The Chair: Rob Campbell

Over the last 30 years Rob Campbell is on the board of some of our largest companies across our largest industries. Currently Chair of Summerset Group Holdings (NZ) and WEL Energy, and a director of SKYCITY Entertainment Group and Precinct Properties as well a director of or advisor to a number of hedge and private equity funds in a number of countries. If there’s anything you want to know about business, economics or multiple industries, Rob’s the one to ask but he’ll be the first to say that he’s still learning.

Do you find your board positions cross over? Could you conceivably take some of the insights that you get, say, from SKYCITY and apply them to, say, Summerset?

Yes, I think so in two respects. There are the governance principles that are common across businesses, so there is a variety of things that you need to learn and know about, in terms of fulfilling a director’s duties, but even in terms of the quirks of the specific businesses, I do find that side of thing stimulating. For example, one of the roles I have is chairing an electricity network that also owns the fast fibre business in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty, and part of that has been learning about how the demand for fibre is driven heavily by TV, video and gaming. I have learnt quite a lot about where the demand is being driven for fibre and obviously that does inform how likely it is that something like SKYCITY e-sports focus will be. I think e-sports will be very good for SKYCITY because we see ourselves as a pretty broad entertainment business. It’s not about gambling, particularly, there’s no gambling on e-sports at the moment; there may never be, but it could attract a different group of people into our environment.

So, there are those cross-overs. In Tourism Holdings, which is a pretty different group of tourists to the people that come and stay in SKYCITY, there are nevertheless the same issues, in terms of what attracts tourists and what sort of facilities they want, or where they are coming from. There’s more crossover than you might think.

On one occasion when I went to the casino in Hamilton, as I walked in, there was a bus unloading a group of people from one of the retirement villages in the area (not one of ours) for their visit and they apparently do it quite regularly. That was interesting, [and having seen that, now] some of ours might well start doing the same thing.

You talk about the basic principles of governance regardless of industry. What sort of evolution have you seen in those?

The obligations on directors have increased, there’s no doubt about that. Even simple things like health and safety impose greater obligations, and the disclosure rules for publicly listed companies have become much more pressing in terms of what you have to do and what you have to tell the marketing wing. So, I don’t think there’s any doubt that those things have increased the pressure on directors. I think, also, just the general complexity of modern commercial life and the rate of changes going on mean that to be an effective director you have to do a whole lot more reading and listening and watching about change, to understand where your business fits in with that. If you go back 20 years, most businesses were relatively stable and not dealing with rapid technology change and rapid population change. We were a much more homogenous, slower-moving society then. So, I think all of that makes being a director now a lot more demanding – intellectually demanding and time demanding.

You look at something like the Fletcher situation, where there is level of accountability that has been passed on to Chair level; do you feel weight on your shoulders, in respect to possible situations where you do have to take responsibility for things under you?

It’s an object lesson and it’s a point I have been making to directors that I work with. In big organisations, one does the best one can to make sure that the internal reporting is sound and transparent, but you can never be absolutely sure when you are sitting on a board that the information you have is right, so you are exposed to that, and on occasions you can be fooled by circumstance or by something not being reported to you. I think, though, that if you saw that as a burden you shouldn’t be in the job. It’s a risk I think you need to be aware of, you need to try and counteract it, but I think if I sat at night worrying about each of the businesses I am involved in, as if there might be a disaster tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. Plus, business people actually are optimistic by nature. I don’t know any pessimistic successful business people. If you are scared, you are in the wrong occupation.

Do you find that it is important, though, to balance that optimism with a dose of pessimism? Do you find that balance among the people you will consult?

I do, and one of the keys to a successful board is to have a variety of approaches, so if you’ve got a board that is all of one mind and [has] one way of looking at anything, then I think that is a dangerous thing. I like to have robust discussions on a board. You’ve got to have that balance. There’s so many kinds of diversity, and that’s an important one you shouldn’t lose sight of.

And that’s a great segue to diversity in general… there’s a lot of discussion at the moment, and a mandate an expectation for a lot of businesses to be doing a whole lot better at diversity at executive and governance levels.

Absolutely, I am totally committed towards improving the gender diversity on boards that I am on and generally I think it’s a disgrace at the moment. This figure came out the other day, that only 18 percent of public company directors in New Zealand are women. The reason for that is just so obvious and just so simple to fix.

Photography by Tez Mercer


Yes. There are plenty of qualified women around. So, the only reason you don’t do it, is that whatever the rules say and whatever you might say, if you don’t have a pretty near balance of females on a board, the board has made a deliberate decision not to. They may not like me saying that, but it’s true. Because it’s just so easy. So, I think fix that one, just get that out of the way and then we can focus on other sorts of diversity. I think all sorts of diversity is important. One of the things that I am thinking about a lot at the moment – and I have to be self-critical because I haven’t yet implemented it on any of the boards that I am on – but I am aware how in many industries, with the rapid level of change that’s going on with technology and so on, when you have a large proportion of your staff who are young people, and when a lot of your customers are young people, I think you’ve got to challenge yourself to say – at the board level – that [when we are] setting strategies and policies for how we work: ‘don’t we need some much younger voices at the table?’

And I think the challenge to that is people will say: “oh well, you need experience and grey hairs and all that sort of thing.” But I think there’s a danger in that, in terms of diversity, I think age is one I am going to think about and look at a lot harder.

And, you know, ethnic diversity is very important too. As society becomes more ethnically diverse, we are going to have to address that, otherwise a board of directors that’s out of touch with the make-up of its staff and the make-up of its customers is in trouble, isn’t it?

What moves towards diversity have you made in your organisations?

If we use SKYCITY as an example, there has been a clear focus and importance placed on diversity and inclusion for some time. We take a broad approach; our activities include anything from assessing current recruitment strategies and offering professional and leadership development, to working with partners who are delivering successful programmes and getting involved. Two such examples include Tahuna Te Ahi, our bespoke Maori leadership development programme delivered with Indigenous Growth Limited, and offering summer internships through the Tupu Toa internship programme, which aims to develop Maori and Pacifika talent pipelines into corporate businesses. For International Women’s Day, SKYCITY also launched its inaugural ‘Winning Women’ professional development programme.

I know Graeme Stephens, CEO of SKYCITY, gets personally involved in these initiatives, which is a good indication of the importance of these programmes to the company.

Just recently, we committed to partner with Global Woman as a principle sponsor. We have been very impressed by the impact this organisation is making through their Champions for Change and Breakthrough Leadership initiatives, along with their commitment to driving change through research and advocacy.

In terms of getting younger people involved at board level, what’s the pathway? If a 20-year-old is reading this with an aspiration of being at board level at some point, is there something they need to be doing?

I get a lot of people ringing, or emailing, or contacting me on LinkedIn asking how they get to be a director. And I try to meet, or at least give them some advice. So, my advice for young people would be to do that: meet some directors, get to understand a little bit more about it. You will find most directors, certainly any good ones, will be very happy to meet with you and talk about what they do and about what you might do. Secondly, the Institute of Directors is a very positive influence and most towns have a branch that will have regular meetings that you will be very welcome to, even though you are young. There are actually a surprising number of young – I am talking 20s, early 30s – people, who are participating in that sort of environment, so that would be the next thing I would do. And after that, you know, I would start applying. Have a go, why not? It might not necessarily be a business, it might be a school board or a ‘not for profit’, or something of that kind. Often people get their first governance appointment in one of those environments. And there is nothing wrong with that.

How would you describe your pathway?

Mine’s bizarre. I am not a good example. I was lucky in circumstance really, and … I never intended to become a company director and it wasn’t until I got offered a couple of directorships that I ever thought about it.

Was there something in your make-up early on that was company director potential?

Look, I’ve got quite an inquiring and intellectual mind, and I love the intellectual challenge of business and the intellectual challenge of being on a number of boards and being able to think across a wide range of activities, so it really does suit that academic part of my nature really well.

Does it annoy you when interviewers like me bring up the left to right, union to business, U-turn of your past?

Look, there was a fairly painful period when I stopped being a union official and decided that that wasn’t where I wanted to be, and there were various people that reacted at various levels, some intensely antagonistic. Some of the most left-wing people I worked with were extremely tolerant and easy-going about it, but I’ve been called a traitor and a betrayer and all those sorts of things. I’ve got over that now, but it was unpleasant for a while. Change is unpleasant sometimes.

We are talking about completely different political environments now. There seems to be more of a belief that enterprise in business has the power to do a lot of good and to provide really positive change in a lot of areas; do you think there is a shift in mindset?

I absolutely think that is true. If you look at the intention that is now given in businesses to sustainability issues across the board range – environmental and other forms of sustainability. I think one of the things that’s impacting businesses is that the younger generation of people increasingly want to have a purpose in their work and want to see a business that has a purpose with which they can associate. And there’s a wide range of what those might be. My father, he worked to live. The job he had was the job he did so that he could live outside that. I’m not saying he hated his job, but that generation did that. Now, I think that people are increasingly seeking to have some reason to be doing the particular job they are doing, other than just to make money, and I think that’s a great thing and I think it’s incumbent on businesses to provide those sorts of environments, so, on the board, or in senior management of a business (and I do see this happening a lot) you need to think about: what sort of career opportunities are we offering? What sort of satisfaction might employees get out of working here? How could we do things differently that would make it more attractive to them? I think it is a big change.

Photography by Tez Mercer

And, in terms of making business structure and business motivation more attractive for employees, do you see the same shift within a consumer and customer demand?

Absolutely, I mean, there’s no doubt that consumers are increasingly wanting to know that not just the goods they are consuming, but the experiences they are having, have a level of authenticity and sustainability, so any business that’s not paying a lot of attention to that is really in danger. Most of us are not very good at it, but if you are not doing it, you are in trouble, and even in terms of investments now, more and more people are saying (from the biggest pension funds in the world to the smallest little saver): “I don’t want to put money into things that I don’t feel good about.” So that’s an important driver too.

And is that consideration at governance level as well?

You can even see that with some of the bigger passive funds in the States, where they are almost playing an activist role in terms of going in to some of the boards and saying ‘this is what we want your company structure to look like’. Look, totally. Just recently, Larry Fink – who heads up BlackRock – sent out a letter that has circulated, from various sources, around every board I am on. Directors are very aware of it and we get told by investors at our meetings if we are not doing all that well in certain areas and if there’s anything we should be improving in.

Photography by Tez Mercer

So, does some of that outweigh the financial performance do you think?Are investors willing to compromise one for the other? How much are you prepared to compromise?

I’m not sure, but I think [that level of commitment] is moving from a ‘nice to have’ to a central part of things. And the way I think about that is: if you are in a business that is intending to be here in one form or another for a long time, then it may not be a one-off trade-off between sustainability to use that word and profit. What you may be doing is trading off short-term profit for longer-term sustainability and profit. So often it’s about timing. I think one of the ills of capitalism in the last 20 or 30 years has been a very short-term view about when the profits should be made. I think the issue is not so much ‘sustainability or profit’, it’s more profit now versus the sustainability of profit and everything else at the same time. I don’t think they’re opposites of what I am saying, but there is a timing issue. You certainly do need to sacrifice some profit now in order to do this other thing.

You mentioned before about the shift in what people are working for and what motivates them. How would you describe what motivates you at the moment? Have things shifted? Are you more interested in legacy?

No, the thing that drives me is the intellectual challenge of what I do. Just the intrinsically interesting nature of it, that’s why I can’t ever imagine retiring. Because why would you want to retire from being interested? I am not sure what on earth I would so.

Photography by Tez Mercer

How do you balance family and work?

Probably very badly, that’s the short answer, but I enjoy my time with my family. I don’t have really any other time than for my family and the things I call work – other people might not recognise them as work – I don’t have a sport or a hobby or anything else that I do, so work and family and they intertwine.

When you become a director, is there some sort of, well, there is an institute, but is there some sort of secret club you join?

I guess there is, it’s probably still an ‘Old Boys’ Club’. Yeah, obviously because of what I do, I spend a lot of time with other people who are directors, talking with them about common issues and problems and, you know, at the professional director level, well, say you’ve got four or five boards you are on, you share boards with a number of people who are in the same situation, so, yeah, that’s a fair bit of my social interaction.

How many boards is an ideal number?

There’s a debate about that. I mean some of the proxy advisors who analyse these things and advise investors, large institutional investors, about how they might think about this, will argue there is a limit to the number of boards you can be on. But I think different people have different capabilities in terms of the time they want to put into boards, different abilities to read quickly, to think flexibly… everyone’s got different attributes about that. So, I think it’s unwise to have hard and fast rules, but I’ve effectively got six boards I am involved with, and I think that is enough. I couldn’t take on another role without dropping one.

You’ve had access to many industries over the years. Are you excited about any upcoming industries, or are there any industries particularly in New Zealand you see big growth in?

I think the place to be excited is in the software and tech stuff. I have decided that, actually, my ability to contribute there is pretty low. I am aware, but I am not proficient, and I think just my age and experience mean I have decided I don’t have a whole lot to contribute in that area. I have been offered some positions in those sorts of businesses and I haven’t taken them because I don’t think I really can contribute very effectively there, but I still think it’s very exciting. The other area where, again, I have nothing to contribute, but I think is going to be very exciting, is in agriculture. Agriculture is going to be revolutionised in the next 20 or 30 years and I don’t think that means we are going to irrigate more of the South Island and put dairy cows on it. I think that within that whole food production area, there’s just an enormous number of exciting business opportunities.

And I think we are in a really good position as well, in terms of increasing demand out of Asia. Well absolutely, we absolutely should be. I was absolutely fascinated just recently to read the second-largest exporter of food products is Holland, and just having a lot of markets close by is helpful. But obviously, it’s a very small place with very limited land and because of that they have had to think very carefully about intensive, high-quality production, whereas in the other temperate zone countries – we are on the other side of the world – we have treated land as if it was, if not free, then certainly pretty cheap, and as a result we’ve got styles of food production that are probably not going well in my view, and won’t be sustainable to feed the world that is coming. Just the sheer population increase over the next 50 years means we are not going to be able to meet the needs of that world population by farming in the way we currently farm here. It doesn’t mean it all has to stop, but we can be a whole lot smarter.

I think there’s the situation where those two interests potentially merge as well. Some of the technology, data and analytics around farming and agriculture opens up some pretty incredible potential. If I was in my 20s and 30s now, and thinking about which area of business I want to get involved in it, I would go there.

Don’t you think you are selling yourself short though, in terms of what you could bring to one of those boards?

No, I just think you’ve got to be a bit realistic about it. I like to stay up to speed and pace with innovation. I just think you’ve got to be realistic about where you can make a contribution. I think I’m probably a nuisance in there.

How would you describe a good leader?

I think a good leader is someone who thinks very carefully about the situation, the business or the organisation… or the community in which they are a leader, and spends quite a bit of time reflecting – and reflecting intelligently, because I think you can’t be a good leader if you don’t have that reflective part of your character. They also need to be a good listener, so they need to be able to hear what people are saying, and by hearing, I mean not just keeping your ears open, but keeping your mind open as well. And this sounds very wishy washy, but I think a good leader has to have an element of love in them about what they are doing, and the people they are doing it with. Yeah, I think it’s hard to be a good leader without having that element.

Any advice you can give to future directors?

Get involved, work hard, enjoy it. Enjoy it is the biggest thing you know. It’s like any job: make it fun for you… that’s my biggest thing. If you are not having fun, I would say ‘stop’. If you’re not having fun in a particular role, I would stop it, because there’s always plenty of other people want to do the role.

I was a little bit worried before this interview because in my research I read a 2011 Stuff article where you didn’t want to do a face-to-face interview because you felt that for any businessperson to do a profile like this is often a sign of imminent failure, or imminent retirement, or imminent death.

Yep. And it often has been. I think you’ve got to be careful in any kind of leadership; if you put yourself out there, you are tempting fate to some extent. From my point of view, I’ve got to a point in life, I think, that if I can share anything of value, I am happy to do it. If it tempts fate, then so be it.