How Garth Barfoot gave Donna Chisholm's career a boost

Award-winning journalist Donna Chisholm reveals real estate icon Garth Barfoot’s surprising link to her career.

Garth Barfoot in front of a running-man sculpture.
Garth Barfoot is a University of Auckland Golden Graduate whose illustrious career includes triathlons. Photo: Elise Manahan

The day after I spilled hot-pink stencil correcting fluid down my new lime-green dress, an envelope containing a $25 cheque for a new outfit arrived on my desk. “To Donna,” read the accompanying note from my then boss Garth Barfoot, “on the assumption that it only happens once.”

It was 1974 and as a 16-year-old in my first job, a typist at real estate agency Barfoot & Thompson, it cemented Garth Barfoot’s place in my career pantheon of great bosses. Nearly 50 years on, as a journalist, I’m still a typist of sorts and Garth, 85, is still giving away money, albeit in vastly greater amounts.

After reading in Ingenio this year about the establishment of Manaaki Mānawa, the Centre for Heart Research at the University of Auckland, Garth donated $100,000, which has bought a state-of-the-art ultrasound imaging platform for the centre. It will image organs at work, and be used to train researchers to perform echocardiography. It helped, Garth says, that in 2020 he’d had heart valve surgery.

I hope it also helped that I’d written the story.

When we catch up, Garth is limping and bandaged after tearing a calf muscle on a 5km cross-country run. But the veteran of more than 250 triathlons since he took up the sport 30 years ago was confident he’d be back training soon.

Garth was an accountancy cadet with a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Auckland when he began work in 1957 at Barfoot & Thompson, the real estate company his father Val founded in 1923. He worked in the letting department before having a short stint selling houses. Although an “above average” salesman, he says he was far from a star performer – in part because the then newlywed baulked at working Saturdays. Most of the estate agents in those days were “builders with bad backs” or former vacuum cleaner salesmen – and, yes, they were almost exclusively men.

Garth, who retired as a director in 2017, says he’s the “Colonel Sanders” of Barfoot & Thompson – the grand old man who’s wheeled out at celebrations. His secret recipe, he says, is remembering people.

If I was king, I’d subsidise every retirement village and old folks’ home to encourage people to move there and then you’d have all their homes for people at the bottom of the ladder.

Garth Barfoot, former real estate director, Barfoot & Thompson University of Auckland Golden Graduate

Donna Chisholm and Garth Barfoot chatting at the kitchen table of Garth's home.
Donna Chisholm and Garth Barfoot catch up in 2021.

“If I was king, I’d subsidise every retirement village and old folks’ home to encourage people to move there and then you’d have all their homes for people at the bottom of the ladder.”

Although the rich-lister’s name is synonymous with real estate, it’s his sporting achievements that give him the biggest thrill.

Garth says he was ideally suited to triathlons because he wasn’t fast, but could always go the distance, thanks to a childhood of tramping trips with his family.

“It was a sport I was doing well in – the ego side of it was very strong. I got my name in the paper in my first race! It was like a dose of adrenalin.”

Despite seeing his name on billboards for decades, he says nothing matched the thrill of seeing it in small print on the results page.

“Money can’t buy that.”

Story by Donna Chisholm

This article first appeared in Ingenio magazine, Spring 2021.