2021 Kea World Class New Zealand Supreme award winner – Peter Cooper
As a boy, Peter Cooper would ride his bike to the peak of Northland’s Mangamuka Gorge to try and see what the rest of the world looked like. Of course, as Peter says, “all you see is more hills,” and this became a metaphor for his life – a journey that took him from humble Kaitaia beginnings to the pinnacle of business and philanthropy, both here and in the US.
Only son of a truck driver and devoted mother, and with Ngati Kahu, Ngati Kuri and Te Aupouri heritage, Peter Cooper has built a reputation for iconic property projects throughout the US and New Zealand – projects that focus on establishing and building communities while valuing and preserving the heritage of the places and the people.
Raised in Kaitaia, Cooper says geography was no impediment to achieving success and anybody from small-town Northland could make it with hard work and dedication.
“I’m very proud to be a son of Kaitaia. I was raised there and grew up on Ninety Mile Beach, going fishing with my father, so I have that in my soul,” he said.
As a teenager, he was selected as an American Field Scholar, spending a year with a hardworking family and attending college in Kansas City.
This adventure had a huge impact on him and set in place his determination to one day return to America and try his hand at making his way in all that America had to offer.
He returned home to attend the University of Auckland graduating with a law degree. And it was while practising commercial and property law at Russell McVeagh that Peter met Chris Mace. They set sail together, forming Mace Developments, listing it as a public company in 1986.
Together they launched a deal that would become legend in New Zealand – the merger of brewer Lion with major retailer LD Nathan to become Australasian brewing giant, Lion Nathan.
It was after this that Peter came to the conclusion he’d gone as far as he could in New Zealand and it was time to fulfil his dream of returning to the USA and stepping up to a bigger challenge.
Peter and Sue had married a decade earlier. Their five children arrived in quick succession, two sets of twins plus one, and the entire family shifted to America and settled in the Newport precinct of Southern California. Peter went on to build a series of successful businesses while they integrated their five children into American life schools and sport.
Together with American Brian Stebbins, Peter founded property development company Cooper and Stebbins. Major shopping developments were undertaken, including Southlake Town Square in Dallas, Texas, an enormous shopping district ten times the size of Auckland’s St Luke’s Mall.
While real estate was his initial entree into the US from the late eighties and nineties, Peter always maintained a portfolio of public and private companies – again, with his usual long-term approach.
For New Zealanders, Peter’s most visible and enduring legacy is the billion-dollar Britomart Urban Restoration project, blending the renewal of a large cluster of historic and partially derelict buildings with new builds, to transform and invigorate downtown Auckland.
“In truth it is my love for New Zealand and my feeling of being homesick for my heritage which deepened with time,” Peter says.
“We were always looking to find a larger commercial project to help justify our frequent visitations to our Mothers in NZ – this led to us uncovering Britomart and persuading Council to think of it as a precinct development opportunity rather than just a carpark to sell off to individual developers.
We’d created a broadly similar undertaking at Southlake in Texas – so had the opportunity to demonstrateto Council in the competitive bidding process our ability to deliver what today Britomart has become,” he says.
Adam Mikkelsen, Principle, Private Equity for Cooper and Company says he sees Britomart as Peter’s “creative legacy”.
“He could have sliced and diced [Britomart] 10 different ways and probably made more money, and got his cash out. But he wanted to build something enduring.And it’s brought a quality of retail and a quality of experience and vision of how an urban city can work. It’s a better city for it in my mind.”
Real Estate supremo John Bayley tells the story of how Peter became part of the Britomart deal when he came back from America in 1998.
“He had a vision for Britomart that we really couldn’t see ourselves, but it’s all there now in front of our eyes. He’s got some special qualities that enabled him to see things way ahead of when we can.”
Matthew Cockram came on board as chief executive of what was then called Bluewater Group to work on the Britomart project and says the result speaks for itself.
“It’s certainly the only development in the city that’s had one owner – one consistent hand of control right the way through. And he’s steered the ship very conservatively, with a real eye to doing things very, very well – not getting ahead of ourselves, and not giving up on the market or the community,” he says.
But while the Britomart development is Peter’s most public example of his thoughtful curation, those in the know say The Landing is where his skills and his cultural ambitions are demonstrated at their best – bringing together his deep love of the North and his devotion to heritage and authenticity.
The Landing is spectacular, a 333 hectare Bay of Islands sheep and beef farm located at the tip of the Purerua Peninsula that Peter bought in 2001. Over the past 20 years, the farm has undergone regeneration as a heritage and conservation property, as well as becoming home to luxury residences, lodges, farmland and an award-winning vineyard.
Peter has registered 43 historical sites on the property. “It’s one of the few pieces of land in New Zealand, other than Britomart, that’s a heritage area as opposed to just a heritage place,” Cockram says.
An incredible supporter of New Zealand art and New Zealand artists, Peter and Sue established the Britomart Arts Foundation, along with John Gow, Jenny Gibbs, and Michael Freelander, seeding an initial donation of $1 million and donating works by New Zealand artists.
The foundation has funded a number of works, and the most significant being Tim Gruchy’s interactive ‘Scout’ work, which stands in the square at Britomart.
The satellite exhibition of the Toi Tū Toi Ora Auckland Art Gallery was also supported and funded by the arts foundation which including the public works by Shane Cotton, Lonnie Hutchinson, Charlotte Graham, and also Lyonel Grant.
Peter and Sue also supported the development of the ASB Waterfront Theater through his business, Cooper and Company in a development and governance aspect.
Devotion to family has been central to Peter’s story. As a family man, and an only child, he was likewise devoted to late Mother Molly. He built Molly (and his mother-in-law) houses on his Takapuna property and treated them with great love and kindness.
Three of the Cooper’s sons played football at Georgetown, while a daughter, Kylie, was co-captain of the swimming team. Peter would regularly fly six hours each way from his office in California to Georgetown University in Washington, DC. to see the boys play football and be on the sidelines. He’d fly back on Sunday, and back in the office on Monday.
Peter and Sue now split their time between the US and New Zealand, and are renowned for their strong advocacy for New Zealand.
Peter is his own biggest critic and believes that constant measurement and critique of your degree of achievement is the key.
“In my case I do an annual assessment and set out my goals for the next year. I then annually assess myself and measure my success. I have been doing it for around 40 yrs and still do it – My Annual Review…
By any measure of success, Peter Cooper is a real global success and we welcome Peter Cooper as a worthy recipient of the title of Kea World Class New Zealander.
Cooper was awarded the University of Auckland Business School’s Outstanding Maori Business Leader Award in 2008.
Cooper was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the Queen’s 2014 New Year Honours list.
Listen to Peter Cooper’s interview with Julian Wilcox from the RNZ National Saturday Morning show on the audio link below.