Kiwi Yachting: Shaping a legacy

Jan 29, 2019 Boat Business

Sarah Ell finds out a lot has changed in New Zealand’s marine industry since Richard Macalister set up Kiwi Yachting, but the business is still sailing along three decades later.

In 1988, hair and shoulder-pads were big, interest rates were high and the stock market was low. Overseas, the Soviet Union was falling apart but the Berlin Wall was still standing strong. And one of New Zealand’s pioneering professional sailors set up a company which in 2018 celebrated 30 years in business.

Kiwi Yachting, established by Richard ‘Molly’ Macalister, has weathered varying economic fortunes, expanded and diversified, and seen the America’s Cup come and go and come again. Now jointly-owned by Macalister and international sailor Dean Barker, the company has stayed afloat when many in the industry have been swamped or gone under entirely.

Today it is a leading distributor of yachting hardware and deck equipment, including brands such as Lewmar, Navtec, Sparcraft and Profurl, as well as 420, Optimist and Splash dinghies. It owns marine companies AutoAnchor, a supplier of handheld anchoring remotes and rope/chain counting devices; Southern Pacific Inflatables and safety-products supplier Safety at Sea, as well as Melbourne-based boating supplier Marine Plus, offering a wrap-around service of system design, sales, installation, maintenance, repair and replacement.

The driving force behind the company for much of its history, Macalister came from a boating family. He completed an honours degree in marine biology at Victoria University, but his future lay on the sea, not under it. Out fishing one day, he heard Peter Blake say on the radio that he intended to enter the Whitbread Round the World race and was looking for sailors to join his crew. He duly applied and, as a 23-year-old, was accepted onto the Ceramco New Zealand crew for the 1981–82 race.

“I went into that race with my eyes open and at an age when I wasn’t committed to what I wanted to do in life,” Macalister says. “I met a lot of people associated with companies that had supplied product to the boat, and developed a good relationship with them.”

After the race, at the invitation of Geoff Stagg who had been a watch captain on Ceramco, Macalister flew around the world to commission and sail new boats for the Bruce Farr & Associates design office. In between yachting gigs, he got a job running the marine division of Masport.

When that company was bought by Brierleys in the mid-1980s and dismantled, Macalister saw his opportunity to take over its agencies. In May 1988, as the New Zealand economy went into recession following the 1987 stock market crash and the free-market policies of Rogernomics took hold, Kiwi Yachting came into being.

“Prior to 1988, New Zealand had a very protected market, controlled by import licences, which meant that if you sold a thousand winches and five hundred of them could be made in New Zealand, a licence would be granted to import the other five hundred. So you could never have more than that thousand,”

Macalister says. “Once you had an import licence you had it for life, and you could make a lot of money without doing much work.

“We came in and developed a dominant position in the areas we targeted, because we didn’t know any different. We had to work pretty hard, but the incumbents didn’t know how to respond. There was a lot of resentment, and they called us Young Turks,” he adds wryly.

The first major supply contract Kiwi Yachting received was for all the technical hardware for Blake’s Steinlager 2, which went on to sweep all before it in the 1988–89 Whitbread. The company also custom-designed a number of hardware items for the campaign. As well as distribution of marine products, Macalister also developed a niche overseeing race-boat construction projects.

Through the 1990s, Macalister continued to race offshore, handing the reins in his absences to Kiwi Yachting’s first employee, Russell Carter. Carter came on board in July 1988 and stayed with the company for 30 years, until his retirement last year.

Over the same period the business moved away from consultancy to concentrate on distribution. The boatbuilding boom here stimulated by New Zealand’s America’s Cup tenure from 1995 to 2003 meant this part of the business flourished, right up until the massive crash of the 2008 global financial crisis.

“When I reflect on that time, it was actually too easy – there was so much work around and we had such good agencies that we weren’t challenged at all,” Macalister says. “People don’t realise how big the GFC was, particularly for the marine industry. It was catastrophic, and we’re really still bouncing back from it. I really thought capitalism was going to fail and didn’t know where we were going to go from here.”

It was a time for tough decision-making, to keep the company afloat and its long-term staff on board. Macalister decided to push into new areas of the market, buying Swedish marine electronics company Nexus, which Kiwi Yachting had been representing, in February 2009.

“I like to be challenged, and this was a big challenge,” he says of an acquisition which would see him travelling to Sweden five times a year for three or four weeks at a time, right up until 2012, when that part of the business was sold on to American tech company Garmin.

Not one to sit around, Macalister had also bought local business AutoAnchor in 2011. This moved Kiwi Yachting into manufacturing, which he says was a significant culture change for the company, “but one that we quite liked because it meant we had products that we actually made, so we were not at the behest of suppliers.” In this vein, it also acquired Southern Pacific Marine, with its brands Southern Pacific Inflatables and Safety at Sea.

Kiwi Yachting ceased to be Macalister’s sole responsibility in 2008, when America’s Cup helmsman Dean Barker bought into the company. “He’d been looking for a company to invest in in the marine industry, and approached me,” Macalister says. “I wasn’t keen to sell at that time but was also cognisant of the fact that you need an exit plan – I don’t want to burden my children with owning a business.”

Barker and Macalister (with his wife Isabel) now own Kiwi Yachting 50:50, which Macalister says has suited him and the company well.

“If I was going to have a business partner, I wanted them to bring something to the table. Dean is respected and has similar values to those I hold. He is one of these professional yachties who has invested something back into the industry and wants to give something back.”

Now 61, Macalister is showing no sign of slowing down. Kiwi Yachting has recently acquired Melbourne-based marine supplier Marine Plus – “a challenge I couldn’t resist”, he admits – and he is currently serving a term as the president of the New Zealand Marine Industry Association. However, he and Isabel are planning to go on a year-long world cruise in 2020.

“Sitting around at home and doing gardening doesn’t suit my personality. I think of my father, who was a lawyer who under his partnership agreement had to retire at 65 from his law firm, and it nearly killed him. He lived till 94, but all he wanted to do was continue the law, and that was taken away from him.

“I enjoy being involved. The next stage for me is making sure my younger employees are given the opportunity to assume more responsibility in the business, so they can make their own mark in the industry through a company of which I hope they are proud.”