Peeling spuds in Fiordland … ‘a real Kiwi joker’ … skirting a southerly front … a high-altitude Hiller … Christmas shopping by chopper … barbecue host … ‘Persistence’ … a persuasive, energetic charm … following dreams
One fine day in a remote part of Fiordland in the 1970s, several venison chopper pilots, shooters and gutters, up since dawn shooting the tops, were gathered on the deck of their mothership, waiting for lunch. They looked like aircrews taking a break between sorties in some exotic war setting. The spoils of their war that day were in the ship’s hold – 100 red-deer carcasses. Tim Wallis, the boss, was among the group, and they filled in time before the midday dinner swapping stories about how the flying had gone so far. The ship’s cook was peeling potatoes for the meal, and at one point he walked to the side of the ship to heave the peelings overboard. Distracted by something, he selected the wrong container and threw the spuds themselves into the deep, dark water. The helicopter crews erupted in laughter as the potatoes sank. Tim laughed with them. But when the cook went inside to prepare more potatoes, Tim slipped away from the group. They found out later he disappeared to give the cook a hand peeling a new lot of spuds.
That Tim would sympathise with someone who had made a bit of a fool of himself – to the point of pitching in on a menial task – hardly fits with the image of Tim Wallis, aviator and entrepreneur, boss of a large helicopter business and a leading light in the New Zealand deer industry. But it does offer an insight into Tim’s character and approach to life. Mostly he is portrayed as a dynamic, determined, self-made Southerner who likes nothing better than to be pushing boundaries and creating new opportunities. All this rings true. But there other sides to Tim.
His father encouraged him to be a leader. At the same time, advised Arthur Wallis, he should never lose touch with the people around him. If they were employees, the way to command respect was to show them you could do the work, that you were a practical fellow and prepared to mix it with them. Tim rarely made an example of any staff member who had stuffed up somehow. He was not a blaming sort of boss. Although the people who worked for him knew that, few took advantage of it. On the contrary, they generally demonstrated an intense loyalty towards Tim and what he was trying to achieve, and this loyalty tended to strengthen whenever the odds mounted against a business initiative or direction.
His capacity for work is awesome. Tim developed a ‘24/7’ reputation – seemingly capable of working round the clock seven days a week. His early morning phone calls, however irritating to those at the receiving end, demonstrated when he was at his most creative – before breakfast. Tim’s right-hand man in Te Anau, Errol Brown, fielded a good deal of the ideas that poured out of Tim in the ’seventies and ’eighties – so many, says Errol, ‘that he’ll never know how much money I’ve saved him by not carrying them all out!’ To Errol, Tim demonstrated a Mastermind kind of intelligence, and energy to burn. Evan Waby, an associate from the 1960s, reckoned that even when Tim’s body was asleep his brain simply had to be scoping new ideas.
Even when he was flying – the kind of flying he called ‘aerial truck driving’ – he was thinking. Back in phone range, he would pursue a new line of thought with associates.
When the phone system acquired services such as redialling or call waiting, Tim would utilise those services to the maximum, and it was a common experience for the recipients of calls from Tim who had been engaged on another call to have him stammering on the other end when he got through because his mind had dived off in other directions and he had forgotten what he was phoning about. On those sorts of days, he might have a dozen calls in mind at any one time.
Tim can hardly contain himself when he cottons on to an idea. His practice is to follow up on the idea by going to extraordinary lengths to research and scope it, initially by phone and later in person if he needs to check out a site or some technology. Invariably he wants to know now. Some associates regard him as a ‘big-picture’ man happy to leave details to others.
To Pilot Richard Hayes and many others, Tim lived to create new projects, and the journey leading to their fruition was the reward, not necessarily the end product or the financial return. The thrill of the chase is everything. His enterprising spirit has rubbed off on others, not the least on the pilots who headed off into businesses of their own and became innovative in their own right.
In 1992, the National Business Review cited Tim in its Rich List (suggesting his equity in his business empire was worth $30 million), and the news-magazine described him as ‘the real stuff of rural legend … a real Kiwi joker. Step aside Barry Crump.’
Crump himself, who popularised the New Zealand backblocks in his books and lifestyle, reckoned Tim was a good keen man. ‘I don’t know a single backcountry bloke who doesn’t respect Tim Wallis. He’s way out in front. You can’t not like him … no scandals, no pretensions. I reckon we could use a few more Wallises.’ The late Barry Crump also summed up Tim as ‘a bloke who’s hard to get to know’ mainly because he was forever on the move – ‘always just arriving or just leaving, always busy’. To Luggate factory manager Murray Hamer, spending a day with Tim could seem like a week’s activity.
To Tim, business and busyness – mental and physical – have been inseparable. His mind would race ahead, urging his body to follow. In the hurly-burly of the venison days and the live recovery era that followed, Tim was well known for asking a question and before he got an answer, leaping ahead to another topic. Yet his colleagues knew that he would be taking in what they said even if he appeared to be in another frame of mind or in some far-away mental space. More often than not he would regurgitate what they had said when they least expected it. He listened in an absent-minded sort of way.
Before the 1996 crash limited his mobility and his capacity to take on new projects Tim was constantly on the move. Mostly, his associates adapted to his whirlwind lifestyle. It was usually a case of getting on with their work, and anyway, they knew their boss vested a fair amount of trust in them. When it came to a young family, though, a whirlwind father could be unsettling. Tim’s trips away and his long days in the air took their toll on wife Prue’s patience at times – a young mother with four young sons. When Tim’s Makarora mate, Keith Blanc, turned up at the family home one day, asking to see Tim, she replied that she was not sure of his whereabouts that day, indeed most days she found it hard to keep track of his movements. But she had a photograph of him inside the house if he would like to see it!
Prue knew he flew at the edge of safety at times and that he was fearless. But she reassured herself that his real interest was to carry out a task or get somewhere and that he did not deliberately set out to scare anyone or show off or take risks needlessly.
When it came to weather, though, Tim was certainly fearless. There are numerous stories of his flying in awful conditions. Like the time in 1984 when he was heading for Fiordland and a job aboard the Ranginui with John Muir. He flew a Hughes 500 into a southerly storm that had snow and high winds associated with it, and they pressed on past Queenstown when many pilots would have called it quits. By the time they arrived at Te Anau snow was caking up on the helicopter. Tim sought refuge at Bill Black’s place just outside the town. Bill emerged to help them tie down the helicopter in the storm, shaking his head out of concern and disbelief.
‘Tim knows a shortcut,’ was a memorable line from the narrator of an American television documentary that described his work capturing red deer live in the mountains of Mount Aspiring National Park. The Wild Kingdom documentary featured reporter Jim Fowler, who was clearly impressed by Tim’s approach to flying in a wild and remote mountain region, dotted by snowy ranges and criss-crossed by rugged gorges. The ‘shortcut’ comment not only reflected Tim’s approach to flying but also his thorough knowledge of the lie of the land. He knew the ins and outs of it. The Wild Kingdom reporter put Tim on a pedestal. ‘The live capture methods for New Zealand red deer,’ he told viewers, ‘have application for saving threatened wildlife around the world.’
In the late 1970s, piloting the company Cessna 210, Tim had been in the Waikato on deer business and set out from Tokoroa into a forecast southerly front, heading for home. The plane was soon swallowed up in cloud. Instead of retreating, Tim diverted the plane away to the east of the country, out to sea, to try to avoid the worst of the storm. He used beacons at the Chatham Islands and Kaikoura to keep track of his progress. He made landfall again off the North Canterbury coast. Later he found out his Cessna had shown up on Wellington Airport’s radar as an unexpected sort of contact – slow moving and well away from usual flightpaths around New Zealand. The air traffic controllers advised the Air Force base at Ohakea near Palmerston North. This is the kind of incident that can grow a life of its own, and one version has it that the Air Force scrambled a Skyhawk to check out the unidentified flying object. Tim never saw or heard from a Skyhawk that day and no one followed up with an enquiry. Seemingly he ceased to be a scary object in the sky when he resumed a more normal flightpath over Canterbury.
He sometimes pushed limits vertically as well. On a clear summer’s day in the late 1960s, he took a Hiller helicopter to an altitude of over 3,500 metres – the height of Aoraki/Mt Cook – just for the experience. He was checking up on the progress being made by a shooter-gutter team in the Shotover area at the time. With a Landrover for support, they were chasing deer on sweltering valley floors, and complaining to each other about the 40-degree heat. Suddenly, Tim called up on the radio, asking them how they were faring.
‘Bloody hot!’ said the shooter, Gavin Overton. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m 12,000 feet above you, freezing!’ came the reply.
Sure enough, if they squinted into the bright light they could just make out a dot in the pale-blue sky and the faint buzz of an engine. It was as if Tim was mimicking a skylark, hovering high up for the sheer joy of flying.
Tim would use a helicopter the way many people used a car. He once landed at Pukeuri, north of Oamaru, because he was running low on fuel and knew there was a petrol station there, right on a corner of State Highway 1. Whereas in his childhood there were only cars for holidays or weekend jaunts, Tim went on to make extensive use of helicopters as recreational transport. There were countless joyrides and trips that had little to do with business, notably holidays aboard Ranginui in Fiordland. Mushrooming in the autumn around Wanaka was also a good excuse for a flight. He would take some of his boys and friends’ children – for example, Murray Hamer’s children, who were similar in age to Tim’s – into the countryside to collect mushrooms. Spotting the white buttons in a paddock from the air was a lot easier and quicker than doing it from the ground.
Then there were the flights Tim made out of a mixture of friendship, compassion and a keenness to reward loyalty. He could name practically all the children of all his employees, and made a point of asking after their wellbeing. One year, a few days before Christmas, he asked his office manager Nola Sims if she had done any Christmas shopping yet. Nola said she had been too busy at the office to go to Dunedin to buy presents, and her husband, Bill, who worked for the local transport firm, had also been preoccupied with pre-Christmas work. In response, Tim offered to take the four Sims children, whose ages ranged from six to 12 years, to Dunedin in his helicopter. They landed at Taieri Aerodrome just out of Dunedin, and he drove them from there to the city. He gave the foursome lunch in the big smoke, did the rounds of the shops with them then flew them home to Luggate in the afternoon. Sometimes Tim would lend money to staff members with families who wanted to buy a house or land to build on, or acquire an expensive household item like a suite of furniture or a television set.
He has an eye for the potential in people. Early on in his association with Jim Faulks, Tim realised his Luggate factory manager was out of sorts and unsettled. Jim had been in and out of a few jobs in the previous few years and seemed far from happy with his lot. Tim called on Jim one day and invited him to have a chat. Jim noticed his boss had no briefcase with him, which was unusual. ‘Let’s not chat here at the factory,’ Tim said. ‘Too many interruptions. Let’s go for a flight.’
They took off from Wanaka Airport in a Cessna 180 and at about a height of 1,000 metres Tim put the plane into a continuous circuit. For over an hour, he talked with Jim about what a positive outlook on life could do to a man. Perhaps Jim needed to try it out. Tim was non-threatening with this heart-to-heart advice, which landed in the right spot. Jim returned to earth with a sense of direction and purpose that has lasted him most of his life. From that moment, Tim became more of a wise and kindly older brother than a boss.
When it came to what these days is called human resources development Tim demonstrated a sixth-sense about when and how to cultivate the talents of an employee and provide useful advice, feedback and encouragement.
The boss transformed himself into barbecue host constantly. He delighted in mixing business with pleasure at barbecues. The barbecue, a great leveller, was the perfect way for him to demonstrate hospitality, generosity and friendship while cementing a deal. He would line up a surfeit of treats – crayfish, venison-based bulgogi, whitebait and so on, some of which he had sourced himself – don an apron and become a cross between a culinary entertainer and a stately personage holding court around the barbecue.
He also wanted to be a good father, although he knew his business affairs constrained the relationship with his sons. To them, he was an action man, sweeping in at holiday time, when they were home from boarding school, for trips away camping or for some other outdoor adventure. He wanted them to grow up not as the sons of Tim Wallis but with a strong sense of their own self-worth. He taught them to challenge themselves.
When his oldest son, Toby, showed an interest in flying helicopters for a living, Tim took him under his wing. In 1993, Toby got his licence. But not before Tim had taught the 17-year-old a few tricks and pitfalls. He took Toby for a flying lesson in a Hiller in the direction of Fiordland. He told Toby to try landing on a ridge into the sun, knowing the wind was behind them and knowing also there would be the risk of ‘power settling’, whereby an inexperienced pilot might overlook the hazard of descending through the rotor wash, which can cause the helicopter to plummet. At the last moment, Tim took over the controls. It was a lesson Toby never forgot. Tim advocated learning by mistakes – in his view, they build judgement.
Modesty is also part of Tim’s character. The most public expression of this, although he never meant it to turn out the way it did, was his initial gesture to decline the knighthood nomination. He liked to think that, yes, his achievements might be worthy but that they were not created by his efforts alone. He did not seek the status of a knighthood. As he told North and South magazine in 1994, he is ‘simply not interested in climbing the social ladder’. When writer Cate Brett phoned his office for some background for the article, and requested the faxing of a curriculum vitae, office manager Nola Sims reacted tersely. ‘I have worked for Mr Wallis for 25 years and I have never seen anything remotely resembling a curriculum vitae,’ she said. She thought the nearest thing to biographical notes on Tim might be the knighthood nomination, which summarised his contributions to aviation, deer farming, nature conservation (through the removal of deer from native habitats), economic activity and community affairs.
Cate Brett got her story in the end. She described Tim as a ‘self-made man to end all self-made men’, one who was liable to stick his neck out. Tim put it this way: ‘I take that margin [of risk] further than other people would take it.’ This is something of an understatement when you look back on his flying career, his corporate forays into places like Siberia, and his absolute determination to not let a broken back, a paralysed leg, beady-eyed bankers, a session on Russian vodka, tax reforms or anything else get in the way of a goal.
This character trait began early. Christ’s College master, Zane Dalzell, described Tim as a ‘nice extroverted personality … he’d give anything a go.’ He has given an awful lot a go in his life. In following a new line of enquiry, he is renowned for contacting anyone and everyone who might be associated with such an activity or project. He is the original networker, with enthusiasm in abundance. His network includes his Christ’s College contemporaries, some of whom have remained close friends and business associates throughout his life. The Forewords by Robert Wilson and Mark Acland speak of that. His Christ’s College connections have been hugely important through his life.
To current Alpine board chairman Don Spary, Tim’s enthusiasm is also his Achilles Heel – and he has ‘paid the penalty for taking risks on more than one occasion’. Tim’s wife, Prue, told North and South in 1994: ‘Tim is so determined to achieve he goes into the risk area.’ She said she saw a ‘ruthless’ side in him – ‘Ruthless in the sense that he will forsake everything to achieve his goal. He is single-minded and utterly determined.’
At the same time it is not a case of winner-take-all for Tim. He was won the respect of many a competitor for his sharing attitude, summed up in the expression, ‘Leave something for the next guy.’ His Canterbury friend, the late Sir Peter Elworthy, was greatly impressed by this aspect of Tim’s approach to business. Peter expressed Tim’s style this way: ‘Always leave a margin for the next person … recognise there has to be a margin for those either side of you. It’s part of that generosity of spirit that really pays off in business.’
Tim’s way is decidedly gung-ho. The Chinese expression, adopted by the United States marines in 1942 as a rally cry, literally means to work together. Since then, the expression has been corrupted to some extent in the Western world to illustrate a persistent style of enthusiasm.
Hundreds of people have experienced his impulsive enthusiasm over the years. English vintage aircraft restorer, Tony Ditheridge, was among them. In 1993, Tony was approached by Tim to restore a Hurricane fighter, and Alpine flew him out to Wanaka for talks. The Englishman, like many business associates of Tim’s, was struck immediately by Tim’s nature. ‘You knew you were in the presence of an unusual man. His passion, in this case for aeroplanes, his pure gut feel for a business situation, a deal, an investment. I think Tim must have been the original “shoot from the hip” man.’ In that meeting over the Hurricane, Tony explained how he envisaged doing the job and how much he thought it would cost. Tim agreed on the spot, told Tony to get on with it and organised for funds to be sent to England even as Tony was flying home.
Robert Wilson is convinced Tim’s ‘big advantage’ in business dealings has been his personality. ‘In situations where there is confrontation, people will often back down because of Tim’s personality … people tend to think twice.’ Conversely, Tim is able to see the facets and forces bearing on a business deal and try to ‘work in’ – gung-ho. He lives the concept of a ‘fair go’. His egalitarian sense, his common touch and his humility sit alongside – some might say oddly alongside – his political leanings as a long-standing supporter of the National Party.
Although his personality and work ethic were well formed by the time he married Prue, it is widely acknowledged that Prue has been a strong supporting influence. Around the time of the knighthood, the Wallis boys expressed the view that their mother equally deserved the honour for all the work she performed behind the scenes. She interrupted a promising career in theatre, films and the arts to be with Tim, support his business operations and raise four sons. Her support has ranged from entertaining overseas business partners of Tim’s to editing his speeches. She has polished many a speech of his. By his own admission, Tim may not be the business world’s most articulate speaker but he has got his message across. Prue’s supportive role was never more important than when Tim was in hospital in 1996, when a critical rehabilitation pathway was set, and in the years since then when he has needed a duty of care far beyond the imagining of most people.
Of all of the demanding situations Tim has faced, none matches the stringency of recovering from a brain injury. This has required every ounce of determination he can muster. There is a gilt-edged plaque at home – it also used to hang in the office – that has become part of the Tim Wallis folklore. It is headed up, ‘Persistence’. The words underneath assert that nothing in the world can take the place of persistence; persistence will win over any shortcoming of talent or education.
Without an ingrained persistence and determination, Tim could not have progressed as far as he has since the Spitfire crash. Although he remains ‘damaged’, as he puts it, he is able to apply himself to his ideas, travel around the country and overseas, and generally enjoy his family, his home and his Wanaka environment, not the least Minaret Station, described by Sir Peter Elworthy around the time Tim was negotiating its purchase, as a ‘romantic investment’. These days, if he cashed up all of his assets, Tim is worth over $30 million but the accumulation of money, to Tim, is not so much a mark of success as the bringing of an original idea to fruition. That is what has driven him – pursuit of a dream through to a successful conclusion. Money has been a secondary consideration, only of importance to drive the next project.
Notwithstanding the serious side of investment and business, Tim exudes a rare kind of charm, a persuasive, energetic charm that is mixed up with a wild kind of ambition, a love of the new and daring, and an abiding interest to push himself to the limits. Fiercely loyal to his own ideals, he has benefited by the loyalty reciprocated by his associates. Bill Black, his Fiordland flying mate of almost 30 years and an aviation legend in his own right, puts it this way: ‘I liked working for Tim. I’d do it all again. Hell I would!’ Tim and Bill were pathfinders in what has been described as ‘New Zealand’s Last Great Adventure’ – the intensive aerial harvesting of red deer from the mountain fastness of southern New Zealand.
Tim went on to take an inspirational role in New Zealand tourism and the collection and display of vintage warplanes. But what history will remember him for, most of all, are the helicopters and the deer. Out of a weekend hobby, deerstalking, he built not only a career for himself but also a major industry. Hurricane Tim would say he did it all by following his dreams.
Advice to Rotary youth
In 1986, Tim was the guest speaker at an awards ceremony for a Rotary Youth Leadership programme. After giving a summary of his life and achievements, Tim listed a set of business principles to live by:
*Make your first loss your last loss
*Select top people
*Engage the best accountancy advice
*Make employees feel they have a stake in the business
*Don’t let mistakes frighten you – they build judgment
*Be honest, keep your word
Reprinted with permission © Neville Peat and Alpine Deer Group, Hurricane Tim: The Story of Sir Tim Wallis, Longacres Press, 2005