A Wall Street titan changes (golf) courses
Legendary investor Julian Robertson is happy to show off his growing New Zealand golf empire. Just don't mess with his lavender.
(Fortune) -- On a brisk, clear morning investing legend Julian Robertson was surveying the latest addition to his growing New Zealand golf, lodge, and wine empire - and he wasn't happy. Robertson, 75, dressed in a black fleece, khakis, and fluorescent -yellow hardhat and vest, was standing with his wife, Josie, and three landscape architects on what would soon be the loggia of his brand-new luxury lodge at Cape Kidnappers, his 6,000-acre sheep and cattle ranch on the southeast coast of the country's North Island.
As construction workers hammered away, Robertson considered the breathtaking view. To his left rose the volcanic Mount Ruapehu's snow-topped peak. Much closer, below and to his right, sat Robertson's Cape Kidnappers golf course (ranked No. 41 in the world last year by Golf Magazine). Past that, Hawke's Bay was glimmering. But the only thing the billionaire hedge fund pioneer could think about was his lavender field.
The landscapers had proposed putting it right next to the road, and Robertson was having none of it. "They all just think I'm an idiot, and it makes me furious!" he said, reddening. "I'm the one who thought up the lavender field in the first place, and now they want to move it. They've convinced Josie it needs to be right up in your face. But it should really be off in the distance, just to give an impression." Turns out Robertson is one Wall Street titan with strong convictions about horticulture.
Over the past decade Robertson has built not one but two of the most highly regarded golf courses in the world in New Zealand. On a weeklong trip I tagged along with Julian and Josie as they put the finishing touches on the design of the lodge - known as the Farm at Cape Kidnappers - before it opened in November.
I also visited Kauri Cliffs, Robertson's other Kiwi resort. Among its offerings: a world-ranked golf course - No. 63, according to Golf - high-end cottages, and for the truly adventurous, nighttime possum-hunting outings led by an ex-member of the RAF special forces. While I missed out, alas, on the possum hunting, I did get a good sense of why Robertson spends as much time investing in New Zealand property as he does analyzing stocks.
Robertson, as you may recall, became known as the "wizard of Wall Street" in the 1990s for the success he had running his hedge fund firm Tiger Management. His flagship Tiger fund grew from $8 million at its launch in 1980 to more than $22 billion at its peak in 1998. After a couple of rough years, he closed the fund in 2000. But he never shut down Tiger. Today the firm functions as a sort of hedge fund incubator, with some 35 hedge funds managing roughly $26 billion at year-end 2007. His net worth is much higher today than it ever was.
His history in New Zealand actually pre-dates Tiger. In 1978, Robertson quit his job at Kidder Peabody and moved his family to Auckland for six months. He was looking for an exotic locale where people spoke English and a quiet place to write the Great American Novel. The latter didn't work out, and he got restless. So he moved back to New York and began raising the money to start Tiger. But in 1995 he returned to buy a farm abutting a spectacular stretch of northeastern coastline. It was, he often says, like "buying Pebble Beach for the price of a modest New York City apartment."
Robertson decided that "if you've got land this good, you've got no excuse not to build a wonderful golf course." Josie persuaded him it would need a lodge and later a spa - both of which she helped design - for people making the trip. (It's roughly 13 hours by plane from L.A. to Auckland, then another half-hour flight. Robertson flies in his private Gulfstream V, then jumps on a helicopter.)
The 7,100-yard, links-style course at Kauri Cliffs opened in 2000 and was quickly named one of the world's best. Indeed, I have never been so happy to slice my drives out of bounds as when I was strolling along the 250-foot cliffs with a view of the South Pacific. And the course at Cape Kidnappers, which opened in 2004 and was built by "it" designer Tom Doak, is even more stunningly scenic and challenging.
Visit either place and you're likely to see Robertson himself, since he and his wife spend U.S. winters in New Zealand. Both are avid golfers, and they also own two Kiwi wineries. If you really want to get him talking, ask Robertson which native tree species he prefers: the Pohutukawa or the Taraire.
Back on the loggia, the lead landscaper admitted that lavender doesn't look great when it's not in bloom and that maybe, for that reason, the field would be better further away from the road. "Now I'm finally getting some support!" declared Robertson. Today the lavender is flowering off in the distance, just as he imagined it.