Irish-born entrepreneur Cleary thought outside the square
Queenstown real estate sources do not expect a flood of properties coming onto the market in the wake of billionaire Eamon Cleary’s recent death from cancer.
The Irish-born Mr Cleary, born in 1960, died of cancer on his Kentucky stud farm. He had worldwide investments estimated to be worth more than $2 billion.
Born in County Monaghan, he left school to work on his father’s farm at 11, setting set up his own building company at 17.
He soon became involved in an array of ventures such as the biggest agricultural supplies company in Ireland, which he sold in 1991 and went on to build up a vast investment empire.
One of his more unusual legacies was a deal he clinched with local man Jack Reid, who sold his Reidhaven property to Mr Cleary in 2007 for $4.5 million on condition Mr Reid could stay in the historic home until he died.
When news of Mr Cleary's death broke the other day, Mr Reid told the Mountain Scene newspaper the 52-year-old expected to outlive him when the deal was stuck. Mr Reid is 91.
Mr Cleary attracted the ire of Arrowtown locals when he battled with the local council over three historic buildings, leaving them to run down when he was unable to obtain agreement for a development.
They were subsequently sold to the Queenstown council in a deal brokered by John Martin.
A real estate agent in Queenstown described Mr Cleary “very much an Irish Catholic” who was married and had children who will play a role in administering his estate.
"He must have had a photographic memory because even when he was dealing with you from overseas he often corrected you around the square metre size or tiny details of leases and valuations.”
One of his more recent deals was the sale of Coronet Peak Station to music producer Mutt Lange, who was introduced to the area by his former wife, singer Shania Twain.
Mr Cleary funded a chair in Irish Studies at Otago University in 2006 which is administered by professor Peter Kuch and delivers papers in bachelor of arts, law, history, film and literature. It is the largest Irish studies chair in the southern hemisphere.
One of Mr Cleary’s sons will oversee his New Zealand estate which mainly comprises commercial and residential properties around Queenstown.
His worldwide investments are estimated to be worth around $1.2 billion, but one of his Irish cronies once put the value at well over $2 billion.
As his estate is wound up, the commercial properties in the South Island are likely to be sold.
One of his Queenstown friends was Russell Hamilton, who has also been involved in property investments in the tourist town.
His daughter continues to manage the Cleary properties in the area.
Mr Hamilton says Mr Cleary and the late Rich List multi-millionaire Howard Paterson were friends and had many attributes in common, such as their breadth of vision. Dunedin-born Mr Paterson was also a big property player in Queenstown, among other diverse interests.
“I’d guess they’ll be both playing monopoly together right now,” Mr Hamilton says.
Mr Cleary was less outgoing than the gregarious Mr Paterson. He was “a private person but he opened up around friends”, Mr Hamilton says. He was also more interested in personal fitness, regularly visiting the gymnasium.
New Zealand was important to Mr Cleary during the early 2000s but latterly he reduced some of his holdings and focused more on South America, especially Argentina. He was comfortable about setting up infrastructure and managers and moving on to new pastures.
His legal jousting with Mr Congreve had an almost Quixotic touch to it. The pair fought through the courts in a convoluted legal barney over resource management jiggery-pokery.
Mr Cleary planned to build the 52-unit development on a 27ha block of land adjacent to Dr Congreve's land by the Clutha River but tried to avoid the requirement for subdivision consent by saying he would lease the dwellings for 30 years rather than sell them.
The lease proposal helped him to conveniently sidestep a covenant which restricted subdivision on the picturesque site to only three houses.
In 2005, the local council gave approval to the lease plan on condition the buildings were removed from the site before the leases expired in 30 years.
Mr Cleary appealed the 30-year removal requirement and Dr Congreve also appealed, claiming the original resource consent was invalid as the name given for the developer, Fox Rock Developments, was not a legal person.
In a gymnastic judgment delivered in March 2006, Environment Court Judge Jon Jackson found the name mistake could be cleared up if Mr Cleary changed the name of the applicant to another of his companies, Big River Paradise.
Dr Congreve appealed the Environment Court's decision on the name issue to the High Court.
In separate and simultaneous litigation, the Environment Court heard Mr Cleary's appeal against the condition that the 52 planned houses must be removed in 30 years – leaving the roading and infrastructure.
There were various interlocutory hearings as Mr Cleary tried to strike out the Congreve challenges, arguing court jurisdiction in one case.
Dr Congreve eventually won in the High Court and then Mr Cleary went to the Appeal Court.
But to no avail. The Appeal Court upheld Justice Hugh Williams’ decision that the meaning of the covenant should be construed with the generally-held understanding of the words.
A 52-dwelling proposal with roads and infrastructure was clearly not what the covenant framers had intended, he said.
Mr Cleary's proposal went "well beyond" what the covenant allowed and amounted to a subdivision of the land, even though not a subdivision for purposes of section 218 of the RMA.
The purpose of the covenant was clearly to preserve the amenities of the Congreve property from the adverse effects of extensive development of the Cleary property, Justice Williams concluded in 2008.
There was talk Mr Cleary might have had a Plan B for the land – the biggest pig farm in New Zealand – but it appears that was all it was, just talk.
After this, Mr Cleary had less interest in New Zealand as he pursued his South American conquests.
His interests here were looked after by lawyer John Henderson, who practices in the central North Island town of Marton.
Mr Henderson was in Argentina this week, helping wind up some of Mr Cleary’s affairs.