Michele Hewitson interview: Richard Pearson

By Michele Hewitson

Richard Pearson. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Richard Pearson. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Richard Pearson: Hero or villain? A better question: Is that a ridiculous question? Of course it is, but I didn't start it; he did. He'd no doubt say he started nothing, but he has proved a dab hand at the sort of over-blown rhetoric that is currently flying around the Ports of Auckland like so many very angry seagulls. He is the chairman of the Ports of Auckland and has been in the media this week using the word "sinister" to describe what he regards as the, very few, he says, rotten elements in the workforce on the wharves. He is, or has become, very fond of using the word "heroes", and his heroes are those workers on individual employment contracts who are still working on the wharves.

You'd think, on meeting him, that he is not a man usually given to emotive language. But who knows? We know almost nothing about him. On the surface he is a, deceptively, possibly, mild-mannered accountant, if a grand sort of accountant; a semi-retired man of 66, with a ready smile, an easy manner. He was wearing, the day I saw him, an open-necked shirt and shiny, possibly expensive, shoes - although he has an accountant's horror of eating into capital so he may have picked them up at that shoe warehouse place, for all I know.

He looked casual, for a chairman, and relaxed.

Should he be looking relaxed? I'd say it's innate, but, again, who knows? He says he doesn't feel stressed, and I believe him. His mother died, of a brain haemorrhage, when he was six and he says he has thought about how this might have shaped him. "I think probably what it did is teach me to be self-sufficient. That was probably the biggest thing I think I probably today have taken away from that experience." It has also possibly made him self-contained, to some extent, I suggested. His answer was a self-contained one: "Yeah."

He is a cool character, mostly, with a mind like one of those old-fashioned tills which would almost take your fingers off the second you'd put the money in the drawer. He says he's not slick (one of the accusations levelled at him) and he's probably not that, either. But he's pretty good at slidey answers, or at least as good as any chairman in the chair during industrial action and worth his hundred grand a year. I asked how much responsibility he bore for the way things had gone (nastily, in other words) and he said that the board represents a "collective responsibility". Yes, but I was after a personal response. So I asked the question again and he said: "I don't know." Shouldn't he? "No. Because you can't measure, you know. You can't quantify responsibility."

The real question is: Who is he? He has been the chairman of Ports of Auckland since 2011, but nobody outside of the port industry would probably have heard of him until this week when he popped up to front the media over the industrial action at the port.

This is mostly because he has spent 35 years of his working life overseas, for a long time in Hong Kong, and the UK and the Netherlands, working for Hutchison Port Holdings, owned by Li Ka-shing, who is now one of the 10 richest people in the world and whose accountant rose to finance and executive director roles. So really a very grand sort of accountant. I asked whether Ka-shing is a friend and he said: "He knows me well enough." And: 'If you ask me who I admire in business, he would be it." He admires him for the usual reasons of admiring success. But also, more tellingly, probably, because: "He's a very good reader of people. Whenever we bought a new company, he would just come along and meet the people and he would just ... have a meter. He can actually say [after the cup of coffee] who at that table I could trust and who I couldn't and who I had to watch out for ... and nine times out of ten he was spot on ... He knew who he could trust and who couldn't be trusted." And he trusted his accountant, obviously, which might be the point of the story. "He trusted me."

That was nifty PR, in a PR war, I thought. How did he think he was doing? "Well, remember I've only got two jobs." He means he's got the time. He's chairman of Ports of Auckland and Wellington Electricity (owned by one of his old mate Ka-shing's companies) and only, usually, works two days a week, for which he gets paid a bit over $200,000 a year. It seemed fair to ask, given that he has been scathing about what the wharfies get paid, whether he thought that was a pretty nice little retirement earner.

He said: "You can see something is wrong with paying people for 40 hours work for working 26 hours. That's crazy. That's absolute madness." I said paying somebody $200,000 a year for working two days a week sounded crazy to me. He is obviously used to people agreeing with him, that's generally what happens to people in positions of power, so I wanted to see whether that genial mask would slip if I disagreed with him. It did slip, but only ever so slightly. He said, sounding as steely as he'd get, with me, anyway, that "well, you're getting 37 years of experience. Remember, that's what you pay for."

We had a bit of a (entirely daft) ding dong later when he decided that I was biased, in favour of the strikers, based, oddly, on the fact that I didn't know anyone who currently worked on the wharves, and that the few people I did know who worked on the wharves, years ago, had never told me stories of bullying and thuggery.

And does he know any wharfies? "Course I do." Has he ever had a beer with a wharfie? "My brother was a wharfie!" So he had a beer with his brother? "Well, I had beers with his mates; they were wharfies too."

Anyway: I'm biased! He's biased, surely. "No." Of course he is. "No!" He is, I argued, by politics (he says, no, he voted for John Key and Len Brown: "I vote for the man"; but I'd guess he's conservative and, mostly, Conservative), by temperament, and by career. How could he not be biased? I'd have been amazed if he wasn't. "Well, no, because I think that it doesn't matter about the politics ... For example, I believe in private enterprise." That is an answer, of sorts.

How is he doing with his PR campaign? The first thing he said was: "What I really wanted you to do is to speak to some of the guys downstairs, those guys on individual employment agreements." Why would he want me to do that? I'd made it plain I wanted to find out about something about him. "Because I think these guys are ... They are the heroes ..."

That was a good try, but tough, I said, it was him I was interested in. He said: "Yeah. Ha. And I really quite like flying below the radar." Again, tough. "Yeah, it is."

He says he will go back to his "quiet little life" once all of this is over. In the meantime he is being portrayed, in some quarters, as a new hero of the Right. I wondered if he thought that was useful and he said, no, and that "when this is finished, I go back, absolutely". Did I say mild-mannered? Yes, but also in the meantime: "Remember that saying: It's the whale that blows its spout that gets harpooned? And sometimes someone's got to blow their spout ... and that's what I'm doing."

How tough is he? "Determined." Is he a tough bastard? "No. Not at all." Then, "I can be." He has to look tough, obviously, and he can certainly take a harpoon or two. He sleeps well at night but then he always does. He believes that there are leaders and followers and that followers, by their nature, can be led to believe the wrong things. I said that this was a fairly depressing view of the human spirit and he said, "well, I'm afraid that that is the way it is". He said: "... people who are not prepared to actually stand up for themselves [should] get some balls."

That, actually, was about the rudest thing he said. I saw him on Wednesday and on Thursday an employment court judge agreed with both the union and the company that further media statements should be avoided - in an attempt at a resolution. In other words, the public slagging should stop. The lawyer for Ports of Auckland then requested that we didn't run this interview. It's not a media statement; so we have.I went to see him, remember, to try and find out just who he is.

So, some other things about him. He thinks he's not as tough as his father who became the superintendent of New Zealand Railways Road Services and used to give his kids (he has an older brother and two younger half-siblings from his father's second marriage) a bit of the old whack. He, in turn, gave his kids (a daughter who owns Mei Mei shoes in Ponsonby and a son who is a finance manager for St John Ambulance) a bit of the old whack, or so he claims. "It did them good too!" Goodness. Did it? "Absolutely!" He'd be put in prison for it today. "I know. What a stupid rule that is, isn't it?" (See what I mean about how he assumes you're going to be in agreement with his views?) I said, to see whether I could wind him up, that it was a shame he couldn't give those pesky unionists a clip around the ear. He's too clever to fall for that one. "I don't think that would work ..."

He met his wife, Judy, at Heretaunga College in Upper Hutt when he was 16; she was his first girlfriend and they've been married for - and it took him a bit longer than it should have for an accountant to calculate this - 43 years. He has never smoked dope but he recalled, very cheerfully, getting very drunk. This is hard to imagine. Staggeringly drunk? "Oh, terrible!" Vomitously drunk? "Yeah. In my youth."

He said: "I was going to tell you this ..." And told me about how, 18 months ago, he went for a heart check and the doctor picked up the phone and called an ambulance and he went straight to hospital and had a quintuple bypass." He said: "I was a very lucky boy, wasn't I?" He was, but why did he want to tell me that story? "Umm. I don't know." To show he has a heart? "Ha! Who knows?"

- NZ Herald

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