Footloose and fancy skis – Scot’s passion for snow undimmed

Passionate ski retailer: Queenstown's most well-known Scot, Paul 'Haggis' Vaitkus

Thirty years have gone in a flash for a popular Queenstown ski shop co-owner. Paul Vaitkus, known as ‘Haggis’, and also ‘Ski Wikipedia’, discusses his love of skiing and ski retail with non-skier Philip Chandler

For Paul Vaitkus – universally known as ‘Haggis’ – there’s no business like snow business.

This year marks 30 years since the amiable 53-year-old Scot started working at Queenstown’s Browns Ski Shop, and 20 years since he and co-worker Kris Vermeir bought the business.

But for someone so passionate about skiing and passing on that passion to customers, ‘working’ probably isn’t the right word.

“It’s that old adage,” he says.

“If you love what you’re doing, then you’ll never work in your life.

“When it comes to selling skis and talking to people about skiing, it doesn’t feel like work ‘cos that’s your passion. And I think that’s the same for most of the staff.”

Ironically, Vaitkus was a late starter.

He learnt to ski at 14 in his native Scotland on plastic slopes.

“They’re very unpleasant to ski on but very good for technique – if you fall, they’re quite abrasive.”

Vaitkus didn’t ski on snow till he was nearly 17, then pursued it with a passion.

He also opened a small ski-tuning shop in Edinburgh.

In the summer he did a lot of motorbike riding and windsurfing, but was always looking for work.

A Kiwi guy from Christchurch, whom he worked with, suggested he come to New Zealand as the snow was great.

Arriving in 1987, Vaitkus couldn’t find ski shop employment in Christchurch, but was offered a job in Tekapo.

“I knew nothing about Tekapo and I went down and I realised what Tekapo might offer and what Queenstown would offer.”

So he chose Queenstown.

Within minutes of arriving, Browns Ski Shop owner Derek Brown offered him a job.

“I went, ‘oh, I’ll stay here’.”

About 20 minutes into his Queenstown life, something else happened – he got nicknamed ‘Haggis’.

Vaitkus explains that ‘Haggis’ is vaguely insulting in Scotland – “it’s someone that’s slightly thick and puddingy”.

But in NZ, he says the nickname doesn’t bother him. Even his wife and two kids call him ‘Haggis’.

What also started in 1987 were 24 back-to-back winters – returning to his Edinburgh ski shop after each Queenstown ski season.

He never saw a summer, “but being from Scotland, that wasn’t a big deal”.

After 10 years at Browns Ski Shop, he and more recent arrival Vermeir were offered 50 per cent of the business, then a year later, 100 per cent.

“I couldn’t believe Derek was offering me the opportunity,” Vaitkus says.

Not that it changed how he worked – still, to this day, he spends almost all his time on the shop floor, boot-fitting being his specialty.

Vermeir comments: “I think it’s crucial for any business to have the owners involved.

“You see it in Queenstown all the time – as soon as the owner stops getting involved, the business starts to go down.

“I’ve got the highest admiration for ‘Haggis’ because he does know everything there is to know about skiing – it’s unbelievable.

“He knows about brands that we don’t even sell.”

Vaitkus says he and Vermeir simply carry on Derek Brown’s original mission statement – “specialising in good service and quality product”.

What’s given them the greatest satisfaction is seeing their passion mirrored in their nearly-30 staff.

Vaitkus: “It’s such a great atmosphere being in here with lots of like-minded people.

“I’m amazed to see the same thing in these young guys that I had back then.

“They go away to the northern hemisphere – they enjoy being in all that good snow, for sure, but they can’t wait to come back and work here and be in Queenstown.”

Vaitkus says the ski season’s so full-on that he can’t believe he’s co-owned Browns for 20 years.

“Truly, it feels like almost five years ago that we took over – it’s gone that quickly.”

All the time, his passion for skiing has also remained undimmed.

“I love skiing for just being out in the mountains and enjoying snow.

“There’s never been a day when I go up, even on the worst days, that I think I should have been at work.”