45.4791° S, 170.1548° E
‘If you’re not making a mistake that hurts, then you’re taking life too cautiously.’
Gems in this
Beyond the glittering international success of jewelry magnate Sir Michael Hill’s entrepreneurship lies an earthy Kiwi fuelled by a passion for philanthropic art and a hunger to explore the world's creative expanse.
Born in Whangārei on New Zealand’s North Island, Sir Michael Hill’s proclivity for the arts set him apart from a young age. “It was a dairy farm area and very rugby-oriented, which was pretty cool but I didn’t really fit in,” he says. At 16, he left school to pursue a career as a concert violinist, practicing up to eight hours a day. However, a disgruntled uncle insisted he leave what he perceived to be an unstable world of music to work at the family jewelry store. Feeling stifled by tradition, Michael then opened his own eponymous boutique, setting himself the goals of ‘seven stores in seven years’, which, following early success, changed to ‘70 stores in seven years’. His lofty goals were achieved with time to spare and included addresses across New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the US.
Eschewing the faster pace of life on the Gold Coast, Sir Michael moved back to home shores and bought a ramshackle deer farm in Arrowtown on New Zealand’s South Island. It was here that he developed his own 18-hole golf course called ‘The Hills’, featuring a clubhouse built two-thirds below ground, which won the New Zealand Institute of Architects Supreme Architectural Award and was a finalist in the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona. While family, friends and even the New Zealand Open enjoyed teeing up, Sir Michael set his sights on filling the green with art.
Today, the sprawling grounds are home to a stunning collection of artworks including The Wolves Are Coming by Chinese sculptor Liu Ruowang, featuring 110 life-size iron castings of wolves, and Seated Man, a 3.6-meter-tall sculpture by British artist Sean Henry. Over the years, Sir Michael has further honored his passion for the arts by founding the biennial Michael Hill International Violin Competition, helping catapult the careers of prodigious talent, globally.
Exceptional ALIEN stopped by Sir Michael’s Arrowtown home to chat about the hypnotic draw of New Zealand, lessons learned as an entrepreneur, the importance of supporting the next generation of creatives and his Otago Travel Playbook.
On almost becoming a concert violinist
I left school to become a concert violinist, which was also a very strange thing for this little farming community. There was a Danish music teacher, Alger Nielson, who had come to live in Whangārei, and he thought I had what it took to pursue music as a career. I would lock myself in my bedroom and I’d religiously practice eight hours a day for 18 months. The New Zealand Herald, in those days, had a violin competition and I entered and came fourth. My uncle and parents were not happy that I was pursuing music, and my uncle came to see me that night and told me, ‘This career in music is ridiculous. I demand that you come down to the jewelry store’.
On getting started in the family business
My parents were part of a jewelry store called Fishers and, in those days, in the early 1960s, watchmaking was an enormous part of the business — the shop in Whangārei had 88 watchmakers. Today, it’s unheard of — you’d be lucky to find one watchmaker in a jewelry shop anywhere in New Zealand. I started as an apprentice repairing watches, but I really had no aptitude for it. My dad, who used to be an Electrolux salesman during the Depression, was managing the shop for my uncle, and so he taught me the art of selling, which I quite enjoyed. I went into the retail business and was there for 23 years as an apprentice.
‘I left school to become a concert violinist, which was also a very strange thing for this little farming community… I would lock myself in my bedroom and I’d religiously practice eight hours a day for 18 months.’
On finding what you were good at
23 years was ridiculously long in retrospect, but I was quite practiced at retail. It gave me my ability to see things through an artistic eye and not from a watchmaker’s eye. I was able to see things quite differently, like the windows of my uncle’s shop. I stripped out all the glass shelves and put one simple shelf and started dressing the windows with just a few products, which no one had ever done in Australasia. It attracted enormous attention.
On music as a form of escapism
I suppose I was influenced by my dad, who was actually a very good classical musician and used to sell sheet music. After a meal, there was either a piano or a violin, or some other musical instrument that would be played. I was always brought up hearing my father playing Beethoven, Schumann and Mozart. They tried me on the piano but strangely, I could never quite get the grasp of two hands working together. The violin I could instantly accept, it was a natural thing for me. As well as that, I used to have a fascination for violins. They are the most incredible instruments and they vary so much in sound. Their personalities are so different. I never really had a great one — I had a French violin, which are normally quite brittle. What I always adored was the tone of Italian instruments: the early Italian instruments have a beautiful honey-like, rich tone that you can draw out, they’re very sensitive.
On finding balance and direction
To me, life is about balance now and being in harmony with yourself, which is easier said than done. One of the secrets of getting a balance is to be able to stop the continual self-talk like, ‘Shut up’, ‘You’re not very good at this’, ‘Be careful’, ‘Don’t do that’. The negatives can completely disrupt your thought process. It was only when I learned transcendental meditation that I discovered you can actually quiet the self-talk. Occasionally, you can have a state of pure stillness where there’s no thought. It seems easier said than done but by practicing meditation for many years, it does certainly have a profound effect on one’s art of being able to visualize where you’re going.
On having a 30-year goal
What I’ve discovered is that there’s very few people who actually know where they’re going long-term, meaning 30 years. I’ve always had a 30-year goal, which is getting a bit ridiculous at my age, but it’s always nice to think of what's going to happen within 30 years. The best way to do it is to write it down physically, on a piece of A4 paper. Gently and calmly write down what you want to be in 30 years’ time. I’ve found it’s probably the most profoundly difficult thing to achieve, but once you do it, it sets you on your way.
‘I had a card in my pocket and I took it out and scribbled on it: ‘I’m going to start my own business’. I wrote it down and put it in my pocket, as the house was burning. It was the best thing I ever did.’
On rebuilding after tragedy
We built a home in the Whangārei harbor, in the most beautiful piece of bush. We went to the pictures one night and when we came out we got a phone call from a neighbor telling us our house was on fire. I’ll never forget that day because as we turned around and looked up the hill, all the windows were bright orange and flames were licking 60 feet above the tall trees. It was that night, as they were trying to get water out of the swimming pool and things were starting to crash down, that I started the goal setting. I had a card in my pocket and I took it out and scribbled on it: ‘I’m going to start my own business’. I wrote it down and put it in my pocket, as the house was burning. It was the best thing I ever did, it changed my life. Within nine months, I found someone who supported me, who would put the money up for me to have a crack at my uncle’s shop.
On going out on your own
[My uncle] wouldn’t sell, which was the best thing that ever happened. So, I said I’d have to leave, unfortunately, and set up my own business. My uncle wouldn’t speak to me except to say, ‘Get out right now, you’ve got five minutes’. That upset the staff so much that by the end of the week they all left. My uncle was furious and said, ‘I’m going to crush the bastard in three months’. I couldn’t get insurance, I couldn’t get stock because he was very powerful. But these challenges made me stronger. We were quite small, about 700 or 600 square feet, with very simple windows, based on an idea that Mary Quant from London was having. We changed the windows every week. The diamond rings were all presented in rows inside and we had U-shaped counters based on the old Hong Kong gold markets we’d seen — it just went crazy. Within 18 months, the business was growing at a meteoric pace and it overtook my uncle’s jewelry shop that had been there for 40 odd years.
On a cherished quote from Walt Disney
“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” — Walt Disney
There’s a lot of truth in that because if you’re not making a mistake that hurts, then you’re taking life too cautiously. It’s too easy to become comfortable, rather than pushing hard. You’ve got to keep moving. It’s very easy in a beautiful place like New Zealand — we’re so fortunate, we live in an absolute paradise, so it’s easy to become comfortable. My best lessons have always been learnt from mistakes. You really have to delve in, find out what it was and make sure it never happens again — keep the negatives and turn them into positives.
On the allure of New Zealand’s South Island
I was living in Australia, on the Gold Coast. We spent five years there and enjoyed it but the travel was quite long to go to Brisbane every day, about an hour. We thought it’d be nice to try Queenstown, because it always appealed to us as a very special, unique part of the world. So we bought a little unit on Spinnaker Bay and two years after that we decided it would be quite nice to have a proper house here and make it ours. We’ve got no development here at all, which I think makes it even more unique.
‘We’ve had some really interesting artists do some work here… I hope that when we have more art, we can become a significant place that people can come and visit.’
On the vision for The Hills
I was always fascinated with golf and I thought it would be great to have a green out the front. We’ve got the most beautiful backyard and we’ve won Best Garden in New Zealand, among other awards. The golf course has won awards as well, but the thing which makes it unique is that we’re very fortunate with the land. This is the warmest part of the Wakatipu Basin. It gets the sun in the winter which is quite unusual, then you go to Arrowtown at the end of our property and it’s just about permafrost. I also wanted a different clubhouse so we put it to a few architects and Andrew Patterson built this stunning clubhouse with a grass roof — you can mow the roof — it’s a timeless building. Then someone suggested I put sculptures in to have a point of difference from other golf courses around the world. I went up to Alan Gibbs’ property on the Kaipara Harbour and was amazed. He was the catalyst for me to think, ‘Wouldn't it be great to do something like that but on a smaller scale?’
On the first piece you bought for The Hills
We’ve had some really interesting artists do some work here, and it certainly has given us a point of difference. The first piece that you could call ‘real art’ was by Liu Ruowang. I was in Beijing in the art district where the artists have studios, and there was a big courtyard with children playing and there were all these wolves with a tree in the middle, it really freaked me out. I thought ‘How beautiful are they, I wonder if I could buy one or two?’ It was an enormous price for two and I just said, ‘Thanks very much’, and that was the end. Then about a year later, I got an email from one of his friends saying, ‘You were dealing with the agent, we like to deal directly’. I bought the whole lot and they came out in four 40-foot containers and one huge container with the warrior that’s trying to kick them — that was the start of my collection.
On some of the other artwork across the property
Sean Henry’s Seated Man tricks the eye. From some viewpoints it appears to be a natural size, but when you look at it from the green, you realize there’s something wrong. It would really confuse the hell out of the golfers because as you get closer, it’s 12-and-a-half-foot high and astonishingly realistic. My son has done dragonflies on Dragonfly Lake, and there are other pieces coming. I also have a Māori fellow living in Northland who is carving a series of 10 massive kauri [tree] poles. He’s been at it for nearly two years now and is doing a beautiful job. They follow the Māori tradition of telling stories in pictures. They’ve got a lot of my life story. Two other significant works are just about ready. It supports New Zealand art and I hope that when we have more art, we can become a significant place that people can come and visit.
On New Zealand’s creative landscape
New Zealand is a very unusual place for creative thinking because we’re not stifled. We’re a nation of being able to do things that others wouldn’t even dream of doing. I hope we never lose that. There’s also something about this place. I don’t know what it is, whether it’s the mountains, but it seems to draw in a vast number of very interesting people. Any great society has culture at the back of it. Even if it’s not used an awful lot, it’s the backbone of a place. Without it, you don't have that fullness of having balance in one’s life.
‘Travel is important to keep things in perspective. I always found that travel was a great way to see opportunities that one should grasp.’
On the supporting up-and-coming talent
There is some extraordinary talent in the musicians appearing here. Our violin competition has been going for over 18 years and has made people aware of the standard that's required on an international level. We have some really gifted young artists in violin and piano who might normally be in Juilliard or at some finishing school but can’t access it. Sylvia Yang, in my opinion, is going to be a world-class pianist. She has an incredible touch on the piano and she’s exceptionally talented. A best-kept secret.
On the importance of travel for creativity
Travel is important to keep things in perspective. I always found that travel was a great way to see opportunities that one should grasp, that always excited me. Every time I went away, I would see different things, and I could come back to my little hometown and there were ideas which I had never thought of, which we could do.
On a window or an aisle seat
I personally like being up the front of the plane, rather than the back, because it’s less bumpy and the air-conditioning is better. If it’s a long haul, an aisle seat is easier to get up to go to the bathroom, otherwise you’re clambering across people at night — unless you’re business class, then that doesn’t become an issue.