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.
“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 at age 25. He left Brisbane but ultimately decided against the role and spent time travelling instead.
A few months after returning to Australia, Gillespie and his friend Mitch Elsworthy started developing plans to launch their own business.
From coffee to powder
In 2014, Gillespie and Elsworthy set up a coffee shop by the beach on the Sunshine Coast, a start-up venture that both committed to full time – quitting their jobs, pooling their savings and opening the 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; “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 had enough capital to back himself on an international snow based venture. He 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!”
The rise of Nagano and Hakuba
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. 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 nearby Hakuba, Gillespie decided to look for a property; “Hakuba started to pick up 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 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.”
“It’s the best snow in the world. Once you’ve been in Japanese powder, nothing else compares.”
Matt Gillespie saw the opportunity in Hakuba.
Having found the ‘The Ranch’, Gillespie set up Hakuba Snow Tours, providing 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 with plenty of beginner and intermediate terrain, while the second is famous for its powder snow and tree riding.
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. The Ranch’s ski guides also 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. “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!”
A thriving business
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 has just completed his second winter season in Nagano, another successful and busy one with increasing numbers of visitors from Hong Kong, China and Singapore, as well as Australians. Having cleared his mortgage payments, Gillespie is investigating purchasing the block of land next door to expand the Ranch and its operations.
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