- From corporate arm-wrestling to crying farmers, Dame Alison has seen it all in her career spanning more than 50 years.
- She now chairs KiwiWealth and the Forestry Industry Safety Board and advises the Fonterra board.
- In March this year she was recognised at the NZ CFO Awards for excellence in finance.
By Pattrick Smellie.
At 82, and now one of New Zealand’s longest-serving business leaders, Dame Alison Paterson is still solving problems.
She continues to make a valuable contribution to New Zealand corporate and public life as chair of KiwiWealth, which invests retirement savings of more than NZ$5 billion on behalf of 180,000 New Zealanders. She also chairs an independent committee that advises the country’s only company of global scale, Fonterra, on new board appointments. She sits on the board of Auckland electricity network Vector.
And she chairs New Zealand’s politically sensitive Forest Industry Safety Council. That’s just her current crop of assignments following a 50-year governance career that started with small town charities and led her to the board tables of some of the country’s largest listed and public entities.
One of the first generation of women to emerge at the top of the corporate ladder in New Zealand, Dame Alison is sprightly, shrewd and self-effacing. “She doesn’t over-promote herself, even though she is so able,” says retired headhunter Lilias Bell, who worked often with Paterson. “She’s very self-contained, very happy with who she is, and she worked very, very hard.”
This diligence is her defining characteristic. It comes up over and over in discussions with previous colleagues. Dame Alison Paterson just keeps doing the work.
The first taste
“She always did her homework,” says Jim Bolger, New Zealand’s prime minister from 1990 to 1998. Bolger launched Dame Alison’s national governance career by putting her on the then NZ Apple and Pear Marketing Board, the first woman in such a role. They’d met in 1972 on opposite sides of a National Party political struggle.
Some wondered why he’d shoulder-tapped an unknown female accountant from the chilly North Island farming town of Taumarunui “where it’s too cold even to grow apples”. His explanation is simple: “I just realised working alongside her in the campaign and the party that she was a woman of considerable capacity and would make a big contribution."
The Apple and Pear Board’s other government appointee, Sir Rod Weir, soon invited Dame Alison to become the first woman director of a New Zealand listed company, McKenzie’s. L D Nathan launched a bid, and Dame Alison had her first taste of high stakes corporate arm-wrestling.
The directorships grew; she spent many late nights on trains to Wellington and Auckland, and more late hours on local charities, out of a sense of duty. She was working incredibly hard. “If I started work on my voluntary stuff, it was usually about 11 o’clock at night, having done a day’s work,” recalls Dame Alison. That experience was invaluable as she developed her career in governance, Dame Paterson notes.
“A lot depends on where you get your start and how you perform. If you perform well, the people you work with open other opportunities.”
By the early 1990s, she was on the board of government-owned farmer Landcorp and the first of two regional hospital boards. In 1995, the Bolger government put her on the board of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, where she would spend 15 years. She chaired or served on the boards of a string of successful New Zealand companies.
Her own boss
Former Vector CEO Mark Franklin attributes Dame Alison’s work ethic to the circumstances of her upbringing – a far cry from the art-filled apartment she now shares with her husband and former High Court judge, Barry Paterson.
Her father died when Alison was just three, leaving her mother to support two small children in a small town. Alison, a star pupil, became profoundly deaf as a teenager.
When high school ended and other bright girls were being packed off to become dental nurses or teachers, “no-one quite knew what to do with me”, she says. “But I was numerate, so I ended up in an accounting firm as the petty cash girl.” Catapulted from “Macbeth and the sixth form maths prize” into the processes of a small town accounting firm, she says: “I thought I would die.” Instead, she knuckled down, qualified as a chartered accountant by correspondence at the age of 28, and had her hearing surgically corrected.
Unusually for small-town 1960s New Zealand, she was offered a partnership at her first firm. She wanted more. Walking back from a funeral with the local manager of the Bank of New Zealand one day in 1971, she recalls him saying: “If you want to go out on your own, we’ll back you.” So at 36, she became her own boss, and has been ever since.
She has little time for gender preference. “If you’re good enough, then gender doesn’t matter,” she says. “In any case, I have always found men welcoming, helpful and generous.”
But she still treasures independence. Young professionals, she says, should establish enough financial independence early to have a “get-lost fund” that allows them to leave a job rather than compromise their integrity.
Lilias Bell says Dame Alison’s self-possession was valuable in the presence of table-thumping corporate leaders. She could be calm and in control “and, without any evidence of her flexing a muscle, very determined ... She just put a good argument, never raised her voice and just quietly got her way”.
Asked about bullying, a hint of Dame Alison’s board table steel flashes briefly. “You don’t put up with it,” she says. “It’s an attitude, don’t you think?”
She doesn’t over-promote herself, even though she is so able
A warning for accountants
All the same, she sometimes misses the days when boards were a bit more rough and tumble. “I can remember sitting at a board table years ago and somebody moved a vote of no confidence in the CEO. We went right round the table, everybody agreed, and the CEO was gone.
“If you tried to do that these days, it would cost you millions for breach of contract, failure to allow an opportunity to remedy shortcomings, et cetera.”
Likewise, she worries that continuous disclosure rules for listed companies have become so onerous as to give unlisted companies a competitive advantage. And she thinks accounting rules have “just become too complicated to easily understand”.
She warns that accountants can kill innovation by placing too much emphasis on earnings per share and discounted cash-flow valuations and a preoccupation with impairment of assets. To innovate today, she argues, large companies need to establish independent subsidiaries. “Give them six months,” she says bluntly. “If they don’t work, dump them.”
Care and thought
Dame Alison has described herself in the past as “obviously someone who is driven by commercial norms, not by socialist norms”. Yet this lifelong member of the National Party also has a fiercely compassionate streak. In 1984, as an accountant whose clients were almost all farmers, she was deeply affected by the devastating personal impacts that followed the sudden removal of farm subsidies by then Labour Finance Minister Roger Douglas.
“It was something you lived and ate and breathed. You don’t get grown men crying in your office and ever forget it.”
Suicide rates among farmers soared, but she remains proud that none of her own clients lost their farms. “The message was: embrace every ruse you can to delay the time the banks will foreclose, every bit of breathing time to fight back, to find some resolution.”
While the need for reform was unquestionable and its eventual impact positive for New Zealand agriculture, she is unapologetic in criticising their execution. While on the Apple and Pear Board, Paterson met orchardists who’d lost several seasons’ crops to hail, discovering they couldn’t insure against such a foreseeable risk. She decided to change that, corresponding with a farm insurer to work out a hail insurance scheme because: “I couldn’t see who else would do it”.
Fast forward to today, and the Forest Industry Safety Council (FISC). Dyed-in-the-wool trade unionist Robert Reid, the Council of Trade Unions’ representative on the body, was deeply sceptical when she was appointed chair.
He discovered instead “quite an amazing person” who “puts on her hard hat and steel-toed shoes and gets out into the forest areas” and “in trying to prevent accidents and fatalities … will often advocate a surprisingly non-market point of view”.
One recent FISC meeting came to discuss preventing accidents during box-cutting – a dangerous, manual method of felling trees on steep hillsides that mechanical harvesters can’t reach. “I said finally: ‘How many of these trees are there?’ And a guy there, in a wheelchair, said to me: ‘Minimal’.” She discovered the box-cutting was being done simply to leave the site neat.
“But a box cut can kill you. And these guys are running a risk for something that’s not even economically worth doing.”
After so long in so many box seats, Alison Paterson’s special breed of care and independent thought is almost certainly not just still adding shareholder value, but saving lives.
Pattrick Smellie is a Wellington-based journalist and co-founder of the BusinessDesk news service.
Photographs: Guy Coombes / Fairfax NZ