As a youngster Joe La Grouw planned to retire at 30. He overshot the mark by 48 years.

In June he passed the managing directorship of Lockwood Homes to son Andrew, the third generation of La Grouws to head the Rotorua-based company his grandfather founded nudging seven decades ago.

The Lockwood success story's well documented but there's not nearly so much on record about Johannes (Joe) Junior. Sure, he's a captain of industry, a rich lister and philanthropist, has been invested with the Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit and saluted as Rotorua's 2011 Businessperson of the Year.

But what of the "genuine Dutch-Kiwi joker" he remains, untouched by the trappings of perceived privilege? This is a man who's worked his rear end off for what he's acquired.

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Joe was 12 when his new migrant father saw Rotorua as the perfect place to establish the Lockwood concept he and then partner John van Loghem conceived.

Joe snr settled his family at Rotoiti, the place his son sees as the foundation stone for his life to come.

"I was one of the few white kids at the school. Māori kids would touch my head, it was surreal, then I figured out they'd never seen blond hair before.

"They became lifelong friends.

"Rotoiti's where I learned to tickle trout, go into the bush hunting, they put me on a horse, no saddle, no bridle, just a rope around its neck; it was smarter than me, went for the lowest-hanging branch, knocked me off. Those are the sort of life experiences you can't calculate the value of."

With Lockwood's foundations laid, his dad bought a Tarawera Rd section and a tent. "My parents and us five kids camped in it for two years, it was pretty primitive."

Surely they at least had the comfort of a flush toilet? "Hell no, it was a long drop."

Joe biked to the town's sole secondary school, Rotorua High.

"I wasn't academic, was probably in the lowest possible class, had to sit School Cert three times. When I made it into the 6th form our teacher said 'put your hand up if you're going to sit UE'. She looked at me and almost snarled, 'La Grouw, put your hand down.'

"I left school soon after."

A keen swimmer, his hand again shot up when the Blue Baths wanted a cleaner, unpopular work entailing 3am starts.

"My job was to empty, clean and refill the pool. While it was filling I'd do my 100 breaststroke laps, by then I was at competition level, I was so fit it was ridiculous. l'd go to school from the baths."

When it was decreed his presence was no longer required in the classroom his father employed him on the factory floor until a Mairangi Bay Lockwood franchisee needed a labourer. The job went to Joe.

"The opportunity came to take over the Taupo franchise. I bought a bit of land opposite the Napier turn-off, lived in a caravan. God, it was cold. I bought a small heater, when I woke the next morning it was like living in an ice cave, all these icicles hanging from the roof because of the condensation."

He was doing a bit of conveyancing work for a lawyer mate when the neighbouring real estate firm came on the market. Joe bought it.

"Then you had to go to court for a licence. The Real Estate Institute opposed it, the magistrate reserved his decision, then on September 9 [1961] he called me in and said 'I can now give you that licence because you're 21 today. Congratulations, you're the youngest real estate agent in New Zealand'."

Joe ran the agency together with his Lockwood franchise.

"When I moved to Auckland I dragged the real estate side along with me, had it for 10 years."

His commitment to Lockwood continued. "I didn't have too much of a private life, was too busy," but he did slip in marriage to his first wife, Dianna, and they adopted two children.

"I bought 10 acres [four-plus hectares] in Albany, ploughed it and planted 30,000 strawberry plants."

He spotted an ad in an Aussie paper placed by the Texas-based Success Motivation Institute. "I contacted them, asked if they had a New Zealand branch. They didn't but said 'come and see us'. I said, 'I can't afford to', they said they'd pay. Those were the days when you could take very little money out of New Zealand - I soon ran out."

Regardless, Joe secured the franchise but the bureaucracy of import controls decreed two vital components, the record player needed to play the motivational discs and book bags, were off limits.

"I ran around getting bags made, went to Phillips, managed to get the price right down on 100 players, then the door-knocking began."

The hard slog paid off. He estimates his first year in the business brought in a million dollars.

"After a couple of years I realised I was doing too many things, sold out and bought 1000 acres [more than 404ha] on the Kaipara Harbour, which we developed from salt flats and swamp into pasture running dry stock.

"That was a lot of fun. I was still doing my Lockwood work."

All ran smoothly until van Loghem dropped a bombshell: He was selling his shares.

"I knew enough about business to tell my father to exercise his pre-emptive rights, he said he couldn't afford to.

"I said I'd organise the finances but the banks didn't want to know. However City Bank, which had just opened in Auckland, jumped at the chance to step in.

"My father said, 'you'd better come back and run the place'. That was 1982."

Joe jnr had not been home long when he and a friend spent a weekend in New Plymouth.

Enter Jo-Anne, the woman who became his second wife. Together they've become Rotorua linchpins. Their contributions in time and money to this community and charitable organisations would fill several Our People editions.

But this man of the people deflects our wish to acknowledge them.

"We enjoy our community, being able to help if we can. Growing up here you become part of something bigger than yourself, it's great, wonderful.

"I couldn't bear to move out of Rotorua."

FACTBOX:

JOE LA GROUW, CNZOM

Born: Amsterdam, 1940

Education: Amsterdam, Wainuiomata Primary, Rotoiti School, Rotorua High School

Family: Wife Jo-Anne La Grouw, ONZM, son Andrew, daughter Denise, stepson Darin Fenwick

Interests: Family, gardening - "It's the glue that holds Jo-Anne and I together." Art, cultural events, NZ Aria (Lockwood's about to resume sponsorship), Life Education Trust, recently retried chairman Geyser Foundation. "Apart form that I don't do much at all."

On his life: "I've just done what I've done without thinking about it."

On Rotorua: "It's home, it's spectacular to be involved in the Māori culture, they take you as you are - no bells and whistles."

On royal recognition: "It's an honour but it doesn't buy you a loaf of bread or bottle of whisky."

Personal philosophy: "I don't really have one, just living life as it comes."