You could say Jim Burns’ career spanned both political roles, in Parliament, and politically incorrect ones, in the tobacco industry. The Queenstown retiree talks to PHILIP CHANDLER about Jim Bolger, pipe smoking and where he thinks the council chambers should be
Put that in your pipe.
Plenty of Queenstowners have claims to fame, but who knew one resort resident owns the
world’s largest pipe smoking factory?
Jim Burns owns Dr. Grabow Pipes, based in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, in the
United States, which he’s called ‘‘a terribly politically incorrect occupation’’.
It’s a profession which morphed from his extensive involvement in the tobacco industry.
But Burns is best known for his previous career as one of New Zealand Prime Minister
Jim Bolger’s chief advisers — and best mates.
Now 70, he and his wife Kathryn have lived in Queenstown for 16 years, but, interestingly, he was brought up in another popular holiday destination, Auckland’s Waiheke Island.
His dad became Waiheke’s resident real estate agent, then had a Fisher & Paykel dealership which sold virtually every island household a stove, fridge, heater, radio, black and white
TV, and then a colour telly when it was time to upgrade.
After completing his schooling at Auckland Grammar, Burns worked on farms for two years so he could study for an agricultural degree at Lincoln University.
He then joined the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) in Wellington, ‘‘something I vowed I’d never do — be a public servant’’.
When Bolger became NZ’s first Minister of Fisheries in 1977, in Robert Muldoon’s National government, he appointed Burns — then editing a MAF fishing magazine — his press secretary.
‘‘Having grown up in Waiheke, I knew one end of a fish from the other.’’
After an 18-month stint, he worked for Deputy Prime Minister Duncan MacIntyre, rejoining Bolger as his principal private secretary in 1980.
Exiled after the Labour government took office in ‘84, Burns rejoined Bolger, then National’s leader, in ‘88 — this innings, lasting four years, included Bolger winning the 1990 election.
Burns says his one-time political master, whom he still talks to almost weekly, is ‘‘a good man who never speaks ill of anyone’’.
‘‘He will argue their ideas until the cows come home, but it’s a very endearing characteristic for someone who spent 25 years in politics.’’
In the mid-‘90s, Burns joined the tobacco industry, taking a management job in Wellington
before working for British American Tobacco (BAT) in London, Tokyo and Atlanta, in the US, in government relations roles.
Ironically, he’d already quit smoking by then, after Bolger suggested he cut back.
After leaving BAT, he took over its US pipe smoking factory, which makes pipes from Mediterranean briarwood.
‘‘It’s been diminishing in the 14 years I’ve owned it, but it’s still a very profitable business
— we sell about 45,000 to 50,000 pipes a year.’’
Covid-19’s actually been good for sales of Dr. Grabow’s pipe cleaners.
‘‘At least three people have put designs on the internet as to how you make a homemade
face mask using a pipe cleaner to bridge the nose, and as a result we’ve been selling three
times as many as we used to.’’
Burns, who first stayed in Queenstown in the mid-‘60s, going up the Skyline Road in a van driven by the late Joan Hamilton, regularly holidayed here as his wife’s parents, Southland farmers, had a Frankton holiday home.
‘‘Sixteen years ago we bought a [Kelvin Heights] house to pretty much replace it.’’
That home houses an amazing collection of about 1400 books by or about British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, three signed by the man himself.
He also has a signed collection of the works of imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling.
Aside from pipes, Burns’ other major business interest is a directorship of Mt Cook Alpine Salmon — ‘‘it basically produces the best-tasting salmon in the world’’.
He calls Queenstown ‘‘an absolute gem’’.
‘‘The criticism it’s becoming overpopulated I can relate to, but compared to the tourist spots of the world, it isn’t.
‘‘It’s still got a strong community feel to it — if we had a good hospital, it would just be perfect.’’
His only bugbear is council’s plan to rebuild the council offices in the CBD.
‘‘The centre of Queenstown is for tourists.
‘‘For residents and ratepayers, the centre has moved out to Frankton.
‘‘To put the council building in the middle of the town is just, to my of thinking, crazy.’’