Tourism, business guru who's career's carved in ancestor's footsteps
Mike Gibbons was genetically programmed to carve a career in tourism.
His great great grandfather, Chief Tanetinorau, discovered Waitomo Caves in 1887, pioneering the visitor attraction they've since become.
But this isn't a story about this early Māori entrepreneur but about his descendant, Mike Gibbons, whose name's intrinsically linked to this region's tourism sector and beyond.
On the eve of the opening of TRENZ, the nation's largest tourism sales pitch to the international market place, Our People inveigled him into taking us caving through his personal time tunnel.
What becomes apparent is he's a tourism and business sector pro, his present role's Tamaki Tours' chief executive officer – for the second time around.
With a heritage like his can it be purely coincidental he's become bonded to a company started by a couple of Māori brothers, every bit as entrepreneurial as Chief Tanetinorau?
Since Doug Tamaki's sudden death in February 2017, brother Mike's restructured the company that's won more awards than can be shoehorned on to its office walls.
The restructuring's where Mike Gibbons comes back into the frame, his present role's a transitional one until Tamaki's new principal shareholder, Tauhara North No 2 Trust, finds its feet running one of New Zealand's best-know tourism ventures.
Helpful as this background information is, it's a mere outline of how the kid who grew up playing rugby barefoot in the frost for Reporoa College's first XV, came to be where and who he is today.
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With a childhood spent on Land and Survey farms around the Rerewhakaaitu area, Mike left school with two options, university or Woolworths' management training programme. Woolworths won for reasons financial.
"I decided to join the company because I'd be paid for three years, rather than accrue student debt."
Mike Gibbons is one of those "honesty is the best policy" types.
His 'Woolies' career began behind the Rotorua store's counter before promotion to North Island relieving manager, the start of a life a lot of which has been spent living out of suitcases.
Woolworths owners, LD Nathan, roped him into its fold, where he moved across its diverse divisions.
When it was decreed these individual entities should become one Mike managed the restructuring.
"It wasn't easy seeing those you had good relationships with lose their jobs ... it taught me great respect for people."
With the job done he declined a further contract, opting to become a business coach "helping entrepreneurs (that word again) into their own businesses".
That's where he first crossed paths with a Tamaki. Mike's wife, Karen, was on one of his courses.
"She was always asking questions, had a hunger for knowledge. I told her I'd like to meet Mike, one day he pulled up beside me on his Harley, said 'Kia Ora, bro'. I said 'how's business? He said 'good, good'. After chatting a bit I realised they were facing significant challenges doing a lot of tourism things simultaneously, horse trekking, off-road driving, running the [tourism] village, they even had a cabaret out there, to me that was obviously too much to handle successfully."
Tamaki took the business guru's advice to do one thing well, employing him to accomplish it.
Upping prices was his first move. "Three in-bound operators left, one was back in a week, the second in three weeks, the third within six months, Tamaki Village was the only one offering the cultural experience visitors demanded."
That's when the company began its award-winning ways. "Yeah, it was pretty cool."
His job done, Mike joined Tourism Rotorua as international marketing manager, bringing more suitcase living as he followed tourism expos around the globe
On the home front he concentrated on establishing an adventure tourism network.
"We had all these great activities like the Zorb, kayaking, bungee, but Rotorua was stuck in people's minds as the place to go for mud pools and geysers, it was a challenge playing to its new strengths.
"I still believe we're missing out on marketing our lakes and walks, we've never sold them like the South Island has."
Finding a delicate balance between commercialism and locals' willingness to share their personal magic places remains a work in progress ... "something for the next 50 years."
When a friend asked if he'd be interested in becoming marketing director of Fiji's Treasure and Bounty Island resorts Mike was in like Flynn. "I said 'send me the ticket'."
His wife Maggie, "we met at Reporoa Collage, I was head prefect one year, she the next", stayed behind with their two sons.
"The goal was for them to join me when the boys finished high school, Maggie came over just after the 2006 coup, felt intimidated by soldiers standing around with AK47s and said 'thanks but no thanks'."
Mike commuted for two years. "I just loved the Fijians and Fijian Indians with their warmth, their manaakitanga (hospitality). It was a shock to discover they were considered well paid at $1.80 an hour."
Home in Rotorua he returned to business mentoring "encouraging tourism operators to enter the business awards, tourism's a fantastic product to promote and the benefits that come from it".
One non-tourism client whose company was developing truck and trailer technology, enticed him back into business.
"He wanted someone to roll their sleeves up, get stuck in, I wanted the challenge of establishing new skill sets that took me in a totally different direction from my comfort zone."
Out came the suitcases again, the bulk of Mike's time was spent securing patents and sourcing overseas manufacturers. His passport's filled with stamps, Singapore and China feature most frequently.
The technology task completed, he pushed his boundaries further, joining Freightways as its business development manager.
His affinity for tourism remained, a chance meeting with Buried Village owners Pat and Pam McGrath brought the offer to manage it until their son was free to join the family business.
"I fell in love with the whole Tarawera eruption, Te Wairoa Village, the location of the Pink and White Terraces story ... watch this space on that."
Tamaki knew it wouldn't be too long before his former general manager would be back on the job market – he pounced.
Mike's now knee deep in the company's restructuring and building revamp, stage one's ready for Rotorua's third TRENZ in four years, an event he views through his bi-focal tourism and business lenses.
"On the tourism front it's very significant for Rotorua, business wise, I say it's like speed dating on steroids. I tell operators to devote half the five minutes they have to sell to their buyers to listening to what their global travellers are really looking for."
• Born: Taupo, 1961
• Education: Wairakei, Rerewhakaaitu primaries, Reporoa College
• Family: Wife Maggie (nee Bain), sons Bradley, 28, Matthew 26
• Iwi affiliations: Ngati Maniapoto, Tuwharetoa (maternal side), English, Irish (paternal side)
• Interests: " My family, outside tourism and helping small businesses grow I don't have any other interests."
• On his life: "Every page has become a new chapter."
• On Rotorua: "As a local community we don't understand what we have here is very special to the rest of the world."
• Personal philosophy: "Respect has to be earned if you want to be a real leader."