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Philanthropist Sir Eion Edgar: If you do well, you give back to the community

Edgar at home with a Grahame Sydney work. Photo/Robert Hanson

For one southern philanthropist, the rules about giving are simple.

Look around Dunedin’s sports and educational facilities and you’ll find Sir Eion Edgar’s fingerprints, and his name, everywhere: the Edgar Centre is the biggest sports facility under one roof in the Southern Hemisphere; the University of Otago has the Edgar Diabetes and Obesity Research Centre; and Forsyth Barr Stadium bears the name of the stockbroking firm he chairs.

On the national stage, Edgar has lent his name and given time and cash to numerous organisations, including the Sports Foundation, the Sir Peter Blake Trust, the New Zealand Olympic Committee, the Arts Foundation and the Dementia Prevention Trust. He spent 12 years as pro-chancellor and chancellor of the University of Otago, his alma mater.

Edgar and his wife, Jan, moved from Dunedin to Queenstown 13 years ago but retain their connections to and affection for the southern city. Their modern home has floor-to-ceiling windows framing views of Lake Wakatipu and the mountains. The walls are covered in art, and the garden, planted with natives to withstand the extremes of the climate, showcases an impressive sculpture collection. Jan Edgar is the driving force behind the art and has imparted her interest to their three adult sons, two living in Auckland and the other in Hong Kong.

Seventy-two-year-old Eion Edgar’s immediate preoccupation, aside from the daily running of his business, is the Winter Games, which start next month.

As president of the Olympic Committee with Valerie Vili (now Adams) in 2007. Photo/Getty

It’s seven years since you were named the Senior New Zealander of the Year, yet you’re still the go-to man of the south.

I would hate to sit around doing nothing, or just play golf – it’s not for me.

Where do your philanthropic impulse and energy come from?

Much of it is from the inside. My sister, Noela, and I came from a good family. Both my parents, George and Caroline, helped in the community. They were good people. My father was a public accountant and sharebroker and Mum worked part-time in retail. I have that Scottish heritage where if you do well, you give back to the community. There is nothing clever about it – you just do it.

Were you a high achiever at school?

I went to Anderson’s Bay Primary School and then John McGlashan College. I was a slow learner – it took me two years to get School Certificate and another two years to get my UE. I was more interested at school in playing sport, but things came right at university. I got a commerce degree with mostly As. When I came back from overseas to join Forsyth Barr in 1972, I decided that if I was going to help Dunedin, the best thing to do was to help the university. It is by far the best asset the city has.

Grant Williams sculpture in his garden. Photo/Robert Hanson

That’s been a long association.

I joined the university council in 1981 and had 23 fantastic years. I saw that as my charity and community work. Then I had a couple of good breaks. An old friend, Howard Paterson, and I bought a property and then sold it, and my share of that money created the Edgar Centre, the big sports complex. We got a lucky break and then gave back.

A lucky break or did you make your luck?

The old maxim that the harder you work the luckier you get is true. I am lucky not to need to sleep too long, so I have longer to work on things. I go to bed about 11 and I am up by 6.

Have there been setbacks or lessons from the school of hard knocks over the years?

Not really, but after the 1987 sharemarket crash, I was the majority shareholder in Mr Chips, a publicly listed company, and had to personally guarantee the bank debt. That certainly focused me on ensuring we were profitable.

The Winter Games start in August – how big a deal is that for Queenstown, Wanaka and Naseby?

Outside the Winter Olympics, it is the third or fourth largest winter sports event in the world. We will probably get six of the top 10 athletes in each event, especially in snowboarding and free skiing. We are expecting up to 900 competitors and have registrations from 42 countries. We had a launch in Wanaka and they say the new direct economic benefit to Wanaka and Queenstown is $7.4 million. That is mainly from people staying there. The international competitors don’t just come for four or five days of competition; they are here, on average, for about three weeks. In addition, it is the only event in the world where para athletes compete in the same events, at the same time on the same day. It’s a separate competition, but often on the same field, and they love it. This is the only place that happens. It is an added drawcard and attracts all the high-profile para athletes. We have Kiwi skier Adam Hall, for example.

With the Don McAra painting given to him by the University of Otago. Photo/Robert Hanson

How does it relate to the Winter Olympics?

In all these events, the leading competitors have to get a certain number of points to qualify for the Olympics in Korea next year. They have to come to us to qualify. We have international standing.

What sports are included?

Skiing, snowboarding, free skiing, curling, and ice hockey. Planning is taking up a lot of time. We have a $5 million budget, and after this year, we hope to move from every second year to being an annual event. That will keep us out of trouble.

You’ve been putting your hand up for 50 years. Are there others following in your footsteps?

The international people who come here have been unbelievably generous – Mutt Lange, Julian Robertson. They have done more than any of us in New Zealand. Lange, who was married to singer Shania Twain, loves the outdoors, and over time, he bought five high-country stations connecting Wanaka and Queenstown, which cost him $50-60 million. He then spent another $50 million totally restoring them, planting hundreds of thousands of tussocks and fencing. Now he has gifted all of that, apart from a small part, the farming operation, to the Queen Elizabeth Trust – that is worth over $100 million.

At home with wife Jan. Photo/Robert Hanson

Even so, it’s election year and some people are concerned about foreigners buying land. How do you read the politics of that issue?

It is a hard one to win politically, but you cannot put the farmland in a box and take it away. Economically, people like Lange have done so much more than anyone else. What New Zealander would spend $100 million and then gift it to the nation? Robertson has created golf courses. There is an amazing American couple, Debbi and Paul Brainerd, who have effectively bought the Glenorchy camping ground and are doing it up and making it eco-friendly and contributing to its power and sewerage. They are going to gift it to the Glenorchy community. That’s $40 million worth.

Do you read much, and if so, what?

I love reading business books. Pinot Central by Alan Brady is a good read. I have just finished the Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance (Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future). Musk has been so far ahead of the rest of the world – I would hate to work for him, but his creations are amazing. And I enjoy sports books, of course. One of my lucky breaks when I came home in 1972 was my father gave me a subscription to the Economist and ever since then I have always read it.

What about the art? Whose work do you enjoy?

I like Grahame Sydney, but you’d better not tell him. My favourite form of art now is sculpture. If you look outside in the garden, there is a great work by Grant Williams, a young guy. It is going this way and that, in five directions, but it never smashes into itself. The university presented me with a painting by Don McAra. It is of all the university’s iconic buildings, and I am very fond of it.

This article was first published in the July 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.