Queenslander Matt Gillespie, 30, founded Hakuba Snow Tours in October 2016, following the purchase of a ski in, ski out lodge nestled just 20 metres from slopes that boast some of Hakuba’s finest powder snow. Gillespie explained, “it started out as a cheeky idea, a way to potentially ski for free during the season, but it’s quickly spiralled into something much bigger –a serious business, something that I can now see as a career and devote all my time and energy to. Ultimately, it’s something I am really proud of and excited about.”
Growing up in Mackay and spending time on a family farm in the North of Queensland went some way to preparing Gillespie for life in the mountains of rural Japan. Even so, swapping the white sand beaches of the Whitsunday region’s iconic shores for Nagano Prefecture’s pristine powder snow has been something of an epic adventure for the thrill-seeking young Aussie entrepreneur. Gillespie commented, “after Uni, I started my career as an accountant, working for Grant Thornton in Brisbane. While I met some interesting people and enjoyed the opportunity to travel, it was quickly obvious that this was not a role I was going to dedicate 25 or 30 years of my life to. Those were important years, but ultimately they inspired me to find another path.”
That path changed when Gillespie was offered the opportunity to work in New York, he left Brisbane but ultimately decided against the role and spent time travelling instead. Upon returning to Australia six months later, he was offered an opportunity with a former client. He was engaged to work in a project management capacity as a financial analyst in the mining industry. Gillespie explained, “I moved to New York in 2012 at age 25, returned at the end of that year, and then worked for the mining company until end of 2013. From early in 2013, myself and a friend (who had ended up working at the same mining company) spent our lunch breaks developing plans to launch a coffee shop.”
How Matt Gillespie entered business
2014 brought a change of direction. Together with Mitch Elsworthy, Gillespie set up a coffee shop by the beach in Alexandra Headland on the Sunshine Coast, a start-up venture that both committed to full time –quitting their jobs, pooling their savings and opening the coffee shop a few months later. Both knuckled down, working in the store 7 days a week, taking minimal wages and reinvesting most capital back into the business. Within months, the start-up cafe had earned itself a flurry of awards, including being listed as one of the top 15 espresso bars in Australia (by Beanhunter).
A sale of the flourishing business quickly materialised, Gillespie explains, “this was unexpected, the business wasn’t even up for sale. The offer was just too good to refuse, and it also allowed me to accelerate the dream of the lodge in Japan.” When combined with the proceeds of the sale of an investment property in Brisbane, Gillespie was furnished with the capital to back himself on an international snow based venture.
Mitch also took the opportunity to set up his own cloud based accounting firm, myVFC (my Virtual Financial Controller), and is now engaged as Gillespie’s BAS agent, while Grant Thornton are his accountants in both Brisbane and Japan. Gillespie commented, “Mitchis also spending a month at the lodge this season and working from my office there. I’ve managed to connect Hakuba Snow Tours to my previous employments and to be honest it’s been a huge help, having access to the expertise of specialists and also working with individuals that know me – you’re building on past foundations rather than starting from scratch.”
Falling in love with the snow
Having spent the University holidays on the slopes in Whistler, and after attending countless family trips to Hotham, Gillespie already had the snow bug. He talks about learning to ski in Australia, “we went on these family holidays, a trip consisting of 6 families, and the only way you could get your family included was if an existing family essentially left the country, or died! It was a running joke amongst the group. We luckily got invited when I was around 10 years old and a previous family dropped out, we went every two years after that”.Gillespie was motivated to find an investment prospect that included options for snowboarding, one of his main passions. He explains, “The passion for snowboarding and the lifestyle grew a lot during the seasons I did in Whistler. That’s where I fell in love with the sport, the destinations you could travel to, and the people involved. It was very different to accounting!”
Nagano sprang to fame in 1998 as host city to the Winter Olympics. The usual fanfare of Olympic fever descended upon this sleepy rural farming community located in the foothills of the Japanese Alps on the North-West coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island. 72 nations, 2,176 participants and 68 events made for a jam-packed schedule, broadcast rights meant the eyes of the world would be on Japan. Much was at stake, and many of the sponsors and partners included leading Japanese Corporate brands, such as Samsung, Mizuno, Xerox, Toyota and Seiko. Brand representatives swooped into Nagano, purchased land and constructed opulent chalets on the slopes, overlooking the Olympic action. There was also the construction of accommodation for officials, athletes and supporters.
In the years following the Olympics, much of the property built in connection with the Games became available or unused. After travelling there extensively and taking inspiration from others who had seen opportunity in Hakuba, Gillespie decided to look for a property. He explained his motivation; “Hakuba started to pick up approximately 10-15 years ago when a few Aussies started setting up businesses –ski schools, bars, lodges, equipment rentals and so on. It was the world’s worst kept secret that there was all this amazing snow and multiple resorts, but everyone was going to Niseko (on Hokkaido, the North island) and neglecting other areas. The addition of Australian airlines offering cheap flights to Tokyo also directed a lot of attention to Hakuba, with its close proximity to the capital. The economic conditions (especially with alpine property) coupled with a relatively consistently strong Aussie dollar and lots of available properties created an environment where Australians found themselves well placed to invest.”
Gillespie continued, “although not formally listed for sale, some pension owners were open to the prospect of a private sale. I engaged a local to help me source a venue, we were approached while at a property by one of the neighbours, and I ultimately ended up buying his lodge. It was all rather a stroke of luck.”
Having found the venue –‘The Ranch’, Gillespie set up Hakuba Snow Tours, aiming to provide ski guides and all-inclusive accommodation and dining in one of the most accessible ski in, ski out locations in the Hakuba Valley. The ranch offers convenient access to two different resorts, one resort is very tame with plenty of beginner and intermediate terrain, while the second is a mostly expert resort, and is very famous for the powder snow and tree riding.
How is Hakuba Snow Tours doing today?
With a restaurant on site, Gillespie can offer up to 30 snow enthusiasts a night the option of spending the day on the slopes and then relaxing in the Ranch’s bar or billiards room après ski. To satisfy the increasing thirst for content capture, the Ranch’s ski guides double as go pro and drone camera operators, capturing clients’ voyages through the famous Nagano powder fields. As Gillespie states “it’s the best snow in the world. Once you’ve been in Japanese powder, nothing else compares.”
Gillespie is living in Japan on an investor’s visa, and markets the Ranch via Facebook and Instagram advertising, he also incentivises previous guests to make repeat visits by offering discounted or complementary lodging based on their orchestration of group visits. He comments, “Word of mouth is huge for me –I spent years travelling the globe snowboarding and also working as an instructor, a lot of contacts I have made pass on the business details to their customers and contacts. A few of them are also keen on jobs!”
Gillespie’s international footprint meant that he sought out OFX as an international currency partner early in his Japanese adventure. With multiple AUD –YEN transactions to plan, he knew that it was important to be savvy when it came to moving his hard-earned funds. “Working as an accountant, I knew that the banks weren’t going to give me the best deal on the foreign exchange front, so I looked to OFX. Their platform integrates with the accounting software I use, so it was all seamless –easy. I calculate that I’ve saved at least $50,000 over 18 months by using OFX, compared to bank rates. When you’re setting up in business, that kind of money makes a big difference.”
With his first season at the Ranch going extremely well, Gillespie was so busy at times that he had to call in his parents from Australia to help wash up at the restaurant. He is currently preparing for the winter season with eight staff lined up, he employs individuals who can multi task –helping alternately with cooking, cleaning, waiting tables, ski guiding and are also trained in back country navigation, and avalanche safety, search and recovery.
Hakuba Valley, as with other Japanese ski areas, is highly seasonal. There are Japanese laws in place to protect against the over development of farm land (mainly rice paddies) meaning that the valley retains its traditional footprint as an agricultural community. Operators such as Gillespie are in favour of this, as it prevents large corporations coming in and building over-sized hotels. While sight seeing rides on the ski gondolas are popular, summer pursuits such as hiking and mountain biking are not yet established in the area.
Gillespie explained, “things tend to happen quite slowly –if you look at Queenstown or Whistler, you can see how iconic snow destinations can become just as functional during the off season, in some cases just as busy. Although there are some businesses in town that operate rafting and hiking in the summer months, the extreme sports such as mountain bike riding, ski diving, bungee etc… are still a long way behind those other destinations (or non-existent) here. Hakuba is still very rural, the opportunity is there but at the moment it’s not really being seized. It will happen, just little by little –this is the Japanese way and it takes time and a lot of patience. There is a real appreciation for balance, and some of the locals no doubt enjoy the peace and quiet that the summer months offer, in contrast to the bustling winter season.”
OFX data shows that Property Investment in Japan Is on the Rise. Matt’s story is representative of a wider trend of young Australian customers investing in Japanese property in recent years, potentially sparked by an affordability crisis in the local market. OFX Chief Operations Officer, Adam Smith, explained;”Looking at international transfer transactional data between AUD and JPY over two years from 2015 -2017, we can see that the total volume of new dealing clientshas steadily increased. The increase over these two years was 39%.”
“We have been tracking data showing that Australian millennials are increasingly transacting in property related deals abroad. while overseas property purchasing by most age groups of Australians has been on a gradual decline since 2013, 18 to 30-year-old Australians have maintained a steady increase (an average of 23% per year, monitored over five years). In addition to Japan, the US, UK and Europe are generally the locations where properties are being purchased by our customers.”