Putting the cart before the horse

June 10, 2024

This is a story about putting the cart before the horse.

Richard Smales was fresh out of high school. He was a true newbie: an inaugural recipient of a Graeme Bringans Property Education Trust (GBPET) award. And he had determined to study surveying at the University of Otago.

There was just one problem: Richard failed University Entrance by one mark – seemingly barring his automatic admission to tertiary study.

That’s when Paul Duffy stepped in. Paul was then Chairman of GBPET – later to become the Keystone Trust – and also General Manager of Fletcher Property. “Paul got straight on to the university, and I think that certainly helped.” (It later transpired that there was no minimum qualification in the first year as all students were given general surveying subjects and selection for the specific course took place in Year Two.)

Richard’s bags were packed for Dunedin in no time.  “I don’t know what would have happened if Paul hadn’t done that,” says Richard today.

He is talking from his Whangarei workplace: Reyburn & Bryant, a planning and surveying company of which he is a director. Apart from a year spent overseas as a post-graduate (and where his surveying skills saw him working on Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5) he’s been at Reyburn and Bryant since completing his studies in 2000.

It’s clear from his original Keystone application that Richard always had the smarts and drive to excel. The son of Maungatoroto, Northland farmers, he displayed early entrepreneurial zest when, while still at Otamatea High, he set up his own contract hay gang – comprised largely of his schoolmates. It was a lucrative pursuit that helped finance his tertiary studies, but the Keystone contribution over his four-year course made all the difference, he says.

By his own description, Richard was a “pretty average” student. That’s largely due to the fact he was involved in numerous sporting and extracurricular pursuits: a top swimmer, captain of the 1st XV and triathlon champion included. As well as being made a prefect, he also had a backstage role in the school’s annual musical productions.

Those are the traits that saw him, together with fellow Northlander Andrea Salter, selected as the first scholarship recipients. “At school, during study leave or holiday periods, I’d either be working on the farm, or playing sport. But once I got to university, I became quite disciplined with my study.”

Paul Duffy maintained a key role in Richard’s student life. Not only did he act as his mentor, he also played a major role in Richard securing vital industry-specific work during the holidays. “Having Paul supporting me in this regard was very helpful. And he would make sure I was staying on track [academically].”

Other early connections continue through to this day.  That summer gang he put together as a student was contracted to a man who ran a hay-baling business in the district. That man is now his father-in-law. Richard and his wife have three children, and, like their father, they are deeply involved in all manner of sporting pursuits on top of their school studies.

The original academic hiccup that could have threatened his career path has Richard wondering what he would have done if he hadn’t got into university. “I didn’t have a Plan B,” he says.

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