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June 2014 Issue
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In a class of his own

From Macpac to packed lunch, Bruce McIntyre is on a mission to change education. Photo: Alistair Hall
Former Macpac owner Bruce McIntyre once made packs for a living. Now he’s putting his name and wealth behind a school that promises kids – and humanity – a brighter future

Imagine you hated school, hierarchy is anathema and you’re a university drop out. Most people would consider your future fairly bleak and of all the possibilities open to you, starting a school would be fairly low down the list of potential outcomes.

But Bruce McIntyre isn’t like most people. While he hated everything about his own school years, he has proven himself no dummy. He’s the guy who in 1973, aged just 19, bought a small outdoor gear company called Macpac for $2000, set up shop in his parent’s garage where he built gear loved by Kiwi trampers for its hard wearing quality, then sold the company 30-odd years later for millions.

So what’s he doing starting a school?

“It’s a bit like asking where does a river begin,” says McIntyre, who co-founded Seven Oaks in Christchurch in 2009. “There are always lots of tributaries that begin something like that.”

You could trace the origin of this particular river back to McIntyre’s own schooling. “What I didn’t like about school is that I had to do what I was told all the time,” he says. “I didn’t have freedom to choose what I wanted to learn about; I had to go with the national curriculum, like it or not.”

Along the way other tributaries, like his overwhelming concern for the environment, joined the main flow.

“At Macpac we were continually asking ourselves what we could do about the destruction of the environment – what can people do – and the more you get into it the more depressing it becomes and the more disillusioning it is. The general consensus was it’s just too big, you can’t do anything about it so just go on, have your life.”

But it was such a deeply felt issue for McIntyre, he couldn’t let it go. It niggled at him, he desperately wanted to do something. He delved into the issue and came to the conclusion that people were causing the damage to the environment because of the way they were being educated. The solution: change education.

Seven Oaks is his attempt to do just that. McIntyre believes the current education system, with a focus on reading, writing and arithmetic – known as the three R’s – from as early as pre-school, suppresses the creative centres of a child’s brain at the expense of developing the neocortex, an area that makes up just 20 per cent of our brains and which deals with the lineal, orderly things in our lives. “We are only developing this part of our brain and we don’t value creativity, music, all the other parts of the brain, the bits that develop the emotional centres of the brain. That’s totally repressed.”

Seven Oaks runs its own curriculum called the Brilliant Curriculum – the result of 10 years research by McIntyre and his co-founder Janet Nicol. Its basic premise is that each person is born brilliant, but as we grow we are ‘dimmed down’.

“We’re born with a whole pile of things intact and through social conditioning we shut down something like 90 per cent of who we are,” explains McIntyre. “It sounds a wee bit esoteric to some people, but I believe when we are way open we’re not going to destroy the environment because we realise our connection to the environment.”

It’s Seven Oaks’ task to ensure students get back to operating at as close to 100 per cent as possible. “We have a different approach to NCEA,” says McIntyre. “We want our students to start to really explore areas of interest to them, areas of passion. We’ll build the NCEA qualification around their interests.”

On any given day, students might be outside, learning about water, air and the Earth – what McIntyre calls eco-literacy. They engage in hands-on learning in real-world projects like harvesting and selling fruit from the school orchards. Socially, the students focus on developing self-awareness, emotional wellbeing and learning to work co-operatively with others in preference to competing against one another. They learn how to resolve conflict. Thrown into the mix are traditional subjects, like the sciences and the three R’s, but students can choose when to study them – at least until age seven when they become mandatory.

On the face of it, it all comes across as fairly obscure, wishy-washy even, but on closer examination the students are developing essential skills for negotiating a fast changing world. And the school is proving popular with other educators: nearly 50 per cent of Seven Oaks’ 40 students come form homes where one or both parents are involved in education. “Teachers say to me ‘I’ve always wanted to do that. What you’re doing is exactly what I’ve always thought needs to be done’. So we’re not doing anything people haven’t thought of before but we’re actually doing it whereas others aren’t.”

Even so, Seven Oaks is so far outside the mainstream and the traditional expectations parents expect of a school that you could be forgiven for thinking that during his time at Macpac McIntyre sniffed too much seam sealant. But to think like that is to ignore McIntyre’s own story: The uni drop-out-cum-self-taught gear designer turned millionaire. In McIntyre’s world, anything is possible if you are open to the possibilities.

And in many ways, the ethos and culture at Seven Oaks is just a continuation of that which McIntyre instilled at Macpac.

When he bought Macpac, the contrast between how he felt about school and how he felt about owning a business couldn’t have been greater. “The thing that most appealed to me about going into business on my own was not having a boss. To me, having a boss was a like a teacher: someone telling you what to do and when to do it and treating you pretty badly in the process. I grew to love the creativity side of it – the chance to design outdoor gear, particularly backpacks. To research those and the whole ergonomic thing and to start to produce stuff no one had produced. We became the leading designer of backpacks in the world.

At Macpac there was a period of rapid growth in the early 1980s where the company grew from 12 staff to 30, then 60 seemingly overnight and McIntyre realised he needed to make a choice about how he would act as a boss. For a year he tried a traditional top down hierarchical approach. “I hated that, it was the kind of thing we had at school and I just couldn’t do it,” he says.

He researched other methods and eventually settled on an approach that involved all employees in decision-making. “It was highly participative and, I think, very respectful of everyone,” McIntyre says. “Everyone’s voice could be heard, everyone was allowed to have a say. It was a very rewarding environment and also a very effective workplace.”

He didn’t stop there. Right from when he first started employing people about three years after buying Macpac, he began pondering the nature of ownership. “I remember sitting there looking at the staff and being amazed at how much care and attention they put into sewing products that I had designed and how much pride it gave them, how much they invested in their work,” says McIntyre. “I remember thinking, these guys are owners as well as me. Ownership is not just whose name is on the share certificate. It’s about how much you are prepared to give to something.”

McIntyre devised a profit share scheme to allow everybody in the organisation to share in the success of the company.

“It was quite radical at the time,” he says. “People thought we were crazy, giving away 20 per cent of our profit. As far as I was concerned it was an insurance policy. We were giving away 20 per cent but we were probably making an extra 50 per cent. I’m sure it helped improve the profitability of the organisation.”

Instead of a top down hierarchy, McIntyre had found a form of leadership that incentivised collaboration and team work to achieve a common goal: creating great gear that people wanted to buy.

McIntyre sold Macpac in 2008 when it became clear fierce competition meant its business model had to change. He also wanted to focus all his efforts on Seven Oaks.

“Macpac had to change, it had to go direct retail and it would have taken all of my energy because I didn’t know retail,” he says of his decision to sell. “And I wouldn’t have had time for that as well as the school. My interests were very much in education and I had really let go of Macpac by that stage.”

McIntyre has ploughed much of his own money into Seven Oaks – but there’s no profit motive. “I didn’t make as much money as Jan [Cameron did selling Kathmandu], but I’ve got a few million there and you’ve got to do something with the money, so I’m putting it towards a good cause.”

McIntyre says the future of Seven Oaks is bright. He has purchased land for the school in Halswell and the plan is to open a campus there in 2016 that will cater for up to 400 students.

As for today’s crop of students, McIntyre expects big things.

“I will be very surprised if these kids do not do things that blow our socks off,” he says. “They might invent a natural replacement for plastic for example or figure out how to get energy from the atmosphere – these kids will only be limited by their imagination.

“And we are doing our best not to limit their imagination.”