Matterhorn, Shaky Isles, Smith, Neighbourhood, Northern Steamship, Snapdragon. The successes of hospo group Pack & Company are well-known and numerous. For years they've flown under the radar, but after taking over a couple of surprising spaces in downtown Auckland, these guys are incognito no longer.
You get the feeling that Sam Ansley simply never stops. Clad in casual shorts, shirt, hat and sneakers, he is – aesthetically, at least – a world away from your quintessential businessman.
Ansley orders a decaf flat white for our interview in the stonkingly impressive and newly created Imperial Lane café space, and at the rate energy radiates out of him, it’s just as well it’s not full-caf double shot.
You can’t blame him for being energetic and enthusiastic. At just 37, he’s part-owner of one of the country’s biggest hospitality groups, Pack & Company, with his brother Simon, Mark Keddell, Matt Bould, and the sole female of the group, Kate Prangnell. Five separate individuals with one big fat company in common. Of course, they had other relationships that bound them in the early days: “Simon is my twin brother. Kate, at the time ... we won’t talk about that.”
“She was your girlfriend,” I guess, not from prior knowledge of the company’s history but from Ansley’s self-conscious giveaway laugh.
“She’s sick of me talking about it, to be honest with you.”
The group has gone from five mates working their arses off to make a daily crust to a super-company owning more than just a handful of hospitality jewels. A part interest in some Wagamamas and Lone Stars. Some Mac’s branded brewery bars. Britomart bar Smith and pub the Northern Steamship. Wellington haunts Matterhorn and Foxglove. Viaduct bar Snapdragon. All up, Pack & Company has some 730 staff and 27 sites.
How they’ve managed to fly under the radar for so long is a mystery, but now, with their latest venture – two century-old fire-scarred former theatres that have lain untouched in Auckland since the 1950s being restored to restaurant glory – they can no longer stay off the grid.
The famous five
It’s something of a wonder that Ansley never ended up as a journalist, with a fair flow of ink in the family veins; he’s related to journalists Bruce and Greg Ansley, and his aunt Mary Holm is a writer for the NZ Herald. After knocking off a law degree alongside his brother (while the pair worked in hospitality to support themselves), they decided to start up their own nightclub, Base, in Christchurch. It went off like a frog in a sock, so they roped in Keddell, Bould and Prangnell and acquired the rights to open up the Lone Star brand in Auckland.
All five worked at the Lone Star in the early 1990s, which provided them with a few basic lessons in the field.
“It taught us the number one principle in restaurants: that all customers need to be loved and never taken for granted,” Ansley says. “And if you forget that, you’re probably on a path to oblivion when it comes to hospitality, because that’s one of the true tenets.”
Bould wasn’t studying at uni like the others, and Keddell’s time was often taken up with his career as an Olympic sprinter.
“He was a very driven person,” says Ansley, who opted for a degree in film after his law degree and was “at uni for pretty much eight years”. Simon went on to be a lawyer and carries out legal work for the company now, and while Sam never pursued law as a career, he admits it was “awfully empowering” to have a law degree tucked away in your back pocket.
“When you’re young and trying to set up a business, having a law degree behind you made the bankers look at you with a bit more credibility. That’s the whole perception.”
The brothers sold the club and the five found themselves in Auckland. For the first few years all of them worked at the Lone Star in Newmarket doing, well, pretty much everything. With so many mouths to feed, everyone had to work in the business.
“You can’t just get a free ride. But even at that point we all had our own areas of specialty.”
Keddell has a head for finance, while Prangnell got onto the administration wagon.
“She was the glue that bound us together as quite big egos and personalities,” Ansley says.
Bould had a magic touch with wine lists and how bar operations work, and with Simon taking care of the practicalities and legalities, that left Sam to wave a creative wand over the business’ sites.
“I was always the creative one, which probably meant I had no other skills,” Ansley says, but his handiwork tells another story.
As time went on, the shareholders all became more and more autonomous in their own areas, although they’ve recently introduced more of a formal structure, where Keddell acts as chief executive officer and the others report to him.
“That’s what’s fueled our growth – avoiding the overlap as much as humanly possible.” And, presumably, a hell of a lot of extremely hard graft.
Back then it wasn’t called Pack & Company but rather the Brat Pack, for obvious reasons. Ansley says they were “pretty full-on brash young guys” and hence picked up the label when they went to the bank to get some cash. Later on they changed it to Pack Investment Group, a name that worked against them, giving a false impression.
“When we bought Matterhorn, there was a lot of talk about this investment group from Auckland and that’s not us at all.”
Now Pack & Company, they’d like to think it represents not just themselves as directors but also the 40-odd people in head office and 1,000 or so people on their sites.
One restaurant led to another and another, and they got the creative impulse to execute more of their own ideas. Ansley is careful in his choice of words when he explains why.
“The Lone Star is a fantastic idea and a lovely way to do hospitality, but it’s also someone else’s idea. We wanted to take some ideas we’d been working on into the market and see if they were going to work.”
Cue the Northern Steamship Company, a Britomart Mac’s brew bar that waters the after-work downtown set and features upside-down lamps stuck to the ceiling. It’s that wacky factor that’s also seen in another of its offerings, Shaky Isles. After finding success in Kingsland they took the café – which features a witty menu and wall art, among other “playful and different” things – to the Britomart complex. They’re looking to roast their own coffee any day now, says Ansley.
“We saw a real niche in the market. You have all these distinctive cafés, Dizengoff and so on in Ponsonby Road, and all the faux Melbourne cafés. They all have their place, as do the chains like Starbucks and Esquires, but we saw this real opportunity to do something that was irreverent and fun and street and was deadly serious about good coffee and food, but didn’t take itself that seriously.”
Pack worked with Britomart agency Shine on Shaky, as it had previously with the Nuffield Street Mac’s brew bar. It’s curious that Pack and Shine work so comfortably together, as a couple of the Shine directors are hospitality competitors in their own right, recently opening up the Best Award-winning Tyler Street Garage, Ebisu and Precinct Café.
“We really bought into the idea of Britomart at an early stage, the revitalisation of the area. It was really romantic and had quite an identity to it. We like a big idea and we like being part of something new and exciting.”
Soon after opening up the Northern Steamship, nearby Vector Arena opened up and business was booming. Smith followed, then the Nuffield Street Trading Company in Newmarket and Neighbourhood in Kingsland.
Then the recession bit, and while other companies were donning sack cloth and ashes, Pack’s success was rubbing salt in the wounds of those less fortunate. They started acquiring sites that weren’t doing as well as they should. Not buying up bad hospitality groups – there was a lot of that around, says Ansley – but rather picking up great sites that had potential.
Pack grabbed La Zeppa and did some work to it, hitting a small speed bump given its backyard had become something of a demolition site with Auckland’s motorway works going on at Victoria Park Market.
Matterhorn was another one they nabbed. Ansley says they wanted to challenge themselves and Matterhorn was the perfect opportunity, even though it could’ve turned out to be “quite an expensive lesson”.
“It operates in a unique place and in a unique way; it’s a bar, restaurant, live music venue, and to the absolute best it can be, and that’s the ethos that goes through Matterhorn.”
Unwittingly or otherwise, Ansley reveals himself to be something of a perfectionist. It’s not enough to be good, he says, you have to be great. You have to be the absolute best you can be. That ultimately affects your bottom line. It’s hard to make money out of it.
“You don’t get that good from just thinking about it and wishing it, you get that good from the force of man hours and having really good people doing really good things, and none of that comes cheap.”
But making money out of it wasn’t their goal in acquiring it, and making stacks of money isn’t really the norm in hospitality, unless you’re franchising a McDonald’s. So why do it then, if the cash isn’t all that flash?
“It’s a really good question and I probably ask myself that far too often.”
From the outside it seems like an awfully hard gig with little financial return, and once you set aside the glory and kudos of running such a sizeable company, what’s left?
“We were all children of the 80s and 90s, who had probably decided that their responsibility for how their lives were going to turn out was theirs and no-one else’s.
“It’s a very different attitude from people of my parents’ generation who probably would’ve relied on the state or the company to see them through. None of us thought that – we wanted to be masters of our own destiny. And when you have that and you have knowledge in a certain area, it seems like a natural fit.”
And aside from being a perfectionist, Ansley is also a blatant opportunist, he confesses, and sometimes dangerously so. The opportunities came up and they grabbed them, and once you’re embedded in the industry, you just dig in and make the most of it.
“Where we are now, what it’s developed to, it’s huge. There’s a lot of stress and anxiety in being responsible for so many other mouths to feed. But I think we’re at a point now where there’s a real huge amount of creative energy expended going into these projects and for me that’s really rewarding.
“I can’t think of any other industry where you can create something from the depths of your minds. I felt that from the start but as we’ve progressed I feel like it’s quite a lucky way to live your life.”
The real jewel in the company crown came about late last year when the Imperial project came to fruition. Little did most Aucklanders know that nestled away in between Fort Street and Queen Street lay two fire-scarred century-old theatres, the Roxy and Everybody’s. Untouched and completely obscure for half a century, it came as no small surprise to lunch- goers in the area when the spaces opened up as a café and restaurant space, complete with the goods from authentic Danish patisserie Elske.
Phillimore Properties instigated the build and architects Fearon and Hay came on to help. Pack & Company was already known to Phillimore from previous Britomart work and they showed the entrepreneurs through the gutted spaces.
“It’s quite addictive to keep on building bars and restaurants, especially for me, that’s my process, because that’s what I do,” Ansley says.
“I’m always into doing new stuff and I want it to be as different and new as it could possibly be. That’s what keeps me motivated to keep on doing the work. I’m probably the most risk-prone of everybody, and I can be the most risk-prone because there are other heads in our company that can pull me back, that’s our dynamic.
“I couldn’t believe there were these two old theatres in the middle of Auckland that nobody knew about and had been empty for 50 years, it’s staggering. I couldn’t quite grasp it, and I think not quite grasping it was an indication that it was worth doing.”
Pack had fingers in a lot of other pies at the time and had expanded vigorously throughout the recession to close to 25 sites. But although they were feeling overwhelmed, the other four saw the same potential Ansley saw, and Pack signed on the dotted line. The company now boasts its head office upstairs at the Imperial complex, which features exposed roofing beams, cobbled floors and retained raw brick walls. There’s an industrial edge to it but it’s also been kept fairly authentic; its pared-back décor shows brick, high steel trusses and a timber sarked roof.
It’s a light touch, Ansley explains, in terms of not wanting to cover up too much of the heritage-listed building, but at the same time it’s still a design-led approach. He’s been heavily involved in the interior design aspect.
“After getting involved in the base build with Fearon and Hay, it would’ve been stupid to just forget what they had been doing. I’m a bit of a control freak, I’ll be honest about it, and I don’t really apologise for it because I think you have to be.”
Ansley is now satisfied with the spaces, particularly the huge and airy Roxy, which he describes as a “New York fire department 1930s sort of feel”. Stark and luxe.
Pushing the boundaries
You get the feeling that with a limited number of punters with a limited amount of cash in their pockets for Friday frivolity, that hospitality could be incredibly competitive. Players abound and barriers to entry are few and far between, except for cash – it costs a bomb to set up these days, Ansley reckons.
Not like five years ago, when most entrepreneurs could get in fairly easily if you just had a little backing, a few dollars in your pocket and a good idea.
“We’ve never been that focused on competitors and I don’t say that out of any false bravado or anything. I think there are some amazing competitors out there, the ones we focus on for the good, not the bad. It’s not like, ‘Damn those competitors nipping at our heels’, it’s ‘Damn those guys are good’. There’s a lot you can learn from them and what a challenge and let’s make it better.
“We’re always focused on making things better. We never rest on our laurels. It’s a really good culture and a way of running a business. It means you’re never finished, and for someone like me who likes ticking things off lists, it’s a hard way to live your life.”
So who is on the competitor list? Ansley cites Britomart Hospitality Company, which is behind the likes of the Britomart Country Club, 1885 and the Rouakai Lane bars.
“I don’t think we’re competing against each other but we’re making each other better,” he says. “I have the utmost respect for them.”
Success to burn. But what’s next? Especially for someone who confesses he can’t sit still?
“Along the lines of me being an opportunist, who knows? We’d love to do things internationally. The whole point of Shaky Isles was to take it overseas on some level. Being from New Zealand sometimes you think what you do may not stack up against what’s done overseas. It’s the cultural cringe thing, we devalue what we do.
“I think we do hospitality these days immensely well and I’d love to do it overseas. Over the next few years a push on a few fronts, the UK especially, would be on the horizon.”
As well as going offshore, the company also has another couple of sites on the cusp of launching, which is hush-hush for now.
“I think we always had an idea that we wanted to be something more than just owning a few restaurants, otherwise having the five of us at the core of the business would not have made sense 11 years later. You’ve got to be really careful the choices you make – all of a sudden 10 years are gone ...”