The making of a tourism magnate

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Even if he was a reluctant subject, author Neal Wallace has done all of us a service by penning a fascinating book on Queenstowner Sir John Davies. The business heavyweight, who claims he owns New Zealand’s best tourism assets, talks to PHILIP CHANDLER about how he got his first break and why he was delighted to lose the mayoralty

He owns Queenstown’s skifields, the Milford and Routeburn guided walks, Mount Cook’s The Hermitage Hotel, 40% of AJ Hackett Bungy, a laundry business and Queenstown CBD
properties like Stratton House and The Station Building.

Less known is that Sir John Stratton Davies’ first business foray was in transport — hence
the title of his biography, Six dogs and a Volkswagen, which is being launched this weekend ahead of his 80th birthday next week.

Davies, who’d hoped to go into farming but couldn’t afford a farm, recalls fielding alongside a certain Warren Cooper in a local cricket match.

Cooper told him the bowler, Blair Sheehy, had sold 40% of his business, Wakatipu  Transport, but the buyer had just suddenly died.

‘‘I thought, ‘that’s an opening for me’’’, so after the game he approached Sheehy, who gave him an option.

Davies says when he went to his bank to borrow some money, he declared six dogs and a Volkswagen were his only assets.

‘‘They said, ‘give us three days’, and as I was halfway out the door they said, ‘you can drive a truck, can’t you?’

‘‘I said, ‘no, but in two or three days I’ll be able to’.’’

After the loan was approved, he built up what became Northern Southland Transport,  which in its heyday had almost 250 trucks on the road.

Meantime, Davies had become a borough councillor — winning a by-election after mayor Cooper went into politics — and eventually became first mayor of the amalgamated Queenstown Lakes District Council.

‘‘Then, with a great deal of luck, in hindsight, I was defeated, and I woke up on the Monday and thought, ‘transport’s going very well, I don’t want to go back there’.’’

His first non-transport buy was the Routeburn guided walk business.

The government’s Tourist Hotel Corporation was divesting assets, including the Milford guided walk and The Hermitage Hotel, which were bought by a Chicago family.

‘‘I was just galled that Americans owned the Milford Track and The Hermitage, and I was
determined they should come back into NZ ownership.’’

Davies subsequently bought them alongside The Helicopter Line, before taking 100% ownership.

Later, he was approached by local skifield manager Duncan Smith about buying Coronet
Peak and The Remarkables, and Canterbury’s Mt Hutt.

He says he initially reacted: ‘‘Haven’t you heard of global warning? That sounds like a basket case to me’.

‘‘Duncan said, ‘no, you can make snow’.’’

Davies then bought the fields off Air NZ alongside other shareholders before taking full ownership.

He’s gone on to spend tens of millions on the skifields, in particular, and the track huts.

Asked about his business acumen, he confesses he’s not a good marketer — ‘‘that’s why I
lost the election’’.

‘‘I don’t like to go and talk about myself — that’s why I had to be threatened [by his family] to do the book.

‘‘I have one simple philosophy, and all the staff know my philosophy — you’ve got to get the product right, and then it’s easy to sell.’’

The skifields, for example, ‘‘lacked computer stuff, lacked snowmaking, lacked decent base
buildings’’.

‘‘You’ve just got to go out and attack it, and that’s why I got a knighthood.’’

But when it comes to buying assets, Davies is just as proud, when he was mayor, of council buying the government’s 40% of Queenstown Airport, for $3m, to take its ownership to 100%.

That’s why he was so appalled when a later council sold 24.9% to Auckland Airport for $27m.

‘‘The ratepayers were done out of $100m — just absolute rank stupidity.’’

Davies, who credits his wife Trish, children Jacqui and Michael, staff, managers and co-
directors for a huge role in his success, says it’s not his normal policy to criticise the council of the day, but he pinpoints two current issues.

Firstly, he says an arterial road’s got to be put through Arthurs Point and Tucker Beach to relieve Frankton Road’s ‘‘monster traffic jams’’, which he warns will put off visitors coming.

Secondly, in reference to all the street works, ‘‘in my opinion they should have half the number of worksites and work each one round the clock’’.

●  Davies’ book’s for sale at NZSki’s and Ultimate Hikes’ offices, Coronet Peak and The
Remarkables and at selected bookstores.

scoop@scene.co.nz