Money Talks – Sistema founder Brendan Lindsay ‘I couldn’t afford to buy a beer’

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“I was playing rugby down in Cambridge and I used to run to training on Tuesdays and Thursdays and run home because I couldn’t afford to buy a beer,” says Brendan Lindsay.

“I was embarrassed about being in the clubrooms and not being able to buy a beer. We really were broke.”

It’s no secret that he’s not short of cash these days. Lindsay sold Sistema, the plastics business he founded in 1982, to America’s Newell for $660 million in 2016.

But growing a manufacturing business through the tumultuous 1980s and 1990s was tough.

At one point Lindsay recalls paying 31 per cent interest on a loan on one of his plastic moulding machines. It changed his attitude to debt.

On the Money Talks podcast – recorded shortly before lockdown – Lindsay talks about coping with no money, and more recently, coping with a lot of it.

Neither Lindsay nor his wife Jo were keen on the publicity that went with the multimillion-dollar sale, but Newell was a Fortune 500 company so the sale details were public and he’s had to live with it.

“I guess that was a big problem for [Jo] and I. We didn’t want public attention, we still wanted to go down to the local dairy to get our groceries.”

In hindsight, though, it hasn’t been as bad they feared, he says.

Lindsay settled the sale of the business on the fourth of April – the couple’s wedding anniversary.

He was tired of travelling to keep the wheels turning on what had a become a global business with sales in 110 countries.

But he wasn’t really prepared for the shock of giving it up, and the issue of what to do next.

“When you wake up one morning and you’ve got 700 people working for you and thenext day you’ve got none, it’s like what am I going to do?”

He and Jo were already financially comfortable, he says.

“We don’t actually want for anything. We had a nice car and all the bits and pieces. I didn’t need to buy a helicopter because I don’t want that kind of life.

“I spent 9 months thinking about it and we talked and talked and talked.

“And I said to my wife, we’ll buy a house in the south of France. She said what for? No one’s going to come and visit us.

“So OK, that was stupid idea. Alright, well you know what, we’re actually happy doing what we’re doing.”

The money has enabled the couple to indulge their love of horses, and they purchased Cambridge Stud from Sir Patrick Hogan in 2017.

But beyond that, Lindsay now puts most of his attention into the Lindsay Foundation, a charitable foundation he modelled on those of Sir Stephen Tindall and Sam Morgan.

With Sistema, says Lindsay, he grappled with the fear of being “a one-hit wonder”.

As business hits go, though, it was a big one. And it was achieved against the odds.

Lindsay grew up in a household without much money, but he says he didn’t feel poor by the standards of the day.

His father was a travelling salesman. While the family never went hungry and always had clothes on their backs, he says, they didn’t get pocket money and worked from an early age.

“I remember as a child, as a birthday present you could buy a pie,” he says.

“It was a shilling. And they used to deliver pies to the school. It was an absolute highlight of the year to have a pie.”

Lindsay grew up in Pukerua Bay near Wellington.

School wasn’t his thing. “I was hopeless. I didn’t thrive and I can’t spell,” he says.

“So I was always regarded as the dunce of the family. My father always used to say I’d end up on the park bench with a newspaper on me … which was not a lot of encouragement.”

But he did have a head for numbers.

“I’ve got School Certificate in book-keeping and I only ever went to the book-keeping class twice – once at the start to sign in and the second time was to sit the exam,” he says.

“I remember going to the exam and the teacher saying who was I, and I said ‘well you’ve got a choice to make, either let me sit the exam or own up to the fact I haven’t been in your class all year’.”

From school he followed his father’s lead as a travelling salesman in the clothing industry.

His break, or at least the moment that changed his destiny, came when a client recognised his knack for business and got talking to him about a potential opportunity.

“He had a little square plastic disc the size of dice and he brought them in from England. They go on top of coat hangers to designate the size. And he said to me you should make these little sizing discs.”

The man, who ran a women’s clothing store in Paraparaumu, told Lindsay he was in the top 5 per cent of New Zealanders because he wanted to work hard, wanted to work for himself and had some acumen.

“[The] comments of sitting on a park bench left me behind,” Lindsay says.

He left the meeting fired up and told his parents that evening.

“I went home and told my mother, she was darning a hole in my father’s sock. Dad came home from golf and he said he played rugby with a fella in Auckland who was into plastics. ‘I’ll ring him’.

“Dad rang him at nine o’clock that night and told him I’d be in Auckland at 8 o’clock in the morning. We were living in Wellington.”

Lindsay got in the car and drove all night, had the meeting, they made the sizing disc and he drove back home.

“And that was the start of the business.

“Then I made the coat hanger that went underneath the sizing disc. To this day most of my friends call me hanger.”

It was 1982, the start of a very tough decade for doing business in New Zealand.

“We were in the garage at home and just paying the rent was a big enough struggle, and getting people to pay you and all those types of things,” Lindsay says.

“You have the odd little bad debt that really knocks your tail in.”

Married and living in Cambridge, those were the days of running to and from football training.

“But you know, those sacrifices didn’t feel like big sacrifices at the time,” he says.

“It just seemed normal and fun and then eventually you do go and have a beer with the boys.”

But even when he had some revenue coming in, growing the business wasn’t easy.

He had to pay 29 per cent interest on the loan for his first plastic moulding machine. The money came from the Development Finance Corporation and Lindsay says he felt lucky to get it.

He took another loan for another machine and “I think I paid 31 per cent on the second one”.

Lindsay remembers the crash of 1987 as being tough, but says it was the aftermath in the early 1990s that really pushed him to the edge.

“BNZ said they were going to foreclose on me. I had trouble getting money, the banks didn’t have capacity,” he says.

“In the 1990s I learned a lot of lessons about debt and decided I’d never buy another machine unless I could write a cheque for it. I was frightened I was going to lose everything.”

It meant the growth was slower, but he believes that philosophy stood him in good stead.

“They were tough times but they were good times,” he says.

Sistema grew organically, but it kept growing.

“When we sold we were exporting to 110 countries around the world,” Lindsay says.

“We were buying all our material from Korea and making these containers and sending it back to Korea and making it retail.

“I learned through selling, I travelled the world a lot.”

He says the experience really taught him the value of “New Zealand made”.

“People just don’t fully appreciate how strong the NZ Inc. brand is,” he says.

“New Zealanders tend to undersell ourselves. We have a bit of that number 8 wire mentality.”

Lindsay says he doesn’t want to get political, even though privately he has plenty of opinions.

“It’s not appropriate for me to tell the Government how to run New Zealand or whatever.

“But I agreed with John Key when he wanted to change the New Zealand flag and put the silver fern on it. I think the ‘made in New Zealand’ thing is the most important thing for the country.

“There’s only 5 million of us, we bat above our weight in sport, in business, in every single thing we do.

“And yet we don’t yell and scream about it enough.

“Wealth’s not a dirty word. But we need to encourage these children as they come through the school to understand how important they are. It’s self-confidence.”

Lindsay is still doing business. He recently took a cornerstone stake in Pryde Capital Advisors, a specialised debt advisory firm comprising the nucleus of ANZ’s corporate finance team.

He and Jo now channel the returns from their investments into the Lindsay Foundation.

“We donated some money to Starship [hospital] for the air ambulance and we’ve just now bought a share of the company that actually flies the ambulance,” he says.

“So we’ll get a dividend and we’ll give that dividend to Starship so that’ll be self-funding in perpetuity.

“What I’ve found,” he says, “is I’m actually quite good at business.

“I wasn’t sure after I sold Sistema if I was a one-hit wonder. I didn’t want to be just remembered for that.”

There are lots more charitable projects on his to-do list.

“I was at Eden Park with the [All Black] Barrett boys with the Upside Downs charity for families of Down syndrome children”.

“They were just fantastic, the way they took the time to throw the ball around with those kids. That’s the highlight in our life, just seeing those little kids, All Blacks donating their time.”

Apart from that, he’s happiest spending time with the family or mucking about in the garden.

“I went and had a look at a new car on Saturday,” he says. “But I don’t actually want a new car. I was sort of looking for something to do.

“I spend hours and hours in the vegetable garden. I get a lot enjoyment out of growing vegetables. We can’t eat them. We have to give them away.

“But I really enjoy the simple things of life, walking around the garden in a pair of rugby shorts is what I prefer to do.”

Money Talks

The Money Talks podcast series isn’t about personal finance and isn’t about economics -it’s just well-known New Zealanders talking about money and sharing some stories about the impact it’s had on their lives and how it has shaped them.

You can find new episodes in the Herald, or subscribe on iHeartRadio, Spotify or wherever you get podcasts.

Previous guests include: Kerre McIvor, Sir Michael Cullen, Shane Te Pou, Sharon Zollner, Theresa Gattung and Matt Heath.

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