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February 25, 2020

Jane Hone speaks to SunButter co-founder Tom Hiney about how he was destined to become an investment banker, the gap year that changed everything and the experiences that helped him discover what he really wanted to do with his life. 

JANE: When did you move here from the UK?

TOM: I went to a really arrogant, amazing high school and they were all about pushing their students to get serious, proper jobs, you know — medicine, law, or finances — areas like that. And I was really good at economics, so they were like, “Great Tom, go and study finance and economics. The city’s calling for you — go get a nice, big investment banking job”.

So this is 18-year-old Tom, and after finishing high school, I took a gap year with my sister and we came to Australia for a couple of months, we went to New Zealand for a year, we went to Fiji and Vanuatu. And I met a dive instructor in New Zealand who was mid-forties maybe, had a couple of super cute little blonde grommets, lived in this cute beach shack and ran a small dive operation on the East Coast of North Island. And he was like, “Yeah, look, bro, I was an accountant for all these years. I hated life. I lived in the city and made loads of money yet really didn’t enjoy it.” He actually got to the point that he was so depressed about his job and life he thought about taking his own life. And he just thought back to all the good times he’d had, and they’d all been on scuba diving holidays… So he sold everything he had and started a dive and fishing operation in New Zealand. And I thought, Well, I don’t want to work in the city if I can be a dive instructor and just play in the ocean. So I delayed my university for another year, and my parents weren’t super impressed because I’d got into the London School of Economics, which is a really, really good school. 

I thought, Maybe I want to work in the fitness industry, so I tried that for a while. I worked as a duty manager at a gym and swimming pool centre, and that was a lot of fun. Then my sister said to me, “Hey, let’s go to Zanzibar and do our dive master course”. So we went off to Zanzibar for three months, did our dive master, loved it. I got offered a job to go back and work there for another six months. I loved it, but it didn’t quite feel like enough fulfilment. I thought, I wonder what I’m really craving. So, my sister and I went to Mexico and became dive instructors. We worked in Mexico for three months and really enjoyed that. The next summer I ended up in Croatia teaching at a really busy dive school. I had a lot of fun introducing people to the ocean. But during that time as well, I thought, This is awesome, but not quite enough. In 2011 I got a job working as a dive instructor on Moreton Island, off Brisbane. I thought again, This is definitely not enough. And that’s when I started an Advanced Diploma in Ecology, and one in Conservation Management through an online university back in England.

I felt way more interested in conservation. After a while I took a little break from the ocean to manage a ski bar in the mountains of Switzerland. And then I landed an epic job managing a conservation island in the Seychelles — Cousin Island. And I realised that was exactly what I wanted to be doing: conservation management. I spent two years doing that. We had tourist groups in the morning only and then in the afternoon we did really cool stuff like restoring coral reefs, tagging birds, looking at growth rates of giant tortoises and measuring and tagging nesting sea turtles. I finished there in 2015, came to Australia and in March 2016, met Sacha and never left. 

Was that interest in the ocean and wildlife conservation always there since you were a kid? As a kid, what were you interested in? 

Yeah, definitely. As a kid, I was really interested in wildlife — I didn’t know about conservation statuses, but I always had my head in an encyclopaedia or a bird book or a fish guide. Family holidays were for running around and looking for wildlife, exploring rock pools and things like that. Marine biology was pretty much scorned at my high school. I suggested doing it and they said, “Oh no, there are no jobs, don’t do that”. I looked at a couple of marine biology schools and I loved the sound of doing three months in Madagascar tagging turtles, but I really didn’t want to do cell biology work under a microscope in a lab — that just didn’t suit me. What I actually wanted to do was a natural history course where I could just learn everything about every single species of animal on the planet, and run around looking for them and tagging them and measuring them.

You wanted to be out in the field.

Absolutely. I couldn’t find a course like that and my high school was like, “No, Tom, imagine being an investment banker, and all the money!” And I was like, Ooh yeah, fancy suits and loft apartments in the city — sounds great!

So there was a time when that idea appealed to you.

Definitely. I honestly don’t know why it appealed to me because I don’t like cities very much. Every time I went to London I’d be like, I’m done now, let’s see some wide open spaces. But I guess you get a kind of Wolf of Wall Street type view where people are throwing loads of money at you. 

You were sold that idea.

Yeah. I imagined the holidays I could have, and the kinds of things I could buy. But that gap year really changed perspective on a lot of things.

That’s so interesting. Because that’s exactly what a gap year is meant to do, right?

Yeah. I had this thought, I don’t want to study economics and finance. It’s not for me. I’ve got good high school grades, I can always come back as a mature student. I’m just going to drop out and not waste anybody’s time. My high school was pretty unimpressed by that and I think they even called my parents. My parents weren’t super impressed. But I said to them, Look guys, I can be a dive instructor and someone will pay me to go diving every day in the amazing ocean, and it doesn’t have to be forever, but I can do it for another year or two and then if I want to go to university I’ll know exactly what I want to study. And then my parents were like, “Okay, cool. Good work, Tom.”

 You spoke about how you did the dive courses but you still had this feeling of, This is not enough. Can you talk a little more about that feeling?

I guess as a dive master you get paid to guide people underwater, so you can be like, Look guys, there’s a turtle! When I was working in Zanzibar the water was beautiful and warm, there were magic beaches, it was a super fun place to live as a 21-year-old. It was a really fun, cruisey life. We were partying most nights and I was surrounded by a great crew. But every now and then I thought, You know what, this is fun, but there’s no challenge, really. Mostly you just kind of tour guide underwater and show people marine life. 

And we lived right next to the fish market, which is kind of a poignant point, I guess. You’d just see so many sharks, manta ray and billfish — marlin, sailfish and swordfish, and every time we went I thought, This is so sad. Because I’d never seen these animals in the wild in my life. And I said to the people in the fish market, Guys, if you can take me there, and show me where they are, tourism will pay you, forever, not just a once-off fishing fee. Locals weren’t too keen on that. But I felt like I wanted to be doing more than just showing people what was underwater. That was a turning point, I guess. I needed more than to just be an underwater tour guide. I felt like if I was teaching I would have a captive audience where I could be like, “Look, it’s really important to be custodians of the water. This is how you dive but we’re going to do it respectfully where we’re not touching, we’re not taking, we’re not harassing.” 

So, basically, you found a way to connect with not just something that you loved doing, but something where you felt a sense of purpose. 

I’ve always been way more interested in talking to people about the conservation side of wildlife. You know, you can work on whale shark boats and be like, “These are whale sharks. The largest ever was eighteen metres.” Or you can be like, “These are whale sharks. They’re critically endangered. They’re understudied and overfished, this is what we can do to help.”

And what do you love about the life that you have now? 

I love the expedition ship work because you get to go to amazing places and show people how pristine it is when people aren’t involved or when they’re well-managed, which is really nice. And then I love the SunButter side of things because we get to choose where our profit goes. It’s not much profit, but we can turn around and we’ll give some money to bushfire relief, or to wildlife, or we can donate it to conservation projects that we believe in. Just having your own business and having control over where your profit goes. It’s so nice as well, knowing we’re creating a product that is a necessity — people have to wear sunscreen. But we’re removing that plastic issue, because as we know, the plastic that sunscreen comes in can’t be recycled or broken down and goes to landfill. We’re providing something that’s not damaging to marine environments, as well. I think that’s something that we’re pretty stoked about: providing a necessity that doesn’t cause any damage to anybody or any thing. That’s something we’re proud of.