Over the past month, Herald senior writers interviewed Muller and those who know him best. Here, they trace his life and career from boyhood in Te Puna to the burning spotlight of political leadership
There is a tale about Todd Muller's time as a staffer in Prime Minister Jim Bolger's office in the 1990s - that he once sat in Bolger's chair and announced it would be his.
The tale is possibly apocryphal: Muller himself does not recall it but nor can he rule it out.
That it could be true illustrates the level of expectation that Muller would one day go for the job of Prime Minister.
It was an expectation people who knew him throughout his life told the Herald of as part of what was to be an in-depth look at the life story of the man who was vying for that job until he stood down on Tuesday.
The Herald spent the past month speaking to those who knew Muller to find out more about the type of person he is, his values and character, and his background.
Those spoken to included family, friends, colleagues, workers, and bosses – as well as a few foes. Muller did four interviews for the piece – the most recent last Tuesday.
Almost everybody spoken to said there was a sense Muller would one day go for the job of Prime Minister. Almost everybody thought he would be a good Prime Minister.
Muller himself was more restrained about his aspirations.
He said his ambition had always been to be in the "kitchen Cabinet". He had seen it in operation during Bolger's reign, and again when he was a first-term MP for the end of Sir John Key's Government.
"I always had a sense of 'that's what I want to be, part of that top group, because that's where the influence was.' It was always that as opposed to 'I want to be leader.'"
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Todd Muller's ambitions were first voiced in a childhood story Muller authored and often jokes about, in which he was President of the United States for 13 terms.
He instead became the 13th leader of the National Party in New Zealand.
His active political involvement started with the Young Nats in 1989, through to university politics in his 20s, to a stint as staffer, travel companion and occasional bodyguard to Jim Bolger, to becoming an MP himself.
THE BOY FROM TE PUNA
Todd Michael Muller was born in December 1968 in Te Aroha.
At the time his grandparents, Henry and Eileen Skidmore, were the mayor and mayoress of the small Waikato township, a role they served in for 15 years. Muller recalls learning about politics at the elbows of his grandparents, to whom he was very close.
About six months after he was born, Todd's parents, Mike and Trish Muller, shifted north to sharemilk on a family farm in Drury.
They planned to buy their own dairy farm until Mike Muller became convinced of the potential of kiwifruit, at the time a fledgling export industry.
In 1974, the Mullers bought a hectare of land on Borell Rd, Te Puna (named after one of several prominent Māori families with French ancestry) and moved there.
Todd Muller was 5, older brother to Gavin and Craig. Five years later came Nathan.
Cashflow was tight at times and Todd Muller remembers his dad working second jobs, cleaning the Te Puna Tavern and pumping petrol in the Whakamarama service station, to keep money coming in.
As well as cultivating his own vines at Borell Rd, Mike Muller started what is believed to be the first calibrated spraying business in the Bay of Plenty.
While Mike ran the operational side of the business, Trish Muller ran the books, as well as being the primary caregiver for the four Muller boys.
The Mullers had a strong Catholic faith and Todd's first school was at St Joseph's Church, across the road from Maramatanga Park and the rugby club.
He recalls being the only Pākehā boy among just a handful of Pākehā students.
After a couple of years, his parents moved him to Te Puna School, a short bike ride away, where he first met Hamish Crafar.
The pair became great mates and Crafar claims he was the first to see Muller's political skills; in fierce sport on the asphalt courts at lunchtime.
"Handball was the game that we all played. Todd was not that good, but he was good at making alliances with kids who were good," Crafar says, laughing.
"I'm pretty sure that's where his political career started."
Crafar says Muller could recite, in order, all the US leaders up to Ronald Reagan, who was the incumbent at the time.
In 1982, Muller and Crafar left the close community at Te Puna School to start at Tauranga Boys' College, a secondary school of 1600 boys.
Muller focused on the more academic fields, debating and public speaking.
In his final year, Muller came second equal in the senior public speaking competition.
Afterwards, Muller says, one of the teachers pulled him aside.
"He said: 'The thing is Todd, you always thought that you'd probably be second. If you gave it everything, you might have come first.' I can still remember that."
Muller was awarded the Frank Lawson Memorial Cup as the best all-round student across academic achievement, sport, culture and school spirit.
After leaving school in 1986, Muller went to the University of Waikato.
FIRST TASTE OF POLITICS
Muller had an early lesson in over-promising in a campaign and failing to deliver.
It was 1991 and Muller, in his fifth year at Waikato University, was going for the top job: President of the Waikato Students' Association.
His campaign promise was a steam train ride from Hamilton to Mt Maunganui for 1000 students at a cost of $10 a head. Alas, there was no steam train ride for the students of Waikato University that year.
Asked about it later by the university's Nexus magazine, Muller claimed the price he was initially quoted climbed significantly to $12,500 after he was elected "which put it totally out of the realms of possibility".
"I can tell you that I've swallowed a lot of pride over that one."
There were bigger battles for him. He was a Young Nat, and something of a rarity when most student politicians were left wing.
At the time, National was scrapping universal student allowances and the student loans scheme was starting the next year.
One of his first jobs was to organise a day of protest against the National Party.
He did it, a protest in which students wore rubbish bags to highlight that "the government was rubbish". He even came up with an incentive to boost participation, arranging half-price drinks with a pub.
His running mate and vice-president was a lefty, Maria Northcott.
Northcott said Muller had inherited a fractured student executive from the previous year, and managed to restore its unity and credibility.
"We had very different political views. He was a Young Nat, and I was not. But the good thing about Todd was you could have very different ideological views and principles and still work really well together. I trusted Todd. I felt he was a person of integrity."
Northcott is a strong supporter of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – but said Muller would be a good Prime Minister if he ever made it. She described his leadership style as collaborative.
"I knew he would end up in politics, and I thought that in the future he would be Prime Minister. I didn't doubt that for a second. But it would be a challenge for anyone [to beat Ardern]."
Muller graduated with a bachelor of social science in economics and political science and a masters in 1992.
INTO THE BEEHIVE: The 'effervescent' staffer in the Prime Minister's office
The next year he started his first job at the very top of Government: On the ninth floor of the Beehive, in the office of Prime Minister Jim Bolger.
Muller's job was to co-ordinate Bolger's travel agenda, and often travel with him. His informal roles included occasional whisky-drinking companion and body guard.
Muller was tall and sometimes mistaken for the police protection around Prime Ministers.
There was a close encounter with former Green Party MP Sue Bradford – Muller had to usher Bolger through a throng of protesters, including Bradford, into the Dunedin Town Hall for a National Party campaign launch.
Muller was a popular addition to the younger staff set in the Beehive at the time – and by many reports popular with the females.
Bolger's press secretary, Richard Griffin, had suggested Bolger employ Muller after meeting the young man on a visit to Waikato University.
"Todd was a big shot in the arm for the office. He was vital and funny. I know he looks like he's staid, but he's always had a very effervescent personality that just simply isn't coming through at the moment."
One former Beehive staffer who has stayed in contact with Muller says he was indeed full of character: "He was a big, big personality. Big. That's not so much the case now."
Bolger was also taken with his staffer: The former PM was endorsing Muller as the next party leader before Muller had even decided to challenge.
It was in those early Beehive years that Muller and Matthew Hooton developed a strong friendship. It was Hooton who Muller called on for help this year after deciding he would challenge for the National Party leadership.
They had known each other through the Young Nats – Muller was considered one of the "lefties" in the youth branch of the party because he was not opposed to compulsory membership of the student unions. But the relationship was forged more strongly in the Beehive, where Hooton was press secretary for Lockwood Smith.
Muller left Bolger's office in 1997 after the first MMP Government was formed – a coalition between New Zealand First and National.
Muller went to join Hooton travelling around India and China for a few months, before peeling off on his own journeys to the US and Europe.
Hooton says they were staying in "$2 a night hippy dives".
"I'm more a Third World person than he is," Hooton says of his travel companion. "But he was embracing that. And he gets on with everybody."
Muller returned to New Zealand for a friend's wedding and decided to stay.
RETURN TO NEW ZEALAND: Swapping the backpack for the suit
Muller still had political ambitions, but decided to wait.
"I needed to be a whole lot more well-rounded than just staying in the political sphere.
"I see a whole lot of that nowadays and I'm not criticising other people's journeys, they do what they do, but for me the idea of just staying in politics and one day helicoptering into an electorate didn't feel right for me."
Muller switched to a corporate career, first in the newly formed global kiwifruit marketer Zespri, then kiwifruit and avocado coolstore Apata (co-founded by his parents), where he was chief executive, and finally Fonterra.
That Muller is "ethical", "empathetic with people", well-liked by staff and colleagues, "well-rounded" and a "nice, sincere guy" was a constant refrain through the Herald's interviews with many people who'd worked with him.
Even people who spoke on condition they wouldn't be named said he's a good bloke who genuinely cares about people and doesn't try to feather his own nest (a few questioning why on Earth, then, he was in politics).
"He's not a guy who will concrete his post in the ground and fight for a corner - he will try to move things forward. He's a consensus builder, not a divider of people," said one business leader.
Stuart Weston is managing director at Apata. He was also the boss there in 2006 and helped recruit Muller as his replacement, as he was moving out to head up Affco NZ.
He knows Muller well - Muller's late father, Michael, was a mentor of Weston's and Weston also rubbed shoulders with Muller when Muller was at Zespri.
"Mike Muller was an extraordinary man. [Todd] has a lot of the attributes of his dad - big-picture thinking, empathy, he's articulate but a listener and he thinks deeply."
Weston says Muller has a sense of humour but he's "very measured".
"You can't imagine him ever getting into trouble. You have to wonder why he's in politics - I ask him about that, I think he's mad."
Muller left Apata to join Fonterra in 2011, about the same time as its $8 million-a-year boss Theo Spierings.
The Dutch-born Spierings didn't like his thinking debated or contradicted, say those familiar with the former chief executive's regime, so his lieutenants had to strategise.
One insider who spoke on condition of anonymity said there were three camps - Fonterra loyalists who told Spierings exactly what they thought, those who tried to get things done but keep their jobs and those "who would find out who he liked and didn't like and pile on to the people he didn't like".
"The first group didn't do well. The third was horrible to see."
Todd Muller, at No 12 position around Spierings' top management table in 2012 to 2014, was in the middle camp, says the insider.
"He was a straight shooter. He tried to keep his head down. He wasn't going to die in a ditch for anyone but he tried to do his best for Theo."
Spierings frequently undermined Muller as he did his other lieutenants, says a Fonterra source, bypassing them to issue instructions to managers and staff several layers down or to distant processing sites.
It frustrated Muller no end but apparently he never lost his rag in front of staff and didn't hold grudges.
"He's straight up and believes in his own convictions. He's very principled and has a very clear moral compass. I didn't see weaknesses in him," says a former Fonterra colleague.
THEN THERE WERE TWO: Todd meets Michelle
Muller's corporate career may have peaked at Fonterra - his salary was around $1m judging by Fonterra annual reports - but it was at Zespri where Muller made his most important networking connection, in 1998.
Staff from the Tauranga office, where Muller worked, took a chartered bus to Auckland for the company's annual ball.
He spotted a "gorgeous woman in a little black number on the dance floor".
"So I decided that I would join her with my sort of soft-shoe shuffle."
It was Michelle Cooper, a 22-year-old temp staffer.
While his dance moves were less than impressive (Michelle: "Terrible"), Muller later showed tremendous footwork to manoeuvre his way into a taxi taking Michelle to the next nightclub.
He asked if she'd like to have dinner the next night; she politely declined because she was saving money for her OE.
Muller: "So I said, 'Let me repitch that. Can I take you out for dinner?'"
Michelle: "Then I said, 'Yeah, if you're paying'."
The 29-year-old Muller didn't hide his political aspirations and a few months later, when Michelle was travelling through Europe, she used the time to ponder whether she wanted to marry a potential MP.
Her epiphany came in a quiet moment in the Sistine Chapel, and on returning to New Zealand after the six-month OE she moved her life to Tauranga.
They lived together before being married in 2002, in front of 100 guests at St Joseph's Church in Te Puna.
Three children followed — Aimee, Bradley and Amelia — and the family moved to Auckland for Muller's job at Fonterra.
It was a longer wait than many expected before Muller stood for Parliament.
There were three chances: Tauranga in 2008, Coromandel in 2011 and, finally, the Bay of Plenty. There were already strong contenders in the race for the first two – including Simon Bridges in Tauranga – and Muller had just started a new job at the time.
One senior figure in the party was bemused, and wondered if Muller had lost his appetite for becoming an MP.
Then in February 2014, Tony Ryall announced he was standing down – and the Bay of Plenty electorate was up for grabs.
Muller was working at Fonterra in Auckland. He talked to Michelle and they decided it was now or never. He became an MP in September.
Soon after his win, he told the Bay of Plenty Times he would follow the advice of the late Sir Keith Holyoake.
"He said just work as hard as you can in the first three years for your constituency and breathe through your nose, and that is what I will do."
He quietly built his networks in caucus and elsewhere, including the media.
He fostered relationships across Parliament. That was most notable when Muller negotiated with Green Party co-leader James Shaw to secure cross-party support for the Zero Carbon Act. It was a sensitive area for National, given its farming constituency, but Bridges had ordered Muller to try to get a solution National could support.
Both Muller and Shaw are generous about each other's roles in those negotiations, but at pains to point out their political views remain diametrically opposed in many areas.
Muller was also one of the "four amigos" – himself, Mark Mitchell, Chris Bishop and Alfred Ngaro. The four were all sent by then Prime Minister Key to help the Northland byelection campaign in 2015.
Later, when Key stood down in late 2016, they went together to talk to Sir Bill English about what they hoped for from the new leadership.
INTO OPPOSITION: A tragedy and new opportunities
The 2017 election was marred for Muller by the death of his father during the campaign.
Mike Muller died unexpectedly from a heart attack not long after helping his son erect the first campaign hoardings.
More than 800 people came to his funeral, many of them kiwifruit growers, a testament to the high regard in which he was held.
"Dad was a massive, massive figure in my life. I miss him dreadfully, grief is a funny thing," says Todd Muller.
"He was very, very proud when I became an MP. He felt, quite strongly I think, I had a calling and maybe a talent, although he wouldn't use those words, in [public] service to fulfil. I know he would be extremely pleased and delighted about where I find myself now."
National went into Opposition after that election, and Opposition provided new opportunities for Muller. Backbench MPs in Opposition are given portfolios and more chances to run issues than Government backbenchers get.
For Muller that came in the form of climate change – and then the leadership change.
The rise and fall of the 13th leader of the National Party
Muller was one of 14 new National MPs in 2014 – a very large intake. Each year's batch of new MPs tends to forge strong bonds, and when Muller went for the leadership in May it showed.
Of the 12 who remained from that intake, nine voted for him. One – Chris Bishop - was his "numbers man".
One of those who did not was Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie. Muller did not even ask for her support.
Dowie said she had not believed it was the right time to change the leader, and Bridges had supported her throughout the torrid period after her relationship with Jami-Lee Ross became public.
"For that I will be grateful, and I don't walk away from that lightly. It was nothing personal against Muller. I felt changing the leadership at that stage would look self-indulgent and it would be disruptive. And it has been disruptive."
MPs from outside that intake were also important for Muller.
Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams were more liberal than he, and Muller opted to take Kaye as his deputy.
Muller had also flatted briefly with Gerry Brownlee in the 1990s, and Nicola Willis had long been a supporter after working for him at Fonterra.
Muller's own instinct was to wait until after the election to consider a tilt at the leadership, if National lost.
But concern among his supporters – and himself – was growing that Bridges would not be able to haul National's polling back up. The coup was executed.
After five years in Parliament and with a fairly low profile, the reality and demands of the job seemed to take Muller by surprise.
It was not just inexperience. He was beset by events he had to deal with, from the misidentification of Māori on his front bench to what seems to have been the final straw: The discovery his own MP, Hamish Walker, had leaked information on Covid-19 patients to media.
Personal vendettas that remained from the bitter leadership tussle were still being played out on both sides, and there was ongoing leaking.
Muller was also caught between the party's more liberal MPs and those who wanted to keep running a hard line on issues such as law and order.
The failure to make an immediate impact in the polls did little to quell that discontent.
There were efforts by other party figures to help Muller: Key was among those who spoke to him to offer advice.
Key also rang some senior MPs outside Muller's immediate circle to urge them to help Muller more over the past week as it became evident Muller was struggling in the job.
A plan to "reset" his leadership was underway, and he had planned to make a major infrastructure policy announcement yesterday to help that along.
Instead the National Party caucus was meeting to decide on his replacement.
The one constant in Muller's life has been his wife Michelle and his family. One of his concerns about the job he was taking on was the impact it would have on his three children in particular.
Michelle once said she was the calming influence on her husband, "the hamster on the wheel".
Asked about that last week Muller agreed. "When I am fully extended, if you like, she's the one who can wrap her arms around me, figuratively and literally, and give support."
And that's where he was, at home with Michelle, when he made that final decision.