A serial director who has seen it all

By Tamsyn Parker

There are few men in New Zealand who have been on as many boards of companies as Sir Colin Maiden.

From Farmers to Fisher & Paykel, to Tower, ANZ, and DB Breweries, his career has spanned the industries of retail, manufacturing, finance, media and liquor.

He is still on the boards of Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and DB Breweries, but says next August, when his term is due to come to an end at Fisher & Paykel, that will be the end of it.

After 37 years it's not surprising he has finally decided to step down from a career he never really meant to start.

Born in Auckland, Sir Colin attended Auckland Grammar School and then Auckland University College's engineering school in Ardmore.

A top student who was also good at sports - he played tennis and rugby - he was put forward for a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University.

The only New Zealander to be chosen that year, he attended Oxford for three years before marrying his high-school sweetheart, Jenefor, who had followed him to Britain.

Job offers began to flock in but it was the United States where Sir Colin really wanted to be. He settled for Canada and launched his engineering career at Canada's armament research and development establishment where he was given the opportunity to work with many top scientists and researchers.

But the call home was strong and despite approaches from General Motors - the biggest company in the world back then - he decided to come back to New Zealand to lecture.

Just a year later he decided to take up the offer from GM and headed back to North America with his family.

It was that executive experience at GM which Sir Colin says prepared him so well for his directorship career.

"When I look back, it is clear that my employment by General Motors in the US in the 1960s was the defining event of my working life."

He spent nearly 10 years with the firm working his way up the ranks, but eventually decided he could not see himself as the general manager and began exploring a return home.

In 1971 he came back as the vice- chancellor of Auckland University. At 37 he was the youngest vice-chancellor to be appointed in the Commonwealth.

A year and a half later he was approached for his first position with a New Zealand company - an engineering firm called Mason Industries. "I enjoyed the opportunity, as a director, to get away from the university scene and to obtain a better understanding of New Zealand industry and commerce."

At the time the New Zealand economy was suffering from the consequences of the first oil shock in 1973 and engineering work was slim. The industry consolidated and Mason was taken over by Ceramco.

Sir Colin rang a friend on the university council who was also finance director of Fisher & Paykel to ask what the new company was like and gain advice on whether to join the board.

"Brian didn't say much, but to my great surprise he phoned back the next day, on behalf of the chairman, Maurice Paykel, to invite me to join the board of Fisher & Paykel." Today Fisher & Paykel remains his favourite company directorship. "My first love is Fisher & Paykel - I've had over 30 years of association with that company starting from when it was a private company."

While at Mason he had also joined the board of the Farmers Trading Company - at the time New Zealand's largest general merchandiser.

He enjoyed the board meetings and the family atmosphere of the company until it was taken over by the now-infamous Chase Corporation in the mid-1980s.

"The Lange Labour Government had come into power in 1984, floated the New Zealand dollar and then started to deregulate the economy. The country went very quickly from being massively over-regulated to being one with minimal regulation. Entrepreneurs and the corporate sector went wild, with new companies appearing overnight and takeover activity reaching fever pitch.

"Some of the companies, with fancy names, started reporting huge share deals and profits and yet, if asked, most people could not say what they actually did to make such profits."

Sir Colin says for a while Chase kept the existing board but it soon became evident that their culture was different and they forced the resignations of the directors. Several years later Chase went into receivership.

It was a similar experience with Fisher & Paykel that Sir Colin describes as being the most challenging of his directorship career.

When Equiticorp went into statutory liquidation in the late 1980s it owned a significant shareholding in Fisher & Paykel. "We never felt that the company would fail but the concern was another predator would buy into the company." It survived and has prospered since.

The business remains a takeover target but Sir Colin says any buyer would have to fit well with the company's culture for it to continue its success.

"F&P is a company with its own individual culture. I think it would be difficult for another company to maintain the strength of F&P if they took over without respecting that culture."

But times have changed since the early days when Sir Colin became a director.

"Most major New Zealand companies are governed much better today than they were when I started as a director in 1972. Primarily this is because the legislation and regulations covering a company's behaviour are more extensive and clearer than in the past."

Through all the changes he still believes the key to a successful board is having the right people.

"To me the quality of the people is foremost. You need a board that has the required skills and background that are appropriate to the company. You need a good chairman and, critically, a good managing director.

"I like to have people on the board who have previously been a chief executive or chief financial officer of other companies. If they have been there and done that they are generally good at taking an overview of the situation."

While there is a lot of focus on corporate governance for today's companies Sir Colin believes it should not be the main focus of directors.

"I still believe boards of directors should be discussing mainly the business and not corporate governance unless there are problems in that area. Fisher & Paykel has always been good at discussing the business."

He says the life of a professional director has its up and downs.

"If you are going to be involved in a number of activities there are bound to be times when things will not go as well as you would like. Certainly I have been though some low periods, but these have been well and truly outweighed by the good times."

* Sir Colin Maiden's autobiography, An Energetic Life, is on sale today.

SIR COLIN MAIDEN
* Age: 75.
* Educated: Auckland Grammar School; Auckland University, Bachelor and Master of Engineering; Rhodes Scholarat Oxford University.
* Career:1958: Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment.1961: Auckland University lecturer in the Engineering department.1962: GM executive.1971: Auckland University vice- chancellor for 24 years.1972: Began directorships. 1991: Knighted for services to education and business management.
* Married to Jenefor; four children, nine grandchildren.
* Interests: Tennis, travelling.
* Current directorships: Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, DB Breweries.
* Past directorships: Mason Industries, Fisher & Paykel Industries, Farmers Trading Company, Progressive Enterprises, ANZ Banking Group, Foodland Associated, New Zealand Steel, Winstone, Wilkins & Davies, National Insurance, Tower Corporation, Independent Newspapers, Sedgewick NZ/Marsh NZ.

- NZ Herald

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