Leigh Davis – avant garde in business, arts, adventure

Leigh Robert Davis, born Wanganui, 1955, died Auckland, Oct 3, 2009

Auckland’s business, arts and academic circles farewelled one of their highest achievers in typically unconventional style at Auckland University’s chapel today.

Mr Davis, 54, died 18 months after being diagnosed with cancer. Tributes were paid to four dimensions of his life – creative, business, adventure and family.

Academic Roger Horrocks spoke of his brilliance as a student, poet and installation artist; Scott Perkins of his business career as an investment banker and entrepreneur; High Court Judge Rhys Harrison of their shared cycling, mountain climbing and kayaking expeditions; and brother Julian and wife Susan on the more personal side.

Described as an avant-gardist in his both creative and business careers, Mr Davis graduated from the University of Auckland and, after further study at Victoria, worked as a Treasury analyst just as the financial world was being shaken from roots by the newly elected Labour government of David Lange and Roger Douglas.

In his parallel life, Mr Davis' first book-length work of poetry, Willy’s Gazette (1983), won the Best NZ First Book of Poetry Award. He also co-edited the literary magazine AND.

In 1985, as the financial world was deregulated, Mr Davis joined Michael Fay and David Richwhite’s burgeoning investment banking  operation, becoming a principal in 1993.

He took a lead role in major acquisitions such as Telecom, New Zealand Rail (later Tranz Rail), and the freight operations of British Rail and Tasmanian Railways. He was a director of Tranz Rail until 2003, as well as English Welsh & Scottish Railways and the UK Railfreight Company.

When Messrs Fay and Richwhite moved their base to Switzerland in 1998, Mr Davis continued to manage their telecommunications and technology interests, before forming his own venture, Jump Capital, a pioneering private equity fund.

In 2001, he was one of 10 high-profile figures named in the NBR as “the money men who make the world go around,” in which he was described as a “complex and intriguing individual.”

Earlier, in 1998, Mr Davis stunned the artistic world in a return to creative endeavour with a large multimedia exhibition of banners at the old Auckland railway station, Station of the Earth Bound Ghosts, using text and diagrams as well as the dramatic colours and banners of heraldry.

NBR’s arts critic, John Daly-People’s, wrote, “Through these he revisited and reinvented the past and created solutions and dilemmas for the future. All societies require starting points and lodestones for their understanding of culture, family and the wider environment.

“These starting points relating to the physical, personal and spiritual are the way cultures are created, layered with history, mythology, innovation and discovery.

“Davis' project in drawing together contemporary poetry, the patere of Te Kooti, critical commentary, artworks and sound establishes a remarkable work which hovers around some central concepts and conceits without focusing too much on specifics, leaving the interpretation up to the reader/listener.”

The work was later transformed into a book and CD, Te tangi a te Maturi, named after a poem of Te Kooti’s – “an extended metaphor of our links to the land and the ambivalence about the night and fog of the country's future,” Daly-Peoples wrote.

Mr Davis was also a director of the Arts Foundation and had four children, three daughters and a son.

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