefly because of his generosity to charitable causes. There are others, too. Perhaps he espouses the causes of those in trouble because he remembers his own harsh times. Like sleeping rough in New York and on the benches at London's Waterloo Station, the first time he went to Britain at the age of 19.

He arrived on the boat from New Zealand with just 15 shillings and a dollop of hope in his hand. He also had four cartons of cigarettes to sell, hopefully at a profit.

In Soho, he offered the cigarettes to a barman at a cafe. Given his luck at that time, it was probably not surprising that the bloke didn't smoke. But he knew someone who did.

"Go round the corner and see Ronnie Scott - he'll take'em off you," he was told. All his life Watt had been fascinated by American jazz, black and bebop music in particular and legendary London jazz club owner Scott had two of its exponents appearing in his club.

Watt and his pal were allowed to stay for two nights before Scott threw them out. His parting comment - "Ronnie, one day I'll come back to buy your club" - was drowned out by Scott's sarcastic laughter. But his words came true about 40 years later. Today, Michael Watt is the co-owner of Ronnie Scott's, the No 1 jazz location in the world.

Watt went on to work mostly illegally in jazz clubs in America, including two stints in Las Vegas. But London and Europe provided the stage on which he flourished. He soon found himself immersed in the oil business. Working his way up, he eventually trained as an offshore expert in below the water technology including blow-out preventers.

Yet oil was not where he made most of his money. He left it because "I got sick of the redneck side of the oil business in those days".

The project that would make him hugely successful sprang from a newspaper article. He read of a company called Capital Sports Incorporated which had the TV rights to the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games.

Down the line, mostly due to financial problems, he took over their company in Europe and created CSI. It became the pioneer of offshore television rights.

Businessmen who make outstanding successes of their lives are invariably blessed by one quality above all: vision. While he worked in sponsorship which he hated and management of people which he loathed, Watt saw an opening in the world of TV.

The American Mark McCormack's IMG Group was strong and established, yet it focused only on two sports, golf and tennis. "I thought there had to be opportunities in other sports, like soccer and rugby.

"The individual international sports governing bodies danced around me for a while. They didn't really believe me when I told them I could make them millions from the television companies around the world. But when we started to show them how we could do it and began to prove it, the business just roared.

"Then satellite TV came along and it doubly roared. We went from a staff of five people to around 200."

But he worked. He lived in aeroplanes, was rarely home, did deals with TV authorities in Britain, Italy, Brazil, Spain ... wherever. In football, cricket and rugby, he represented national unions as far apart as England, Wales, New Zealand, Australia and France.

When he eventually sold the business to an American company, it was reportedly for a considerable sum.

So today, he lives "an interesting life". He has interests in West End and Broadway theatre and music production besides his other fields which take him all over the world.

At 71, he is still in search of a challenge from everyday life. "You don't jump out of bed in the morning saying 'What a great day', you just do it. I enjoy life."

And he'll go on as long as he can. 'No surrender', is his motto; he has too many things to do and not enough time.

Living in the present is the greatest satisfaction he has had.