There's no question Brian Gaynor could be a difficult bugger.

One evening, I was having such an intense telephone argument with him that I found myself on a bus to the Wellington suburb of Brooklyn, when I live in Newtown.

Once he had made up his mind about something, it was nigh on impossible to change it.

But it's thanks to that doggedness that BusinessDesk has been as successful as it is. While BusinessDesk had managed to survive for 11 years before Brian decided to back us, it wasn't going anywhere.

Brian arrived not just with money, but with a vision to transform a struggling wholesaler of news into a subscriber-based, web-delivered business news service.

As Matt Martel, formerly the managing director and, since NZME bought the business, general manager, put it: "Brian always had a very clear idea to create a world-class publisher covering New Zealand business."

And he was never willing to simply celebrate any BusinessDesk achievement, says Martel.

"He was always frustrated that we weren't doing more and better. If we had a big win and gained new customers, that was great, but what were we going to get next?

"The foot was always on the gas pedal."

Compering the BusinessDesk relaunch in February 2020 (Image: Norrie Montgomery) 


Brian was also very generous to staff; he bought into BusinessDesk at 80 cents per share and staff were able to buy in at 50c.

He had a similar share buying scheme for staff at the funds management business he co-founded in 2003, Milford Asset Management, which has grown into one of the country's premier funds management firms, with about $16 billion in funds under management. 

Brian and Milford's generosity spilled into the wider community with their sponsorship of the Barnado's 0800 What's Up helpline service for children and teenagers. 

Barnado's tweeted in response to the NZ Herald announcing Brian's death: "A generous and kind supporter whose contribution was significant. He made a difference."

His generosity extended to helping us in other ways. Journalist Victoria Young reckons having Brian in our Auckland office was more useful than the internet.

"He’d lived the events I’d only read about. Not only was he around when they happened, he was often the protagonist!"

Young remembers him pulling out hard copies of old annual reports to ferret out a fact for her – BusinessDesk editor Pattrick Smellie said he was a pack rat, loathe to throw anything away.

The pack rat

Jon Cimino, an analyst at Daysh Renouf when Brian was hired in 1976, confirms the pack-rattedness, saying that when, as head of the Auckland stock exchange, Cimino took it electronic, Brian purloined the whole library, saving it from the tip.

Cimino said Brian had been "ecstatic about investing in you guys", referring to his backing of BusinessDesk.

Born in Limerick, Ireland, on Sept 26, 1948, Brian had followed the Irish rugby team on its first tour of NZ and a bearded Brian with John Lennon glasses ended up applying for Cimino's job, Cimino said.

Klaus Sorensen was also working at Daysh Renouf and insists it was his job Brian took when Sorensen decided to return to journalism. 

Sorensen describes Brian as "a bit of a renegade". 

"He didn't accept the status quo very easily. He liked to stand back and look at things, question them and think about how they could be improved."

But although he was always a critic, Brian was always cheerful and pleased to see you, Sorensen said.

"He was always the cheerful Irishman in a sea of grey suits."

He credits Brian more than anyone else for new rules on corporate disclosure and takeovers that transformed NZ financial markets from the cowboy/wild west atmosphere that persisted through to the late 1990s.

Political influence

But his influence also extended into NZ's politics. He was a member of former prime minister David Lange's business advisory team in the mid-to-late 1980s and was instrumental in causing Lange's famous "cup of tea".

Finance minister Roger Douglas had persuaded cabinet to agree in principle to his flat tax, but Lange wanted to know what the impact on different income groups would be.

Lange's former press secretary Ross Vintiner said Brian came up with "something very elegant" in the form of a graph showing the flat tax would disproportionately impact the poorest, no matter what the rate was set at.

"When Lange saw that, he became extremely alarmed … Brian deserves an enormous amount of credit for that," Vintiner said, adding that the simple graph was much studied around the halls of government.

While it might seem obvious to those who understand the principles of progressive taxation, "Treasury wasn't making that point", Vintiner said.

Another member of Lange's team of advisers, former NZ Post chief executive Brian Roche, describes Gaynor as "sorta scary and impressive at the same time – a real 'conscience' of what was right and fair".

Brian was also influential in the running battle that ran for some years over whether or not NZ should have a Takeovers Code.

The NZ Business Roundtable, highly influential at the time, was deeply opposed.

Brian was determined that small investors needed better protections. A code was ultimately adopted.

The giant

Which really sums up the essence of Brian's character. He had a deep and abiding sense of justice and fought constantly for transparency and the fair treatment of retail investors in NZ.

Former NZ Shareholders Association chair John Hawkins, who now sits on the board of NZX's regulatory arm, NZ RegCo, called Gaynor "a giant of the investment community".

In that, Hawkins was echoing NZX's decision to have the ticker on its Wellington and Auckland buildings read: "Brian Gaynor – a 'titan' of NZ's capital markets."

Brian Gaynor in 2001 (Image: NZME)

Hawkins told BusinessDesk: "Brian didn't do wishy-washy. As a result, some of his opinions were not popular at times, often where they were quite reasonably directed.

"I think the thing Brian was most frustrated about was the lack of willingness of the movers and shakers to work to build strong New Zealand companies and to take a long-term view," Hawkins said.

"That's what retail investors, in particular, are interested in the investment community providing. He would always, and will always, be seen as a champion for a wide range of genuine long-term investors."

Success in any field never comes unalloyed.

Brian suffered a major setback early when he tried to float an NZX-listed and actively-managed investment fund called Colville.

As it happens, I interviewed Brian about Colville at the time for the column I had then in the NZ Herald. 

Two other funds were trying to raise capital to list on NZX at the same time: Carmel Fisher's Kingfish and Salvus, and they succeeded where Colville failed.

A double-edged sword

But this was no reflection on Brian; because his fund was going to be actively managed, it would have to pay capital gains tax on any trading gains.

The other two funds had a "buy and hold" investment philosophy and so weren't going to be subject to capital gains tax, so Colville was starting behind the eight ball.

Brian's reputation stemming from him being a prominent NZ Herald columnist and business commentator was also a double-edged sword. 

He received little support from stockbrokers, partly because they had already started their own competing unlisted products and partly because many of them had their noses out of joint about some of Brian's trenchant criticisms and they complained about how "negative" he was about the investment community.

Milford's other major setback was the Mark Warminger affair; in 2017, the High Court ruled that Warminger had been guilty of market manipulation while acting as a portfolio manager at Milford and he was fined $400,000.

Milford had quickly settled when the affair first surfaced in 2015, paying the Financial Markets Authority $1.5 million to settle its claim and conducted a major upgrade of its systems to ensure that such a situation could not happen again.

It was precisely because of Brian's reputation for ethical behaviour that the Warminger incident was so shocking; Warminger's behaviour was the antithesis of everything Brian Gaynor stood for.

And as the who’s who of NZ’s investment community who came to pay their respects at St Patrick’s Cathedral in central Auckland yesterday attests, his impact has been profound and enduring.

This story has been corrected to show the correct spelling of Jon Cimino's name and Klaus Sorensen's name.