Tony Quinn: from zero to 60, and beyond

Almost exactly halfway between Auckland and Hamilton, Hampton Downs Motorsport Park sits atop Waikato swampland, carved out of steel, concrete and asphalt. When it’s finished, it’ll host motorsport races from all over the world.

At least, that’s the dream of park owner Tony Quinn, who bought the track last year. He also built Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell, which opened in 2013, creating a world-class track and tourist destination. It’s there Quinn keeps one of Michael Schumacher’s Formula One cars and a new $4.2 million Aston Martin Vulcan supercar, the only one in the southern hemisphere.

With motorsport being loud, exuberant and hedonistic, you’d expect the owner of a race track to be the same. But Quinn speaks quietly and has a calm demeanour. He’s got a cheeky twinkle in his eye and swear words roll off his tongue, an innate part of his vocabulary. Dressed in a red Kathmandu jacket, blue jeans and sneakers, there are no bells and whistles attached to this self-made millionaire.

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Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, Quinn grew up in a wooden caravan built by his dad Jimmy. From the age of five he started helping his dad with his pet food business, weighing and bagging minced meat. As he grew older, he graduated to skinning calves, chopping up dead animals and turning animal blood, guts, fat and bone into useable material – a process called rendering.

His first business was in rendering and, as he put it in his book, he was “up to my arms in blood and guts and shit every day”. He went on to run a successful signwriting business before moving with his wife Christina and two young kids to Perth, Australia. There, he tried and failed at running two businesses: one in rust-proofing and another in video arcade game machines.

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Perth was full of “thieves, vagabonds, wankers and pricks” and they robbed him of his money and confidence. Quinn wasn’t completely faultless, though.

“I hadn’t heard of the term ‘due diligence’ until much later in life,” he admits, meaning he did very little, if any, research before jumping into business deals.

“Due diligence back then was if it felt good, then do it. When you do that, of course you lay yourself open to scoundrels.”

The Quinn family moved to New Zealand afterwards and settled in Dargaville. There, Quinn succeeded in building his own pet food business and returned to Australia some years later to set up VIP Petfood, the company that would make him his fortune.

He ran the business for more than two decades before selling it last year for A$410m (NZ$435m).

In 2012, he bought flailing Australian confectionery icon Darrell Lea and has spent A$50m on turning the brand around. It’s now worth more than A$100m.

The Quinns were valued at AU$411m in this year’s BRW Rich 200 List, a list of Australia’s 200 richest people and families.

How much is he actually worth, though?

The twinkle vanishes.

“Oh, don’t be saying shit like that.”

He’s at pains to point out he never does anything for the money and it’s just a tool to help him be the best at what he does. Money is a burden and never as good as people think it is.

So if not for the money, then why the hard slog?

“I’ve always been competitive. I think when you’re competitive it’s the game that counts. And when you’ve tasted winning, it’s a pretty cool position to be in.”

Quinn’s advice for winning in business is simple. If you can’t work out your business’ financial plan on the back of a cigarette pack, then it’s not going to work. Put more money into the bank than you take out. Work hard. Create a good brand. Deliver on promises. Make margin.

He’s also got his 2 + 2 = 7 theory, which he applies to making profit. If the cost of your product is 2 + 2, selling it for $4 will make you bankrupt. If you sell it for $8 and give the customer a $1 discount, everyone will be happy.

Of course challenges will come up along the way, but Quinn says focusing on the game is key. How do you be the best at what you’re doing?

Whatever game he’s playing, Quinn won’t be going at it for too much longer. He’s 59, or “turning 60 next year”, as he puts it, and his own mortality seems to be playing on his mind.

He’s got four children, eight grandchildren and millions of dollars in his name. His children manage a portion of the family wealth, but Quinn doesn’t want to be remembered for the “obscene” amount of money he’s made. That’s why he wanted his story written down.

“The most valuable thing you can leave your family is your story,” he says.

“I say to people, you leave them a million dollars they’ll fight over it. You leave them a diary of your life, they will find that so interesting, generation after generation.”

Of all the things Quinn has achieved in life, nothing beats becoming a grandparent. He’s gained a new appreciation for life through his grandchildren because even though he loves his kids, having them was “a real pain in the ass”. Now, he gets to stand back and enjoy being with his family without all the pressures of also learning how to be a dad.

Getting older has also brought his attention to other, more basic needs. His home is the Gold Coast but that’s not where he wants to retire – Australia’s too hot and everything bites, he says.

“I like New Zealand. I like the food. I like the weather, I like the people and I like the toilets. As you get older, toilets become very important.

“When you travel the world you can almost judge a country on the standard of toilets they have.”

According to Quinn, toilets in Australia don’t even compare to New Zealand’s “world-class” lavatories. America’s are alright. Germany’s are good. Britain’s are awful.

What else seems to be fairly awful in Quinn’s eyes is how much the world has changed. Nobody wants to work hard anymore and to get themselves elbow-deep in both physical and metaphorical blood and guts, he says.

He’s waiting for bell-bottom jeans to come back into fashion. He’s exasperated at the news about a Sydney school that has banned children from clapping during assemblies.

The thought of Donald Trump running for president of the United States forces the hardy Scotsman to bury his head in his hands.

Quinn is happy to be retiring soon; he’s tired of trying to beat “the system”. Before his time is up though, he wants to race with both his youngest son Klark and his oldest grandchild Ryder.

Other than that, he doesn’t have a bucket list. He never set out to do anything and he has done everything he ever wanted to.

Despite the ups and downs of the journey of becoming one of Australia’s richest people, Quinn says his story is not any better or worse than anyone else’s.

“Anybody that’s done this journey, it’s different dates, different colour, different position, different location.

“The same story.”

– Sunday Star Times

July 31, 2016

Posted In: News