Welcome to My Net Worth, our regular column on the lives and motivations of our country’s top business, legal and political people in their own words. 

Tenby Powell is one of New Zealand’s most prominent private equity investors. Alongside his wife, entrepreneur Sharon Hunter, he runs Hunter Powell Investments, a co-investment and advisory firm for small and medium-sized companies. He began his working life as an apprentice marine engineer, and later went to the University of Waikato, graduating with a degree in business and psychology. He then joined the New Zealand Army, serving around the world, including in the Middle East and Papua New Guinea. After he left the armed forces, his business career eventually took him to Skellerup Group, which had been taken private in an aggressive private equity deal. Following the experience, Powell formed his own investment business, orchestrating a string of successful private equity deals, including the takeover of Hirepool, which he turned into a national corporation. In 2019, he was elected mayor of his hometown, Tauranga. But he resigned the following year in protest at the dysfunctional city council – a shock decision that led to the appointment of a four-member crown commission to run Tauranga until the 2022 local body elections.

I grew up in Tauranga in what was a bit of a Modern Family, like the TV show. My mother wasn't married when I was born, which was a bit unusual in the 1960s.

In the early years, my mother studied nursing in Auckland, Wellington and all over the place. So my grandparents raised me, and in effect, adopted me as their son. My mother retained legal guardianship, which was a very unusual legal structure at the time.

So it was just the four of us. We didn't have much money, really, in the grand scheme of things.

I grew up in an environment with a second generation, where there's always a lot of love. My grandfather was the prime male in my life, and he had those old-world values. Looking back, that was a gift.

My grandfather was a gifted engineer and raced Indian motorcycles back in the day. So my childhood was full of contraptions that I used to ride. He was very innovative and a very clever guy. He could do anything. 

I was a bit of a reprobate as a kid – I loved all of the fun parts about school and not much else. 

Eventually, my grandfather said, “Why don't you do an apprenticeship?” He wanted me to go to university as well, which I did later on. 

I did my marine-engineering apprenticeship here in Tauranga and absolutely hated it. But my grandfather instilled in me never to leave anything unfinished. The Tauranga mayoralty was the first thing in my life I haven’t finished.

After my apprenticeship, I couldn’t wait to get to university. I ended up at Waikato studying business and psychology.

While I was there, I was picked up by the army. I joined the reserves and was later commissioned as an officer in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. 

After leaving the army, I continued as a reserve and drifted up to Auckland. I landed at building products group Fletcher Challenge. The HR director who recruited me, John Hart, had coached the All Blacks.

Tenby Powell in Antarctica, 2012.


Skellerup Group then headhunted me. It was a fascinating, exciting place to be on the one hand, but very stressful on the other. It still may be New Zealand's biggest private equity disaster.

While there, I fell in love with the hire and equipment rental business. I liked the people. I also got a taste for the concept of working in a co-investment partnership with private equity, which parallels what my wife and I do now.

After Skellerup, I decided I wanted to do my own thing, and that led us to several investments where we ended up as co-investment partners, and we would run the business.

In 2003, we bought Hirepool, which was probably my biggest achievement in business. We made 10 times our money, in equity terms, though we had 90% leverage. That wouldn’t happen nowadays.

At that time, I was 46 or 47. We didn’t go crazy celebrating. It's not like now, when a bunch of young tech entrepreneurs become multimillionaires and buy Lear Jets and Ferraris. We had children. I think we went on a cool holiday somewhere, but we also reinvested the money.

At Hirepool, we put a lot of time into educating our people. We had a lot of fun. I live by the military maxim that combat power is divided equally between firepower, manoeuvre, and morale. Morale is one-third of combat power. We made sure that our staff were happy and fulfilled.

My biggest regret is a missed business opportunity. I once met a Russian guy in Abu Dhabi. He had a pretty hokey business that made cars bulletproof and bombproof with metal fittings. I liked him a lot. He was looking for private equity. I took it back to Goldman Sachs and they just couldn't do it. Today, that guy is a billionaire.

Another one I lament was a company called Greenlane Biogas. We invested in New Zealand technology that upgraded naturally produced methane, stripped volatile organic compounds out of the gas, and turned it into a usable product. It needed more financial punch than we had, and we ended up selling.

I've recently had a health scare. I had a prostatectomy almost a year ago, and I decided that 2021 was a reset for me, for all sorts of reasons, because 2020 was horrific.

You assess the most important things in your life, and when you look at your behaviour, you find you’re eating the wrong foods and not doing enough physical exercise. Now I have put health at the top. I’m doing a lot of physical exercise, doing a lot of yoga. I've lost an awful lot of weight.

I have thrown myself into life again. I've done a lot of really cool things recently: I’ve ridden an Indian motorcycle around the South Island, which is in my blood from my early days with my grandfather. I’ve also walked probably 250km with a pack on through Mount Aspiring National Park. 

I'm learning to fly. I am absolutely enthralled by it. I'm doing my private pilot’s licence at the Tauranga Aero Club, and I’ve met the most incredible people. Learning to fly isn’t cheap, but it’s been a great joy. Not just the flying, but the academic side.

I’m absolutely looking to buy a plane once I have my licence. My wife has been taken aback by my enthusiasm. So I’ll have to get that one across the line.

As told to Daniel Dunkley
This interview has been edited for clarity.