Guy Howard Willis loves the question “What have you done with your life so far?”
So, that’s what we asked him first up.
“I work in a small family office – there’s five of us and when we have meetings they’re really enjoyable and often a lot of fun.”
He has a visionary and creative mind in and out of business.
“God is a creative God – as we see clearly in His creation – and we’re made in His image. I believe that means we’re all creative in some ways.
Guy, who loves his family, has a boldness about him in which he regularly makes opportunities to share his faith.
Jeremy Smith sat down with Guy, the co-founder of Torpedo7 (he started the business with his son Luke), 1-day.co.nz, and most recently “cycling’s new frontier” – the world’s first hydrofoil bike, the Manta5, to discuss his love of thinking deeply about many things.
Have you always had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak?
Yes I guess I have. I left school when I was 16 and eventually got a job at the age of 17 on cross-channel ferries as a young deckhand. I learnt so much about business from those early days from the older deckhands. For example, how you looked after a passenger on the ferries by adding value and making their experience memorable – that’s one of the principles I’ve used in business ever since.
You grew up in England, so, why the move to New Zealand then?
My wife Gina and I got married when we were 19. We had previously met when I was 17 after I had a serious motorbike accident and I was in the hospital for two-and-a-half months. This young girl who I didn’t know very well would come and visit me every day. Even though I was in a lot of pain at times, she still came to see me and was good company. When I got out of hospital we went out together, became boyfriend and girlfriend and eventually got married. I loved her very much then and I still do. In my early 20s, we’d had three daughters, but sadly, one of our daughters – Lucy – died, which really changed both Gina and I significantly. It was about that time that I really started to question my life on the boats, where I’d spent 12 years. I didn’t want to become like the older deckhands – there were many who were alcoholics and who had broken relationships. So, I wanted a new life and I looked around at where I could start a new life and chose New Zealand. That’s probably just about as far as you can go to start a new life.
Tell me, how did you come to know Jesus?
Well as I said, I’d come to New Zealand looking for a new life – but not expecting this was the life I was going to find. I eventually got a job working in the caravan industry, which wasn’t far from where I lived. I really enjoyed the work there – it was contract work where I had good systems and I earned quite good money. But you know, while I was there there was a chap I worked with – who was also from England – who told me that his wife was going to be baptised. He asked me if I would come to the church and see his wife get baptised. I said, “Look, I don’t do church.” But he said, “neither do I, but would you come with me?” And, being a friend, I thought I’d go with him. But, I did ask him, “what’s baptism anyway?” And he explained the little he knew – that there was an area in the church with a false floor. When you moved it away, there was a pool underneath. And his wife would get into that and they asked if she believed in God and ‘pushed her underwater’ I said, “you’re joking!” So I went to see something I hadn’t seen before.
But it was at that service when the young pastor preached that he said one thing which unsettled me a lot. He said that because of my sin, I had separated myself from God – and I didn’t think I was a bad person and I really didn’t like the sound of that at all. I would go back to church in the evenings, it was in the winter and it was dark, I’d sit in the back of the church and listen for a while. As soon as the service was over, I’d be out that door like a shot. On one occasion a young Māori high school teacher – who was 10 years younger than me – came out and introduced himself. He said to me, “my name’s Peter, would you like to do a Bible study?”
He just stared at me, waiting for an answer, and I couldn’t think of anything to say, it was the last thing I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do a bible study, I didn’t like reading for a start! But I couldn’t think of anything to say and eventually I said “that’s a wonderful idea.” And as it happened it was. Peter became a very close friend of mine. We would meet together once a week and do a Bible study. With everything I asked him, he wouldn’t tell me what he thought he would show me what it said in the Bible. It was quite a few months afterwards that I really began to feel that the weight of sin in my life had to be dealt with.
At work in the caravan industry, when everyone had gone away for lunch, I sat there by myself and I prayed and accepted Jesus into my life then. The relief was almost instantaneous. I felt that God had entered my life in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I wanted to tell someone. I went to an older Māori man who I worked with and I told him I’d become a Christian. I knew he’d spoken about how he went to church as well. He dropped his tools in front of everyone, embraced me and told me that all the angels in Heaven would be rejoicing. That had a profound effect on me at the time.
Did Peter have quite a big influence in encouraging you in your walk with the Lord then?
Yes he did. Once I became a Christian that wasn’t the end of the Bible study – in fact that was just the beginning. You see, we continued to read the Bible and he showed me how to study it and how to read books about the Bible and he taught me how to memorise verses. I told him, “I can’t remember anything”. He said, “yes, you can, you can remember your parent’s names and where they were born, so you can remember the Bible.”
We learnt two verses a week on little cards and then he taught me how to have a quiet time. I didn’t know what a quiet time was, but he came around to my house every day before I went to work and we had seven minutes alone with God.
And then he took me to evangelise, to speak to people about my faith. We went to Garden Place in Hamilton, for example, at lunchtime and spoke to people about our faith – which I instantly enjoyed. Peter discipled me in a way that set me off to do the same things for many other young men who I have since discipled also. You can’t expect a person to become a Christian and just sit in the church and grow. You need to be discipled by someone who will take a personal interest in your spiritual growth. Peter had a profound effect on me – he went on to move to Australia where he became a Baptist Pastor.
When I became a Christian, I had never read a book. I was in my early 30s and I wanted to read the Bible, books about the Bible and, in fact, any books. I took adult reading lessons, only to discover that I was Dyslexic. Not only could I not spell the word, but I’d also never heard of it.
Reading lessons from a retired school principal helped me immensely, I have since read hundreds of books and reading is now my passion. It’s just that I’m really slow – although, I do remember most books I’ve read.
How did you make the decision to move into business?
I like that question. It’s very interesting – I tell everyone that the Prime Minister of New Zealand at the time – Robert Muldoon – helped me into business. They always ask “really? How did he do that?” I tell them I got made redundant from the caravan industry I was working in. The Prime Minister put a 25 percent sales tax on luxury items like boats and caravans and other things and it killed the industry. When I was made redundant I was forced out into either looking for another job – which I was looking at – or starting my own business. So, I started my own business.
In my basement at home I made Scandinavian furniture. At that time there was nothing much like that in New Zealand. I made a table and six chairs and put it on a trailer – I took it up to town to a furniture shop in Hamilton. I showed the lady who owned the shops and she said “yes, I’ll take that, can you please send me and invoice?” I had to go home and ask my wife Gina what an invoice was. I went into the shop and buy an invoice book and when I got back home the shop owner phoned me and said “I’ve sold that one, can you make another one?”
That was the start of getting into business. I was making a whole range of furniture. I learnt so much in those days.
The first company that I started was called Alpine Design Furniture. After doing a trip to Germany, I saw these flexible slat beds and I came home and introduced the idea to New Zealand. I stopped making the dining furniture and totally focussed on making these designer flexible slat beds. We changed the name of our company to Restwood Beds.
Has your family also been involved in your business?
I sold my furniture business after owning it for about 22 years, which is quite a long time.
It’s really interesting because when I started that furniture business my son Luke was born – and roughly 20 years later he had just got his business degree from Wintec. Luke was an average student at school – but he just excelled when he went to Wintec and had to learn for himself. He got his business degree before he was 21. When I sold Restwood Beds, we started a little business together. We bought a little engineering company which made a high-quality downhill bike – it was called Keewee. Both Luke and I were interested in cycling – Luke loved downhill biking and mountain biking and I like road cycling. So it was an industry we sort of understood. We made many other frames for bikes – mountain bikes, jump bikes and others. When we came to buy the components, Luke found that you could buy them from Taiwan and other countries at a third of the price you could buy them for in New Zealand.
So, we started this online business which we called Torpedo7 – and once we got it going it went really well. We wanted to sell the products really really cheaply, we didn’t spend any money on marketing. Our marketing budget was filtered into lowering the price of our products. So, we sold products at unbelievably low prices. Word of mouth grew and that’s how the company grew too. During the whole time we owned Torpedo7 we never advertised or did any marketing at all – we didn’t need to. The customers did it for us. It was interesting. My wife Gina has never been involved in the business but she’s always been there for me to help me. She’s never stopped me from coming up with any of my crazy ideas – I wish she had done sometimes! (Haha!)
You always need a good wife behind you so you can keep moving. At times, we went without and worried together. Interestingly enough, when we got really busy with Torpedo7, my son-in-law Ray, was one of the ones who started with us in the beginning. I’m still working with him now. I make jokes that each time I sell a company, I sell Ray as well and then I have to buy him back because he’s good value. I have worked with my daughter, my grand-daughters and Luke;’s brother-in-law.
It was never intended to be a family business as such, but that’s just the way it ended up.
Let’s talk about some of the other businesses you’ve been involved in?
Well I’ve already mentioned Restwood Beds, that did grow to a sizable company. When I sold that and we started Torpedo7 it was 2004. It wasn’t long before it grew to a size that was quite meaningful. But then, we had this idea to start another company. At Torpedo7 we used to do this promotion called ‘first in, first served’. You had 24 hours to buy items with really low prices. There was always a frenzy of customers within those 24 hours.
We applied that same idea to everyday items like chocolate, clothing and iPhones. We called that company 1-day. We stated that company in 2007. The interesting thing about 1-day was that even though Luke did a forecast of the fact we would maybe sell 50 to 100 of a particular item each day, it was never like that. We sold thousands of products daily and that meant we would sell out, often in two or three hours. I can remember that on some occasions we had just loaded a product and almost instantly it would be sold.
1-day’s selling online actually grew to be twice the size of Torpedo7, which was quite surprising. People often say to us “having three products on promotion each day, how easy is that?” But really it was quite difficult because finding three products that people wanted took a lot of searching.
What sort of things were you selling on 1-day Guy?
We sold everything – clothing, running shoes, everything. For example, on one occasion just in a few hours, we sold 6.5 tonnes of marshmallows. I’ll leave to your imagination just how many pallets that would have been. We sold 50,000 cans of Red Bull in half an hour. We sold literally truckloads of Cadbury chocolate and even 2500 pairs of women’s shoes. But, to be fair, women do really like shoes!
Tell me, what is the Manta5 hydrofoil bike and how on earth did you get into riding a bike on water?
You know that cycling has always been a passion of mine and so has swimming. It always bothered me why you can’t ride a bike on water. You could say a jetski is equivalent to a motorbike, and a boat was equivalent to a car. But there’s never been anything like a bike that you could ride on water. I had this idea for quite a while, the thought would just go around in my head and stay there. I drew pictures of it, I’d think about it at night. I went to a Business Edge conference and a creative speaker asked some questions. The first question was, “how often do you get an idea which you think about for months or years and then you see someone develop it and bring it to market and you tell everyone I thought of that.”
The other question which really bothered me was “do you want to get to the end of your life and be left wondering whether an idea or a dream you’d had would have worked?”
So, I’d had this idea of riding a bike on water and I’d already figured out that the only way you could do this was to have hydrofoils on the front and the back. Then, I made a deliberate decision and I was subsequently on the lookout for someone who could help me do this – and I prayed that God would lead someone to me and He did!
He led the perfect person to me – Roland Alonzo. I met him and I understood that he designed and made bikes and I asked him if he would make this hydrofoil bike for me. I showed him all my drawings and he loved the idea. He could see it straight away. He said, “yes this is something I could do, but it’s not for me.” I said, “why’s it not for you?” And he replied, “because I can’t swim – how can I design a bike that rides on water when I can’t even swim?.”
I had to explain to him that NASA engineers don’t get to go up to the space station, and Formula 1 engineers don’t actually get to drive the cars. Eventually, Roland started with us.
But it wasn’t easy – I thought this whole process was going to take about six months – it’s taken eight years. Roland has not only become instrumental to designing the bike, but he’s also become a good friend – and a Christian friend at that.
I read somewhere that there are plans to cross Cook Strait on a Manta5 – are you seriously going to do that!?
Well, I’m not! But one of the young chaps who works for us – Hayden – has said he is going to do it and has been training already. The distance across Cook Strait from the North Island to the South Island is 26km, and he can comfortably ride – in less than three hours – 24km. We have someone in Wellington who takes swimmers across and we’re just waiting for the right conditions. It will be a world first too, so who knows – he might even get into the book of Guinness World Records.
Looking ahead, what’s your vision for the Manta5 bikes?
We started off with our first bike and it rides really well. We’re just designing our second bike, which is going to be lighter and faster and we’ve also got a pro version which is being developed now. That’s going to be a manual bike and a manual bike means that you can race it. And if you can race it, then it becomes competitive and if it’s competitive it could easily become an Olympic sport. That’s always been my end goal and dream.
So, what’s it like to ride a Manta5?
That’s a very interesting thing. I told someone recently that you use all five senses to ride the bike. There’s the smell of the water, the feel of the wind, the sound of the water lapping. I’ve never ridden on a cloud, but I imagine it feels like that. It’s so smooth and you can go at a reasonable speed. That makes it so exciting! Now that we’ve put an e-bike motor on the hydro bike it’s opened the range up so that almost anyone can ride it. Seriously Jeremy, grab your togs and try to foil for yourself!
Why do you have a passion for reaching the lost? And how would you encourage others to do so?
I guess because I recognise that there’s the separation of sin separating you from God. And I just have a deep longing to see people understand that. One of the things I learnt when I first became a Christian was that there seemed to be a language between Christians and then another language between non-Christians. So really, I talk to my non-Christian friends the same way I’d talk to my Christian friends. I pray daily that God would give me boldness and a courageous heart. I often say too that I’m an entrepreneurial evangelist.
I think of all the most creative ways of speaking to people, and I ask myself, “what are the right questions I should be asking?” I think you have to be deliberate. If I’m in a car driving to Auckland with someone I can talk about anything. And, generally speaking, if you’re not deliberate about what you want to talk to a person about – around your faith – then quite often you just won’t do it.
My encouragement to others is to think of creative ways to talk to people – you may not be someone who feels that they are bold. But I challenge you to pray for boldness and for a courageous spirit every day for a month and you watch what happens and what God brings before you. You’ll be surprised.
How do you deal with some of the difficulties you have faced in life?
I guess like most people I’ve had a few difficulties in life. The loss of our second child was one of the hardest difficulties we’ve been through. We were non-Christians then and we had to just deal with it the best way we could, and the way we dealt with it was never to talk about the loss of our child because it just brought up the memories and it hurt.
When I first started off in business it was really going well and we had a fire in the business and it destroyed everything I had. I had to start from the beginning all over again.
I can remember the day after the fire, I found a quiet place and I prayed and asked God not saying “why have You done this to me?” – but rather I asked Him to help me through that. The events which happened from there – which are an interesting story – just gave me faith and trust in God, that He does see you through these things.
Unplanned things do happen and you can’t stop them. But I guess to trust God and continue doesn’t mean you sit back and wait for God to act. It does mean that you pray and ask God to act, but you act at the same time.
I believe in the providence of God – God’s overarching plan over your life. It doesn’t mean all the best things are going to happen when something bad happens, but God does have a plan for your life.
It says in Psalms 139 “…in My Book were written every one of them – the days that were formed for you when as yet there were none of them…” God clearly has a plan for your life and I connect with that and I understand that.
It sounds like you’ve had a pretty interesting life then?
Yes I have. On some occasions when I’ve spoken publicly, people have said it was really inspirational. And my wife Gina constantly says to me that before I reach the end of my life I have to write a book about the things you’ve done and the lessons you’ve learned – and I’ve started to work my way through that. I’m not a writer, so I record it all and I’m looking for someone to help me write the story. Even if it’s only for my family’s use – that could be enough.
Do people ever suggest that some of your ideas might be a little bit crazy?
Yes they do, but I know that it’s much different to be actually playing the game than it is to be standing on the sidelines with people telling you how to play the game. One of the best compliments someone has ever given me was from my wife Gina. I read an article on anti-gravity and I couldn’t quite understand it. I was explaining it to her and she just stared at me and listened. When I asked her afterwards “what do you think?”. After a while she just said, “you know, you’re really not normal are you?”
That was one of the best compliments I’ve had. I don’t want to be normal, haha!
That’s so much for chatting to us Guy!
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By Jeremy Smith
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