When Zinzan and Alison Brooke were declared bankrupt this month, their first feeling was one of utter relief. Because after months of sleepless nights and untold stress, the UK-based All Black legend and his family say they can finally start living again. "Going bankrupt didn't happen immediately," explains Zinzan (47), who, along with Ali, has managed to retain Frances Lodge, the bed and breakfast in the English town of Windsor which the couple bought in 2008 – the last of their business assets still in place. "I used to come home thinking, 'Oh my God, what are we going to do?' The stress was huge. Then about eight weeks ago, it all went pear shaped."
In an exclusive interview with New Zealand Woman's Weekly, Ali and Zinzan say the writing was on the wall in 2007, when Zinzan signed a deal with the bank for a 90/10 loan. "It was 90% loan, 10% equity," explains Zinzan. "The signals were there. But we met the interest payments, everything was tickety boo – then the bank restructured and said we had to pay them back something to the tune of $1.1 million. How were we supposed to do that? There was no way."
Sadly, the situation didn't improve. After several failed property ventures, the couple's property investment company, Valentines Homes, went into liquidation in July 2011 – when their youngest child, Ruby, was just six weeks old. "It was so stressful," recalls Ali (44). "I had Ruby on May 27, and on July 11 we walked into a room of about 20 investors, all ready to do battle. It was so complicated and I was exhausted – I had Ruby with me and everyone was staring at us. It was awful."
After borrowing from several banks and credit card companies so they could continue to pay the building contractors they had employed, the pair finally had to face the realisation that they were never going to pay off the debt they owed, which was escalating towards $1.5 million. That's when the couple, who have six kids – Lucas (10), Riley (9), Macy (6), Keira (4), Eden (3) and Ruby (15 months) – decided they had little option but to declare themselves bankrupt.
"I went out with a couple of mates as the banks were getting more persistent and we were under a lot of pressure to pay – it was getting really frantic and desperate," says Zinzan, who, along with Ali, signed personal guarantees with the banks to try and prop up their businesses in 2011. "For about six weeks Ali and I felt completely alone – it was just the two of us, trying desperately to keep our heads above water and feeling like we'd never fix it. It was a really lonely place – we had no idea what to do, but the cost of getting professional advice meant we kept putting it off. It wasn't until I came clean with my mates that I realised bankruptcy could be an option."
So sure was Zinzan this was the answer that he went home, woke Ali and told her his plan. "She just put the shutters down – said there was no way we were going there," remembers Zinzan. "I tried to persuade her again the next morning but it was another two weeks before she agreed."
"We begged the banks to be patient but they said no," says Ali, who worked as hostess and cook – as well as mum to the couple's brood – seven days a week at Frances Lodge in 2009 to save money. "Every spare cent we had went to paying off debts, but the pressure on us as a family was becoming so extreme, eventually we couldn't take the mental pressure – the constant barrage of letters, emails and court documents that was coming our way in June. It was only when I had my jewellery in my bag, ready to take to the pawnbrokers just so we could raise a bit more money, that I accepted bankruptcy was our best option."
The decision to call it quits, while agonising, means Zinzan and Ali can draw a line under the past few years. But rather than feeling defeated, the likeable couple say while they have learned a harsh lesson, they will be back on their feet in no time. "I cried buckets every day in the lead up to being declared bankrupt," says Ali, who will continue to supervise Frances Lodge – which she says is still "running brilliantly".
"For weeks I didn't put mascara on my lower eyelashes as it would run every time I cried. But once the decision was made, I haven't cried since. We do feel a bit guilty, but this happened as a direct result of the recession. The ridiculous thing is if the banks had just given us a bit more time, they'd have got their money."
Zinzan is a notorious risk-taker – his 47m drop goal in the 1995 Rugby World Cup is a famous example of his personality – and while he describes the past few months as "like racing against Usain Bolt – it's a race you can't ever win", he is equally optimistic about the future. "This is just a bump in the road," he declares. "You get curve balls in life. This is just one ball I didn't quite get my hands around properly. Now it's about how we deal with everything."
Zinzan and Ali still have irons in the fire – many of which have been around for a while but haven't yet been realised. "I can't wait to tell you about all the things I'm involved in," says Zinzan. "There's so much going on that's amazing."
"We thought they'd be amazing a year ago but they haven't happened yet. But they will," agrees Ali. "If we weren't in a recession at the moment we'd be doing very well – it's just not the case yet. We've planted a lot of trees – we just have to wait for them to bear fruit."
It's still early days for the Brookes, and while they can keep one bank account open so they can continue to run Frances Lodge, they don't yet know what they can and can't do to get themselves on track. Despite the setbacks, the family are determined to hold their heads high and keep on trucking. They can keep enough of their earnings from Frances Lodge to live on, and they have just had their first meeting with the appointed insolvency practitioner who is to be their liquidator.
"We have a lot of questions about what happens now, but no answers yet – it's only been a week," explains Zinzan. But he's refusing to let it get him down. "Onwards and upwards," he says. "It's going to be a rocky road for a while, but as a family we have our health, which is the most important thing. Ali and I have been together for 25 years, and I reckon it's testament to us that we've hung on this long, and we always will."
And then there's the kids. "We see them laughing on the trampoline and realise we are so lucky," continues Zinzan. "Macy has taken to showing people pictures of mansions and telling them that's where we're going to live one day! It's the kids that ground you, that bring you back to reality when you forget what's really important. We will get our life back, but in the meantime, the kids are our reward."
Summer school holidays in Britain mean all six children are currently at home, but while Ali has her hands full, she insists that their situation hasn't harmed them as a family. "The kids are fine – the older ones have asked what bankruptcy is and they know we haven't got a lot of money at the moment to buy the things they want, but I don't think that does them any harm," she says.
"Mostly I'm really sick of staying home all day – although them not being at school also means they haven't had to deal with some smart kid at school making comments about our situation, which is good," she adds, despite Zinzan's insistence that Lucas "is tough enough to deal with that".
Despite their difficult times, Ali and Zinzan are determined that one day they will come home to New Zealand. Lucas has inherited his dad's passion for rugby and wants to play for the All Blacks, and Ali would love her kids to experience proper Kiwi summers. "Our kids don't know what it's like to spend barefoot summers on the beach," she says.
"Since this happened, lots of our family have asked us to come home, but although it's really appealing, Zinny and I know deep down that England is the right place for us to be – it's where the opportunities are. We want to try everything before giving up," says Ali.
"We'll stay on track," insists Zinzan. "Every day we're learning and constantly making sure we don't trip up – it's not until you get to this point that you realise how much you take getting cash out of a cashpoint for granted. "Yes we're in survival mode at the moment, living hour to hour, day to day, but I completely believe going bankrupt was the right thing to do. Our destiny is in our hands – it's time to dust ourselves off and get on with it."
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