With Arrowtown’s Millbrook being the home of the New Zealand Open golf tournament, the resort’s director of operations, Brian Howie, is, by definition, the home’s host. PHILIP CHANDLER talks to the amiable Arrowtowner about how he ended up on the other side of the world and how his Scottish accent confuses people

Brian Howie says leaving the Scottish whisky industry to join Millbrook in 2008 made him ‘‘one of those unique people’’.

‘‘I don’t know anybody else who actually leaves the industry.’’

Raised in Glasgow, Scotland, he studied hotel management at a university there before doing post-grad studies in human resource (HR) management.

Howie then took up HR roles in manufacturing and construction before becoming HR director for Morrison Bowmore Distillery.

That was owned by Japanese drinks conglomerate, Suntory, which had connections with Japan’s Ishii family who own Millbrook.

‘‘That was part of the reason I was able to get the job [of HR director] at Millbrook.

‘‘We came straight from Glasgow to Queenstown with out having been in New Zealand before’’ — ‘we’ including his wife, Alison, and their two boys.

‘‘It was a bit of a shock to the system,’’ Howie admits, ‘‘but there were a lot of similarities in employment law between UK and NZ.

‘‘But immigration was a huge part of the role we didn’t really have to deal with in Scotland, and having a lot of transient staff took some getting used to.’’

As did people getting used to Howie’s Scottish brogue.

‘‘When I answered the phone, ‘Brian Howie’, without fail every Kiwi, thinking I was asking how they were, would say, ‘I’m fine, thank you’.’’

Then, the other week, in the company of Millbrook director Ben O’Malley, ‘‘I said to [the waitress], ‘I’ll have two teas, one without milk’, and she comes to the table and says, ‘which one’s the oat milk for?’’’

In 2011, Howie was appointed head of operations, then, in 2015, director of operations, putting him in charge of a diverse range of activities including golf, hotel accommodation, food and beverage and spa.

‘‘And then, because we’re an independent, we’ve got all our own central services like HR, finance and IT.’’

That’s about 320 staff altogether.

Howie says their Covid experience when NZ’s borders shut differed a bit from many other accommodation/tourist operators.

‘‘We’ve got a very strong domestic market, and we got a lot of Kiwis who hadn’t been to Millbrook who’ve now become repeat guests.’’

However, like other operators, ‘‘just trying to find staff this time last year was incredibly hard’’, he says.

During this time he also chaired Tourism Industry Aotearoa’s regional hotel sector.

Working with his staff gives him ‘‘an awful lot of reward’’, Howie says.

And despite Queenstown’s transience, ‘‘from a senior management point of view, there’s a lot of stability within that group, and this stability, I think, has helped us grow over the recent past’’.

He also hails the Ishii family’s continued passion for the resort — ‘‘obviously there’s a legacy from [the late] Mr [Eiichi] Ishii, but the family just remains absolutely committed to Millbrook, and just want to see it continue to develop and provide a great experience for everybody’’.

And, ahead of managing director Gota Ishii’s return to Millbrook this week, after four years away, Howie reflects: ‘‘He won’t have seen the new nine holes, the cart barn, the changes to the driving range, and upgrade to the villas.

‘‘You look back over 15 years and the changes … ’’

Gota’s visit’s timed, of course, to coincide with the NZ Open, which Howie says is undoubtedly his highlight of the year.

Millbrook Tournaments Ltd, owned by the Ishiis, effectively underwrites the Open, with a licence from Golf NZ to host it till at least 2027 at this stage.

‘‘The brand and reputation of Millbrook is hugely important to us, and the NZ Open is a bolt-on to that,’’ Howie says.

‘‘It’s that brand association of being the ‘home of the Open’ and everything that brings.’’

A 14 handicap, Howie says while working for the whisky industry ‘‘you could play as much golf as you liked’’, to entertain clients.

He calls his golf ‘‘variable’’. ‘‘There’s times when it’s certainly not pretty, but I love golf and the social aspect.’’

Betraying his Scottish heritage, however, the 58-year-old says he’s more into football — he’s refereed in the Central Otago league for about six years, and has been president of the Queenstown Associated Football Club.

And, in case you wondered, he’s a big Celtic supporter.

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