Forty years ago, accountant Barry Thomas was appointed chairman of Skyline Enterprises at just 32 years of age. Over the next 33 years he oversaw the company’s stellar growth while also successfully dabbling in casinos, media, rugby administration and “tourism politics”. But as Philip Chandler reports, one of his biggest accolades came just last week

Probably to his irritation, “retired” Queenstown tourism personality Barry Thomas only seems to make the news these days in National Business Review’s annual Rich List.

That changed last Saturday at the local Chamber of Commerce’s biennial business excellence awards.

To ringing applause from a boisterous audience, Thomas was awarded the chamber’s lifetime achievement award.

Fittingly, given he was chairman of gondola company Skyline Enterprises for 33 years, the awards were presented at Skyline Queenstown’s landmark restaurant.

Even more fittingly, Skyline Queenstown, managed by his son Lyndon, also won three award categories and the supreme business of the year.

Introducing Thomas’ award, former Chamber chairman Charlie Phillips said he’d “not only enjoyed significant commercial success, but has dedicated a lifetime to building and enhancing iconic flagship ventures”.

Phillips listed these as tourism, media, gaming and sport.

“These achievements have been underpinned by a unique perseverance, the ability to spot a good idea and the drive to simply get the job done.”

A video presentation highlighted those ventures.

In tourism, they encompassed first his major role in guiding Skyline Enterprises’ enterprises – from launching luge attractions, initially alongside Rotorua’s gondola but now worldwide, obtaining New Zealand’s first casino licence in Christchurch and overseeing a $60 million buy-up of Queenstown CBD properties.

However the chartered accountant also had prominent tourism industry roles, winning the Sir Jack Newman Award in 1994 for his ‘outstanding individual contribution to tourism’.

Thomas explained why he spent nearly 20 years in “tourism politics” during his speech.

“We were so disturbed that tourism wasn’t being recognised – it was Federated Farmers and all sorts of other industries and tourism just didn’t even get a look-in.

“A group of us spent an enormous amount of effort … and over the years we managed to make some impact, and it’s a great delight to me to see where tourism’s going.”

The presentation also touched on his role as Mountain Scene’s founding chairman and major shareholder.

The Thomas family sold the company to Allied Press almost four years ago.

Thomas’ son Richard, who managed the newspaper for more than a decade, said his father took “a fair bit of heat from some in the tourism industry and the rugby union”.

“But he was pretty black and white – business was business, and that business was about news and if they weren’t doing something wrong, well, then they wouldn’t be in the paper.”

Thomas’ former role as an independent NZ Rugby Union director for many years was hailed by ex-All Blacks coach and Queenstown resident, Laurie Mains.

“It often made me wonder that if I had known Barry as a mentor during my coaching career, maybe I’d have been more successful.”

Long-time Skyline director Grant Hensman, whose father Hylton founded the company, said under Thomas’ chairmanship it was sometimes described as conservative.

“I don’t think going for the first casino licence in NZ is conservative.”

Nor, he said, was opening luge rides in the North Island – or exporting the product – conservative. For his parting shot, Thomas approvingly quoted Canterbury business leader Peter Townsend’s recent comment in The Press that, because of tourism, NZ’s “on the doorstep of the biggest economic opportunity of our generation”.

“Not long before Hylton Hensman died, I said to him, ‘Hylton, where do you think Queenstown’s going?’

“He said, ‘Barry, it has just started’.

“And, ladies and gentlemen, I think he’s absolutely right.

“It has just started – look out!”