Irish-born champion swimmer Grainne Moss is one of a small number of female chief executives in New Zealand. The mother of four runs Bupa, the country's largest aged-care home provider.

1. You were the first Irish woman to swim the English Channel, when you were 17. What lessons have you taken from that into the business world?

Don't look back. I made that mistake during the channel crossing. The conditions were so rough that my father and brother had to get tied to the boat for their own safety and they'd emptied their entire stomachs. I'd been swimming for three hours and I looked back at the White Cliffs of Dover, which were absolutely massive. It was a devastating moment because I thought, "I've got nowhere". Looking back has got very limited value.

2. Any other lessons?
The channel swim brought a lot of media attention so every time there was an event at my school in Belfast, they'd roll me out to say a few words. My classmates got fed up and voted me off the school committee. I remember crying and a friend telling me, "Everyone wants a time to shine and if you're on this committee no one will get a look-in." It was a valuable lesson.

3. What did your parents teach you?
A very strong work ethic. Mum was head of a Catholic nursing home where I worked from age 16. She worked me pretty hard and showed no favouritism. My father was governor of a prison with lots of IRA prisoners. As a Catholic working for the government, he had high security. At one point he had a bomb-alarmed car and bulletproof vest. But he had a reputation for very fair adjudicating. It didn't matter if you were a Catholic or a Protestant prisoner, you'd get exactly the same treatment for the same behaviour. I grew up in Ireland very conscious of people's religion. What's fascinating in New Zealand is I don't have that thought.

Advertisement

4. How did you wind up working in forestry in Tokoroa?
New Zealanders are much more interested in your transferable skills than in the UK. I'd put my CV out and a bank offered me a job. I'd never worked in a bank but they said: "You've managed teams, budgets, significant projects and you've got a track record of delivery. That's 90 per cent of the job, the other 10 per cent you'll pick up." My eyes were completely opened. I'd always worked in health and never realised working in a different sector was possible. I wanted to develop my commercial skills so I went to Carter Holt Harvey.

5. Human resource roles can be a cul-de-sac for female managers. How did you make the leap to operations?
While I was HR manager at Carters I developed an IT joint venture, partly because nobody else would. People used to say, "The guys in the log yard don't know what they're doing." Down at the log yard in Tokoroa, I found a guy with a whiteboard and a few magnetic pictures of trucks trying to optimise delivery of multiple products from 70 manufacturing sites to 42 domestic customers. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man couldn't have done it. If you're solving a pain point, people find it very difficult to say no. It's also about the way you do it. Charm and manners go a long way.

6. By the age of 32 you were head of forestry operations for the central North Island. What was your toughest challenge?
The relationship between the Kinleith Pulp and Paper mill and forestry had been completely toxic for years, with both parties trying to get one over the other. So for about six months they were absolutely horrible to me. They sent me nasty emails and called me names. I was a monkey and they wanted to talk to the organ grinder. I'd go to meetings and there would be 15 of them and one of me but I just kept turning up and being nice. It's hard to fight someone who doesn't want to fight back, so eventually they had to change their behaviour.

Grainne Moss with Connie Bythell, a resident of David Lange Care Home in Mangere, which is run by Bupa NZ. Photo / Natalie Slade
Grainne Moss with Connie Bythell, a resident of David Lange Care Home in Mangere, which is run by Bupa NZ. Photo / Natalie Slade

7. You then went to Switzerland to do an MBA with honours. Was it worthwhile?

It cost me $100,000 but it was worth every penny. It helped my confidence to be benchmarked with the best in the world. It's disappointing that I needed that, but I think subconsciously I did. Interestingly, there weren't many women on the course but they never put less than three women in a group. Research shows that if you have one woman in a group she becomes the princess, two women will collaborate or compete with each other, whereas three will result in normal group dynamics.

8. You're now responsible for 4000 residents and 4000 staff of rest homes and retirement villages. How sustainable is the industry in the face of an ageing population?
New Zealand has the best aged-care industry in the world. But government funding has been declining compared to costs, so there is a gap. As well as the challenge of an ageing population we have consumers with much greater expectations than their predecessors. The government can't continue to pay for all of it, so it's going to be up to consumers.

9. Does that mean that people who don't have the money to choose miss out?
Not necessarily. You'd have to say "here's a safe level of service funded by the government. If you want the premium service then you pay for it." For that differentiation to happen, you'd need to change the regulations around contracts between DHBs and aged care providers.

10. Will it take a crisis for change to happen?
Of course. We've got three to seven years. People actually thought the crisis would come this year. The DHBs have done a good job of keeping people out of aged care by supporting them to stay at home.

At the moment retirement villages are cross-subsiding rest homes.

What will happen is people will struggle to get into rest homes because they're no longer profitable to build and run.

11. You're a practising Catholic. How does that affect your leadership?
The belief that everybody is born with talents and it's up to employers to provide the right environment. My proudest achievement is being the first aged care provider to create a career pathway where caregivers can develop their competencies to increase their pay.

12. Most of the high achievers in 12 Questions feel guilty they don't spend more time with their children. Do you?
No. I've actively chosen to go to work and I take accountability for that. If I'm too busy feeling guilty then I'm not going to enjoy the time I do have with them. I never go home and tell my kids I had a bad day. I might say "I had a tough meeting, but it was really interesting because I had to figure out all these hard things".

You are where you are in the moment, and you just have to make the most of it, because the moment could change.