Obituary: Sir Douglas Myers, 1938-2017

Biographer Paul Goldsmith charts the rise of one of New Zealand's most successful businesspeople — Sir Douglas Meyers, who died in London aged 78.

Sir Douglas Myers, who had been battling cancer since 2008, died in London yesterday aged 78. He is survived by his wife Barbara, and three children from an earlier marriage Jessica, Laura and Campbell. Below, Parliamentarian and biographer Paul Goldsmith charts Sir Douglas' rise to become one of New Zealand's most successful businesspeople.

The Myers family’s connection with brewing began in New Zealand in 1868 when Sir Douglas Myer’s great great uncle, Louis Ehrenfried, a German Jewish immigrant, established the Phoenix Brewery in Thames.  The brewery prospered but the ambitious Ehrenfried decided to chase the larger Auckland market.  In 1885 he bought the Albert Brewery in Queen St and many hotels followed.    

By 1895 Ehrenfried’s young nephew Arthur Myers was effectively managing the enterprise.  He engineered the 1897 merger of Ehrenfried Brothers with John Logan Campbell’s liquor and hotel interests to form Campbell & Ehrenfried Ltd. 

Louis Ehrenfried died in February 1897 bequeathing his fortune largely to Arthur.  Arthur and his manager, Alfred Bankart, were primary movers in the formation of New Zealand Breweries in 1923, a new public company which combined more than a dozen breweries across the country. Campbell & Ehrenfried’s brewery assets were folded into the new enterprise.

In 1933 Arthur’s son Kenneth Myers took the helm of Campbell & Ehrenfried, which continued to import liquor and manage a chain of hotels.  Under Kenneth’s stewardship over the next three decades, the family business remained substantial, but it steadily became less profitable.

Kenneth’s son Douglas was born in 1938.  After schooling at Auckland’s King’s College, he studied at Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, returning to New Zealand in 1965.

Douglas Myers developed an ambition to succeed in business not seen in the family since Louis Ehrenfried’s days.  He recognised Campbell & Ehrenfried had slipped in size and status, and had become unsustainable as an independent business proposition in a rapidly changing industry.

In 1971 he sold most of the company’s hotels to New Zealand Breweries (later renamed Lion Breweries) and focused the company’s efforts on New Zealand Wines and Spirits, a joint venture with New Zealand Breweries. The following year Myers took full control of Campbell & Ehrenfried by buying all the shares from his relatives, the John Logan Campbell Estate and some former employees.  In the decade that followed, New Zealand Wines and Spirits grew into a major enterprise.

Sir Douglas (right) with Sir Robert Muldoon in 1983 at the opening of bottling plant in East Tamaki (all photos courtesy Lion)

Through a series of shrewd and courageous manoeuvres in late 1981 and 1982, Myers transformed his half share in New Zealand Wines and Spirits into a controlling stake of Lion Breweries, then one of the country’s ten largest businesses.  Myers borrowed $27 million (around $100 million in today’s dollars, at interest rates approaching 20 per cent) to buy 20 per cent of Lion on the open market.  He did this while the result of the formal arbitration with Lion over a price for his half share of New Zealand Wines and Spirits was six months away and the outcome uncertain.  

The gamble paid off and Douglas Myers became Managing Director of Lion Breweries in December 1982.  He began work on a ‘back to basics’ campaign, jettisoning unwise diversifications of the 1970s and beginning the long process of bringing efficiency back to the brewing operation.

The restructuring and efficiency drive that Myers led at Lion was also needed across the entire New Zealand economy.  After decades of protectionism, New Zealand businesses were chronically uncompetitive.  Myers devoted much of his time to supporting the reforms begun in 1984 by the Fourth Labour Government.  As vice-chairman of the New Zealand Business Roundtable from the mid-1980s (and later chairman) he advocated fearlessly for liberal economic and social policies. 

Though he was one of the richest men in New Zealand, Myers was passionately committed to improving the country’s economic performance for the good of all Kiwis. 

“I realised that gaining personal satisfaction was dependent on living in a place where everyone could get satisfaction.  In a large country, like Brazil, it is possible to tolerate extremes in living standards.  Not so in New Zealand.  It’s too small; relationships are too intense.  So I was convinced that everyone had to strive to be better, to be more productive, so the whole community moved forward.  It’s not good enough to live in a beautiful country.  That’s why you’ve got to kick against the pricks, and get off your chuff and do something.  The main beneficiary of the reforms, as I saw it, was the average kiwi.”

His essential message was aspirational:

“Travelling abroad before 1984 people would sneer: “What an adrift little country you come from.”  I wanted to be associated with a country that had pride and could achieve.  When I told people I was from New Zealand I wanted the reaction to be, “Great! What a neat little place”.”   

In 1988 Myers merged Lion Breweries with L. D. Nathan, a supermarket, general retailing and property conglomerate, to form Lion Nathan Ltd.  The idea was to build strength and scale in a rapidly changing market.  The combined entity had an annual turnover in excess of NZ$1 billion. The strategic choices now lay between being diversified in New Zealand, or being more focused and moving offshore, and if the latter, whether to focus on beer or food.  

At that moment the travails of the Australian tycoon Alan Bond provided what Myers saw as a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’.  Bond Brewing owned Swan brewery, Castlemaine XXXX and Tooheys, and was potentially up for sale. 

Sir Douglas and Lady Myers christen Steinlager 2, the yacht that won 1989/1990 Whitbread Race and the 1995 and 2000 America's Cup

Myers felt that too many New Zealand entrepreneurs lacked ambition, being prepared to retire early after modest success.  He was determined not to fall into that pattern.  He found the Australian challenge, which had defeated numerous other New Zealand companies, compelling.  He wanted to show the rest of New Zealand business that it was possible to take on the Aussies.

After a failed attempt in 1989, Myers gained a half share of Bond’s brewing assets for Lion Nathan in October 1990 in a complex deal that valued the Australian brewing assets at A$1.53 billion. He took the remaining half in June 1992.  It was tough work for the New Zealanders: Carlton United was a fierce competitor and the industrial relations situation even worse in Australia than in New Zealand.  “The rorts”, Myers said, “were world-class”.   Myers rated Lion Nathan’s transition to a successful Australasian company as, in many ways, his life’s greatest achievement.

“All I wanted to do was engage New Zealand with confidence with the rest of the world.  It was very satisfying proving wrong … the Aussie analysts, who thought all New Zealanders were hopeless, highly geared and never stood a chance.  We did cut the mustard, we did survive.  It took a while, but ultimately we produced a very profitable Australasian company.”

By the time Myers sold his shareholding to the Japanese brewer Kirin in 1998, just prior to his 60th birthday, Lion Nathan was established as Australasia’s number two brewery and was an early pioneer in China.  Myers retired as chairman in 2001, pleased that he’d left behind a strong company.  The shares that he’d sold at $5.40 in 1998 were approaching $9 by 2004.

Knighted in 2010, Sir Douglas Myers embodies the thrusting entrepreneurialism of the last decades of Twentieth Century New Zealand.  He combined his business pre-eminence with an inherited enthusiasm for political activism, philanthropy and internationalism to become one of the most influential and interesting figures of his era.

With quotes from The Myers by Paul Goldsmith and Michael Bassett, David Ling Publishing, 2007

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