How this 30-year-old Australian went from mining industry financial analyst to owning a ski lodge in Japan

Hakuba Snow Tours Hakuba Snow Tours/ Supplied

  • Matt Gillespie went from a financial analyst in the mining industry to owning a ski lodge in Japan.
  • His passion for skiing allowed him to find success by being open to opportunity.

What do finance, the mining industry, coffee, skiing and hospitality have in common?

Not much, except for Matt Gillespie, founder of The Ranch and Hakuba Snow Tours.

What started out as a “a cheeky idea, a way to potentially ski for free during the season” quickly spiraled into a fully-fledged, thriving business.

But it wasn’t a linear journey that saw the 30-year-old find success.

He grew up on his family’s farm in Mackay, Northern Queensland, went to uni and became an accountant in Brisbane, where he was offered an opportunity to work in New York.

He moved to the US, but didn’t take the job, and instead he spent six months travelling.

When he returned to Australia, a former client enlisted Gillespie to work in project management as a financial analyst in the mining industry, but he was already thinking about he next move.

“From early in 2013, a friend and I spent our lunch breaks developing plans to launch a coffee shop,” he recalled.

That mate, Mitch Elsworthy, quit, along with Gillespie and the pooled their savings to start a coffee shop by the beach on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

Working seven days a week on minimal wages and reinvesting most of the capital back into the business, they earned a flurry of awards within months of opening at Alexandra Headland.

Gillespie was then approached by a buyer.

Matt Gillespie Supplied

“It was unexpected, the business wasn’t even up for sale, but the offer was just too good to refuse,” he said.

That capital, combined with the proceeds of the sale of an investment property in Brisbane, allowed Gillespie to turn his focus to the dream of an international snow venture.

“The passion for snowboarding and the lifestyle grew a lot during the seasons I did in Whistler [the Canadian ski field north of Vancouver],” he said.

“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!”

He then found Hakuba, on Japan’s west coast, just three hours from Tokyo.

Nagano sprang to fame in 1998 as host city to the Winter Olympics, but like so many venues built elsewhere for the games, much of the site sat unused.

“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 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.

“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.”

The Ranch Hakuba Snow Tours/ Supplied

Gillespie set up “The Ranch”, a ski-in, ski-out lodge nestled just 20 metres from slopes which can host up to 30, and Hakuba Snow Tours, to give guests an all-inclusive experience.

“It’s the best snow in the world. Once you’ve been in Japanese powder, nothing else compares,” he said.

One challenge for an international business was a currency partner to manage international transactions.

“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,” he says.

“I calculate that I’ve saved at least $50,000 over 18 months by using OFX compared to bank rates. And when you’re setting up in business, that kind of money makes a big difference.”

Gillespie isn’t the only Aussie entrepreneur finding success this way.

According to data from OFX, Australian millennials are increasingly looking at buying property overseas.

“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 annum over five years,” says OFX Chief Operations Officer, Adam Smith.

“In addition to Japan, the US, UK and Europe are generally the locations where properties are being purchased by our customers.”

The first season at The Ranch went so well that Gillespie had to call in his parents from Australia to help him with the restaurant.

Two seasons down, he is seeing an increasing numbers of visitors from Hong Kong, China and Korea, as well as Australians, and is looking into investigating the neighbouring block of land to expand.

While summer activities such as hiking and mountain biking are not yet established, Gillespie anticipates it won’t be long.

“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,” he explains.

“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 and bungee 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.”