Terry Snow: I've loved building a life in this 'great little city'
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Terry Snow: I've loved building a life in this 'great little city'

Terry Snow walks down a corridor in the Plaza Offices West at the Canberra Airport. The Capital Airport Group moved into its new headquarters just four days ago. Tiles still gleam, designer lights hang from the roof, there are high-tech tablets outside doors, glass shines with views out across the airport and into the city. The boardrooms, where million-dollar deals are likely made, are named after the Snow family dogs, China, Ringer, Holly are the ones I can see from reception.

Two of these dogs, China and Evie, are at work with Snow today and they follow us into the room where we'll do the interview.

Terry Snow with his portrait.

Terry Snow with his portrait.Credit:Dion Georgopoulos

It's the first time I've ever been sniffed and nuzzled before turning on my tape recorder.

Once they've decided I'm okay and stopped competing for pats, they settle on the floor next to Snow, only occasionally raising an eyebrow when they hear their name.

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Terry Snow and China 2017. By Jude Rae. Oil on canvas.

Terry Snow and China 2017. By Jude Rae. Oil on canvas. Credit:PhotoStudio

China's just had her portrait painted by Jude Rae. She happens to be sitting alongside Snow. The National Portrait Gallery commissioned the portrait in recognition of the contribution Snow has made to the growth of Canberra and his commitment to philanthropy.

Snow admits that when the NPG rang him for a meeting he thought it might be about that very thing.

"I thought, hello, they're going to be looking for a financial contribution … but I was gobsmacked when they said they wanted a portrait done," he said.

"These things are normally reserved for politicians, sportsmen, celebrities, eminent public servants."

Snow is quite a humble man - he makes it clear he hates it when journalists write about him being the "billion-dollar man" - for him it's not about how he makes his money but how he spends it and what he spends it on.

He's proud of the work of the Snow Foundation, which has distributed almost $22 million in grants to organisations and individuals in need. He's proud of the "best little airport in the world".

But most of all he's proud to call Canberra home.

"I was born in Canberra, that's quite something for someone who is 74.

"I love the place, it's been a big part of my life, a very happy life. I had a wonderful time growing up in Canberra, raising a family here, developing a business career.

"Some people say Canberra is an economic backwater but I've proven that wrong. It's a great little city."

He talks about going trout fishing outside of Captain's Flat, riding his bike around the lake, being able to let the dogs off the leash in bushland, of our national institutions and restaurants and cafes.

"Canberra is a wonderful place to live. I'd like to talk to the people who say it doesn't have a soul."

Snow's grandfather E.R. Snow opened Canberra's first general store in 1926, on the corner of Northbourne Avenue and London Circuit. Snow's sold "picks and shovels, blinds, makeup and dresses and suits, household goods", says Snow, whatever the inhabitants of the nation's newest city needed.

Snow got his start in real estate. He headed off to Melbourne to study accountancy at university but came back before he finished his degree and got around in an old Volkswagen Beetle selling houses.

"I loved dealing with people, helping them find what they wanted."

And then he started to "build stuff", recognising that if you built it well you'd get better tenants and better lease profiles.

"And that's always been at the core of everything I've done. Do it well and look after the people you're doing business with."

Snow bought the airport in 1998 for $65 million. It was little more than "a tin shed in a sheep paddock". The terminal precinct redevelopment has cost close to $500 million and has boosted Snow's portfolio to that billion dollar mark. In November he was ranked as Australia's 38th wealthiest person on the Forbes rich list.

Every time he drives into the airport precinct he "gets a great sense of pride" for what's happened there, for how the community of Canberra has embraced the changes, supported his vision, how the airport has benefited his home town.

He still has plans. He'd like to see direct flights to China, for Canberra to become the centre of a freight network. It also irks him that the airport has to compete with a "very efficient bus service" that gets tourists to Sydney airport in a time and for a price that can't be matched.

"The airlines seem to have priced that trip for government and for business and that doesn't help us or the tourists."

He says nothing happens quickly in the aviation business and it astounds him that when opportunities arise some people "seem to be incapable of seizing them".

Has that been his secret, jumping on those opportunities?

"Some people would say I'm probably a bit quick to react," he says. Is there anyone who ever says Terry, have a think about this?

"Stephen Byron is my boat anchor," Snow says of his son, the managing director of the Canberra Airport.

"The whole town is lucky to have him, he's a wonderful young man."

Managing director of the Canberra Airport Stephen Byron.

Managing director of the Canberra Airport Stephen Byron. Credit:Jamila Toderas

Their relationship is an interesting one. Byron is Snow's wife Ginette's child from her first marriage. Snow has known Byron since he was six. The Snows have been married for 45 years and have three more children, Georgina, Tom and Scarlet, and 14 grandchildren.

"I've had a very happy life, a fortunate one," Snow says.

"Stephen knows me backwards, he's probably one of my best mates. And I trust him."

Which is why he's been happy in recent years to leave the running of the airport to Byron. Snow has a new passion now.

"I don't want to be here [at the airport]," he says. He'd much rather be down at Bawley Point with his "little mob of horses". He'd ridden a bit as a young man helping to muster cattle and then had some lessons in his early 60s. He was hooked.

The family had been holidaying in the area for more than 40 years - in 2016 he donated $70,000 to help restore the local gantry - and when land became available Snow turned his vision to something else.

Willinga Park at Bawley Point.

Willinga Park at Bawley Point. Credit:Alina Gozin'a

Reportedly costing $100 million Willinga Park boasts three Olympic-sized dressage arenas, with polocrosse fields and show jumping fields, areas for campdrafting and stables and therapy pools. There are award-winning architectural buildings containing corporate areas and kitchens. More than 150 jobs were created in the sleepy seaside village.

He would like to see it become a base for Australian equestrian, see Olympic medals have their beginnings in Bawley Point. He spends more time there now than in Canberra, with the horses, and the dogs and the grandchildren, all running around his feet. Willinga recently hosted a three-day dressage event and in January 2018 plans to hold the richest campdraft held in Australia.

"I truly enjoy spending time with young people who have a passion for something and are working hard to achieve it," he says.

At 74 is there any chance of him slowing down?

"You know what I hate? I hate seeing these 65-year-old men with grey beards and terry-towelling hats sitting around drinking coffee.

"I think what a waste of talent if someone turns 65 and they go off and become a cabbage.

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"I'm having the best time of my life doing stuff, working with young people, making things happen.

"When you get a little bit older you get control of your life, you know what you want and what you don't want and where you're going."