Sir Michael’s come a very long way

Friday April 15, 2016 Written by Published in Weekend
Sir Michael Hill with Finance minister Mark Brown (left) and Health minister Nandi Glassie. 16041526 Sir Michael Hill with Finance minister Mark Brown (left) and Health minister Nandi Glassie. 16041526

The Air New Zealand Cook Islands Tourism Awards 2016 announced at a gala awards dinner at the National Auditorium last night was a sellout affair with more than 300 guests. The show included entertainment, dinner with Cook Islands fare on show and two international guest speakers – Air NZ’s chief sales and commercial officer, Cam Wallace and prominent New Zealand and internationally known jeweller, Sir Michael Hill.

The awards were not announced before CI News went to print, but will feature in Monday’s paper. This is Sir Michael Hill’s first visit to the Cook Islands and Derek Fox sat down with him soon after his arrival.

Sir Michael Hill – jeweller, didn’t have the happiest of childhoods.

For starters he was an only child and missed the company of other siblings.

He didn’t have a family life; he was also small and a bit shy and so was bullied at school, and he hated that.

His dad was a vacumm cleaner salesman and sold one to the people who owned Fishers the jewellers in Whangarei, he ended up marrying their daughter – and they had little Michael.

Hill left school as soon as he could. He wanted to be a concert violinist; and although he loves the violin and still plays and also provides an international competion for young violinists, he wasn’t good enough so after 18 months he gave it away.

His uncle, his mum’s brother,took him aside and told him he was wasting his and the family’s time with this violin stuff and said he would train him to be a watchmaker. But he wasn’t any good at that either. Next they tried to turn him into a jeweller. Still no good. His next stop was out front selling with his father. He quite liked that and it turned into a 23-year apprenticeship.

During that time he met his wife who was an English migrant brought out to New Zealand to be a school teacher. They built their dream home overlooking the Whangarei harbour, it was a huge place and took two years to complete. Soon after that they were at the pictures one night when his wife got a call from a neighbour. Their house was on fire.

By the light of the flames, as they watched it burn and saw everything they owned going up in smoke, Michael wrote on a piece of paper what he wanted to do: take over his uncle’s business. He lined up capital and made offers to buy him out, but his uncle refused to sell, so in 1979 Michael set up his own store in competition.

Looking back, Sir Michael reckons his late uncle, who didn’t like him, did him a favour by refusing to sell.

“Up until then I’d had things too easy, I hadn’t done enough. I’d spent all my life in Whangarei, and I could have still been there.”

All that changed when he bought his first out-of-town business in Hastings. From there the Michael Hill brand began its march across the country and around the world.

At first Michael was the sole owner of the business, but in 1987 he went public with shares.

Today there are about 300 Michael Hill stores around the world. There are 55 in New Zealand, 170 in Australia.

“I began to think, to dream of the future and the current dream is for 1000 shops. But we couldn’t do that in Australasia, there simply aren’t enough jewellers’ shops. So we went into Canada where we now have more than 60 shops. We’re number one in Canada.”

They’ve also made a move south of the border into the USA, but that market is a much harder nut to crack.

“We have shops in the United States, in cities like Chicago and New York. But the main competiton has 3500 shops.”

Despite the difficulties the dream is still alive, and the target is still 1000 shops.

If you know anything about Michael Hill, you might also know he is keen on golf and has a course down in Arrowtown in Central Otago, New Zealand.

His interest in golf goes back to that lonely childhood growing up in a state house in Whangarei.

“I mowed areas on the back lawn and put in little holes for my golf course.”

Later when he and his wife were looking for somewhere to set up a New Zealand home after being in Australia, they bought a farm near Arrowtown and after putting a few holes in the much bigger lawn, a friend suggested he should go the whole hog with an 18-hole course.

He even offered to build it for a paltry $4 million. Eighteen million dollars later, he has a very fine  course. The irrigation system alone cost $1 million. But the finished product is good, good enough to hold the New Zealand Open.

Golf is not the only pastime he’s got which can cost a few bob; there’s fishing, too.

“I love fishing and I’m expecting to go out while I’m here.”

Sir Michael’s had a few boats in his time. He started out with a two metre dinghy, then four metres, then 9.1 metres.

The latest is 34 metres and just the other day he was indulging this passion fishing off Cape Brett on the east coast of Northland.

“I was catching snapper and also landed a 65-pound hapuka.”

Although he’d just arrived on Rarotonga, and hadn’t had a chance to look around, he did have some advice for this little slice of paradise. “Keep things simple and natural, and the environment clean. That’s what people are looking for.”

Just before we wrapped up our conversation Sir Michael was in a reflective mood again.

“Yes my uncle – he didn’t like me – but he did do me a favour. He had one shop, I’ve now got 300. But it was that house fire that pushed me.”

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