Tony Quinn’s dilemma: the human toll of making millions and what to do with it

Multimillionaire businessman and motorsport baron Tony Quinn talks to Jane Phare about how he’s made his money and what on earth he’s going to do with it all.

He’s an odd mix, Tony Quinn. There’s no doubt he’s a hard man – in business that is. Some call him “ruthless”. And indeed, in his autobiography Zero to 60, Quinn recounts stories that would make any HR person run in the opposite direction, like removing all the chairs at his confectionery company Darrell Lea to stop supervisors sitting at their computers. In Quinn’s factory, shift supervisors should be on the shop floor supervising. Answer? Take their chairs away.

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In Zero to 60, written five years ago (Quinn turns 65 next month), he seems to have all the answers. He wrote this: “Some people believe in God or Buddha or Muhammad. I believe in myself.”

The book ends on a high. He’d been phenomenally successful in business, working with his family, mainly in the petfood industry. He spent $20 million building Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell, bought the Hampton Downs motorsport park in north Waikato for $13m and then spent another $20m on it. (He added Taupo Motorsport Park, at a cost of $9.8m, and Queensland Raceway on the Gold Coast for $13.2m last year.) He owned a fleet of expensive cars, including a $4.2m Aston Martin Vulcan and had a successful racing career behind him.

But it’s the years since then that have flummoxed him with what he calls “the human stuff”. Here is a man who has driven at 200km/h in a race car at Bathurst and made hundreds of millions of dollars in his lifetime, but has realised there are some things over which he has no control.

His eldest daughter Kelda died of ovarian cancer at the age of 40, just after Christmas in 2016. Christina, his wife and business partner of nearly 40 years, announced she’d had enough of the full-on Quinn lifestyle and wanted a divorce. She was ready to retire and enjoy their winnings. He wasn’t. And he’s estranged from one of his sons, a young man he viewed as a “best friend and buddy”, working and racing together.

Quinn describes some of the more recent years as “turmoil”. All that “commercial business stuff”, no problem. Make a decision, work hard, be successful, “feckin’ easy”, he says. “People? Humans? Children? F***ing hell, how hard is it?”

Goodbye Scotland, gidday Australia

Not that business has been easy. When he left Aberdeen in 1980 headed for Perth In Australia, with his wife Christina and their two eldest children, he was anticipating instant success. After all, from his signwriting business servicing Aberdeen’s oil industry he was making more money than Maggie Thatcher, Britain’s Prime Minister at the time.

But making it in Perth was harder than he thought. Quinn recognises now he became depressed and it wasn’t until he moved to New Zealand in 1984 that his business ideas started to work.

Now, nearly 40 years later, Quinn has another problem: what to do with the hundreds of millions earned on the back of blood, sweat and dog rolls? Of course, he won’t say what he’s worth but there’s an Australian Financial Review Rich List figure of $540m floating around.

“Yeah, yeah, maybe, at least that.” And, as a shareholder in 17 companies, including seven in New Zealand, he’s busy making many millions more. He’s about to invest $9.4 m in a business and “guarantees” it will sell for more than $40m in a couple of years’ time.

When Quinn sold his hugely successful petfood company VIP (Very Important Pets) to a Singaporean/Chinese/American conglomerate for $410m in 2015, he knew the new owners would make the company bigger and better. So he reinvested 10 per cent of the sale price.

“Two years later we resold for $1 billion,” he says triumphantly. People asked him if he was annoyed that he only got $410m in the first place.

“Noooo!” he says in his Scottish brogue. All he had to do was have “one meeting with the Chinese. Easiest money I’ve ever made”.

So what to do with all that easy money? Quinn thinks his children have enough. They each got between A$15m and A$20m when he sold VIP and now he quotes American business magnate Warren Buffett: “Leave your children enough money so they can do anything, but not enough that they don’t have to do anything.”

Quinn grew up in a working-class Scottish family living in Aberdeen, in a wooden caravan his dad built on the back of a Bedford truck. When he wasn’t in school, where the kids called him a “gypsy,” Quinn was helping to make petfood in the family business. So he’s not keen on over-indulging his own kids.

His philosophy is slightly less eloquent than Buffett’s. To his mind, if he gives his kids too much, “it’ll f**k ’em all. Let’s help more people practically than just helping a few.”

Some of his money will go towards a motorsport “legacy”. There’s the three race courses in New Zealand and one in Queensland that will need looking after. He’s looking for a site in Brisbane to build another one. Quinn plans on leaving a multimillion-dollar fund to make sure they keep running to his standard.

But philanthropy, it has him stumped and Quinn goes off-topic, thinking aloud about this dilemma. How does he give away millions of dollars and make sure it’s well spent? He talks about “Popeye’s legacy” – his grandchildren call him Popeye – with his board members but that’s as far as he’s got.

“What I’ve seen of charities and philanthropy and all that stuff, it’s a method for wealthy people to make them look good socially and make them feel good.”

But is that not better than keeping it all? Yes, he says, agreed. But how do you give it away sensibly?

Quinn has in fact poked his toe in the water, funding a social worker in Cromwell to work between local schools for five years. And he’s funding a mental health programme for students between years 6 and 10.

“If we can save one life, then it will be worthwhile,” he says. Referring to his daughter’s death, he says, “for any parent to bury their child is a hugely traumatic thing to go through”.

He likes the idea of Ronald McDonald House because, with McDonald’s covering the administration, all the donated money goes towards helping the families of kids with cancer.

And it’s a fast-food outlet with which he has no quibble. Each morning he leaves his opulent Sanctuary Cove home, which he bought last year for $19.5m, to drive to Queensland Raceway. On the way he stops at McDonald’s to spend A$9.40 on a ham-and-cheese toastie and a long black coffee. Yes, he admits. he’s a creature of habit.

The man with the Midas touch

Quinn is a born raconteur, the master of the dog-roll story. His father thought his son had the Midas touch. Quinn thinks it’s more about “f**kin’ hard work, common sense and some good luck”.

The thing about taking over a failing business, he says, is that he has no emotional attachment to the staff. If there are too many, out they go. It doesn’t take him long to figure out why a company is losing money and how to fix it. He bought Darrell Lea in 2012 for $A20m after the iconic sweet company went into liquidation. Back then it was losing $5m a year.

Quinn told the receivers he didn’t want the 65 retail shops. Why would he? Only three were making any money. Instead, he sold the sweets through existing outlets such as supermarkets. He slashed the Darrell Lea range from 700 products to 85.

“We identified that half the s**t they were making, nobody was buying.”

He cut the staff from 760 to 85. And then he took away the chairs.

“I run a lean, mean operation and make no excuse for it.”

And he has no time for unions telling him how to run his business either.

“The employees used to take a break every 10 minutes to do yoga or stretching or some s**t.”

He spent a total of $50m on the business and sold out for $200m five years ago, keeping a small shareholding. When he took over the factory was a “filthy s**t hole”, the staff despondent. You could smell the vermin, he says.

Quinn doesn't do dirty

Quinn harks back to the wooden caravan in which he and his two sisters slept on bunks that folded down to create a dining table. It was small but it was spotless, he says. So were his VIP pet food factories.

Quinn doesn’t do dirty. The glass balustrades on the viewing balconies at Hampton Downs are immaculate. His CEO Josie Spillane, who is based at Highlands in Cromwell, tells the Herald there had been no clean-up in preparation for her boss’ “royal tour” toNew Zealand after a two-year absence.

Quinn expects all his race tracks to be clean and tidy, like the caravan, like his petfood factory, like the sweet factory. Spillane says there are too many eyes on the ground who would report back to her boss if she let those standards fall.

These days 80 per cent of Quinn’s time is spent on business – in his book he says he has a property and share portfolio “that would be the envy of most Wall Street operators” – and 20 per cent on the racetracks.

It is his love of motorsport – driving loud, very fast cars round and round a track trying to beat the guy ahead – that has caused Quinn to invest millions into the sport.

Motorsport, he says, is “like a drug”. He’s raced with his sons and now a grandson. He’s stood on “the top step” at Bathurst, at Grand Prix, Goodwood in the UK, in Dubai. Most of his buddies are into it.

“Motorsport has been very good to me.”

Highlands is his flagship, his pride and joy. There is a book in that subject alone, he says.

“Hopefully they’ll build a bronze statue [of Quinn] out the front and I hope it’s not a rude one.”

Quinn’s sense of humour is evident in the toilet suite at Highlands. Each loo has floor-to-ceiling one-way glass to give visitors an uninterrupted view of the race track. And they have themes, like the plush gold-panelled Royal Suite, a Highlands history suite, a women’s suite with jokes and cartoons, and the Sound of Music suite in which the urinals are shaped likeinstruments, with Donald Trump thrown in at the end for good measure.

He admits the motorsport parks are not the smartest commercial investments.

“There are not many windfalls owning a race track except if the town grows out towards you and they shut you down for noise and you can sell the land for houses.”

But the motorsport parks are all expected to wash their faces. They won’t lose money, not on Quinn’s watch. Instead, he has ambitions for them. He’d like to see the V8 Supercars race at his tracks. Hampton Downs has already hosted the New Zealand Grand Prix last year and he’s confident they’ll get it again next year. His dream is to hold the Grand Prix in alternate years at Hampton and Highlands.

He also owns indoor go-kart tracks called Game Over, two in New Zealand and one in the Gold Coast. He’s looking for sites in Christchurch and Brisbane.He started them for no other reason than he thought he could do better than the smelly, dirty tracks run by “guys with shorts hangin’ down their arse”.

He’d been to a go-kart track in Los Angeles. Awesome, he says. “All electric, tidy, clean, nice, quiet.”

The time I slept in my car

For Quinn, life is now under control. Business is good, and so is his relationship. He’s happy. But he’s the first to admit that his first 25 years of business were sheer hard slog. He recalls a time in 2002 when he moved his petfood company to a new site on the Gold Coast, 50km from the original site. Staff left in droves and Quinn was left trying to run two 12-hour shifts.

“Klark, Kent (his two sons) and I slept in our cars and worked day and night to get through those months.”

Compare that life with “The White House” which he bought in Queensland’s Tamborine nine years later, an eight-bedroom mansion with a cinema, tennis court and swimming pool set in 2ha grounds. Dripping with crystal chandeliers and marble, it was like something out of The Great Gatsby, he says.

He once owned a property in Queenstown too but Christina ended up with the Quinn residential portfolio when they split. “I had to buy an apartment back off her,” he laughs.

Now he’s in a hurry to sort things out. He has a multimillion-dollar car collection, many of them on display at the Highlands National Motorsport Museum in Cromwell. He admits to being a bit cheeky at inserting the “National” into the name.

“But no-one objected, so it’s mine now.”

As for the cars, they’ll stay in the museum in the meantime.

“I’ve got nine grandchildren and I’ll probably give them a car each. To be honest, I haven’t really thought about it.”

It’s back to the part that baffles him. His split with Christina, he didn’t see it coming. There’s a telling line in Quinn’s book after he had bought Bush’s Pet Food, which went into receivership in 2009, for $A37m and turned it around to make a A$22m profit in his second year of ownership. Christina wanted her husband to retire and let their adult children run the businesses. “Our grandchildren have just started to sprout and it would be good to spend time with them,” she tells him.

“You go ahead and get started on retirement and I’ll join you in a minute,” Quinn says. But that minute never came. He admits he can’t stop. It’s not the money. It’s the thrill of turning something around, turning a dog of a business into a multimillion-dollar success.

He’s thoughtful, now, about the parts that haven’t been so successful.

“For all the successes that I’ve had in business commercially, it felt like I’d failed miserably at the marriage thing. As you grow in life you lose control of that side of your life and you’re challenged by different challenges. I’m not the best guy for an emotional discussion and I’ll admit that.”

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