Take a tour of New Plymouth philanthropists Bryce and Delwyn Barnett’s Lake Taupō bach
A modern holiday home in Taupō’s Three Mile Bay is a retreat for this couple, who spend much of their time giving back to others.
Words: Lee-Anne Duncan Photos: The Virtue & Abby Dance (portraits)
If ever a man lived by his mantra, it’s Bryce Barnett. “Have the right attitude and follow your dreams,” he is fond of saying, and Bryce’s dream — and that of his wife Delwyn — is to make a difference.
“I always want to create something from nothing or create something bigger or more sustainable from something small. If I can’t do that, I’m not following my dream, so there’s no satisfaction,” he says.
Sitting in their favourite spot overlooking the water in their lakeside holiday home in Taupō, the couple shares the satisfaction of being married for 37 years, raising five children and now delighting in three (nearly four) grandchildren. With their main home in New Plymouth, they say they don’t get to Taupō often enough as Bryce’s work keeps him busy throughout the country.
But come they have, whenever they can, for the past 25 years. “The original house was built in 1990, and we’ve completely transformed it,” says Delwyn.
“We gutted it so completely you could see right through to the lake. When it was first done, I got a call from a friend who joked, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’ve been burgled, and they took the lot.’ But we have retained almost the same footprint – we’ve just straightened out some corners, added bits, organized bits, reclad and refloored.”
Back in 1994, they came to Taupō for “a look around”, thinking it was a good central spot for a holiday house as the family was moving back to Bryce’s native Taranaki after eight years in Auckland.
“The agent said, ‘I must show you this property’, which was right on the lake…”
“And twice our budget,” says Delwyn. “We left that day with an offer on the house,” says Bryce.
What sold them? It’s a sun trap. “We love that it’s one of the few places in Taupō that faces north, so we look at the town across the lake,” says Bryce. “And the twinkling lights across the water are a real bonus at night.”
Another plus was the massive grassed area out front that has its own lawnmowing staff. “We have a tiny lawn but a monstrous reserve in front of that, which the council mows, so it’s perfect. The kids, and now the grandkids, absolutely love it,” says Bryce.
In fact, their five offspring – now aged between 27 and 36 – use the Taupō house the most, with Bryce’s work as a property investor, entrepreneur, venture capitalist and philanthropist keeping him too busy to get there much. Even on this trip, he’s in Taupō for less than 48 hours before motoring off again, and his phone beeps and buzzes continually.
“We’re trying to do something about that,” says Delwyn, rolling her eyes at her husband. She, too, is kept occupied looking after the family, organizing holiday hires of their other properties, and renovating a historic homestead in Opua, in the Bay of Islands, which has been in her family since it was built in 1884.
“At one stage we said to the kids, ‘Should we sell Taupō?’ and there was a revolt,” says Bryce. “They remember it fondly from growing up. They love the grass in front, and the lake is great for little kids because there are no waves.”
There’s also the walking – including along the lakeside Lion’s Walk, (“which we’ll never tire of,” says Delwyn), hiking, perhaps to the hot pools along the Waikato River, boating, and biking, for which they have e-bikes.
They’re so much fun. We get out on them as often as we can, which hasn’t been much recently. But they’re great and still get the heart rate going,” she says.
Summertime in Taupō is also the perfect time to break out the convertibles. Back in Taranaki, the pair have “about 30” classic cars, ranging from a “purely sentimental” Austin Cambridge (the same model in which Bryce learned to drive) to Porsches, Buicks, a Cadillac, and a Rolls-Royce.
But a garage (or two) of cars does not a petrol-head make. “I’m a car nut, for sure. We’ve done track racing in Taupō, Manfeild, Ruapuna, Hampton Downs… But ask me about a car’s horsepower and I wouldn’t have a clue. To me, these cars are art — art I can drive.”
The car rollcall also includes a Morgan Aero (a handmade English racing car) that seems to attract more than its fair share of humorous scrapes. “We have so many stories about those cars,” says Delwyn.
There’s the one about Bryce’s general manager at the time who fired up the Morgan, not realizing it was in first gear, and immediately drove it into a concrete wall. Bryce and Delwyn are in fits retelling the story.
“The better one was when our son took the Morgan out on one of his first dates with his girlfriend, now his wife,” says Bryce. “They drove out the gate, and I think he was showing off by accelerating hard – and it’s really powerful, this car. Well, they came back onto our property, but not through the gate. Haha!”
The curse of the Morgan seems to have started from its arrival. Delwyn, who drove it home to New Plymouth from its Christchurch importer, confesses she accidentally smashed into a brick wall in Picton. “I had to call Bryce and say, ‘Sorry, but…’ That’s a great thing about Bryce; he doesn’t fly off the handle or get upset about things like that.”
The cars are all insured — even for the kids to drive when they were teens, and for friends. “We have days where friends will come, and we’ll take a whole lot out,” says Delwyn.
The Barnetts’ generosity extends far beyond allowing friends and family behind the wheel of their precious cars. And it’s a generosity funded by years of hard work. Bryce is the epitome of the self-made man; the son of a post office worker, he worked several jobs through school, including being a milk “boy”, a builder’s labourer and a collector of tree fungus (for export to Asia as food).
All that work was so — his mantra again — he could “follow his dream. As a 12-year-old, I wanted to be a chartered accountant, and I wanted to own property before I owned a car. Three months after leaving school at 16, I bought my first property. The next month, I bought a car.”
Bryce studied to be an accountant at night school and did his practical during the day, gaining his qualification in quick time to become the country’s youngest chartered accountant.
“I know, for many, that student loans mean the difference between going to university or not, but they’re a killer. Growing up, we didn’t have much to come and go on, and my parents couldn’t have afforded it, but I paid my own way because I worked from 8am until late at night.”
They’re the hours he keeps even now, although this year he reckons he’s “buttoning off” and, at least while on holiday, prefers to work in the early morning to allow some family time during the day.
“My staff laugh at me because I’m the oldest by some 20 years in our office, but I work the longest hours. I could still go five days a week, working 15 hours a day, because my work’s my hobby.”
Part of Bryce’s dream now — and Delwyn’s — is to make a difference where they can, Bryce sits on several boards and trusts – some professional, others charitable – to which they offer money and, perhaps more valuably, time.
Their support kept the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter in the air when it was financially broke. Bryce still sits on the board, although he’s about to step down.
“I believe that after six to eight years you should be stepping down from these things anyway, as you’ve probably become complacent in yourself. We’ve turned the helicopter trust around and it’s time to hand over to someone else..”
He’s not quite ready to say what that next challenge might be. However, given the pair’s dedication to causes that involve children, especially education and health, it’s likely to be a project to change, and even save, lives. (The couple supports child kidney research, prompted by one of their daughters who has needed two kidney transplants to date.)
It’s something they’ll likely think about over the summer, as they do what they can to avoid beeping and buzzing phones and enjoy their family. Three of their five children have moved back to Taranaki, with another planning a return, but Bryce and Delwyn aren’t exactly sure how many will join them in Taupō.
“We’ll be together for Christmas somewhere, but with five children we’ve discovered that if you don’t try to organize something, more turn up than if you had organized it,” says Delwyn. “We’re pretty laid back – we can accommodate everyone. We do like to have a lot of people around. That’s what summer holidays are about.”
A CALL FOR INTER-GENERATIONAL FINANCIAL WISDOM
Bryce believes it’s down to grandparents to instil in their grandchildren the importance of saving and investing — of having a dream and following it.
“You might say it’s the parents’ responsibility, and it probably is, but life is so consuming for parents in terms of today’s pressures, which I don’t think we had to the same degree.
“We must help children understand the importance of investment. Young people starting work now think owning a house is impossible, so their attitude is, ‘We might as well spend our money.’ The question is, if they’d saved more when they were younger, would they be in the same position?”
Using his own financial origins as an example, Bryce says people used to laugh at him for collecting tree fungus after school (for export to Asia as food). “But I paid for half of my first section that way. I had the attitude that I was going to buy a property, so I worked hard and did it. That’s why I always say, ‘follow your dream’.”
Besides grandparents, Bryce wants to see community groups such as Lions, Probus, Rotary and even banks share their financial knowledge with schoolchildren.
“I see major problems ahead. The rich are getting richer quicker, and the poor are getting poorer quicker. We have to improve the knowledge and attitudes concerning investing for the future. Otherwise, the rubber band holding the gap between the rich and poor is going to break.”
THIS SUMMER, WE’LL BE…
Reading: Bryce generally prefers to dedicate any downtime to the grandkids. “But I do read John Grisham and every Lee Child book that comes out.” Delwyn reads widely but is particularly looking forward to the next book from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. “Holidays are the only times I do read. ”
Listening to: For Bryce, it’s usually country music or something easy listening. “I love the Bee Gees.” Delwyn usually prefers to listen to the radio. “Maybe Coast, or even Newstalk if I’m in the car.”
Eating: They’re not big barbecuers, the Barnetts. “I’m not saying I can’t barbecue, but I’m quite happy for someone else to do it,” says Bryce. “Maybe I’ll do lamb cutlets or steak. I prefer to cook on the stove.”
“We both cook, but we have very different styles,” says Delwyn. “Bryce doesn’t like to follow recipes books, whereas I do, but we work well together in the kitchen.”
Playing: “Anything but cricket — that’s one game I do not like,” says Bryce, although he confesses that he’ll play it if the grandkids push. “We’ll play pétanque on the reserve, and ball games — our french bulldog, Vee, adores playing football,” says Delwyn. “And card games — 500 is a favourite. I love Scrabble, but no one else does.”