Twelve questions

Sarah Stuart poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions: Stefan Preston

Former Bendon chief Stefan Preston is an entrepreneur, investor and consultant considered one of the country's leading innovation and design experts. He was Eric Watson's fix-it man on several businesses after completing an MBA at Stanford University and his company Ingenio is behind several Kiwi startups. He owns a couple of hundred black T-shirts.

Stefan Preston says running Bendon could be bizarre.  Photo / Greg Bowker
Stefan Preston says running Bendon could be bizarre. Photo / Greg Bowker

1. What did your parents teach you about money, business and work?

My parents worked in middle-class jobs and taught me traditional values of hard work, education and getting a good job. As a result I did not really know what business was until I was 30.

2. Running Bendon for seven years must have been a dream job for a bloke. Got any good Elle Macpherson stories?

No, but it was a bizarre job in many ways. There's a constant conversation about bums and tits. I remember one day when my head of design was so excited about a bra she'd made that she came running into the office and pulled open her shirt and goes "look at this!". She was a 16E I think.

3. What is holding Kiwi companies back from international success?

Kiwis like to think of themselves as "jacks of all trades" and tend to be self-reliant.

International success often depends on the opposite skills - being world-class experts at one thing and extending its reach enormously. This requires the ability to go out and seek access to new skills, a curiosity for learning and the ability to enrol new people to the cause. Nearly every company I am exposed to seems to need this advice.

4. How much of a role should government money play in the solution?

I am a believer in the government playing a role in helping the private sector help itself. New Zealand Trade and Enterprise run some great programmes that get experienced business people to help growing companies. But the overwhelming majority of the millions of dollars of grants that go to companies end up returning very little to taxpayers. Many end up as profits on the bottom lines of private companies and I find that insulting to the people who work long hours to pay taxes.

5. You worked very closely with Eric Watson for several years: is he misunderstood in New Zealand?

I have been lucky to have worked closely with several high-profile entrepreneurs, including Eric. All have been hugely talented people willing to take extreme risks to achieve large-scale outcomes. But when people make a lot of money quickly there has to be an appreciation of the fact that much of this success is dependent on the infrastructure that all of society pays for. Great American capitalists like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Phil Knight lead the way in contributing back to the community that made it possible to get wealthy. Too many of our wealthy people disappear offshore to live in tax havens and I think we could expect more from them.

6. Who is our most inspiring business person?

Stephen Tindall. He built a very large and successful company and now he is focused on investing back into New Zealand in a powerful and thoughtful way.

7. How do you create innovative business brains?

Our education system is a product of the industrial revolution when we needed a lot of obedient, literate and numerate people to man factories. Our schools still fundamentally reflect this thinking with rows of desks facing the teacher and plenty of rules. This system encourages "left brain" or linear thinking - great for performing routine operational tasks but insufficient for creating new and unpredictable outcomes. Ironically preschool children often exhibit better "right brain" thinking skills than adults. Adults need to rekindle these skills in order to innovate.

8. Should parents work hard to send their kids to the best private schools?

Our kids have been to public school and now they are in a private school. But we have carefully avoided sending them to one of the private schools modelled on traditional English public schools. I don't think that this traditional elitist education is going to prepare kids well for the world that will greet them in the future.

9. Your brother, Sean, ran Visa in New Zealand and you have other entrepreneurial brothers. Is business what your children will do, too?

I don't know but whatever they do they will think in a business-like way. The capitalist system is a replacement for the same framework that communism and feudalism have. Capitalism does it with lots of pretty things and cars and houses which create debt which makes people have to do those jobs. It's no different to serfs cutting wheat for the castle. My kids will know that you can free yourself, by having no debt and learning how to be self-reliant.

10. You've done OK, so why are you still at the office?

I like building stuff, particularly building teams. I just do this for fun.11. You are working with several start-up companies right now: how do you know when to walk away?I have had to walk away from two in the past 18 months. There are three phases to a start-up: the start-up phase, the concept validation phase and the scaling phase. The two I walked away from could not move past concept validation into scaling. One day I am committed 100 per cent and, after the realisation of where we are at, commitment drops to 0 per cent and we are out of there.

11. You are working with several start-up companies right now: how do you know when to walk away?

I have had to walk away from two in the past 18 months. There are three phases to a start-up: The start-up phase, the concept phase, the concept validation phase and the scaling phase. The two I walked away from could not move past concept validation into scaling. One day I committed 100 per cent and, after the realisation of where we are at, commitment drops to 0 per cent and we are out of there.

12. What's with all the black T-shirts?

It's just easy really. Call it a lack of imagination.

- NZ Herald

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