Awash with yachts

It was a life-changing invitation - to sail "anywhere that was warm, had plenty of beer, and the girls didn't wear very much". Peter Donaldson learns more about Barrie Neilson's remarkable journey.


Former Dunedin man Barrie Meilson relaxes beside Otago Harbour during a recent visit. Photo by...
Former Dunedin man Barrie Meilson relaxes beside Otago Harbour during a recent visit. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
When Barrie Neilson left New Zealand in the early 1970s, he quite literally sailed into the sunset. Since then, he's enjoyed plenty of sunsets, many from the deck of one of the more than 180 yachts he and wife Heidi own in the Greek islands.

Yes, that's right, more than 180 yachts.

Not bad for the former Andersons Bay milk boy who describes himself as one of ''Dunedin's great academic failures''.

''Actually,'' he says, considering that throwaway line, ''I'd prefer you wrote 'one of Dunedin's academic failures', without the word `great', because I'm not great.''

It's a modesty that runs through Neilson's life story, from his humble beginnings in St Kilda, through motorcycle racing achievements, to his understated northern hemisphere business success.

There is no pretence. He remains a Dunedin boy who just happens to have built London-based Sailing Holidays into the largest flotilla yacht operation in the Greek Islands.

Offering week or fortnight self-skippering, island-hopping holidays, the company employs more than 100 staff at peak times, and between May 1 and October 31 caters for more than 8000 clients.

Its yachts, ''trimmed'' to be exceptionally user-friendly even in the calm waters of the Ionian Sea, range from couples-friendly 27-footers, through family-sized 30ft to 33ft options to a 36ft to 50ft range catering for groups of up to 10.

Sailing Holidays also offers skippered and ''bareboat'' charters.

Neilson readily acknowledges the valued role of his wife, the importance and loyalty of his employees - many of them young Kiwis on their OE - and the role models who have inspired him.

His philosophies are simple, most learned on life's sometimes twisting road, others drawn from the influences of an interestingly diverse set of grandfathers, one a capitalist, the other a communist.

''I was born in Market St, in St Kilda, on Trafalgar Day 1947, roughly nine months after the troop ship arrived back in Dunedin from Trieste at the end of World War 2,'' he says.

Neilson's early schooling was at St Clair Primary, and later Musselburgh School after his parents Ted and Norma moved to the area.

Neilson, with younger siblings Jill and Phil, enjoyed a pretty typical post-war upbringing, plenty of DIY outdoor activities, and scouts, ''which I lived and breathed''.

And then came television.

Like so many youngsters of the time, his initial viewing was through a shop window.

''Mum and Dad couldn't afford one, so I had to engineer to be outside the bike shop in St Kilda to see Robin Hood on Tuesday evenings at six o'clock, and William Tell at six o'clock on Thursday evenings.''

His maternal grandfather was Norman Anderson, then a city councillor and a pillar of the Dunedin establishment.

''A nicer, more caring fellow would be hard to find. He was also a regular target of Otago Daily Times cartoonist Sid Scales.

''My other grandfather was from the opposite end of the political spectrum.

'Red Peter', my father's father, lived in Pleasant Point, and was a great enthusiast of the egalitarian dream.''

Then there was the milk run.

''I enjoyed doing that with my great mate, Bruce Callister, because the fresh air was just exhilarating.''

The run belonged to Bruce's father, Jim, who instilled, perhaps unknowingly, an early work discipline.

''I only found out in later life he had been one of World War 2's top fighter pilots in North Africa. Finding that out helped me understand a lot more about him because he was fairly stern to us kids but in a fair way. I had no idea he could even fly an aeroplane.''

Looking back, Neilson admits the early morning starts six days a week weren't conducive to classroom concentration in his four years at King's High School.

A dearth of young, enthusiastic teachers further blunted his educational progress.

''One of the problems that I hadn't really grasped when I was young was that I was part of a baby boom after World War 2, and teachers were in short supply.

''One particular teacher I will never forget was Mr Crimp, who had retired some years before the war but had been brought back to cover for mathematics teachers who had been lost during the war.

''Being good at mathematics meant you were likely to be selected as a bomber navigator, and losses were high in that field.
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'Mr Crimp must have been all of 80, and he would walk into the class, put an algebraic problem on the blackboard, sit down, begin to read his book and go to sleep ... The problem could have been Chinese for all I knew so, soon, rulers and rubbers were flying around the room.''

If Neilson's academic life was stalling, another side was powering ahead.

He had discovered motorcycles.

But it was a furtive pursuit.

''I had saved just about enough money to secretly buy a 350cc Matchless ''Jampot''. I thought I was the bee's knees, but had to hide the bike at my friend Phil Connolly's house in Musselburgh Rise.

"Needless to say, my secret was soon discovered and, after a significant telling off, I was thereafter able to keep the bike at home,'' he says.

School days gladly over, and jobs aplenty, Neilson joined the workforce.

''My parents arranged for me to try working for Royal Insurance at £9 a week, but I wasn't cut out to be an office dweller, so the £14 wages paid at the local wool store lured me away after a year or so.

''I also did a stint at Methvens, the wonderful bathroom appliance manufacturer that used to be in Andersons Bay Rd, which exposed me to the wonders of engineering; casting, fitting and turning."

Neilson's previously latent practical side emerged and blossomed.

''When the old tradesmen let me work the lathes, I was instantly converted to a `blue collar man'.

''From memory, they employed about 300 people and above all, gave young males the opportunity to learn basic hands-on skills.''

If engineering stirred his soul, the teenaged Neilson soon discovered and embraced a whole new interest.

''When I look back, I was frighteningly naive, but battled on, learning as I went.

''This was the era when women decided to get liberated and us young fellows were quite bemused, because we felt women were liberating us!
We didn't complain, though, and blundered through.''

By now, motorcycles had also fully grabbed his attention. The Matchless gave way to a Norton, a Triumph and finally a new 1969 Triumph Bonneville.

After a short ''bikie'' phase, the big money of the freezing works in Invercargill lured Neilson south, where he was drawn into motorcycle racing, at Teretonga racetrack, Oreti Beach and further north.

Neilson has fond memories of those times, especially of one eccentric character.

''Whoever would have thought old Burt Munro would be really famous one day!

''The arrival of The World's Fastest Indian in the UK reacquainted me with several people from those days. I had been interviewed for the original documentary, and the chap who did all the special effects for the film, Kent Houston, had been my mechanic for a big race in Wellington in about 1970.

''And then there was my friend Neil Johnson, who was a valued helper throughout that motorcycling period of my life. What a trip down memory lane.''

Neilson remains modest about his racing talents, describing himself as ''an average national-standard rider''.

That ''average'' rider finished on the podium in both the 1974 New Zealand Senior and Junior Grands Prix in his final meeting. The rider who beat him, Stu Avant, went on to enjoy world championship level success.

''Racing was a huge buzz and I really enjoyed it. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity and retain several friends from the period.''

But knowing the next step up in racing was beyond his budget, Neilson welcomed Mike Mackay's timely offer.

''He asked me and Rangi Winiata if we wanted to sail with him to anywhere that was warm, had plenty of beer, and the girls didn't wear very much.''

Neilson didn't spend too long considering the alternatives.

''I sold my seven motorcycles in seven days and Rangi and I arrived down at Mike's boat Sundancer in Bluff with a carry-on bag each. It was a voyage that changed my life.''

They were on the boat for nearly a year, drifting up the east coast of New Zealand, then around the top and across to Sydney - where the adventure ended abruptly when the boat was sold.

''I decided this was the moment to see Britain and Europe.''

Prompted by his paternal grandfather's enthusiasm for ''the great communist experiment'' - and also because it was the cheapest route - Neilson booked a trip on the Transsiberian railway, via Hong Kong, Okinawa, and Yokohama.

The journey across Russia took nearly a month, and cost less than $150.

Ever resilient and needing a UK income, he borrowed a mate's best shirt and, armed with his primary school bronze medallion for lifesaving, secured a job as a pool attendant at an upmarket hotel.

''It soon became apparent that private lessons for women and children were more lucrative than sitting by the side of the pool, so I started a kind of leisure club, which caught on,'' Neilson says.

''I also decided to build my own ferro-cement yacht, so I bought a hull and began fitting it out using materials scavenged from skips. I sailed it round the English Channel during the summer 1979, but eventually wrecked it in the Seine estuary, in France.''

Financially battered, Neilson decided he'd rather sail other people's boats, so attended the 1980 London International Boat Show and applied for a job with Flotilla Sailing Club in Greece - ''and the rest is history''.

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Perhaps more importantly, for this healthy young and single Kiwi male, ''I had found the place that Mike, Rangi and I had dreamed about five years earlier when we sailed out of Bluff into the Roaring 40s.''

By 1983, Neilson was in charge of seven yachts in what was then Yugoslavia.

That June, his life took another upward turn.

When he welcomed aboard a holiday group from the UK, he was particularly taken by one attractive young woman. Her name was Heidi Seville; later to become Heidi Neilson.

''She was single so I just had to leap in where others feared to tread,'' Neilson remembers fondly.

''One thing led to another, and Heidi returned to the UK, resigned her job and became my flotilla hostess.

''We spent two years operating and promoting the programme, and at the end of 1984 we set off on another adventure.''

The company was in dire straits.

The manager had been fired after spending millions of pounds on new boats but failing to generate increased sales and income.

''Heidi and I offered to run the UK end of the business, and a deal was put together whereby we could slowly buy over three years a dozen of the boats.

By the end of the year, that had become 20 and things were going well.

''We just got our heads down - failure was not an option,'' Neilson says, remembering what were to become challenging times.

Part of the business had been sold to an accountant, who 18 months later decided he could run the company himself. As it turned out, he was better counting money than making it.

''Our first daughter, Amy, was born in 1989, and right on cue, the accountant failed, so the company, by now called Sailing Holidays Ltd, became available again.

''We simply reinstated our original agreement with Tom, and extended it a bit. We were his only option, so the arrangement was very favourable ... Nobody else wanted to take it on,'' Neilson says.

As sole shareholders, and with Christmas looming, the Neilsons threw themselves into resurrecting the business.

They produced a brochure and a couple of weeks later attended the 1990 London International Boat Show to reacquaint themselves with former clientele - and welcome new prospects.

Starting with a dozen or so yachts, they slowly built up the fleet and enjoyed a successful year, which was followed by another and another.
At the close of the 1993 season, they had four flotillas.

One of their original staff was Janine Smith, from Ranfurly, who remains the company's Greece supremo, based in Corfu with partner Simon, working alongside their invaluable Greek administrator Lucas, ''who has been crucial to our evolution''.

''I am extremely proud of Janine's achievement in becoming our 'rock' in Greece and she is very much part of us.

We have other great teamsters specialising in different aspects of what we do, but Janine is the boss,'' Neilson says.

The Neilsons' second daughter, Alice, was born in 1994, and Sailing Holidays continued its expansion during the 1990s, buying more boats from failed companies and creating more flotillas.

The year 2000 marked 10 years of full control for the Neilsons. Buying a London office was their practical form of celebration.

The following year, they achieved another first - persuading a bank to fund the purchase of new yachts, some 36ft Beneteaus.

''Having established the method of financing new yachts, we invested in about 20 more in 2002.

And in 2003, we completed our yacht purchase binge with 12 more 33ft Beneteaus and sold off a similar number of the older yachts,'' Neilson says.

''In 2004, we began the 'Shaguar Project', a couples boat, for which we 'imported' Don Milne all the way from Dunedin.

Don spent nearly a year adapting one of the older Jaguar 27-footers and this worked brilliantly, to the point that we now have 21 yachts converted with five to go.''

In 2004, the company also introduced a programme for those wanting one week ashore and one week afloat.

In 2005, a second ''shore-to-sail'' scheme was launched in Kefalonia.

In 2007, the Neilsons renewed the ''middle-size'' fleets, and with the help of the Bank of Scotland bought 30 new Beneteau 323s.

In the past two years, they have bought two Bavaria 46s and two 50ft Beneteau Oceanis Clippers, and in September bought a Dutch operation of 26 yachts.

''As of now, we are running 12 flotillas spread over six different routes and almost incredibly more than 180 of our own yachts,'' Neilson says with a modest smile.

The 30-footers are worth between $20,000 and $25,000, the newer mid-size yachts $125,000 to $170,000 apiece and the 50s around $630,000 each.

''But we don't really see them as having that kind of value, because they are simply the tools of our trade. They are a lot of hard work, and arguably a potential liability if another Icelandic volcano erupts.''

Fifty will be paid off this coming year and ''the 30 we bought a couple of years ago will take a few more years. The others are all paid for.

''It seems quite incredible now ... I can still vividly remember standing on the quay in Corfu looking down at the flotilla of boats in my care in 1980 and wondering how people could ever get enough money together to afford even one yacht!'' So you want to be an entrepreneur

Suffice to say, a university degree does not feature on my list, although graduates with suitable practical skills are often great additions to our team.

It seems every year brings a new challenge or two - volcanic ash cloud, Y2K, swine flu, bird flu, Sars, foot and mouth disease, financial crisis, soaring fuel costs and many other reasons people felt discouraged about holidays and air travel.

Along with these issues have been attacks from the bureaucrats, crackpot schemes from regulators and suicidal price cutting by corporate competitors.
Through it all, we have emerged as the sole British flotilla sailing holiday provider to the Greek Islands.

Our competitors are two German corporations operating under the Sunsail, Moorings and Thomas Cook brands.

I guess determination and saving the pennies are some keys to business success, because the wages from the Anderson Bay milk run allowed me to buy my new Raleigh bicycle; the wages from the freezing works allowed me to buy my Triumph Bonneville and subsequent racing machines; and wages and sheer effort allowed me to build my first boat.

The hard work continued, and here I am at 63 wondering where the years have gone, but knowing I have enjoyed every one, in one way or another.

I have never had a day's training in running a business, and have had to learn the hard way.

It is important not to get too angry about individual problems; it is best to always try to find a way around an immovable object.

I am currently on the council of a British tourism organisation called AITO, which is a group of 150 specialist holiday companies which was established to share the difficulties presented by running such businesses.

 


The Neilson philosophy

Oddly enough, my grandfather's inclination towards the political left has left a legacy.

Technically, a company has to have shareholders and directors, but we have sidelined those two positions and, in a sense, as far as we are concerned, these liabilities do not exist. We have to have directors by law but this is a token position.

Everyone in the business works for their crust. Everyone has done the job in the field so understands different aspects of the business.

We look to train our own crews to a degree, from a starting stock of handy young people and especially young tradesmen. We generally look for blue-collar staff rather than white-collar.

Most of our flotilla lead crews are still Kiwis or Australians and we should be proud as a country to still be producing such good non-academic people, skilled in their trades.

One of the key guides I have is that if I have a plan and absolutely everybody disagrees, then I know I'm on the right track, because otherwise somebody else would have done it.

The ''Seagull Syndrome'' is the bane of my life.

This is the ''yeeeeeees, but, but, but, but, but, but, but'' - like the sound of the famous old British Seagull outboard motor.


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