Being turned down at his first job interview might just have been the best thing that ever happened to Glen Inger, co-founder of The Warehouse. Instead of spending life as a fitter and turner, he went on become one of the country’s most successful businessmen, with interests spanning retail, property development, horticulture, tourism, farming and forestry. But life threw him a curveball 12 years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer, which has led to a re-calibration of his priorities. He spoke with Jannette Thompson …
It started with a melanoma on my ear and after a couple of operations we thought we were ahead of it. But five years later, the melanoma was in my lymph system and I had stage four cancer in both lungs. It was pretty much a death sentence, because melanomas are so vicious. Altogether, I’ve had 13 major operations and 25 tumours removed, and have been all over the world looking for different solutions. It’s tried to kill me several times, but I’m still here and I think that is fantastic. Every day I get up and see the sun is a good day. I keep positive, walk every day, eat the right foods and take a lot of vitamins. Even into your forties, you think you are going to live forever, but when you come so close to death, and I’ve been close a few times, you realise what really matters – your family and friends and, in my case, my work colleagues.
My wife Joanne and I both attended Wellsford School and Rodney College, and both our families, the Ingers and the Neals, go back to the Albertlanders. We attribute much of our success to our very loving parents and siblings who encouraged us to work hard and aim high. Our parents were hard-working dairy farmers with high standards and ethics, which came from those strong Albertland roots. Our farm was on marginal country at Port Albert and it was a struggle. Everyone had to pitch in to help with the milking, feeding out and haymaking, but there was also plenty of time for riding motorbikes, shooting and playing sport. I enjoyed my rugby and won three Blues at Rodney College, played for the First XV and North Auckland Under 16s and later, captained Wellsford Rugby Club seniors. Those were good days. When I played for the Auckland Under 18s, Terry Wright and John Kirwan were the wingers.
Eventually, though, I had to choose between a career or rugby, so I decided to hang up my boots. I’d been good at engineering at school so thought I might head in that direction but was turned down for the first position I applied for. I ended up in retail as a management trainee with L.D. Nathan, which owned Woolworths Variety and McKenzies. By the time I was 21, I was in charge of the sixth largest store, with responsibility for 100 staff. I doubled the profits in the first two years and then went into the supermarket division, buying all the non-perishable items, from potato peelers to buckets. But my life took quite a different course when my boss, Gerard Peterson, offered me a two per cent pay rise. I refused it and that’s when we started to talk about going into business together.
It was the 1980s and the rural sector had been hit hard by the economic downturn. A lot of the mini-McKenzie stores were closing, leaving a lot of empty commercial space. Gerard and I thought small variety stores still had a future, but the big thing was how to get supply and capital. After talking it through, we went back to Woolworths and suggested a 50/50 venture. This amounted to high treason in their eyes, so we started to look elsewhere. I’d had some dealings with Stephen Tindall, who had three little stores in Auckland. We set up a meeting in Takapuna and, over a beer, discussed what we had in mind. Stephen liked what he was hearing, but initially, he couldn’t afford to pay us.
Luckily, Joanne was a hairdresser with a successful salon and we’d put off having kids for a few years to get a start, so I was in a position to follow my dream. We were mortgaged to the hilt, but if it came a gutser, at least we knew that we could pay the rent. We got rid of the suits and ties, the company cars and the big long titles, rolled up our sleeves and started unloading containers, and setting up systems and disciplines. A lot of people laughed at us at the start, but we believed we could be as good as anyone else, if not better.
Running The Warehouse in those days was a bit like having a tiger by the tail because we were always short of capital, especially running up to Christmas. In the end, we pulled the whole company together as the Warehouse Group and floated it on the Stock Exchange. This raised about $30 million, and that gave us the ability to fund more stock and more stores. Gerard and I swapped the franchise we had for stores south of the Bombay Hills to Palmerston North for 15 per cent of the new company. I’m still passionate about the business and talk about it like it’s still mine, but after nearly 18 years, I was pretty damn exhausted. I’d done a lot of travelling, been responsible for a lot of staff and spent a lot of time away from the kids. I was still only in my forties, but it was time to hand it on to someone else.
I took a breath and looked at what I could add value to and have some fun with. The list was pretty long! One of my big roles now is to mentor and help our four kids. Michaela, the oldest, owns the successful Mikko chain of shoe stores, while Greg is the head buyer for Crackerjack, formerly the Clearance Shed. Craig is the production manager at our Mercer Mushrooms enterprise and Vicky, the youngest, is a project manager with the Business Intelligence Group. I was appointed to the board of the farming cooperative Ravensdown 12 years ago and will retire this year.
Our property arm in the north includes Kowhai Falls in Warkworth, where we have consent to put in more than 1500sqm of retail on four hectares alongside Mitre 10 Mega, a 28ha block behind the shops in Wellsford towards Worker Road, and a 66-lot subdivision at Langs Beach. Development of Warkworth and Wellsford will depend to some extent on what the demand is when the new motorway opens. Retail is changing and it could be that we look at some commercial units in the mix. Wellsford has been through some tough times, but I think as the motorway gets up there, its time will come again. I’m disappointed that the National plan to continue the motorway north was canned for at least another 10 years. The roading network is poor, the railway is poor – if we improve the infrastructure, we’ll get more industry up there, which means more jobs and less dependence on social welfare. I think Rodney has been the poorer since the Supercity was set up. We used to get a certain amount of seal every year and now we get bloody nothing. We hardly get metal, either. The road to Tapora is atrocious and should have been sealed years ago.
Another interest in the north is a joint venture with Southern Paprika, growing avocado at Tapora, on a dairy farm which Joanne and I owned for many years. So far, we’ve planted 25,000 trees on 100ha, with probably another 150ha to go. We’re out of dairy now, but still into beef in a fairly big way, running around 3000 head across a few properties. We also have forestry interests on about 1000ha around Tapora and Topuni. Horticulture offers a great future for Tapora. As we get more pickers and orchard people there, I can see that community rebuilding. When I was a kid, there were 78 kids at that school, now I think they have about 28. We’ve gone for consent for a 13-section subdivision opposite the school, which includes a little shop like the one that was there when I was a kid. The sections will be the cheapest in greater Auckland.
Another venture we’ll probably divest ourselves of soon is the Toberua Island Resort in Fiji which we bought 11 years ago. There’s also a mussel farm at Port Lincoln, in South Australia, one of largest farms in Australia, and a couple of big commercial blocks in Otara and Whangarei. The Zone Shopping Centre in Pukekohe is one of our major commercial property investments and a jewel in the crown. It’s worth $50 million and we plan to use it as our model for Kowhai Falls. So, all in all, plenty to keep me occupied! I’d like to live to an old age, but I have to be realistic that this thing is probably going to come back again. I’ll keep fighting for as long as I can, and I still think and plan long-term, whether that is replanting forests or protecting wetlands and native bush with fencing. These are the things that really mean something to me now.