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Interview: Alan Gibbs

Carroll du Chateau ventures inside the extraordinary world of one of New Zealand's richest people.

They look like typical top-line sports cars, parked five abreast in Alan Gibbs’s enormous wooden garage: sleek, gleaming and powerful, like crouching lions. Only when I try to get in one do I realise they have no doors. Duh – of course there aren’t any doors in an amphibious car. Gibbs jumps in and guns the motor. The Aquada reacts like a racing car. But at the press of a button it glides into the water, the wheels fold up, the nose tilts skywards and we’re off for round after round of doughnuts between the islands in one of his man-made lakes.

“When I drive one of these in London, people get out of buses and cars and take photos,” he shouts. “When I drive it down the Thames they get onto the bridges and clap.” I politely enquire why the Aquada is still such a novelty, nearly a decade after it was launched. Is it because, as the grapevine has it, he hasn’t yet managed to sell any? He strenuously denies it.

“We’ve had millions of inquiries. Millions! I could’ve sold the whole lot in Auckland. I’m pestered for them all the time!” Apparently, only 45 were ever made, and although some people initially bought shares, Gibbs decided to buy them back. “I’ve got 45 and I want all of them. A million man-hours went into designing this.”

It seems awfully odd to spend a good portion of your life developing something so clever, only to keep it for yourself and your family. But Gibbs is hardly your ­average guy. Many young people have probably never heard of Alan Gibbs, despite his somewhat eccentric projects occasionally making international headlines.

He is 72, but is hardly retired. Apart from the Aquada, his company, Gibbs Technologies, has three other high-speed amphibious vehicles in development: a quad bike known as the Quadski; a military vehicle known as the Phibian; and an off-roader known as the Humdinga. People who know him are certain he will make truckloads of money from the vehicles. But it’s not the money that drives him. He did, after all, make his fortune many decades ago, originally as the owner of a car dealership, then in several high-profile businesses. In the Rogernomics era, he was shoulder-tapped to carry out radical reforms in the state sector, including the restructuring and sale of the Forest Service and Telecom.

These days he is making a new name for himself as both an inventor, and an art collector of international renown. Yet few New Zealanders seem to be aware of the extraordinary property he owns, only an hour’s drive from Auckland. Gibbs doesn’t mind admitting that part of the reason he bought the 400ha property, which rolls down to the Kaipara Harbour, is so he could do “boy things”.

The property is known as The Farm, and comparisons to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch are not entirely fanciful. The Farm boasts, for example, a world-class sculpture park. It also contains a wide array of wildlife, including water buffalo, deer, giraffes, zebras, black and white alpacas, yaks, bison and even ostriches, which strut around like ballet dancers in tutus. Less well-known is its full-scale western town, where Gibbs and his mates stage cowboy shoot-outs for the sheer fun of it.

He refuses to show us or talk about it, but people who have partied there report it’s just like a movie set, except the props are all real. There are around a dozen buildings, including a saddlery shop, a barbershop and a jail. There is also a saloon decorated with skeletons and buffalo skulls. Upstairs, there are said to be beds and baths, and lots of red velvet. Outside, neon lights in the trees are synchronised to keep time with the music that blasts out of windows fitted with loudspeakers.

One visitor recalls seeing a large picture in the saloon of Gibbs dressed up as a cowboy, with a patch over one eye, a sub-machine gun slung around his waist, and a large caption that reads something like: “For the man who’s got everything.” And he does have just about everything. Elsewhere on the property is a large building housing his collection of military vehicles, which are also said to get an airing at parties. Kim Dotcom, eat your heart out.

Gibbs bought the property after a friend mentioned it was on the market. He figured he could rely on the Westies (rather than the wealthy East Coasters of Matakana and Omaha) to leave him in peace. They have. There are no rubberneckers this far from town, and the rutted no-exit road leading to his property doesn’t look promising. Family members, including his daughter Debbie and son Thane, are regular visitors and have their own quarters. His youngest daughter, Emma, and her helicopter pilot husband, Richard Garrand, are normally based in Britain but have come for the summer. And his eldest daughter, Amanda, and her husband, architect Noel Lane, have the original farmhouse.

Gibbs himself lives in a modern, dark-stained wooden house with a massive concrete and riverstone fireplace. David, his personal and business assistant, arrives each day around 6.00am. Gibbs has a reputation for being media-shy but today he is friendly and welcoming. He still wears black, but now that he’s a farmer (of sorts) he’s in jeans, a silver-studded belt and a Stetson. He enjoys entertaining. “Last summer I went off the property twice,” he says in the wire-cutter voice I remember from the 80s. “Once for a haircut and once for a meeting.”

David serves a lunch of Gibbs’s favourite lobster bisque and hot-smoked salmon salad prepared by his personal chef. Gibbs insists I take his preferred seat on the deck, which faces a sculpture that sits between the house and the harbour. Each silver oblong twists at a different angle with every breath of wind. Mesmerising and restless, it is one of his favourites.

Lunch finished, he’s ready to show off the rest of his collection. We pile into the stripped-down Jeep Wrangler (“the only vehicle I could get the windshield and doors off”) and head out to marvel at the wonders of Gibbsland. Immediately we’re off-road. Over the lip of the hill, set among velvety, manicured grass, two stunning installations loom. The first, set in a V in the skyline, is Anish Kapoor’s enormous red Dr Seuss-like bike horn. The vast stretched PVC membrane has a fleshy, sensual feel. Then, in the background, we spot what looks like a fantastic, sheer curtain floating in the wind. Neil Dawson’s Horizons flies off the hilltop with a trajectory that thrills the spirit. When our photographer asks if we can wait five minutes for a cloud to pass, Gibbs looks horrified. “What? No. We’ll come back later.”

Even after more than two decades of working with top international artists, Gibbs still gets a thrill as his sculptures flash into focus. He commissions about one a year. All are graceful, exciting and magnificent, and all of them, he says, “are the biggest work the artist has ever made”. Zhan Wang’s Floating Island of Immortals rears out of a lake like a gleaming silver iceberg; a Len Lye Wind Wand bends and stretches to the sky; and Richard Serra’s Te Tuhirangi Contour, an enormous wall made from 56 massive steel plates, somehow manages to look as delicate as a curling ribbon floating across the hill. Gibbs wanted a bigger and better installation than anything Serra had done before: “I don’t want any wimpy piece.”

In the distance, hidden in a bracelet of lakes, fountains shoot spires of water 30m into the air. Gibbs can control the fountains from anywhere in the world via his mobile phone. But it’s not only the art, the vehicles, and the buildings that make The Farm so extraordinary. Gibbs has sculpted the natural beauty of this former pine forest into something out of Camelot. The place is crawling with workers, and every metre is freshly mown by a huge tractor that presumably never stops.

When Gibbs left New Zealand in 1997, he never intended to go for good. His dream of designing and manufacturing the world’s first high-speed amphibian car meant spending summers here – using the internet to communicate with his engineers overseas – and our winters working in London. Part of his business continues to operate from Auckland. “I’ve got a nice little team, about six guys, who’ve been working for me for years.”

His other factories are in Detroit, “where two-thirds of our market will be”, and England. His former business partner, Neil Jenkins, is now chairman of Gibbs Technologies and runs the English branch, which employs 70 staff. His latest vehicle, the Phibian, hit the Potomac River in Washington DC last month before an audience of US admirals and military engineers. With its 500-­horsepower motor, the Phibian goes 130km/h on land and 60km/h on water. The admirals, he claims, were enthusiastic.

Gibbs is clearly still passionate about his work, but his enormous wealth also affords him the luxury of frequent travel. When he’s living in his London flat, which overlooks Albert Bridge, he manages to get away every few months, often on helicopter adventures with Emma and Richard. Last year they visited Africa, hovering 150-300m above the veldts and valleys.

He pulls out a book of photos and shows me a tribe who greeted them in Ethiopia. The adults were decorated in black and white stripes, and some had enormous stones in their mouths that stretched their lips into gigantic saucers. The children had never met white people before. “I don’t do the boring stuff, travelling between countries and arranging routes. And I’ve seen a world no ordinary tourist has ever seen before. Flying at 500 feet is the most voyeuristic experience you can have.”

He and Emma have also travelled to Afghanistan, where they stayed with notorious warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum. This year they’ll explore Alaska, Greenland, west and central Europe, and Japan. And next week they’re thinking of flying to Great Mercury Island to visit his old friend David Richwhite.

So how did a kid from Christchurch end up with such a sizeable fortune – estimated by the National Business Review at $420 million – as well as his fantastic sculptures, homes overlooking the Thames and the Kaipara, and the only fleet of high-speed amphibians ever made? Gibbs probably inherited a non-conformist streak from his great-grandfather, one of the Albertlander immigrants who came to New Zealand as part of the last organised British settlement here. His father, Theo, left school at 14 and became a tax accountant before building a chain of thriving lingerie shops. Alan was his youngest child, and was born clever, creative and free-thinking.

Along the way, Gibbs accumulated an MA in economics and most of an engineering degree. He has an aptitude for ideas and numbers, the ability to be intensely focused, an appetite for danger, the nerve to try new things and the ego to go for the biggest and best. He also doesn’t give a damn what others think of him. His faults? Probably a lack of empathy: he believes others can live the way he does by taking the same risks he enjoys. He finds it irritating that Kiwis are liberal by nature and that most of us are given to following rather than leading.

Former Reserve Bank Governor Don Brash, a classmate at Cashmere Primary, says Gibbs was always an alpha male, even in what was then known as Standard One. “At six, he was the leader of the gang. He turned out to be extremely innovative, with a first-class mind.” As students, Gibbs and his then-fiancée, Jenny Gore, were keen travellers, art collectors – and communists. Brash remembers working with him in the research department of the Reserve Bank: “I recall saying to the chap who was running it: ‘That guy’s going to be Prime Minister one day.’ He replied: ‘No, no, he’s too dogmatic.’”

Gibbs went on to buy Auckland car dealership Tappenden Motors with Trevor Farmer. He then transformed companies such as Freightways, Ceramco, Bendon and Atlas Majestic. By then he and Jenny had four children, and were avowed right-wingers. Over the next decade, the Gibbses and their mates – including Roger Kerr, Ron Trotter and Douglas Myers – restructured the Business Roundtable and became cheerleaders for the economic policies of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. Gibbs still regards Douglas and Richardson as heroes. “People like them, who had the courage to make the tough calls, are rare in politics.”

Roderick Deane, then chairman of the State Services Commission, recommended Gibbs oversee two massive asset sales: the Forest Service and Telecom. “He had a strong sense of commercialisation, energy and drive,” says Deane. “He was also effective and efficient; a very, very clear thinker and a hard-driving character who provided the intellectual leadership.”

Gibbs’s manner was also undeniably tough – so much so that some managers needed coaching to learn how to deal with him. He headed the Hospitals and Related Services Taskforce, for free, vowing to reduce the Government’s spend by a third. The then Health Minister, David Caygill, refused to implement many of his proposals.

After the Labour Government fell apart in 1990, the Gibbses helped launch and bankroll the Act Party. A year later, after 35 years of marriage, they parted. However, they are still good friends and together gifted Auckland the New Gallery. Its contemporary artworks have since been moved to the newly refurbished Auckland Art Gallery.

When Gibbs moved overseas in the mid-90s, he joined an exodus of other high-profile multi­millionaires. All had done very well from Rogernomics and appeared to leave, as Jan Corbett wrote in the New Zealand Herald in 2004, with “a perceptible sneer”. However, he maintains he did not give up on New Zealand, nor was he drummed out of town. He needed to leave to make the world’s first high-speed amphibian car.

“I love New Zealand and I’ve never been the slightest bit troubled by anything anyone’s said about me,” he says. “I don’t consider I’ve ever done anything to be troubled about. I’ve never felt any particular antagonism, to be honest. I left New Zealand because I couldn’t do this project here.” He continues to insist the reforms of the 80s were not as destructive as they are sometimes portrayed. “The forestry workers laid off in the 80s all received a year’s pay, income tax-free, which was incredibly generous. Everybody went willingly. Many of them used the money to become contractors. And they made a lot more money.”

Deane, of course, agrees. “Those government departments, like Forestry and Telecom, were in the most appalling state. They weren’t paying dividends or taxes, and we converted them into profitable, self-supporting organisations … New Zealand achieved its fastest growth-rate ever in the 1990s, post the reforms.” So why are people such as Douglas and Gibbs now so out of fashion? “Maybe those who did the reforms haven’t been strong enough advocates for them,” says Deane. “So the myth [that they did more harm than good] has built up.”

Gibbs genuinely believes attitudes are different in England: “Maggie Thatcher’s not the bête noire because they realise she saved them. Now she’s voted in every poll as the best Prime Minister since Churchill.” He is now growling like a bear and sitting with his arms crossed. He believes he knows what New Zealand must do to become a rich country again – the Act Party’s manifesto reflects much of his thinking – and he cannot understand why so many of us don’t agree, or don’t have the will to do it.

He still talks fast, covering issues as diverse as the personality traits of Scandinavians; reverse racism in Detroit; the impending launch of the Quadski; and, again and again, the importance of the free market to a healthy economy. “I read with horror [recently] about the virtues of state ownership. It’s as though the Berlin Wall never fell.”

And maybe he’s starting to care, a little, about what others think. Recently he tidied up the grave of the famous Maori warrior Te Hemara Tauhia, on its site overlooking the Kaipara, and transferred his father’s “ice cream box of ashes” there, from a North Shore cemetery. “It’s my turangawaewae,” he explains.

Below us, the mighty Kaipara Harbour, one of the largest in the world, is filling as fast as a bath. The flocks of oystercatchers, godwits and honking black swans prepare to move inland. A sculpture by British artist Andy Goldsworthy, which looked like a Roman viaduct only a couple of hours ago, is now a sea serpent half-submerged in the water. George Rickey’s silver oblongs writhe wildly in the westerly wind. “Be kind to the old man,” he says as he shakes my hand.