The prime of Mrs Jenny Shipley

By Karyn Scherer

Jenny Shipley probably won't thank me for mentioning this, but my most vivid memory of her time in Parliament is one of the many press conferences she held as Minister of Health.

She made no secret of the fact that, like her good friend Ruth Richardson, she became an MP as a means to an end, and was unafraid of being unpopular. But it had been a particularly bad week and she appeared at the end of her tether.

"How long have you been Minister of Health?" one journalist demanded. "Rather too long," she snapped. She looked as if she was about to burst into tears.

I thought I was witnessing the beginning of the end of a promising political career, particularly as she had recently told me in a candid personal interview that she believed New Zealand was a long way from accepting a woman as leader of the nation.

It wasn't so much a case of politics being bad for your health, as health being bad for your politics. Yet just a couple of years later, in late 1997, she became New Zealand's first female Prime Minister.

As it happened, her moment in the cancerous rays of public sunshine didn't last terribly long. You roll. You are rolled. Such is politics. Replaced by Bill English in 2001, she "moved on" in July 2002.

Since then, she has relished being out of the public eye, and getting her to agree to this interview took quite some pestering. But it's not entirely surprising to discover that unlike many former MPs (and even PMs), Shipley is thriving post-politics.

It had been previously assumed that she and her farmer-turned-banker husband, Burton, originally moved to Auckland as some kind of public relations exercise, given their deeply rural roots. Yet here they still are, in Newmarket, in an apartment that has grand views of One Tree Hill, the Sky Tower and the Auckland Domain, and where Shipley can indulge two of her favourite pastimes - swimming and shopping - with ease.

Like Shipley herself, the apartment is modern, smart and stylish, although it would be going a little too far to call it hip. Interestingly, the framed photos of "me and Bill", and other career and family highlights, are nowhere to be seen - until you visit the loo, where you can hardly miss them.

In any case, the couple - who are living proof that a long marriage is not necessarily an oxymoron - aren't here that often.

At the age of 56 (almost, it's her birthday next week), Shipley appears to be in her prime - as good an example as any of what a woman can achieve in this country if she is truly determined.

There is, of course, more than a little irony in the fact that she is now practising what the man she ousted from the National Party's top job was brave enough to preach more than a decade ago: that Asia is where our future lies.

These days, at the age of 72, Jim Bolger is chancellor of Waikato University, as well as chairing New Zealand Post, Kiwibank and Express Couriers, among other things. While his place in history appears to have strengthened since he left the Beehive, Shipley's legacy is less clear.

It has been noted unkindly that publishers have not exactly been clamouring for her memoirs, despite the fact that she still has a stash of official papers locked away in a container which, she mischievously hints, contain some interesting nuggets indeed.

In any case, she would be pushed to find the time right now, what with chairing construction company Mainzeal, and sitting on the board of its parent company, Richina Pacific. She also chairs Senior Money International, which operates in six countries, including New Zealand. Its local arm, Sentinel, is probably best known for trying to establish a credible reverse mortgage market here. She is also on the board of Momentum, a local human resources company. Oh, and she has recently joined the board of China's third largest bank.

While she gushes about all her directorships - they're all "fascinating", "challenging" and "fun" - she admits her newest one will be fairly demanding.

As with everything in China, the China Construction Bank (CCB) is big. It already has more than 20,000 branches and 300,000 employees, and plans to get a lot bigger yet.

In fact, one of Shipley's responsibilities is to scope merger and acquisition opportunities. With the Bank of America as a cornerstone shareholder, as well as Temasek, the Singaporean Government's investment arm, that shouldn't be too hard.

Like almost every other big bank, CCB has disclosed billion-dollar losses in the wake of the sub-prime securities scandal. But such losses are slight compared to the profits it is making. According to Shipley, the Bank of America alone has turned its US$3 billion ($3.85 billion) investment in the bank into a US$30 billion investment in just 18 months. Financial journal Asiaweek has calculated that it might be the most profitable bank in Asia.

Like China's other banks, it faces some enormous challenges in the next few years as it struggles to modernise itself in a sector that has been widely criticised for its lack of transparency.

Yet Shipley, as always, is focused on the long term and is looking forward to what will very likely be a wild ride.

Just two years ago, she notes, all the bank's transactions were done on paper. Since then, it has been installing thousands of money machines across the country each month.

"Three years ago, if you had a New Zealand card, getting money out of the wall in China was a horror story," she recalls. "Now, in any corner of Shanghai, I can get money out of an ATM, which is a huge improvement."

However, her own experiences show there is still much work to do to streamline systems across borders. When she and Burton helped their son Ben set up a business in China, "I can't tell you how difficult it was... to get an Australian bank - which shall remain nameless - to be halfway competent in transferring capital to China."

While Australian banks are eyeing China, there is still huge potential to form relationships, she believes, if only to clip the ticket for transactions between the two countries.

She is unsure exactly how the CCB directorship came about, but believes a good friend who works for Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong may have been partly responsible. She did some work in 2006 for Goldman, HSBC and others in the banking sector, and her friend, who is well connected in China, may have put in a good word.

In fact, Shipley is pretty well connected herself.

Like another of her friends, international advertising executive Kevin Roberts, her fascination with China began in the 90s.

She is proud of her own tiny part in improving relations between the United States and China, by encouraging Bill Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin to meet in Wellington during Apec. At the time, relations between the two countries were considerably strained over a raft of issues, including the American bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade. "There was a major face issue," she recalls.

New Zealand's strong support of China's bid to join the World Trade Organisation also led to a warm friendship with China's then Trade Minister, Long Yongtu. Long went on to lead the Boao Forum, founded in 2001 as an Asian version of the World Economic Forum at Davos, and he invited Shipley to speak there several times.

"I just took a real interest in it. I got a sense that there was something significant happening there, and that I needed to look at what I needed to understand, and did an enormous amount of reading. I must have gone to China I think 12 times in the first year I was out of politics, a dozen times the following year and so on. Of course the more I went, the more I realised I needed to learn."

In 2004, she and Burton helped their son Ben and two partners set up a business in Shanghai that helps mostly foreign companies break into the Chinese market.

She admits it's been hard work for the fledgling business to establish credibility - even though her son is a "shameless namedropper" - but it already employs 10 people and has gained a foothold in several industries, including the liquor industry. Regardless of whether it manages to achieve its ambitions, the information it has acquired along the way will prove extremely valuable, she believes.

"We feel that in the next 25 years, wherever you're doing business, understanding how to do business in China on the ground and establishing massive networks are a critical part of that. Whatever these kids do, whether they build a multimillion-dollar business or whether they fold their tent tomorrow, their knowledge base would be highly saleable in the international markets."

While Kiwi companies are among the firm's clients, Shipley is disappointed that more New Zealand businesses are not including Asia in their growth plans. She is impressed at the way Air New Zealand has managed to secure highly sought-after landing slots in Shanghai, and supports Fonterra's ambitions, but many businesses are still making excuses as to why they haven't yet put in much spadework.

When she entered politics, China wasn't even one of our major trading partners, but she now believes it could emerge as our most important market. Already, she notes, its importance as a cheap place to source goods and services is starting to wane, as incomes rise.

"It's a conundrum for New Zealand businesses currently because while sourcing has been advantageous, already Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines and the Pacific are becoming competitive alternatives for low-cost labour, as long as the other logistics and manufacturing capability exist. The switch that's occurring is that the opportunity for New Zealand businesses in China now is the consumer."

As happened when other economies, such as Korea and Japan, developed, a significant middle class is emerging "and that is going like stink".

But for those still considering shifting their manufacturing to China, she has some good news: the quality is improving rapidly. In any case, it is the responsibility of the purchaser, not the producer, to set the standards, she insists.

"I am not a supporter of the rhetoric of 'Dear, dear, the toys have got lead paint'. If I had a manufacturer in China that allowed that to happen, I'd fire them instantly."

While Ben's speciality is figuring out how China works at a micro level, her own interest remains very much on the mega-trends that are shaping the entire East Asian region.

And there is just no denying that a new world order is slowly emerging, she argues, as Asian countries gain a more confident voice, and feel less obliged to rely on existing international institutions.

In fact, she is convinced there will be "a bit of a revision" of organisations such as the United Nations in her own lifetime.

"I think many of them had their birth post the Second World War context and, in the global context, some of the current structures, unless they are revised, will be overtaken. You look, for example, at the G8, the UN institutions; the representation is not representative of economic and geopolitical activity. Certainly among the conversations I'm party to, there are significant signs. It's always a question of whether there will be reform or whether it will be overtaken."

During the past year she has heard a senior Chinese politician talking about a new bloc that would include East and Central Asia, Asean and the Middle East - "basically that whole chunk that stretches right through to Turkey".

It could be a potent mix indeed, she muses. "Who knows how the spheres of influence will be redesigned?"

She has watched with interest as Japan has started paying more attention to China, and is keen to see how the US and China will react to the recent landslide victory of the opposition Nationalist Party in Taiwan.

"It's a dynamic environment and it's such fun to be able to be a privileged observer. The more often I go, by the way, the more I realise what I don't know about Asia. When I hear people flatteringly say, 'You're an expert on East Asia' ... I'm certainly an observer of East Asia, and central Asia, and Asean, and to a lesser extent South Asia and the Gulf, but there's always something behind the wall in China."

In fact, that is an important point for New Zealand businesses to bear in mind, she says. The pace of change in China is so rapid that it's vital to keep up. She recommends keeping a close eye on the People's Congress, particularly for signals of what regulatory or legal changes are in the pipeline.

Already, property rights have been defined, which she describes as a "huge step forward". China has also started to move away from subsidies and, on January 1, introduced new labour laws that offer Western-style protections such as redundancy pay. It has also made it clear that corruption is against the rules - hanging is a popular punishment.

That said, she recommends businesses employ good translators, who will explain what's not being said, as much as what is being directly conveyed. "You need to clearly understand that this is not the devious nature of business, it's just the way people work, so you can at least ensure what business is to be done will be done successfully."

For what it's worth, Shipley believes China will continue to struggle with rampant growth and will, therefore, continue to find ways to dampen the economy, such as penalising multiple property investment and requiring banks to boost their reserves. However, she doesn't recommend anyone hold their breath while waiting for it to float its currency.

"You have to remember that the legislative backdrop of China has been so immature, relatively speaking. They haven't even had a monetary policy ... They'll never let it float until they're sure what will not only be good for China, but also for its neighbours, and that includes New Zealand."

If China had devalued the yuan in 1998 during the Asian crisis, New Zealand would have taken a far greater hit than it did, she believes.

"China is not unintelligent in this area and it does fully understand the implications of the currency on itself. It would not help the US tomorrow if that currency was floated because there is so much in US business and the knock-on effect would be extremely unhelpful. China will do things step by step. It always does. The phrase 'step by step' is a very common phrase."

She is also dismissive of the doomsayers who warn that all booms eventually turn into busts, and while she admits that the Chinese sharemarket has probably overheated, infrastructure stocks in particular remain a good investment.

Of course, China will become even more attractive for New Zealand businesses if negotiations over a comprehensive free trade agreement prove successful. As well as improving our own access, it could lead to significant investment in New Zealand businesses from overseas firms, keen to capitalise on our competitive advantage.

But as always, it will depend enormously on what kind of deals can be struck for key industries such as agriculture. At the very least, some kind of timetable must be agreed to open up such sensitive sectors if an FTA with China is to prove worthwhile, she believes.

"I'd be concerned if the FTA was in name only and it didn't have major opportunities for New Zealand's key industries to improve ... But if the FTA is sound, it will be just an excellent, excellent opportunity."

While she concedes that countries such as Germany, Australia and Canada are "miles ahead of us" in terms of investment in China, probably the single biggest opportunity for Kiwi businesses in the meantime, she believes, is the food and beverage sector.

While striking a deal with a distributor is one way to approach the market, those who try to establish a relationship with, say, a restaurant chain or a chain of bars are more likely to do better in the long run, she says. But it pays to remember that everything in China is big and volume is a critical issue. "Some of these chains, frankly, are as big as the food industry in New Zealand."

It's imperative that you can deliver on time and as promised. And her son would say that telling a story through such products is also vital in China, she says.

"Chinese people as consumers, while they've always valued food and beverage for the health food qualities, they are also now wanting it in terms of other values: 'Does this speak about my position in society? Am I now middle-class and does this matter to me?' As everybody moves up that chain of preference, there are significant proportions of the population that are getting into these categories."

That said, given the intricate relationship between food and medicine in China, she also believes there is an "enormous opportunity" for what are known as functional foods and nutriceuticals.

"Massey has done some interesting work in this area, which I have read, and I think for New Zealand companies - particularly in Asia where you've this mindset among massive populations that they want to know that food is good for them, and if it's stated in a way that doesn't overclaim but resonates with them - then marketing and connecting with this opportunity is just huge, frankly.

"How you enter the market and solve the logistical problems are secondary. If you have a serious vision of where your business can position itself, and you want to reap the rewards out of the Korean, Japanese and Chinese cluster, to me it's a no-brainer."

As a former Health Minister, you might expect her to be slightly sceptical about such products, particularly given the Health Ministry's obvious disdain for those it believes are selling snake oil. But even before she became a Sinophile, Shipley had an open mind about the role of such products.

"Whenever you get therapeutic rows I'm suspicious of the medical sector, who are wanting to basically exclude things that frankly don't kill people ... I well recall discussions with the Health Ministry that a good, balanced diet is all you need. But for a woman my age, I can tell you, I take supplements. And no one on Earth can tell me that things like evening primrose oil is not good for people in their 40s and 50s."

Typically, she has put her money where her mouth is with a shareholding in Asia Pacific Partners, a New Zealand-based company run by businesswoman Adriana Tong. Its main product is kiwifruit juice which it exports to Asia under the Nekta brand. It is also exploring mushroom extracts - a move that saw Shipley invited to speak in the Chinese province of Fujian recently, for a fungal food conference.

From teaching, to farming, to politics, to fungal food. It's a funny old world, all right.

"It's a satisfying life," she beams.

And no matter what you think of her record, you can't help agreeing she's deserved it.

Rise and fall

* February 1952: born in Gore.

* 1970s: worked as a teacher and served on groups such as Plunket.

* 1987: wins election as MP for Ashburton (now Rakaia).

* 1990: named Minister of Social Welfare. Later roles include three years as Health Minister.

* December 1997: becomes Prime Minister, after defeating Jim Bolger in backroom coup.

* November 1999: defeated at election by Labour's Helen Clark.

* October 2001: resigns as National leader in face of moves to replace her with Bill English.

* July 2002: retires from politics.

Globetrotter with heart at home

Despite - or perhaps because of, I can't decide which - her beautiful voice, Jenny Shipley can come across as haughty and patronising. It doesn't help that she is an enthusiastic user of business jargon. During our interview, she uses the word "geopolitical" so many times it becomes annoying, and there are plenty of sentences that include words such as "stakeholdership" and "crossflows" far too close together.

It's tempting to say this can be a sign of intellectual insecurity but that would indeed be patronising. And even if she is a great swot, you can't deny that she at least bothers to do her homework.

Interestingly, it is Shipley herself who points out that her career so far - as a primary school teacher, farmer's wife, Cabinet Minister and Prime Minister - has not been sufficient to meet the membership criteria for the New Zealand Institute of Directors.

Yet there are not too many primary school teachers who have been asked to join the board of one of the world's biggest banks. You can't blame her for being just a tiny bit chuffed - and annoyed at how little regard the establishment has for the traditional skills of women.

Her thoughts on the status of women in the twenty-first century would make a whole other article. As would her musings on modern politics. But she is still happy to give her time to MPs keen for some private advice or mentoring.

"The current team, they know I'm 100 per cent supportive of the National Party and I'm here if they want me, but I never harass them."

She has also resisted harassing Helen Clark, even though she has been horrified by some of the Labour Government's decisions, such as the fiasco over the potential sale of Auckland Airport.

"It's actually out of respect for New Zealand because I do know how hard it is to lead a nation. And we are a small nation that needs all the positive opportunity we give ourselves. We have to paddle our canoe fast, because no one else is going to do it for us, or wait for us."

In any case, she has plenty of other opportunities to stick her oar in, with various international organisations.

Each year, she gives six weeks of her time to the World Women Leaders Council and the Club of Madrid, a sort of X-Men for former politicians. Set up in 2001 in the wake of the Madrid bombings, the Club of Madrid's 70 or so members - who include Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton and Mary Robinson - are all former heads of state or government whose mission is to help foster democracy by mentoring leaders tackling tricky developmental issues. Membership is by invitation and so far Shipley is the only representative from this part of the world.

In the middle of last year, she and three other club members travelled to East Timor to help Jose Ramos-Horta in the early days of his presidency. "There were four of us with different areas of expertise and experience and we were just available to him and, in six days, we had eight or nine meetings. He just wanted support."

Her latest assignment is a project that aims to put together a "toolbox of ideas" to help existing leaders improve social cohesion. She was particularly touched when two former East European leaders told her it would have been enormously helpful to have had similar resources available to them when their own countries were going through major changes.

"It's been fascinating to me that our power to convene has been much more significant than I think we realised initially, because we can sit down at any time and have, say, a Muslim leader and a Christian leader, and make them available to Saudi Arabians or whatever. And this is great. We can help bring experienced leaders in a dialogue context and help defuse or get engagement with people."

Another project along similar lines has cropped up as part of her consultancy work. She is helping Rotterdam, which has Europe's largest port, cope with its transformation from a largely monocultural city, to a complex multicultural one.

"In fact, that city now has a strategy of being the leading intercultural city in Europe. So they're on a really interesting journey and I've enjoyed it very much. They're a great group of people."

She still finds the corporate sector stimulating, too. Too many companies, she believes, fail to work out where the next challenge is coming from - Telecom being an example.

"One of the things I enjoy in my directorship work is looking at 'Where have you been, where do we need to go?', because change is galloping along whether you like it or not. I hear so many people talking about what's wrong, whether it's climate change or whatever, but so few say 'Well look, we've got this problem, so let's find the solution. Let's find a scientist, let's find politicians who are prepared to shape the future, or try and keep up with it.'

"Now, because I don't have to answer to the media every day, I can help people think in this space without politics, so to speak, and it's a nice space to be in."

As if swanning around the world on speaking engagements and directorships was not interesting enough, she recently spent three weeks in Namibia, which is northwest of South Africa, for the television series Intrepid Journeys.

The programme's makers originally tried to persuade her to go to Iran but getting there would have been complicated.

In the end, she decided it wasn't a good look for someone in her position to be sneaking into countries. So Mary Lambie got to go there instead.

Shipley found Namibia fascinating, although the poverty she saw near the Angolan border was upsetting. Since her return, she has been trying to work out how to help restore electricity for a school she visited that had 130 students. She says it's no good just buying a new generator as it's unlikely to last.

"It's quite fun to find a project where you know you can be directly involved, and I'm working my way through the ministry."

The Namibian version of the "Keeping Ourselves Safe" poster, she notes archly, is about avoiding landmines and armaments left over from the Angolan civil war, which spread over the border. There is, indeed, nothing like a bit of perspective. Although you could argue she already has perspective in spades.

She and her husband Burton have always been a model of how to do it all, family and career, and somehow do it exceedingly well. Shipley isn't afraid to turn down work, to keep her stress levels manageable. No doubt the annual stipend for ex-PMs and their spouses is helpful, as is the free domestic air travel for life. But it's probably only a fraction of the income they both still manage to earn.

The day I drop by, they're off to the Coromandel. Daughter Anna, who these days is head of communications for Nokia in London, visits regularly - thanks to Mum's huge tally of frequent flyer points.

Shipley misses her own mother, who died last year. But they still have Burton's mum, which is likely to keep their roots in New Zealand for the foreseeable future.

"Everything I loved about New Zealand I still love. But if I get sick of it, I'll fold the tent."

In any case, there is life after politics, after all. And not a bad life either, it seems.

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