Business Hub: Michael Ahearne – from Irish dairy farm to running SkyCity Entertainment

Champion athlete, accountant, cyclist, jetski rider, cow milker, father, sports fan – SkyCity’s new chief executive has a few strings to his bow.

“You can get from St Heliers to Waiheke in 25 minutes when the water’s flat,” Irish-born Michael Ahearne says from the company’s boardroom in the AA Centre, 99 Albert St.

He bought the jetski after colleagues talked about weekend plans to take one out on the harbour, and about the ease of ownership. “I’d never skied before I came to New Zealand but I’ve done that at Queenstown and I’d never jetskied before either.”

On November 16, Ahearne took over from Zimbabwe-born Graeme Stephens, the former SkyCity boss, in a move that surprised analysts and institutional investors. The company had held its AGM only a month before, and no one had said a word about the big changes, which unsettled some professional investors.

More on that later.

Meanwhile, it’s back to Ahearne on embracing Auckland life with a passion. The family has just bought a home in Remuera “in the Grammar zone” and will shift in January. The eldest son is at Trinity College Dublin while the other two are at school in Auckland.

Ahearne is a keen Saturday morning cyclist, biking in the Waitākere Ranges as well as attending gym boot camps and taking that two-seater jetski out on the Waitematā.

The energetic accountant has a wealth of global experience in Europe and Australia at top international entertainment and gambling outfits, although he wasn’t exactly 2IC to Stephens when he was appointed. In fact, Rob Hamilton was chief financial officer and potentially a more likely CEO candidate.

But Hamilton joined Stephens and chief marketing officer Liza McNally in all announcing their resignations on that mid-November day. Ahearne had been chief operations officer at the Auckland-headquartered business.

So how did an Irishman shift to the other side of the world to run a tourism, hotel, entertainment and gambling business in Auckland, Hamilton, Queenstown and Adelaide?

Tom and Maura Ahearne raised five children on their dairy farm outside Dungarvan. Michael was the eldest and says his father is now 81 and the farm is still operating.

“It’s milking about 200 cows – Friesians. My great-grandfather bought it for my grandfather in the early 1900s. When I was 12 or 13, I could do it all on my own,” he recalls of the big milking operation.

From there he went to St Augustine’s College, Dungarvan, where he boarded from 13 until 18, excelling at sports.

“In those school years I was the national shot put champion and I captained the Irish athletic school boys’ team which competed in Ireland, the UK and around Europe. I won the national discus competition, representing Ireland. I was a big teenager – strong, disciplined, focused. My mother’s father was an athlete.”

So to college: Cork Institute of Technology for accounting. Farmers run businesses, he says, he had helped out at home, so it wasn’t such a big leap from dairy farming to becoming an accountant.

His first accounting job was at Irish dairy giant Glanbia, then he went on an OE with then-girlfriend Kay. The couple loved Australia where her brother was living so they toured that country in 1997.

Ahearne then worked at Ispat Industries (formerly Irish Steel) but it was only a few years later that the couple returned to live in Sydney. “We’d got the travel bug,” he says. “We moved back in 2000 when the Olympic Games were on and I went every single day.”

There, Ahearne then did his longest career stint, at Star Entertainment Group, where he held around eight roles over a decade. All three children were born in Sydney, where the family lived in the North Shore’s Warrawee.

Ahearne began visiting New Zealand when he next worked at software and systems developer, manufacturer and distributor Aristocrat Leisure in Sydney, supplier of SkyCity’s machines.

“We always had aspirations to go back to Ireland as a family and live and work there, so in 2014 I worked between London and Dublin,” he says of his following role with Paddy Power Betfair, now Flutter Entertainment.

“And it was always the intention to return back here,” he says of Australasia. That opportunity came with a phone call out of the blue in June 2017 from SkyCity’s Stephens. Ahearne flew down for an interview and became chief operating office in December that year.

“There’s not that many jobs around the world, if you want to do this,” he says, citing casino businesses in Macau, Las Vegas and Australia as options.

“But living in New Zealand, having a job like this here or in Australia – what a perfect opportunity.”

As for last month’s unexpected executive exodus: “I have been in the succession process for many months. The board decided Rob [Hamilton] or myself were suitable and made the determination it would be me. I am obviously ready to do the job and they didn’t need a long transition. Rob has been here seven years and it’s understandable he would take the opportunity to look elsewhere.”

Ahearne heads the company as it’s in a multibillion-dollar growth phase:
• Opening the new Weta Workshop and All Blacks’ Experience interactive creations in the next few weeks
• Launching the A$330 million Adelaide hotel/casino/bar/restaurant expansion early next month
• Opening the new five-star Horizon Hotel in Auckland next year
• “And hopefully [opening] the [International COnvention Centre] in 2023”

He concludes by emphasising his time here already. “I’m not new to the community here. I’m well known within circles here. I’m looking forward to engaging with the community and the new Government and this is an exciting time as we lead tourism in New Zealand.”

MICHAEL AHEARNE

• Job: Chief executive, SkyCity Entertainment Group
• Age: 49
• Family: Married to secondary school teacher Kay, three children – eldest at Trinity College Dublin, others at Auckland secondary schools
• Lives: Remuera, moving in January to a house just bought
• Citizenship: Holds Irish and Australian passports, plans to apply to become an NZ citizen
• Education: St Augustine’s College, Dungarvan, County Waterford, Ireland. Accounting degree from Cork Institute of Technology. Executive master of business administration from University of Technology Sydney
• Career: Accountant at Irish global dairy/nutrition group Glanbia; financial analyst in Sydney; senior management accountant, Ispat Industries (formerly Irish Steel); Tabcorp/ Star Entertainment Group, Sydney; gaming software and systems company Aristocrat Leisure in Sydney; Paddy Power Betfair in Ireland; SkyCity chief operating officer, now CEO
Reading: SkyCity boardroom papers
Last travel: To Europe to attend ICE, the international gaming convention in February
Watches: Season 4, The Crown, “but I prefer the first ones”.

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