Peter Biggs and Mary, his wife of 35 years, came to see Grant Harding last year to enthuse him about Featherston Booktown, held at the weekend.
Peter is the chairman, and Mary the operations manager [driving force].
‘Biggsy’, as he’s known was in a classy suit, but he read his audience and conversation turned to the fact that sports writer Ron Palenski would be at Booktown.
It was a no-brainer for the Times-Age to be involved, yet a few days later Palenski’s book, Murdoch – The All Black Who Never Returned, was delivered to Grant in appreciation of the meeting.
That’s the kind of people the Biggs are. Before going out to interview Peter, Grant received a map with instructions on how to get to their wonderful property, Te Puhi, on Underhill Rd, Featherston.
When he arrived, the sharp-dressing advertising-man came out dressed like he’d just been for a run. It was time to record his biography.
Peter Biggs was born in Tanganyika – now known as Tanzania – in 1957.
His father, Ron, a New Zealander, had returned from World War II, a veteran of Egypt and Italy [“he missed Cassino with jaundice – his platoon came out with just a handful”].
While Ron completed his university degree, his brother had joined the colonial service and headed to Ghana. He was convinced to explore a similar opportunity.
“Dad rocked up to Government House because the Governor-General [Sir Bernard Freyberg] made the decision about who went into the Colonial Service. There was a selection panel chaired by Freyberg who had commanded the New Zealand Division.
“My father walked in and Freyberg said, ‘You’re one of my boys’, and my father said, ‘Yes, I was’, and the Governor-General said, ‘No problem, you’re in.’”
So, at a young age Peter’s father became a District Commissioner in Tanganyika.
“Chief magistrate, head of police and he ran the district. We moved around in Tanganyika for about eight years and then, of course, independence came.
“The Brits, a bit like India, got out of everything very quickly because they couldn’t afford to keep an Empire going any more.
“I remember talking to my mother [Pat] years later. She said, ‘we expected to be in Africa all of our lives – what a huge shock having to go was’.”
The family, including Peter’s sister and brother went to England for a year, before coming to New Zealand in 1965 where they settled in Lower Hutt.
“We knew New Zealand reasonably well and loved it because we used to come home a lot on leave and stay with Dad’s mum down in Christchurch.”
Despite spending most of the rest of his life in New Zealand, Peter still feels the beat of the African drum.
“The smell of it, the landscapes, the extremes, the people, the randomness of it – there’s always an element of danger in Africa. I just get a sense of coming home really.
“It’s a magical continent. It’s got a lot to sort out, but it will do that.”
Peter attended a Catholic primary school in Lower Hutt and then went on to St Patrick’s College Silverstream.
His father had ended up in intelligence towards the end of the war, worked for MI6 in London, and worked at the Security Intelligence Service.
“He was a public servant basically and we had a pretty ordinary New Zealand childhood. Dad went off to work, 8.15am to 5.30pm except if he was away. Mum stayed home. It was a simple life then.”
At Silverstream, Peter received what he says was “a very good education”.
“There were 500 boys and it all seemed to work pretty well. I got a love of literature, a love of arts from the priests, and a love of sport. And we were expected to do both.”
St Patrick’s College Silverstream head prefect Peter Biggs was “shoulder tapped” to train to become a priest in 1975. He was 17 years old.
It was an eight-year course, the first four years of which were at The Mission, between Napier and Taradale – now famous for its wine, and performances by Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Sting, Ray Charles, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and many others.
“There were 150 young men training at the seminary,” Peter says.
“It was a full-on, busy, formation place – courses in the morning, sport and outside activity in the afternoon, and then study in the evening.
“It was an intellectual atmosphere.
“The largest private library in the southern hemisphere.
“At 17 I was working on philospophy and theology.
“So, you get a good grounding about who you are, what life is about and what you want to do.”
After completing the first half of his course, he was sent to Victoria University for two years.
“I just loved it.
“I didn’t want to go back.
“I’d got back into rugby and met great friends at the university club.
“But they persuaded me to return. I lasted six months.
“My mother was disappointed, but I remember my father saying, ‘we look forward to having you home’.”
Heading back to university, Peter still thought he would eventually finish his religious training. It was not to be.
“I did an honours degree in English literature and Latin, and then got a job at Shell as a public affairs officer.”
In the meantime, he’d met his future wife, Mary McCrone “who was doing art history and English literature as well, so I never made it back”.
Peter still describes the experience as “wonderful” and says his daily routine mirrors his time at The Mission.
However, he has not practised his faith for 20 years.
He relates an hilarious story about when he was asked to stand in to take Mass at St Teresa’s in Featherston, soon after moving to the South Wairarapa town 21 years ago.
“I did spend a lot of time working on my sermon. I was thrilled – a number of people walked out. It was fantastic.”
For Peter it’s the big picture.
“I find no sustenance in the formal ceremony any more.
“One of the problems the church has is that nobody is sure what it stands for.
“Everybody knows the bad things that have made it sadly distinctive.
“At a time when people are thirsting for mysticism and spirituality – yoga, retreats – you have to ask the church: what’s your distinctive gift to society?
“If that’s not worked through, then we’ll just see institutional churches of all types continue to fade away.”
Biggsy [we can use his nickname now because we’re talking ad-man] came out of university with a first class honours degree and ran slap-bang into John Humphries – “the best boss I’ve ever had” – in public affairs at Shell in Wellington.
“I thought I knew a lot and John, basically for the first couple of months brought me down to earth with very menial tasks. I had to learn a bit of humility. There was a lot of photocopying.
“Then John gave me more and more responsibility, and then one day just said ‘you’re in charge’ and went on leave for a month. I was suddenly reporting directly to the chairman and managing director.”
While it was “terrifying” it’s been a theme in Biggsy’s working life. Accepting opportunities, facing challenges and overcoming them – “you don’t know what you’re doing, but you have to work it out”.
Shell, now Z Energy, was a huge worldwide player at the time – within New Zealand a 10-storey building on The Terrace, full of workers, offices all over the country, a government-regulated oil business, which offered a solid profit margin every year – “while there was marketing, it was really a distribution business”.
“The managing director had a company supplied house on Rawhiti Terrace in Kelburn and a chauffeur-driven Jaguar.”
Biggsy was in his element when it came to Shell’s “corporate responsibility” – they were a patron of sport [cricket] and the arts [ballet, theatre].
It was “a career for life with a gilt-edged pension programme”, but Shell wanted all-rounders and Biggsy wanted to stay in public affairs.
After time in the London office he chose to join advertising company Ogilvy and Mather in public relations.
While relieving himself at the Il Casino restaurant in Wellington a few years later, the PR guy was offered the job of running the entire New Zealand business. He was 32.
“That was tough. I worked out what I needed to do, and that began a career in advertising which has been my career ever since.”
After Ogilvy and Mather, he merged two agencies into Clemenger in Wellington, before moving to the Melbourne office in 2006.
“That was a tough gig, being a Kiwi going into an agency that was the mothership of a very large transtasman agency. Melbourne was where it began but it wasn’t doing well. I was sent over to fix it. They didn’t want me there.
“The first year was very tough. I doubted myself. Mary and the kids came over later that year which was a good thing because I could work long hours without the family.
“I was in a sad little serviced apartment – I think I had a carton of milk, a loaf of bread, butter and Marmite. Toast and Marmite was what I ate most nights, pretty late. That was the glamorous life of advertising.”
In the end, however, hard work paid off.
Clemenger Melbourne returned to its glory days – rated the best agency in Australia five years in a row and third best agency in the world. It employed 300 people and won multiple awards worldwide.
“Advertising’s not a job, it’s your life,” Biggsy says. “You never switch off. My kids [two of the four now work in advertising] have had to put up with going shopping and me doing store checks for my clients.
“Your life isn’t your own. It belongs to your clients and if there’s a crisis going down on a weekend and your client wants you, you’ve got to be there.
“I got great satisfaction out of building a terrific team and having great relationships with clients. Recognition is just validation of a culture which keeps talent and attracts talent.
“The primary job of the leader is culture shaping and story maker. The distinctiveness now is: what is the story you can tell?; what do you stand for?; what’s your purpose?; why are you here?; what’s your gift? And then it’s the kind of people you can pull in to attract that. Nothing replaces energy and generosity and belief in people – I think that’s true of any profession or organisation.”
Biggsy and Mary returned to New Zealand in 2015, two years after he received his CNZM [Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit – “just below a knighthood” – for services to arts governance and philanthropy] and these days, if you believe the 61-year-old, he works three days a week.
Chapter 4 – Featherston and Booktown
In 1998 Biggsy and Mary, moved their four children [three daughters and a son now aged from 24 to 32], from affluent Wellington suburb, Seatoun, to a 35-acre “paradise” in Featherston.
“Mary made the decision to move to the country and it was the best thing we ever did for the kids and our lifestyle generally,” Biggsy says. “I count myself lucky that there’s been stability at home because Mary chose to be at home.”
Even when they moved to Melbourne, they came home to Te Puhi one weekend a month. It’s an amazing old house – built between 1868 [the front part] and 1882 [the back part] – which is full of books.
There’s even a container full of books on the farm from Melbourne days and more in their house in Wellington. A new building at Te Puhi is talked about. Biggsy acknowledges that reading is his favourite leisure activity, but there is so much more to this couple. He’s planted 40,000 trees on Te Puhi.
“We’re taking a lot of the farm back to native bush and we’ve also planted exotics. That’s been a joy. I’m planting beauty. I won’t see a lot of them – totara, titoki, they all grow like weeds here. I’m taking all of the streams back to native bush along the banks.”
Then there’s his contributions as chairman of the NZ Book Council, board member for The Arts Foundation and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and the couple’s philanthropy – sponsoring the poetry section of the Ockham NZ Book Awards for the next four years.
For good measure he’s writing a book – The Leadership Backpack. That’s just his current credits. Mary has plenty of her own. Then there’s the couple’s sense of community currently wrapped up in Featherston Booktown, originated by their close neighbour Lincoln Gould.
The weekend’s celebration was the fifth, and the Biggs are proud of what it has achieved for Featherston – with about 5000 people coming through the South Wairarapa town last year.
“Over the last five Booktowns we’ve seen a community come together, grow in confidence about itself,” Biggsy says. “It’s been a joyful thing to see a regeneration of a place through culture. It’s a little demonstration of what books can do for human lives.”
Biggsy, quite simply, is a reading disciple.
“There’s international evidence that if you get kids to read it is the most effective poverty buster you could ever ask for. Every score in terms of their future life goes up. Reading is an essential part of growth.”
Peter Biggs comments on anything are worth listening to. He’s an educated story teller. What he doesn’t know he finds out about in books.
He’s also a dreamer, blessed with what he describes as a “Catholic imagination”, a positive legacy of his early faith.
“People talk about a ‘Catholic imagination’. I think it does exist. It’s a belief system that celebrates colour, music, movement, ritual – all those human things as well as the spiritual . . . there is a deep belief in the goodness of the human being.”
When I left, Peter and Mary waved me off. That’s the kind of people the Biggs are.