Rhys Gardner says achieving at a top level, whether in
business or sport, requires total concentration. Photos by
He is a rally-driving farmer with a bent for business.
Rhys Gardner reckons rallying, start-up businesses and
farming have a lot of similarities, such as dealing with
And in a world that was becoming ''faster and faster'', being
able to stay calm and focused in uncertain situations was
important, he said.
Mr Gardner (32), who grew up on a farm in South Otago, has a
passion for business development, leadership and people.
He studied at the University of Otago's School of Business
before returning to the farm and also establishing a tourism
He joined the Upstart business incubator in Dunedin for two
years, working with start-up companies, while doing a
programme for future leaders, before getting back into
He now operates a 200ha property, running several thousand
stock units, with some help from his father, Howie, who farms
nearby, and grandfather Clyde.
He acknowledged he was lucky to work with his family, in a
relationship with no tension.
Rhys Gardner in action during the Rally of Otago.
He had a strong interest in farming, and it was grounding
for him, Mr Gardner said.
''It's a piece of stability where I don't have a lot of
stability in a lot of the other stuff I do.
''Even though farming is dynamic and challenging itself, it's
always in the same place all the time,'' Mr Gardner said.
Getting involved in rallying was ''almost inevitable'' as he
had raced motocross bikes since he was at secondary school
and grew up on a farm that was on the Catlins Coast Rally
He reckoned his father got frustrated with the farm
motorbikes being ''treated badly'' and put him on a motocross
bike when he was about 12.
The year 2012 had been a good one for Mr Gardner as wins
included the Catlins Coast Rally and the Allcomers section in
the Rally of Otago.
Since that year, he had been on a steep learning curve, both
in terms of getting the car sorted and team systems right.
Engine failure has meant missing the next round of the
national championships, which effectively ended his season,
but he was philosophical about it.
''It's not a bad thing. We've moved so quickly the
foundations aren't in place.
''It's like a start-up company that has no resources. You
can't afford to make a mistake.
''While that drives you to do things right, at the same time
it creates a lot of pressure and stress,'' he said.
His focus was now on the next season and, probably even more
so, the following season.
Rallying was all about focus; it demanded extreme
concentration with harsh consequences for mistakes, and your
attention could not lapse for a millisecond, he said.
But even when reaching top speeds of about 220kmh, he found
the sport very calming.
''I'm calmer when I get out of the car after a good stage
than any other time. It's almost like high-speed
meditation,'' he said.
Last year, he was selected for the Elite Motorsport Academy,
run by High Performance Sport New Zealand.
When it came to top-level performance, whether business or
sport, it came down to being ''completely immersed in what
you're doing with 100% concentration'', Mr Gardner said.
There was no room to think about the corner that you just
made a mistake at, or the result of a race, Mr Gardner said.
It was also about noticing the subtle, little changes.
There was no difference between him noticing the shape of a
tree, indicating the way a corner was going to go, and a
subtle change in some crops on the farm because of pests or
the climate, he said.
His rural upbringing was valuable, he said.
Rallying was a sport that required you to be flexible and
''able to do everything'', especially when there was no
As his team was ''completely underresourced'', the only way
he could possibly compete at a high level was by taking a
smarter approach, a challenge he enjoyed, Mr Gardner said.
It pushed him to be very resourceful and innovative as to how
he went about things.
He had started speaking publicly last year after undertaking
some training with a Dunedin toastmasters group and began
doing it commercially this year.
His topics depended on the audience and he treated each
speech as if it was a rally, doing his research on who was
there and what kind of message they would enjoy and find
inspirational and ''built it to suit''.
He often talked about rally driving, start-up businesses and
What he was really interested in was leadership and helping
companies progress and the next stage was working with
companies on a more integrated basis.
He loved public speaking, in particular using his commercial
model in which he presented a story or challenge that started
a discussion within a company's team on what they needed to
do to advance.
He wanted to work with a small group of companies which were
partners in his rally team, Mr Gardner said.
When it came to rallying he had some goals, the biggest being
to go as far as he could and be the best driver he could be.
''That's kind of simple. You can only control where you end
up, to a point,'' he said.
Asked about how he managed to balance everything, Mr Gardner
said he tried to build a structure to support a busy life.
That included good nutrition and mental training to ''stay
centred and focused in the middle of it all''.
''I'd just about describe rallying as a mental illness.
You're asking for both sides of the roller coaster.
''You're going to get the ups, but the downs are going to be
just as severe. It's brutal,'' he said.
But having to ''pick yourself up and carry on'' toughened you
up, he said.
He admired World Rally Championship drivers for their
''unreal'' ability to stay so focused, no matter what
Mr Gardner acknowledged the ''huge amount of help'' he had
received from people over the past five years, with many
contributing funding, support and guidance.