Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Open strategy the answer to building trust

Accessibility is vital, says CEO.
Richard Keys became Abano's chief financial officer at the age of 33. Photo / Doug Sherring
Richard Keys became Abano's chief financial officer at the age of 33. Photo / Doug Sherring

If you want to get hold of Abano Healthcare's chief executive Richard Keys, just give him a call - the number's on the company website, alongside his personal email.

When he gets the occasional phone call from a shareholder, says Keys, they're genuinely taken aback to be speaking directly to the boss rather than his PA.

The 45-year-old says having calls filtered through a gatekeeper is not what Abano is about.

"We want shareholders to invest in our group and the best way to do that is if they understand the strategy, they understand what we're doing and it builds up trust, so the more information we can give them, the more they can use that information to make a proper informed decision to know what they're buying."

That approach to open communication has been recognised by Abano's corporate peers at the annual Infinz finance industry awards.

A finalist each year since it first entered the Infinz Emerging Leaders Best Corporate Communicator category in 2013, Abano took the honour that year and last year.

"Abano is about no surprises - that's key for us," says Keys.

"No one likes surprises and if there is a surprise it is how you deal with it, so we like to be open, transparent and accessible."

The trust that comes with good communication is earned, not automatic, says Keys, and has resulted in very loyal shareholders who provide the support needed when divestment and acquisition opportunities arise.

As well as shareholders, current and future, Keys needs to be talking to banks, analysts, brokers, fund managers, customers and most importantly, he says, his staff.

He liked the way former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe kept staff in the loop with personable communication, and he rates compassion and listening as key leadership traits.

"You can't be on a pedestal," says Keys. "You need to do that because otherwise you'll find that they'll tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear."

Keys has been officially heading the firm for a little over six months, taking over from Alan Clarke, who finished up after 15 years to take the top job at Hellaby Holdings.

In the background, Keys - previously Abano's chief financial office and chief operating officer - and Clarke had operated interchangeably to cover each other.

Keys compares it to playing in a rugby team. "If Alan had the ball, he didn't need to look to the left because he could just pass it and know I was there." It made for an easy transition to the top job without the burden of a period of uncertainty.

"If the board wanted a revolution rather than evolution they wouldn't have appointed me."

Keys says he did ensure he put himself in the frame for the chief executive's role, including a leadership programme in 2013 at the INSEAD business school in France.

It was professional director and former Abano chair Dame Alison Paterson who suggested the course to Keys, having seen the impact the residential programme had on several chief executives she knew.

Not only did the course provide the leadership smarts he needed to move into the CEO role, it had him sitting alongside 20 international executives, many in charge of multi-billion-dollar businesses, who he now counts as confidants and friends.

No one likes surprises and
if there is a surprise it is how you deal with it.
Richard Keys

It's one of several points in his career where Keys says he has challenged himself to take a step up.

In his mid-20s, Keys binned a dream job offer from a New York consultancy when the late Graham Collins, a former client from his time at accounting firm Ernst and Young, offered him the job of chief financial officer of his retirement village business, Primecare.

A few years later it was Clarke who was calling Keys, to pick his brains about an issue at Abano, then known as Eldercare.

Keys joined Clarke for a special project, taking on the CFO role as a 33-year-old in 2002 before adding the chief operating officer title in 2011.

"Each of the opportunities that have been given to me have been fantastic opportunities.

"You have to say that I had confidence to deliver on them but there was also nervousness, there's big expectations and I guess I've been very fortunate to be given opportunities, which I've just grabbed and ran with." Keys says he has been privileged throughout his career to have strong people in his life - his family, teachers and business leaders - providing advice and inspiration.

It's support he's keen to give others within his own company and the wider business community.

"I don't judge a person if they make a mistake if their intention was good," he says.

"If they make a mistake we'll sit down and go 'OK, what did we expect and why did it not pan out? What did we learn about it?', because I judge a person on how they react to things, not that they've made a mistake.

"Clearly if it happens again it's a different issue but if we're going to stop people trying things we're going to stop growth."

- NZ Herald

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