Long read: The man standing behind Millbrook


He’s the head of a successful Japanese business but Millbrook’s founder – who received a New Year Honour – was moulded by his strict mother, David Williams discovers

“I’ll show you this,” Eiichi Ishii says, leaning forward on the sofa at his Millbrook Resort villa.

On both of the Millbrook founder’s hands, in the fleshy part between his thumb and index finger, are small white marks.

“This is a sign of punishment when I did something wrong.”

When Ishii disobeyed his late mother, Fusako, she would put incense and dried grass on his hand and set them alight.

An example was when, as a lad of about four-years-old, he rode his trike on the main road - because it was smoother than the cobbled footpath.

One day his trike was hit and destroyed while he jumped out of the way, escaping injury.

He got home and exclaimed to his mother he was OK. When he told the full story - that he had defied his mother and ridden on the road - punishment was meted out.

“It’s hot,” he recalls. “She was very strict.”

(Given his scars, was he a very naughty boy? “I cannot deny that,” Ishii says with a chuckle.)

But ultimately it was the support of his mother - divorced from his father when Ishii was just one-year-old - that would prove crucial to the Ishii family buying Mill Farm, near Arrowtown, and developing Millbrook.

She also ensured he was exposed to the English language at a young age.

When he was 11, while Ishii’s friends were holidaying at beaches and mountains during the summer holidays, she sent him to be a servant for a family at an American military base.

The American mother was a customer at his mother’s art supplies business.

It started Ishii’s love affair with American culture, which would see him study at Stanford University and Harvard Business School - on top of training at Tokyo’s prestigious Keio University.

Ishii: “She [Fusako] thought that English was going to be a very important language in the future. So she wanted to make sure that I should learn enough English language so that I can travel around the world.”

In fact, the beautiful mother of the American military family already had two servants, so she spent much of the summer teaching the young Ishii English.

This consisted of her telling a story and him repeating it back in his own English words.

One story went something like this: “I had five boyfriends and all of them wanted to marry me. I said no to the first four and said yes to the fifth one.The fifth one is my current husband.”

Ishii says with a chuckle: “They were very interesting English lessons.”

During his college studies in America, Fusako didn’t visit.

She told her son if she was to fall sick - or even die - he should see out his studies rather than come home.

Ishii: “I started appreciating that very hard decision-making and toughness of my mother.”

It was Ishii who decided to invest in Millbrook, near Arrowtown, and his mother supported the decision.

The other directors on the family company’s board disagreed - saying it was too far removed from its core business (art supplies and later computer software, distribution and support).

It was Fusako who twisted their arms. Her only son wanted to invest in Millbrook and the Ishii family were 100 per cent shareholders.

She told them: “I hope that you other directors would agree to say yes.”

They did, unwillingly.

The family business started as Izumiya, which grew to become Japan’s largest art supplies company.

The company rebranded to Too Corporation - with art supplies as one arm - when it expanded into computer software for graphic, product and industrial designers. It also distributes and services computers, products and software for the likes of Apple, Adobe and Canon.

About 70 per cent of its sales come from the digital arm.

One of its most famous “analogue” exports is Copic markers, sold in more than 50 countries.

Ishii: “Very fortunately, we can sell as many as we are producing. We are trying to double the production.”

The company was founded in 1919 and he’s the fourth generation. The first two generations were Ishii’s grandmother and mother.

Ishii’s son Gota, now the company’s president, says annual sales are about $US200 million, or $NZ290m.

Other than Ishii’s obvious contribution to golf and tourism - “Mr Ishii would be one of the best marketers of this country, of this district,” personal assistant Teresa Chapman says - he is also celebrated in the New Year Honours list for bringing Japan and New Zealand closer in business.

Ishii and wife Hiroko often bring leading Japanese business figures to NZ. One is staying at Millbrook during our interview - Noriko Nakamura, the head of Poppins Corporation, a nanny service with 2000 employees.

“The purpose of the NZ Open is not just only golf,” Ishii says. “Golf is, of course, the main part. But behind that we are trying to develop economic ties between Japan and NZ - big figures discussing what business we can possibly develop.”

You can see the threads of Ishii’s family tying together in Ishii’s traditional way of thinking and doing business.

Ishii says his mother’s support was unswerving, despite Millbrook being “very shaky”, financially.

Ishii: “Every year we have to put in some kind of assistance in terms of cashflow. But my mother’s theory was never give up - not only just on Millbrook but on any other thing.

“I respect my mother’s strong determination - once she decided to do something she would stay on and never give up.

“That helped my career as well.”