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Carrington Resort: A high-end dream turned nightmare

Shannon Pitman,
Publish Date
Sat, 6 Jan 2024, 9:12AM
Carrington resort on the Karikari peninsula was originally developed by American businessman Paul Kelly in the late 90’s.
Carrington resort on the Karikari peninsula was originally developed by American businessman Paul Kelly in the late 90’s.

Carrington Resort: A high-end dream turned nightmare

Shannon Pitman,
Publish Date
Sat, 6 Jan 2024, 9:12AM

In the late 1990s, American businessman Paul Kelly envisioned a tropical paradise on the Karikari Peninsula, the Carrington Resort, part of the Carrington Farms Group. What started as a dream, however, has spiralled into a nightmare for employees and stakeholders alike, as the resort is now facing liquidation amid a series of setbacks. With five employees raising grievances in court and payouts ordered of $100k, how did things go so wrong for the idyllic resort with so much potential? Shannon Pitman lays out the timeline of the revered Carrington Resort. 

Controversy and commitments 

Spanning more than 1000 hectares within Ngāti Kahu boundaries, Carrington Resort boasts a golf course, vineyard, restaurant, conference centre, 10 lodge rooms, and 14 three-bedroom villas.  

Businessman Paul Kelly’s ambitious plans included subdividing and building holiday homes, a move that triggered a decade-long battle with Ngāti Kahu over an ancient burial site with the High Court siding with Ngāti Kahu in 2011 and quashing resource consents issued by the Far North District Council.  

In 2013, Shanghai CRED stepped in, purchasing Carrington Resort and appointing directors Guo Gui, Jue Wang, and Jian Dong Yuan at a time when concerns over foreign ownership were mounting. Northland MP at the time Winston Peters voiced fears of foreign employment overshadowing promised local opportunities  

The controversy surrounding Carrington did not end with the change in ownership, but rather, marked the beginning of a tumultuous period for the high-end oasis.  

Despite initial positive relations between Ngāti Kahu and billionaire Guo Gui, the resort faced hurdles with ongoing consents but Gui expressed a commitment to Māori success, regularly meeting with Ngāti Kahu ambassadors in Shanghai. This commitment would be tested in the years to come. 

Whatuwhiwhi top 10 holiday park was acquired by Carrington's in 2016.Whatuwhiwhi top 10 holiday park was acquired by Carrington's in 2016. 

Following a brief stint as CEO by Mike Sabin and the acquisition of Whatuwhiwhi Top Ten Holiday Park in 2016, Chinese national William Tan took the reins and faced a multitude of issues with employees and increasingly strained relationships with local Māori. 

The relationship built between Ngāti Kahu and Carrington broke down with Tan after a resource consent was filed in 2021 to create 140 residential allotments and land was cleared with representatives of the hapū claiming Tan cut off all communication with them. 

Workplace turmoil 

Staff issues between Tan and his employees began to brew and between 2022 and 2023 employees Toni Maheno, Stacy Roy, Graham Maheno and Paula Knight won Employment Relations Authority fights against Tan for unfair dismissal. 

In the case of Toni Maheno, who worked as a food and beverage assistant, Tan advised staff she was stealing and using drugs. He sent her a letter of dismissal with no right to respond and trespassed her from the resort. 

“Ms Maheno said the allegations of drug use were pure speculation, an unfounded slur on her character, and had been put forward to publicly tarnish her reputation and make her look bad. Mr Tan appeared to make a practice of making drug use allegations against staff he had unfairly dismissed, in order to intimidate and humiliate them,” an ERA decision said. 

Carrington was ordered to pay Maheno $21,000. 

The resort lost four employment relations cases in regards to the general manager, William Tan.The resort lost four employment relations cases in regards to the general manager, William Tan. 

Stacy Roy had a 12-year work history at the resort and was as acting head chef when she came to work one day after being off sick and saw an email from Tan sent to all kitchen staff advising she was not allowed in the kitchen.  

When she questioned Tan, she was told no one at the resort wanted to work with her and accused her of being on drugs.  

“Ms Roy said that Mr Tan spoke to her in a very condescending and disrespectful way, he had his elbows on the table and he was flicking his pen and tapping it on the desk and leaning back in his chair as he said these things to her,” the ERA decision said.  

No evidence was produced at the time to back up Tan’s allegations and she was sent home. After a lengthy employment relations proceeding, Roy won a payout of $40,489 and told the ERA the experience left her feeling isolated.  

“Ms Roy said she felt awful and would repeatedly find herself ruminating over what she had apparently done wrong. It was hard for her to understand because she was not given any specific allegations or information or even documentation to support what Mr Tan had said about her.  

“She didn’t feel she had anyone she could talk to about this. She found the whole experience emotionally challenging, very distressing and upsetting,” the ERA decision said.  

Paula Knight was issued a dismissal without notice letter from Tan in 2017 following an argument with Tan at a managerial meeting over a comment he had made about a colleague. 

The authority decision said Tan emailed multiple people notifying them of Knight’s dismissal, including her father, in what she described as “deeply upsetting and a breach of her privacy.” 

The ERA found Tan’s allegations of serious misconduct were unfounded and she was awarded $34,969. 

Tan challenged each decision by alleging his ex-employees were motivated by their financial hardships, an argument the court rejected. 

Graham Maheno resigned from Carrington and Tan was found by the ERA to have unjustifiably deducted his final pay with Tan accusing him of “sabotage”. The authority ordered Carrington to pay Maheno more than $9000 in lost wages. 

Iva Grant won her battle against Carrington Resort and has been awarded over $46,000 in compensation.  Photo / SuppliedIva Grant won her battle against Carrington Resort and has been awarded over $46,000 in compensation. Photo / Supplied 

Iva Grant worked as a housekeeper and found herself dismissed with one day’s notice and trespassed by Tan after she questioned why her niece had not been paid for work she had done. 

Grant told NZME that during her time working in the laundry at Carrington staff were constantly under pressure to perform cleaning in tight timeframes in an understaffed environment. 

She said in her opinion: “The resort is still open but very quiet. It’s high end but it’s run-down, it’s shocking. It has been for a long time and the money they expect people to pay is a lot.” 

The cheapest room for one night at the resort is $380 and Grant said all employees are locals, most casuals, with no offers of permanent contracts. 

“I could never understand the hours; people were never given an eight-hour 40-hour week. Most casuals, not employed permanently, winging it and flying under the radar,” Grant said. 

Although Grant was awarded $44,394 in July 2023, Tan not only challenged the ERA decision but the resort filed for liquidation in August 2023. 

“With the company in liquidation proceedings, I have concerns about being paid.” 

Looming financial concerns 

Employment relations advocate and founder of Sacked Kiwi, Alex Kersjes represents the Mahenos and told NZME that in their 10-year history of representing clients, he has never seen an employment case like Carrington. 

“Never in a decade have we dealt with an employee like this, the scale of it and the repeated issues is really quite unique. 

“In terms of the approach from when it was first raised through to Employment Court. His conduct through investigation meetings was certainly bizarre at times,” Kersjes claimed. 

Kersjes said in his opinion there was a common theme of arrogance from Carrington towards not only his clients but the community which he does not believe has eased. 

In Kersje’s opinion: “There’s been a very clear display of bad faith towards employees from the commencement of employment all the way through. 

“The ERA has made it very clear that Mr Tan has not acted in good faith in regards to the process itself but certainly when we look at Toni’s dismissal, what occurred at the time and afterwards as well was really egregious. 

“‘The harm that she suffered as a result of her former employee’s conduct was significant and quite frankly, unnecessary,” Kersjes claimed. 

Kersjes said in their experience when a company is facing liquidation it can be difficult to secure monies owed. 

“I would hope given they seem to hold a lot of assets there would be money left over from liquidation but generally it’s very difficult.” 

NZME reached out to legal representatives for Carrington Resort who maintain the board fully supports Tan and the resort. 

“Mr Tan is the general manager and CEO of the resort and has day-to-day carriage of its operations. He reports to the board in the usual way, and has the board’s full support,” Julian Spring said on behalf of Carrington. 

Spring said Carrington does not accept the way in which its employment practices have been reported, nor the outcomes of some of the ERA disputes. 

“Carrington is considering whether appeals against some of those outcomes should be advanced, although we also note that the economics of advancing appeals may make this unattractive from a business perspective. Beyond that, we will not be commenting on these matters, and particularly individual cases, as we consider that it would not be appropriate from a privacy perspective.” 

As for compensating employees affected by alleged illegal dismissals, Carrington asserts that it is appropriately addressing employment matters but refrains from commenting on individual cases for privacy reasons. 

Contrary to claims of the resort’s demise, Carrington dismissed such suggestions. 

“The suggestion that the Carrington resort is in “demise” is rejected. Like many businesses, and in particular those in the tourism sector, Carrington has had significant challenges through the Covid and post-Covid period. However, we continue to drive the business forward, and look forward to a great summer.” 

Whatuwhiwhi Holiday Park has not been listed as part of the liquidation hearing scheduled for February 2024. 

Shannon Pitman is a Whangārei based reporter for Open Justice covering courts in the Te Tai Tokerau region. She is of Ngāpuhi/ Ngāti Pūkenga descent and has worked in digital media for the past five years. She joined NZME in 2023. 

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