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Of pirates & property: Developer Alasdair Cassels' extraordinary life

Alasdair Cassels: after Christchurch’s 2011 earthquake, he was one of the first people to roll up his sleeves and start rebuilding. Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

For “visionary” developer Alasdair Cassels, who created a chic Christchurch destination out of an old wool-scourer’s factory, risk-taking seems to be in the blood.

Shaggy. That’s the word that comes to mind when you meet Alasdair Cassels.

He’s a big man with a droopy walrus moustache and a tangle of silver-grey hair that cascades down over his shoulders. He has been described as looking like a biblical prophet, but could just as easily pass for the slightly weightier twin brother of the late US rock musician Leon Russell.

In terms of his appearance, Cassels is no one’s idea of a successful property investor. Yet when Christchurch was gripped by paralysis following the 2011 earthquake that devastated the city, Cassels was one of the first people to roll up his sleeves and start rebuilding.

Talk to people who know him and a picture emerges of a man who combines sharp capitalist instincts with an idealistic streak and a slightly alternative approach to life.

That he chose the decidedly unglamorous semi-industrial suburb of Woolston for his signature property project, a classy Victorian-era retail arcade called The Tannery, says a lot about his counter-intuitive approach to business.

The boutiques and cafes lining the elegant atrium in The Tannery – he chose the name in homage to its historical origins – have made a chic destination of what was once arguably the least fashionable part of Christchurch.

Inside his converted former wool-scouring factory, The Tannery. Photo/The Tannery/Supplied

But there’s more to Cassels than an ability to spot opportunities that others would miss. He also has an odd propensity for getting caught up with unsavoury characters and being implicated in bizarre events.

As a teenager in Wellington, he drank in the storied Duke of Edinburgh Hotel, whose patrons were a colourful assortment of radicals, hippies, drug users, bohemians, arty types and intellectuals, and he seems to have carried into his adult life a penchant for mixing with unconventional and sometimes dodgy people.

He employed convicted double murderer Scott Watson on his Marlborough Sounds holiday property and was later investigated by the police in connection with the unexplained disappearance at sea of another former employee.

He attracted media attention when he took in, as a house guest, the paroled perpetrator of a sensational fraud, and he once entered a business partnership with a man accused of ripping off naive sharemarket investors.

Outside The Tannery. Photo/The Tannery/Supplied

Oh, and there was the time Cassels and his family were shot at by pirates in the Red Sea.

He relates these stories in an offhand manner, almost as if such things might happen to anyone. If it troubles him that he has been tainted by association with disreputable people and even accused of involvement in murky intrigues, it doesn’t show.

In any case, although newspaper headlines may not have always been flattering to him, there are high-profile figures in Christchurch – such as long-serving National MP Gerry Brownlee and former mayor Garry Moore – who attest to Cassels’ qualities.

Brownlee, who teamed up with political rival Jim Anderton to help Cassels get traction when Christchurch City Council was being unhelpful after 2011, describes him as a visionary. He says although some big Christchurch property owners took their post-quake insurance payouts and invested them in Auckland or overseas, Cassels ploughed his money back into the city.

Moore, who has had a long association with Cassels both personally and in business, describes him as “an interesting creature in that he’s business-savvy, but he’s got a very good values sense. It’s not all about extracting the last dollar from the person he’s dealing with.”

Alasdair and Bridget with their extended clan, from left: son Zak and wife Hana, sisters Mia, Zoe and Maddy (with daughter Mae), Joe Shanks (with son Marco) and wife Pippi. Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

Christian values

Cassels, 68, was born to New Zealand parents in Northern Ireland, where his father managed a YMCA. He was the oldest of four brothers, two of whom are now dead.

His surviving brother, Ian, is a key player in the Wellington property scene, which suggests a risk-taking gene in the family. The younger Cassels was on the ground floor, so to speak, of the apartment boom in the capital and founded The Wellington Company, which has served as a catalyst for the revitalisation of the inner city. He’s now enmeshed in a dispute over a controversial property development at Shelly Bay, on Wellington Harbour, which has brought him into conflict with film-maker Sir Peter Jackson.

The two brothers, by Alasdair’s admission, have a roller-coaster relationship, despite occasionally collaborating in business. “Sometimes we get on, sometimes we don’t.” But he regards Ian as a man of integrity, with a strong altruistic streak.

Friends attest to occasional feuds between the two, but their families are close and they share adventurous holidays. The bond between the brothers is cemented by the fact that Ian’s partner and co-director of The Wellington Company, Caitlin Taylor, is the sister of Alasdair’s partner, Bridget.

Cassels was eight when his parents brought the family back home. He grew up in Wellington, in a household strongly influenced by Christian values; his father had once studied to be a Presbyterian minister. But Cassels remembers, as a child, learning that there were people called millionaires and deciding he wanted to be one.

Ian Cassels, Alasdair’s brother. Photo/Fairfax

“I always had the idea when I was a young kid that I wasn’t going to do what my dad did. He worked his ring off. I suppose I was a bit more mercenary – I wanted to get rich. I didn’t want to earn £25 a week.”

At Wellington College, Cassels won a scholarship to study engineering at the University of Canterbury. He relished the liberation of leaving home and fondly recalls Christchurch in the late 1960s as a bustling city, full of interesting characters and buildings. “Hereford St was cool, Colombo St was cool. The engineering school at Ilam was in a paddock at the end of Riccarton Rd.”

He liked Christchurch then more than he does now, but remains fiercely committed to the city and has never lived anywhere else.

He’s especially proud of the way the city responded to the March 15 mosque atrocities. Cassels thinks the experience of dealing with the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes helped people cope with the shootings.

The day after the massacres, the bar at The Tannery was full of people quietly supporting each other. “That sense of people sticking together and helping each other is still there.”

It helped that people saw March 15 as a one-off, man-made event, albeit an evil one. “Once we saw the police in the streets, there was a feeling that things were going to be okay – that people were safe. It was not as if another quake was going to strike without warning.”

He says he often had tears in his eyes over the following days at the sight of flowers piled high outside the Al Noor and Linwood mosques and of police officers hugging Muslims. “I was proud to be part of the city and part of that reaction.”

The Cassels family in Corsica, with (from left) Pippi at the wheel, Maddy, Alasdair, Mia and Bridget. Photo/Cassels family collection

Lucrative contracts

When he’d completed his studies, Cassels decided he would be his own boss, a resolution he has stuck to throughout his working life.

In partnership with his brother, he set up Airless Spraypainting and Industrial, a sandblasting and industrial-painting company that won lucrative contracts to paint some of the big industrial plants spawned by the Muldoon Government’s Think Big economic strategy of the 1980s.

“There was nothing we didn’t paint, from Marsden Point to Tiwai Point,” Cassels says.

The work was tough and Cassels’ employees included convicted murderers and rapists on parole. “We built a shot-blasting factory that went three months without turning the compressor off, night and day.”

Shot-blasting, he explains, involves stripping metal bare using iron grit fired from a high-pressure hose. “You tear the living shit off the metal, then put zinc on it and it lasts forever.

“You need hard men. We had people who had just come out of jail. You had to manage them and know how they worked.”

He says he’s never been afraid to associate with criminals and likes to think he may have been a positive influence in their lives. He takes a forgiving view that some might attribute to his Christian upbringing.

Most criminals, he says, have a weakness in how they make decisions. “They can’t see the smart way of doing things. It’s their upbringing and where they come from.”

The family in Egypt in the 90s (from left): Zoe, Mia, Alasdair, Zak, Pippi, Bridget and Maddy. Photo/Cassels family collection

Money had other purposes

Sensing that the tide might be going out on the Think Big programme, Cassels sold Airless in about 1983 and, by his own admission, did very well out of the deal. The proceeds provided his launch pad into property investment.

But he also decided that money had other purposes besides simply generating more wealth. A six-week bout of pneumonia persuaded him he was spending too much time accumulating dosh and not enough enjoying it. So, although he bought investment properties, he also indulged a fondness for boats and acquired a 169ha holiday getaway at Erie Bay, on Tory Channel – a purchase that would introduce him to a dark flipside of the Marlborough Sounds idyll.

His big nautical investment was the Galerna, a handsome 200-tonne motor yacht that he bought in Spain because he wanted a boat big enough to sail around the world with his growing family – which he did, taking his children out of school and spending a year at sea.

It was on the Galerna that the Cassels family – including daughter Mia, then only a year old – were intercepted off the coast of Yemen by armed pirates in an open boat. Cassels sent the children below decks and gunned the engine, intending to outpace his attackers, but they opened fire with automatic weapons. He remembers them as skinny little guys with ammunition belts slung Rambo-style across their bare chests.

The family were saved when fishing lines trailing behind the Galerna snagged the pirates’ propellers, forcing them to stop. Cassels thinks surviving the attack might have helped create a sense of family solidarity that remains tight today. Son Zak and daughters Maddy, Pippi, Zoe and Mia are a close-knit unit. Most of his now-adult children and some of their in-laws are either directly involved in Cassels’ businesses or run their own enterprises in The Tannery. It’s very much a family affair.

(From left) Maddy, Pippi, Mia (on table) Alasdair, Bridget and Zoe on their travels in 1996. Photo/Cassels family collection

Watson’s conviction

It was at Erie Bay, where the Galerna and another Cassels-owned yacht, the 20m ketch Faith, were moored, that Cassels employed Scott Watson as a general hand. He sacked him only days before Olivia Hope and Ben Smart disappeared from Furneaux Lodge, in Endeavour Inlet, on New Year’s Day, 1998. Watson was convicted of their murder.

Watson had two sides to him, Cassels remembers. “During the day, he was quite jovial: hard-working, a bit of a prankster, a good joker to have around, really. But there was another side to him, a bad side.”

Cassels says Watson was fired after he was caught cutting the crotch out of four pairs of jeans hanging on a washing line on the Faith. They belonged to Richard Rusbatch, who was employed by Cassels as the yacht’s charter skipper.

It was an apparent act of malice that seemed to confirm the dark side of Watson’s personality. Cassels, who gave evidence at his trial, clearly thinks the jury came to the right verdict, despite claims by Watson and a number of supporters that the case was flawed and he is innocent.

Rusbatch, incidentally, disappeared in puzzling circumstances in the Bay of Plenty in 2012. His unmanned yacht was found going around in circles with the engine running.

His body was never found. The coroner concluded he had fallen overboard and drowned. Cassels thinks his former employee had been drinking, tried to pull up the anchor and lurched off the back of the boat.

Cassels wasn’t implicated in Rusbatch’s disappearance, but he was accused of involvement in another mysterious disappearance at sea, in 2014. This time it concerned Kerry Blair, whom Cassels employed as skipper of the Galerna and to do maintenance work.

Blair left Erie Bay in a 9m aluminium boat on a Saturday afternoon, saying he was going to get fish and chips. He was never seen again. The empty boat was found nine days later, drifting in the Tasman Sea off the Taranaki coast.

Blair’s family suspected foul play and accused Cassels of involvement in the disappearance, but police and the coroner found no evidence to support their allegations.

Disarmingly open

Here, another dodgy figure enters the picture. The basis for the Blair family’s suspicion was that they thought their father might have overheard a conversation between Cassels and Michael Swann, a convicted fraudster.

Swann had served five years in prison for defrauding his employer, the Otago District Health Board, of nearly $17 million. He was paroled in 2013 to Cassels’ home at Governors Bay, on Banks Peninsula, and did work for him.

Millions of dollars stolen by Swann and a co-offender were never recovered. At the inquest into Blair’s death, the Blair family’s lawyer put it to Swann that Blair might have overheard him talking about the “missing millions”, in which case he would have had a motive to make Blair disappear.

Cassels says the family alleged he had been party to the supposed conversation, but police rejected the scenario constructed by the family and Cassels emphatically denied any involvement. The cause of Blair’s disappearance was never officially determined, but the coroner concluded he most likely fell overboard or committed suicide.

Cassels doesn’t come across as a man with something to hide. He’s disarmingly open when talking about this catalogue of intrigue, which also involved the disappearance of a shotgun from his Erie Bay property at the time Blair vanished.

Of his connection with Swann, he says he provided him with a home on release from prison because he took the view that the former IT manager had done his time and was entitled to get on with his life.

As for Blair, Cassels thinks he killed himself, possibly with the missing shotgun. He points out that Blair knew the Galerna was going to be sold. “So he knew his life at Erie Bay, which was like Shangri-La, was going to be over, and I don’t think he knew how to replace that.”

What, then, of Cassels’ partnership with Christchurch share trader Bernard Whimp, who gained notoriety in 2011 for making unsolicited “lowball” offers to buy company shares at prices well below their market value from shareholders who were often unaware of their true value?

Cassels is happy to elaborate. He says he agreed to jointly buy a property with Whimp, but was careful to retain control of the deal. “In the end, he bought my share out, which by that time was quite a tidy sum.” End of story.

Inside The Tannery. Photo/The Tannery/Supplied

His legacy to the city

Cassels would no doubt prefer to be defined in the public mind by The Tannery, which he sees as his legacy to the city he adopted.

Originally the Woolston Tannery, it was built in the 1870s on the banks of the Heathcote River. The tannery and its associated wool-scouring business had gone into receivership in 1959, but the brick buildings, with their distinctive saw-toothed rooflines, were unaltered when Cassels bought the property in 1994.

The tannery appealed to Cassels because of its links with early Christchurch history and its location in what he describes as a “gritty” part of the city. “It tells a Christchurch story,” he says. “I find the whole area quite enthralling.”

But he had no clear idea what to do with the site, and for years was content to collect rent from tenants who included brothel proprietors. “It was zoned B5 – the lowest of the low. The industries that were still here [in Woolston] were hanging on for dear life.”

It was the second Christchurch earthquake, in February 2011, that inspired what Cassels describes as something approximating a religious vision of what might be done with the tannery site.

The Cassels family suffered personally in the quake. He and Bridget had to vacate their damaged Arts and Crafts-style home in Sumner, which was later destroyed by fire in what the police thought might have been an arson attack.

It was obviously a painful loss. “All the kids were born there and all our pets are buried there.”

Three of his children also lost their homes. “The family were in a state of disarray. Pippi was standing there holding two babies while her house collapsed around her. There was a lot of trauma.”

Cassels recalls rushing to Woolston expecting to see the tannery reduced to a pile of bricks, but although the ground was still shaking and nearby Garland Rd was a soup of liquefaction, the buildings were still standing.

He says that was the moment he envisioned what is now The Tannery. “Now was the time to act. I decided there were going to be a lot of opportunities and we just had to seize them.”

Retailers displaced from the devastated CBD were desperate for premises where they could get restarted. Cassels had been frustrated in earlier attempts to get consents from an unhelpful council bureaucracy, but this time, Brownlee and Anderton got behind the project and the necessary approvals came through quickly.

Brownlee, who was appointed Minister in charge of Earthquake Recovery, says Cassels was one or two steps ahead of anyone else. “Lots of people were running around after 2011 expecting foreign capital to pour in, but that was never going to happen.”

The old tannery building was stripped to its bare bones and rebuilt using the original bricks. Cassels was determined to retain the building’s original character and drove the project personally, right down to specifying tessellated French floor tiles, William Morris wallpaper and Art Nouveau deer-antler light fittings. The result is a striking showpiece of Victoriana in a suburb otherwise characterised by warehouses, engineering workshops and a sometimes malodorous gelatine factory.

Cassels’ main business interest these days is the craft brewery Cassels and Sons, which he launched in 2009 with son Zak and son-in-law Joe, who’s married to Pippi. He has plans to develop export markets, but it’s a work in progress. “I’ve got quite big ideas for the brewery. We have the equipment to become a big player – we’re just not selling the beer. But we will one day.”

Championing the cathedral

Cassels laments that seven years after the quake, Christchurch still hasn’t quite picked itself up. He thinks the city lost its way long ago, when the University of Canterbury vacated its original neo-Gothic buildings on the fringe of the CBD and was relocated to Ilam. He says the loss of the old campus sucked the life out of the central city and shifted the city’s epicentre.

A combination of corporate rationalisation and government restructuring during the 1980s compounded the damage. “The town became a ghost town and never got any better.”

After the earthquakes, he thought a new, more condensed city would spring up, but it didn’t happen. The new buildings are fine, he says, but the CBD looks forlorn because it’s empty and property owners can’t find tenants.

“The whole red-zone thing was a f---up. Too controlled. We were outside the cordon, so we could do whatever we liked, but a lot of heritage buildings were lost.”

And don’t get him started on the long, debilitating debate over the fate of ChristChurch Cathedral, whose restoration he championed. “The biggest problem there was the bishop [Victoria Matthews, who wanted the damaged cathedral demolished, but has since stepped down from the role and been replaced].

“She made people see red. She was a Canadian, hadn’t been in the country long, and she decided that Christchurch didn’t need a cathedral.” He mutters a contemptuous expletive. In the course of a long interview, it’s the only time he shows a flash of anger.

Yet for all his misgivings about what’s been done to Christchurch, he retains an almost mystical attachment to his patch of the city. “My whole life is the Port Hills and the Heathcote River,” he says. “It’s where I am.”

This article was first published in the May 18, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.