A twist of fate brought Phil Cammish into the New Zealand health system, as business writer David Porter discovers.

A decision to accept a short-term contract at Waikato Hospital instead of taking part in the 1994 New Zealand Island Cruising Association's Tonga Regatta, meant Phil Cammish escaped the devastating June storm that ravaged the fleet.

And it turned his career in a new direction that has seen him end up as Bay of Plenty District Health Board chief executive.

The keen sailor and his wife Aileen had been cruising in northern New Zealand for several months and planned to take part in the regatta in their 32-foot steel John Lidyard sloop Te Kaihau (Wind Eater).

"While waiting for the race to start, I got approached by Waikato Hospital to do a quick change-management job," he said. "And 20 years later I'm still in the hospital business - the decision completely turned my life around."


And it kept the couple out of the path of a storm with 60-knot winds that saw one boat and crew lost and seven other vessels abandoned.

Mr Cammish had been four years into an independent consulting career that had included managing the buyout from the government of the InterCity long-distance coach service.

Yorkshire-born and raised, his family had emigrated to Perth, Western Australia, in 1967. After leaving school at 16, he began working in Perth as a cost estimator for a printing business, but the family opted to return to England in 1970.

He worked as chief estimator for Pindar Print in his home town of Scarborough for three years. But Mr Cammish and his wife - who he had met on the boat returning to England - decided they didn't want to spend their lives in the UK.

He got a job in Auckland with The New Zealand Herald as distribution manager, then moved to Agfa Gevaert in a similar role before getting his first general manager role in sales and operations with Dominion Breweries in 1984. That was at the time when James Fletcher was moving to revitalise the business.

Mr Cammish then held management roles with New Zealand Optical and Winstone Glass, before becoming an independent consultant in 1991.

The three-month contract at Waikato Hospital under the Waikato Health structure stretched out and he eventually became general manager for the hospital, and then general manager for planning and funding at the Waikato District Health Board.

"Before I joined the hospital, my background was in logistics and supply chain management," said Mr Cammish.

"To jump into the health system came as a shock."

In 2003, he got his first chief executive-equivalent position, crossing the Tasman to become district manager for the Cairns Health District in Queensland.

"We'd holidayed there and loved the area and the climate," said Mr Cammish. However, after three years, the chief executive role at Bay of Plenty came up - "the New Zealand job I thought I'd really like to do" - and he moved to Tauranga. "One of the attractions was that the role was at a good-sized institution," he said. "It was big enough to have all the interesting components, but at the same time you could get your arms around it.

"And that was important because it meant it was possible to make changes. I wanted to introduce things I'd been doing in Cairns and I thought this was an organisation of a size and a maturity that would allow me to do that."

Mr Cammish said his key business mentors had included Stuart Smith, his boss at Pindar Print in Scarborough in the early 1970s.

"He was a very smart guy who had a clear view of where he wanted to take the organisation in a very traditional family-owned business," he said.

Another key mentor was Garry Smith, now chief executive of The Selwyn Foundation, who had been his chief executive at Waikato health board.

"His approach was very influential," he said.

"He was very people-oriented and had a very calm, inclusive approach."

Bay of Plenty health board chief financial officer Letham White described Mr Cammish as always forthright and very much process-driven.

"He's a highly intelligent and analytical guy," he said.

Mr Cammish also cited Graham Dyer, his former chief operating officer at Bay of Plenty, as helping him form his views on how to approach culture change in the organisation.

"Phil gives you space to get on and do your job," said Mr Dyer, who is now chief executive at Hutt and Wairarapa DHB.

"You agree on the objectives and what needs to be achieved and then he leaves you the space to get on and do it. Phil assimilates and processes information faster and better than most people I know. That's one of his real strengths, that intellectual capacity he brings."

Sailing passion

Phil Cammish's main leisure pursuit is sailing. He sold the Lidgard sloop he had planned to cruise to Tonga on but, after a period of having no boat, bought a Davidson 31 three years ago.

"Sailing's still a big thing," said Mr Cammish.

However, while his wife, Aileen, sailed with him, she was less keen. "She tolerates it," he said.

The couple's son, Stephen, is a partner with accountancy firm BDO Spicers in Auckland, and they have two grandchildren.

Phil Cammish

Role - CEO, Bay of Plenty District Health Board, since 2006
Age - 63
Born - Scarborough, England
First job - Trainee accountant
Currently reading - Cop Town by Karin Slaughter