Gary Ayre, Partner nem Australasia Pty Ltd
Q. How did you first come to be employed in the Pacific and was it something that you "always wanted to do"?
A. My first Pacific role was as relieving GM at ANZ Solomon Islands in 1995. Like many Pacific expats, I was probably looking for a way to escape the Melbourne rat race and this seemed like a good opportunity (so was Asia, where I also worked for a period). I convinced the bank to allow my wife and young family to join me and after two weeks there, which involved substandard (temporary) accommodation, my 2 year old daughter damaging her head falling out of the hastily created bamboo high chair, a robbery, the dismissal of the drunk house girl and a dose of prickly heat, she advised she couldn’t take it any more and wanted to go home. Like all good husbands I ensured her wishes were met. It just took 2 permanent postings and 13 years - but she finally got there.
I can’ say it was what I always wanted to do, but sometime out of old rock comes diamonds.
Q. You are one of the few people I know to have worked in so many of the different Pacific jurisdictions. We know that they are all different from each other, but share with us a couple of examples of what makes some of these places so unique.
A. While this isn’t specific to one country, the long term relationships are what really unique to me. I have enjoyed the privilege of returning to some countries after long periods of absence and in every instance have been welcomed as though I have only been away for a few weeks. I recall attending the Nuku’alofa Club (Tonga) after about 7 years away and wound up drawing the raffle, ringing the bell (at a cost obviously), and staying way longer than intended, just enjoying the warmth of friendships rekindled – and the usual line of Ikales on the bar.
Despite what the tourist pamphlets would have you believe, the geography between the islands is extremely unique. I was fortunate to dive and sail in many countries and every one was truly unique, to the archipelago of the Vava’u islands, the volcanic majesty of American Samoa and the coral atolls of Kiribati, each provides a beauty unmatched.
I acknowledge that none of the above is in regard to juris. As an ex banker, the differing company acts of each country have contributed to my thinning hairline. Improvements are occurring, however it remains difficult to do business in some countries.
Q. Having been involved with it for so long, do you now find it hard, like me, to shake the Pacific out of your system?
A. I don’t even try now. I still read the on-line version of the Samoa News every day. Despite what I say to the contrary, I still try to get to the Pacific every few months (particularly during Melbourne’s winter) and fortunately my work enables that. I have closed my Facebook account as I was overcome with guilt as I was unable to keep up with the updates from all my Pacific connections – and baby pictures, lots of baby pictures.
The Pacific is now a part of my family and will be for the rest of my life. I have a Pacific room in the house, with our valued mementos on display and some, such as the massive tapa mats, safely stored away.
Q. You must have seen some crazy stuff during your days in the Pacific. I remember a "clever" (roughly translated as a witch doctor) appearing at the back of court one day in Port Vila under instructions from the man I was cross examining to put a spell on me to stop me from talking.....there are easier ways to achieve this I know. Would you share a couple of the more unusual events you have been exposed to in the Pacific?
A. There are so many – and some which will stay with me to the grave.
During the millennium, I was living in Tonga and the family went to Haitafu beach to enjoy a family Sunday afternoon. I was sitting in the shallow water trying to reduce the swelling in my hand from a spider bite, when I was approached by village elders who advised me to leave the beach as I was being disrespectful (the hand was swollen – but I didn’t think it looked that bad). Against all common sense, I objected to this arguing that I was with my family and that was the intent of Sunday. My insolence was met with threats of arrest of the entire family and we were summarily marched to our car.
An upset customer felt disposed to make my life miserable and took it upon himself to follow me around 18 holes of golf cursing and wishing me to slice on every drive. His curse succeeded – or at least that’s what he thought as I am a terrible slicer. My playing partners were also encouraging him.
The perseverance of some amaze me. One customer was a particularly litigious type who sued me personally for the mental anguish she was put through because the bank repossessed her vehicle due to loan arrears. The case failed, however I was surprised to see her at my office the following day seeking a loan for a new car – which was denied – and I was then back in court for more mental anguish for denying her a loan. This also failed, however not to be deterred she sued me to recoup her legal costs.
When in Honiara, I was surprised to see our neighbours furniture out front of the house. As I was reasonably new there I didn’t think to ask what was going on. We had security guards and they stated that they had seen some people stealing the stuff from the house, but their truck had broken down and they had it towed away to fix it. Low and behold they returned later that night with a repaired truck and started loading up the loot. The guards called the police but they had no available vehicles so the guards took off after them by foot (by now the loot was loaded). The truck was slow and they caught it. By then the police arrived and the thieves arrested. I was contacted by the police 2 days later asking for some money. The reason being as my guards had apprehended the thieves it was my responsibility to feed the prisoners while awaiting trial and its been 2 days and they are hungry.
We had been without power for 2 months following cyclone Hina. We were at a party – which had started early – before it got dark - and the power company workers were edging their way toward the house we were at reconnecting the power. Being innovative types we quickly offered them a slab of beer if they would fast track our house – payment was made and agreement reached. Unfortunately the drank the beer before starting reconnection work and left after hot wiring the house.
I’ll stop there.
Q How about travel? Any memorable travel moments?
A. Again so many. The many delays and waiting in departure lounges are too frequent to mention.
I was travelling to Vava’u in a twin otter when the plane circled the airport after take-off, then re-landed. As I was in seat 1A (which, for those unfamiliar with the twin otter is NOT business class) I had a perfect view of the pilot leaving the plane, and running to the front to close the baggage department before taking off again.
Leaving for Hawaii from Pago, there was a problem with the plane (turns out it was a oil seal). Unfortunately we were all boarded when this was identified as an issue so we spent the next 12 hours sitting on the tarmac in Pago – with no air conditioning, water or food.
There used to be a seaplane in Tonga, managed and flown by a genuine cowboy (Larry - and he wore cowboy boots). We chartered this to fly my then boss, our wives, my children and our house girl/babysitter to Vava’u for the the 50th birthday celebration of the then Crown Prince Tupu’oto'a.
After we take off Larry advises us that we are overloaded and that we are heading into a storm – a bit late for my liking to be told this. To get there against the cross wind we had to fly at a 45 degree angle to our direction. My boss slept the whole way and the house-girl/babysitter filled every airsick bag. When we arrived Larry advised us that landing a seaplane in rough water when overloaded is very dangerous (again- not the best time for this information). As always it worked out in the end.
When collecting a colleague at Tonga, it was strange that the runway was in darkness. We could hear a plane overhead circling for a while, then it disappeared. After a while a guy came running across the runway to the tower and turned on the runway lights. By then the plane had diverted to Niue and the crew time had run out so the passengers had to wait overnight before arriving the next day.
The great part of flying in the Pacific is, with the exception of some misguided expats, no-one cares. If you expect the worst – you can’t be disappointed.
Q. How about food? What is your favourite foodie destination in the Pacific and, importantly, what is your favourite Chinese restaurant in the Pacific?
A. The best food has always been the Waterfront In Nuku’alofa (Tonga). I think the old owners (Lothar & Tina) have since sold it – but it was always a special night.
The best Chinese always used to be Sea King in Honiara – great salt & pepper fish. Sooks Sushi in Pago for the best sashimi (but not Chinese I know).
Not on the topic, but the best beer is Vailima in Samoa/American Samoa, Solbrew in Solomon Islands, Fiji Bitter in Fiji, Royal in Tonga etc., with one Vanuatu based exception.
Q. How about achievements? Is there something you have done (I know it is a difficult question to put to a banker) which you are particularly proud of during your time in the Pacific?
A. When I look back on my time in the Pacific, it is relationships that come to the fore and that I am proudest of. Sure, lot of deals have been done - mostly good, some not so good, however I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing people who go beyond the call of duty, such as Annie in Solomon Islands who walked to work every day (some 10 km each way), during the civil commotion to ensure we could keep the bank open, despite a long list of personal difficulties she had to deal with.
One of the pure joys I had though, was supporting the disabled children charities. I had some wonderful experiences, particularly those involving Christmas parties, where the children would put on pageants and the room was full of laughter. I always stated when giving speeches that I received more out of the days than they the children did – and I still mean it.
I also thoroughly enjoyed my involvement with re-establishing the American Samoa Chamber of Commerce and working with the American Samoa Olympic Committee.
Q. Are you working on anything exciting now which you can tell us about?
A. I am fortunate that I still have involvement in the Pacific by virtue of some project finance activity. I am currently working on the Solomon Islands submarine cable project that will finally bring fibre optic cable internet to the Solomon Islands. It has been a few years in the making but now looks like it will be moving forward.
Q. Any gratuitous lawyer jokes or slander you want to slot in as we close the interview?
A. What does a Lawyer get when you give him Viagra?