"I've always been interested in education. It's the answer to poverty,” says Mainfreight co-founder Bruce Plested. “It's no use just giving people more money.”
Plested’s early home life was a book-filled one, and his mother would always read to her two sons.
“I just liked reading and it was regarded as being very important at school,” he told BusinessDesk, recalling his most memorable teacher was one who was always reading to students. “We were spellbound.”
Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome’s perennial tale of a summer camping and sailing in the English Lake District, is one book he fondly remembers.
Nearly 30 years ago the billionaire helped kick-start the Duffy Books in Homes programme, along with writer Alan Duff and philanthropist Christine Fernyhough. The relationship has been ongoing.
The charity’s aim is to promote a love of reading in children, with a focus on lower-income families. Plested says some households ended up with 60 books on their shelves.
Books are handed out at some 510 participating schools, often with a role model on hand.
“There is nothing better than having a rugby star saying ‘I would not be an All Black if it weren't for books’,” says Plested.
Grants and donations
In the 12 months ended June 2021, the Alan Duff Charitable Foundation received $3.65 million, mostly grants and donations, and included a $110,000 investment dividend.
And it bought books, lots of books.
Last period it bought $2.88m worth of them. This was the lion's share of the charity's total expenditure of $4.08m.
To help pay the bills on time, Plested gave the charity a $500,000 interest-free loan in 2020.
Plested’s friend Duff said they couldn’t have done the Books in Homes scheme without him, from the original seeding finance to its rent-free offices in south Auckland, and Mainfreight volunteers.
Plested got in touch with Duff after seeing the writer in a documentary, talking about the state of New Zealand. The context, as both recall, was the murder of a child.
“Bruce is a one-off," Duff said. As for Mainfreight, “he wants to build a 100-year company, and so there's no short-term decisions.”
Duff’s confidence in Mainfreight has led to the charity taking a large stake in the company.
Plested gave the charity $250,000 in 1998, which Duff used to buy shares in the company.
He recalls the money was for spending, not investing. "I went crook at Alan. Shares go up and down."
'Best money they ever made'
The charity acquired more shares since then and they were worth $5.68m in June 2020. A year later they had nearly doubled in value to $11.10m.
"It turned out to be the best money they ever made,” Plested admits.
It also has investments in Z Energy and a portfolio run by Fisher Funds.
Plested continues to be an avid reader, and lately novels have been saved for plane trips, whereas Plested prefers them to in-flight movies.
"In more recent times I just read business books, which is quite naughty,” he adds.
These must have served him well, given Mainfreight’s current NZX number six position on market capitalisation.
But Plested also devours books that look askance at the global economic system.
Recent reads include Kleptomania: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World by Tom Burgiss, and Affluenza by Oliver James, a treatise on how consumerism on steroids is making people miserable and unfulfilled.
This reading helps inform Plested’s world views and contributes toward his impassioned statements on climate change and the need for better education standards.
The company’s annual report has become a must-read for Plested’s chairman’s statement. It's all part of the firm’s celebrated Mainfreight way.
Every year, Mainfreight funds a calendar. It features a cartoon character “Duffy” at the bottom, with a monthly saying, such as “Have you read to your children today?”
“It’s a way of saying things that couldn’t be said elsewhere,” Plested said.