He spear-headed the growth of New Zealand’s largest property syndication company and is the man behind the development of Waiwhakaiho’s Valley Mega Shopping Centre.
He also saved Taranaki’s Rescue Helicopter Trust and received a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for his contribution to governance and philanthropy in the 2018 New Year’s Honours List.
In this interview, Bryce Barnett reveals the one trait people need over any other, in order to succeed in life.
Bryce Barnett’s property career began with tree fungus.
Jew’s Ear, to be more specific — the same tree fungus that made the fortune of another of New Plymouth’s famous businessmen, Chew Chong.
When he was 14, most days after school Bryce used to collect the fungus, which he sold to a man in town.
“After a while I realised he must be making money from it, so I wrote to the Singapore Embassy and got the contact of people over there and I started selling mine direct,” Barnett recalls. “Then I used to go around and buy from other people. My father used to take me around because he had to sign the cheques as I wasn’t old enough.”
Bryce left school at the end of the sixth form and started work at the Inland Revenue on the 13th Dec 1971. By March he had bought a section in Wesley Ave.
“It cost me $5,200 and I put down $2,600 from the money I’d made from fungus. In today’s money that would be a $440,000 section, so in effect I put down $220,000.”
In April he bought his first car for $300 — an Austin Cambridge.
“My mates all had flash cars but I said ‘No, I’m going to have this car for ten years.’ I was joking but I actually ended up owning it for twelve years. Whereas, they used to trade their cars every year getting Falcons and Chryslers and all that sort of stuff, I just had this old bomb I used to take up and down the beach, and it just kept going.”
He sold the Wesley Ave section for $12,500 six months after purchasing it and started buying up old houses in Buller and Lemon Streets then doing them up to make them more tenantable.
“I’m not handy at all so I’d get somebody in to do all that.”
It was the start of his lifelong career in property development, including the Kawaroa Close housing area on New Plymouth’s waterfront.
He formed Kawaroa Consultancy Limited in 1993, which later became KCL Property and the company became better known for its many commercial property deals.
In 2005 Barnett announced plans for The Valley Mega Centre, a three year staged project that opened in 2008.
By 2012, KCL Property was one of the big four commercial property companies in New Zealand and managed about 160 properties worth around $750 million. That included all the Spotlight stores in New Zealand along with many other big box and supermarket stores from Invercargill to Whangarei. Sixty-five percent of their portfolio was in Auckland with some holdings in Brisbane as well. KCL Property’s New Plymouth assets only accounted for 0.5% of its assets.
Two years later, KCL Property was New Zealand’s largest property syndicator and was merged with Augusta Capital.
These days Bryce remains a board member of Augusta, which manages over $2 billion worth of properties throughout New Zealand and Australia, with 4000 investors and offices in Auckland, New Plymouth and Christchurch.
In January 2017, two of Bryce and wife Delwyn’s children lay on operating tables, one about to give a kidney to the other.
Eldest daughter Adelle suffers from an aggressive form of nephrotic disease and had her first kidney transplant at the age of fifteen.
In 2012, this kidney failed and she went on dialysis while the search for a new kidney began.
After a plethora of testing, Bryce’s other daughter Lacey was revealed as a match. The two sisters underwent more testing and were all set to have the operation in March 2015. Already at the hospital, a last minute test revealed Adelle had developed antibodies, which would have meant a kidney from Lacey would have failed. It was something that rarely happened, but as a result of that they had to call the operation off.
“Life’s never meant to be easy,” Bryce reflects.
“It was extremely devastating on both girls. They’d psyched themselves up and put a few things on hold and then just to be told ‘it won’t work’ on literally the eve of the operation, it sort of threw us back into turmoil.
“Recently they have been able to do transplants between different blood types. Due to the antibody issues, Adelle needed a perfect tissue match for a transplant and as one in five siblings are a perfect match, brother Reeve was able to be a donor even though he was a different blood type. This required more treatment than a standard transplant, but it was very successful.”
The operation went smoothly and Adelle says she can’t ever remember being this well before, says Bryce.
“She did a 10k run yesterday. Her life has completely changed … Reeve believes he gave her a placebo because he reckons nothing’s changed from his point of view, so everybody is absolutely delighted and long may it last.”
He says the whole experience has brought Reeve and Adelle even closer together.
“They were always close, very moving some of the speeches at the wedding (Reeve wed in April 2019). Also with Mick (Adelle’s husband) … it’s sort of a bond that has brought another dimension. And it’s also brought Lacey and Adelle very much closer, even though their operation never happened (Lacey married earlier this year too).
Bryce and Delwyn are proud of the way their children stepped up for Adelle.
“We as parents didn’t get involved with that (whether they should or should not look at donating a kidney to their sister). Our view is they make their own decisions. It’s neat that they knew what the answer was rather than having to make a decision, if that makes sense.”
Business and Family
Interviewing Bryce about his business life, family constantly creeps into the conversation.
It is obvious family is what he treasures most — he and wife Delwyn have five children and three grandchildren.
Yet he’d be the first to admit he has never spent much time at home and by anyone else’s standards would be accused of working too many hours.
“The family knows it’s not a job, it’s me. It’s who I am.
“As they get older, and see what I do, some of them are starting to do their own business deals, they’re starting to see maybe part of my genes are showing through them.
“I have a daughter who tells me I’m working too hard and she should be looking at herself.”
However, as of April this year, his 64th birthday, Bryce has made a commitment to cut back his hours. Predominantly, for the past 3-4 years he’s spent the working week in Auckland. Now it’s usually just three days a week out of town.
“I’ve also got the view if you switch off completely and you’ve had an active and challenging mind, you can deteriorate very fast and become ‘old’. I’m not someone who would opt to work 4 or 6 hours a day. I’d rather work hard, then not work for three or four months of the year and go for a decent holiday.
“What drives me is creating opportunities. You have a dream and you turn it into bricks and mortar.”
Even though he is still loving the thrill of the deal, he recognises “sometimes you’ve got to say ‘whoa’ … there is time to hand the baton over and help other people to be better than their opposition, their peers and other companies.”
Barnett is now a director on a number of companies outside of Augusta, “including private companies I have equity in, from computer programming companies to others engineering earthquake brackets.
“You’ve got people who’ve put everything on the line … some of them mortgage their houses, some of them have sold their houses … to get their dream going, and then they hit a block wall which they think is impossible to surmount. And part of the reason they think it is impossible is because of that mortgage and all they can focus on is being able to look after their family if the whole thing tips over. I’m there to tell them to keep going … it’s only paper mache painted as blocks. Make sure they’re going in the right direction. Often times I’ll know nothing about the product, but I see that’s the biggest advantage I’ve got. I can appreciate their enthusiasm but ensure they exercise good judgment. This is what I love now … twenty years ago I didn’t have time to mentor people, I was too busy doing deals. Now I’m about 50% on doing the deals and 50% on mentoring and also just stopping and thinking.”
Son Reeve gets copied in to dealings with all of Bryce’s various interests so if something happens to Bryce, somebody in the family knows what’s going on.
“Reeve has an overview of the entire operation and communicates with all the other kids on it. So we have this internal transparent philosophy.”
The Secret Ingredient
“I’ve got a personal view, and it’s probably been tailored as I’ve gone along life’s way, so might not be what I thought as a 20 or 25 year old, of all the attributes that somebody has and what is going to dictate their future, the most important ingredient is attitude. More important than intelligence or education. You can have all those other ingredients, but if you don’t have the right attitude, they actually become meaningless.”
Educators will no doubt be aghast to learn that Barnett values the right attitude far above the right school, education or degree.
“I think too many people go to university and believe obtaining a degree is absolutely critical — and I’m not saying it’s not — but it’s overdone. There’s so many opportunities out there which are just as rewarding, if not more rewarding — both financially and emotionally and overall satisfaction — than going to university.”
He cites what he sees as a prime example.
“Being a solicitor. We see it as one of the ‘ultimates’ in life. Working in a law firm must be the most boring job that I can think of.”
With five adult children, Barnett has plenty of real life examples to draw from.
“My eldest son did well at school. When he first started high school, he talked about being a policeman. He went through school, went to university and did extremely well, ended up with a double degree, went out as a lawyer … I think it would be fair to say he hated it … and guess what now? He’s a detective and he’s never been happier in all his life. Now they don’t get paid extremely well, but he’s happy because he’s following his dream.”
Another son wanted to be an architect but he never made the grades at school.
“But because of his attitude and following his dreams he was accepted into architecture school anyway and after one year there he topped the class.”
He’s proud to see that ‘follow your dream regardless’ attitude in all of his children and urges parents to listen when a child tells you that he or she wants to do something that may not be up to your expectation of what you had for that child.
“Take it on board and encourage them to follow their dream and back themselves. Once people are happy in the space they’re working in, they can give something back to society.”
He also doesn’t think there should be such a thing as ‘your occupation’.
Your work “should be part of your life. If you don’t have the right attitude it will become a job or an occupation.”
That is always how he has felt about his own varied career. He gets involved with businesses and organisations that interest him, or are a challenge in some way.
Like the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter Trust.
In 2012 the organisation was in need of being rescued itself.
The community-minded businessman stepped up and took the reins, bringing it back from the brink of financial disaster and introducing a new management model that has been copied at other rescue helicopter services around New Zealand.
If ‘attitude’ is the one word that sums up what Barnett looks for in people, then ‘communication’ would be the word that sums up his approach to business.
“I’ve got this real philosophy — and the younger generation don’t understand it. No, that’s not right … when I say they don’t understand it, no-one sits down with them and tells them that there is another way. I think it’s important to say ‘Look, this is the time you pick up the phone. Show them how you can turn a challenge into an opportunity. You can’t do that on an email.”
The other drawback with an email, especially when it comes to solving a problem or resolving some sort of conflict, is “as soon as you hit that SEND button, in your mind, you’ve dealt with the problem. Even though sometimes, all you’ve done, is play a game of tennis. You’ve lobbed the problem back to the other person and all you’ve succeeded in doing is making them equally frustrated.
“Everybody thinks that communication is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ situation. I’m sorry, in business a response will lead to another question. You may think an email is quicker, but in reality, a phone call is — and it’s more effective. In 90 percent of cases of conflict, it’s not that anyone has actually done anything wrong, it’s just that everybody has interpreted events differently. And it’s opportunities like that, that will often lead to other opportunities.”
His development of The Valley shopping centre at Waiwhakaiho is a prime example of the importance of effective communication.
“I was sitting here thinking ‘one day large format (shopping) is going to come to New Plymouth … where’s the logical place? So you sniff round and realise the land you want is owned by all these different people. How are we going to do it? So you do this and you do that … and you know that project probably had a gestation period of three years. But I didn’t do it by emails. If I had, 1) I wouldn’t have got the answers I wanted and 2) I would have told them all what I was doing.
“So you sit down with people and gain confidence and you can only do that face to face. As a result of that we ended up swapping buildings so there were deals within deals … that’s what brings business opportunities.”
The Grandchildren are The Future
One thing Bryce Barnett is really passionate about at the moment, is a belief people of his generation have a strong obligation to their grandkids’ generation.
“And I’m not saying just to our grandkids, but to our grandkids’ generation.
“Our children, who are in their 30s and 40s, they’ve already determined their general direction in life. As affordability has become a huge issue in the last few years, it’s only going to get worse. What we’re starting to see now is the young generation coming through with the mentality of ‘I’m never going to be able to afford to buy a house so why should I start saving?’ That’s where we, our generation, have a strong obligation to change that attitude. I come back to that word.”
He sees youngsters getting to 16, 17 and they want to buy a car on hire purchase, or they want to go overseas … they don’t even think about buying a house.
“It’s harder for the parents to help change that attitude because the parents have usually been part of the slippage. And I’m not blaming the parents because that’s the way we raised them. So it’s our obligation to start changing that. And in doing so … it’s making them become more aware of some of the commercial aspects of life.”
He’d like to see local Lions and Rotary Clubs, get a speaker in, “like a banker or someone like that, speak over the school holidays, and the condition is members bring along a young person, not necessarily a grandchild but someone they are close to who would benefit by being taught about financial and commercial matters. The stuff they’re not going to learn at school, and maybe not at home either. It’s real easy, but we don’t do it. We don’t even think about doing it.”
He recalls talking to one of Augusta’s investors who gave his four grandchildren a $5000 investment each.
“He told me ‘It’s the best move I ever made. My fourteen year old grand-daughter came along to me with her first dividend cheque and she was telling me all about it. It was the first time we had a really good conversation. I was no longer the boring old man who sits on a big soft chair watching TV … all of a sudden I was grandad who knew a bit about investment, and I love it!’”
What New Plymouth Needs Now
Bryce Barnett opts to stay out of the oil and gas debate “because Taranaki is established in that and whatever happens there, we’ve got enough local experts in town who can control that. We’ve got to be careful we don’t get carried away by the hydrocarbon industry because it will be driven by the national and international market, and all we can do is be a good facilitator.”
For the dairy industry, he sees continued hard times ahead, with inconsistent incomes and low returns.
“We’re going to see a drift to a lot more food orientated stuff. There will be food opportunities in Taranaki that will exist … stuff that can handle our, at times, extreme weather.”
“It comes back to what’s in Taranaki that we should we be focusing on. What are we good at that’s outside those two areas. It’s art, whether you like it or whether you don’t like it, that’s where our focus should be, because we’ve already got the base. That’s what brings our national tourism.
“We should be focusing on attracting retirees and young families here to live. Not middle management … they already have good jobs in Auckland and Wellington and if they don’t they are hanging on to hopes of promotion. Therefore we have to improve our facilities to accommodate the families.
“On the rugby stadium, I could argue for or against, but we’re a rugby nation.
“The TSB Stadium is the most magic place to build a complete sporting facility and have a long-term plan that you start on now. Because of the low interest rate environment at present, why aren’t we going out and borrowing the money at 3 per cent or whatever it is, because construction prices are going up 5 per cent per annum. So if we go and do it now, we’d have the facility now and the interest on it is going to be cheaper than the rise in construction costs.
“We need to create some special things for families to enjoy. I can still remember as a kid if we had a choice of where to go for a holiday, it would be to Hastings, only because of Splash Planet. I’d like to see a big unique playground … it’s got to have some unique features and it’s got to be along the waterfront. I think the classic situation would be the Fitzroy Golf Club. OK guys you’ve won your 18 hole course, why don’t you give some land to a playground and use your clubhouse as a cafe.”
“Then get the council to put in state-of-the-art internet systems.
Take our business. The accountants and support staff don’t have to be sitting in Auckland, they can be here, providing they have good internet connection, and they can Skype in to meetings like they’re in the office next door.
“Office space in New Plymouth is a lot cheaper than Auckland and it’s also a much more affordable place to live for those support staff who are likely to be on a more modest wage.
“Maybe free WiFi in New Plymouth. We have great opportunity to do that.
“We have a lot of heritage here, with many stories to be told that ultimately could become curriculum in New Zealand. The Land Wars … a lot of them started here but we’re not telling the story.
“The thing with Taranaki is that the perception of our isolation is greater than it actually is. People in New Plymouth don’t understand that. When all the oil and gas furore happened, and we had our leaders come out and say that was pretty much the end of Taranaki … and I understand why they did it, and I probably would have done the same … but if you’re a financier sitting in Auckland you’re going to think ‘it’s almost like West Coast now … Westport, Greymouth and New Plymouth, all in the same basket. I’m exaggerating but that is how it’s perceived in the bigger centres. They don’t put us in the same basket as Napier and Hastings because that’s all seen as wine and vineyards.
“To revitalise the middle of town, I’m all for council buying as many earthquake-prone buildings and create green spaces, get the Huatoki Plaza happening, create a real market in the weekend like the Nelson market.
“The other thing is, K-mart’s got to come to town, there are no two ways about that.
Why doesn’t the council facilitate sticking them in town somehow? They could actually own the building and get a return from it. The earthquake buildings, bulldoze them down and create a platform and revitalise the town.
But if they don’t do that soon, K-mart will find somewhere else in New Plymouth and it will be out the Valley way.”
I Had a Dream
“It was only about 15, maybe 20 years ago, I decided I’d like to start fulfilling my dream,” Bryce says of his car collection. “I’m not mechanically minded at all — I see them (the cars) as art. It’s my art collection. I just love them. I drive them, I’m proud of them, but I don’t know anything mechanical about them. If you ask me how many horsepower they are, I haven’t got a clue.
“I’ll research it to see if it’s an original and it’s rare … I’m a collector, but I know nothing of the technical aspects.”
The collection includes an Austin Cambridge … just like his first-ever car.
Bryce attributes his legendary generosity to his mother, and it’s a value he’s passed on to his kids.
The family’s beautiful garden has been open in the past for garden festival visitors to enjoy and Bryce will open up access to his extensive car collection. He loans them to Americarna every year for their sponsors.
He’s adamant the cars are there to be enjoyed and even lets other people drive them, including his kid’s friends. He trusts his kids to be responsible about who they give the keys to.
“I remember when Callum, our son, took our Morgan out when he was dating his now wife, and he took off a bit fast from the gate — it’s a very powerful car — and he did a wheelspin and came back into our property but not through the front gate. People said to me ‘he’ll never drive that car again’ .
But Bryce reveals in his response, his own attitude and belief in people’s ability to learn from their mistakes.
“ … I said ‘No! He can have that car tomorrow because he won’t do it ever again’.”