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Sir Peter Blake's key financial backer and supporter dies at 78

by Richard Gladwell and Alan Sefton on 11 Apr 2017
Steinlager 2’s transom was a familiar sight to all the other competitors in the 1989/90 Whitbread Round the World Race where she won all six legs. Richard Gladwell
Sir Douglas Myers, the first major financial backer of Sir Peter Blake's campaigns beginning with round the world racer, Lion New Zealand, has died in London aged 78, after a nine year battle with bowel cancer.

The third generation of a brewing, liquor importer and hotel management family empire, Sir Douglas did not set out to be involved in the family business, but returned to New Zealand in 1965 after studying at Cambridge University.

He re-shaped the business in 1971 dropping the hotel management division and renaming the company Lion Breweries in that year.

It was that company which became the naming rights sponsor for the Ron Holland design 78ft maxi, Lion New Zealand which finished second in the 1985/86 Whitbread Round the World Race. The campaign built on the ground breaking sponsorship program which had been initiated with Ceramco New Zealand in the previous Whitbread Race, continued with Lion New Zealand and flowed into Blake's and other New Zealand yachting campaigns through to the present day.

Lion Breweries' flagship brand Steinlager became synonymous with New Zealand yachting campaigns and Sir Peter Blake - for the reasons that Blake more than delivered on his sponsor ship commitments; Myers liked and trusted Blake; and both were their own men. In Myers' context this meant that he would make key sponsorship decisions without reference to his Board - as had another key Blake backer, Sir Tom Clark, who gave Blake the go-ahead for Ceramco New Zealand, and then told his Board.

Myers and his company backed several Sir Peter Blake led campaigns including Lion New Zealand; the Round Australia winning two handed trimaran, Steinlager 1; the 1898/90 Whitbread Round the World race winner, Steinlager 2, and the 1995 and 2000 America's Cup winners.

Sir Douglas Myers was interviewed by Alan Sefton for the book 'Sir Peter Blake An Amazing Life' and reflected on his experiences with New Zealand's greatest sailor and the projects in which they were both involved.

Alan Sefton writes:

Tom Clark, meanwhile, was busily putting together the sponsorship package to raise the $NZ2 million that would be needed to build and campaign the new boat. The decision to campaign a full-blown maxi in 1985–86 meant that the cost spiralled proportionally and the price tag was beyond the marketing and promotional budgets of New Zealand’s handful of major corporates to whom the opportunity might appear of benefit. So Clark carved up his cake into more digestible portions. To fund the building of the boat, he would go for $NZ500,000 from a naming rights sponsor and $NZ100,000 each from 12 subsidiary sponsors. Then he would solicit public support to pay for the campaign itself.

Clark arranged a meeting between himself, Blake and Douglas Myers, the new managing director of Lion Breweries Ltd which was the largest player in New Zealand’s liquor industry and a public company listed among the country’s 12 largest enterprises. It was to prove a pivotal encounter in the life and career of Blake, for Myers, one of the ‘Young Turks’ who were reshaping New Zealand business, had the financial muscle and connections to open the campaign doors that Blake was now approaching. Importantly, Myers, in the New Zealand vernacular, also had the balls to back his instincts and possessed a vision for New Zealand and what it could achieve if it concentrated on what it was good at.

Then 45, Myers had just taken over the brewery and was making sweeping changes to streamline the business. He acknowledges that not everyone in the company liked what he was doing: ‘I had just come into Lion and they didn’t like me being there. Like all institutions in New Zealand, they didn’t want to change, and the company was faced with the need for very significant change.

'I always used to say that, other than the abattoirs, we were probably the oldest industry in New Zealand and the unions involved in that industry had the most entrenched positions. Management was the most defunct and, therefore, the need to change mindsets was great. Like all old institutions in New Zealand, we were locked in the past. I thought, therefore, that getting involved in something dynamic and dramatic, and having access to people who were adventurous, not business people, seemed to offer an opportunity to talk about positive things rather than what the staff probably considered negatives – like change.’

Myers did not like yachting – indeed, had rarely set foot on a yacht. He felt that the people who sailed boats were missing the whole point of being on the sea: ‘All they did was sail on top of it. I’ve never met a yachtie, other than Peter, who liked fishing or diving, although I am sure there are plenty that do.’ But it was obvious to him that New Zealanders were good at yachting and he liked what he saw in Blake: ‘He was very tall, had a very nice manner, didn’t talk too much and seemed to be admirable. Or maybe I just picked up a projection of an outstanding person. I don’t know. I think I maybe sensed something special in Peter.’

These were, in Myers’ terms, ‘pre Roger Douglas days when New Zealand seemed extraordinarily gloomy and incapable of seeing its way through to its position in the world’ and there were ‘those few of us who felt that New Zealand was capable of better’. In short, the proposal to do a Whitbread race campaign with Blake was something tangible for the brewery and the country to invest in.

‘I wasn’t doing it because I was interested in yachting,’ Myers emphasises. ‘I was doing it because I was interested in the company and I was interested in the country. I was interested in them both being involved with success. But it wasn’t that I was backing a winner at that stage. I don’t think Peter had won anything so I wasn’t consciously going with a winner at all. A potential winner – yes. I was really taking a punt on his ability to do the things that until then he had not done. He had certainly shown tenacity, which was admirable, and the fact that he was continuing after not winning was absolutely the way the world is. Most people, most of the time, don’t win first up.’

Myers didn’t refer the proposal to his board or consult with anyone. He backed his instincts on the spot and Blake’s next Whitbread boat became Lion New Zealand. Interestingly, Myers recalls that decision as ‘the deal with Peter’.

When Douglas Myers reflects on Blake’s life, there is an almost inevitable reference to New Zealand’s other great adventurer son – Sir Edmund Hillary:

‘Probably Blake and Hillary would be the two names to come forward if you asked people to think about New Zealand. They both achieved great things for their country.

‘I wouldn’t want to have to compare the two, [but] Hillary conquering Everest was probably more visible at the time on a world basis, and he’s been a great ambassador for the country. [Whereas] Peter’s legacy is showing New Zealanders that they are capable of being successful internationally in complex undertakings, of winning with complexity. The impact of that on New Zealanders, and the resulting benefits to the country, might be the greater.

‘He showed us that if you are tenacious and extraordinarily hard-working, and have self-belief, you can pull something together for New Zealand.

‘Pete’s legacy is that for 20 years he served up a menu of nothing but good news. That’s why I was so outraged by all that crap at the end [of the America’s Cup defence], because he had such a clean record of excellence – as a human being, as a generous person, as a leader, as a winner.’

Douglas Myers remembers: ‘Pete wasn’t an aggressive personality at all, but he had a tenacious aggressiveness in terms of what he wanted to do. He had all the internal drive and desires, but this wasn’t translated in a destructively egotistical sort of way.

‘There was, if you like, a hidden side of him. He was a very quiet, manly person vis-à-vis women or vis-à-vis men. Most of us were in his protection – not lesser in a silly way, but more like he was at a different level.

‘When you look back at everything he was and everything he did, it all looks like it was preordained. You couldn’t imagine that it could have been anything other than it was. But that’s not the way the world is. So what was it in his character that resulted in the outcome being as it was?

‘That, you’ve got to say, is 120 per cent due to what he had. He was a remarkable human being. Like all of us, he had great deficiencies, but in his case the deficiencies were quite attractive ones. He wasn’t aggressive, in that way. He wasn’t egotistical, in that way. He didn’t have many hang-ups.

‘I read an article on what makes entrepreneurs entrepreneurial. A lot of them didn’t do well and weren’t all that well liked at school, a lot of them were dyslexic, and then they either did it for reasons of power, status or revenge. Driven by power, they wanted to get revenge on those who perpetrated the crap on them, to show them that they should have been head boy or whatever. But where was Peter? Not in [any of] those three [categories] . . .

‘Look at his last log exhortation – you’ve got to keep on keeping on. That’s not a normal Kiwi trait and it is probably not a normal human trait. But he had it, and he didn’t have it for negative reasons because he had to get back at people.

‘He liked being a hero but he wasn’t driven by public acclamation. In many ways it probably annoyed him. That wasn’t the driver. And nor was status.

‘So, there was an inner demon that required him, on behalf of New Zealand, mankind, his family and so forth, to keep on going . . . He was successful in a range of things. He had a round-the-world racing career, then he was the promoter, manager and organiser of a highly complex contest that he wasn’t that good at himself (the America’s Cup challenge in 1995 and defence in 2000), and then he translated it all into the third phase of his career (with blakexpeditions).

‘That sort of thing is maybe what I sensed when I first met him – he was unusual in that he operated in another dimension to most people.’

Blake occasionally visited Myers on his farm in Northland, and Myers recalls that his guest would habitually get up early, go for long walks by himself, and then have a cup of tea. Then he would always have a cup of tea last thing at night.

‘We talked very easily but you were always conscious that there was this other dimension to him that I doubt he shared with anyone,’ says Myers. ‘He may have been incapable of articulating what it was, and that was the demonstrable side of the fact that he had what adventurers and heroes have. I haven’t experienced that with anyone else.'

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