On Wednesday Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns will leave the helm. During his tenure, which has spanned more than 16 years, there have been some mighty highs and one low that can still dominate the odd news feed today. Never one to reflect on his own accomplishments - like the 2019 Caldwell Partners Leadership Award from the Institute of Finance Professionals - he prefers to remain out of the spotlight. But Carmen Hall asked him to reflect on a career that has weathered its fair share of storms and helped make Port of Tauranga one of New Zealand's most formidable companies.
What will you miss the most about Port of Tauranga when you leave?
The port has been a huge chapter in my life. Without a doubt, it will be my extended port family that I will miss the most.
During your tenure at the helm what was your greatest achievement and why?
There have been lots of things that I am really proud of, but probably finally getting the container terminal extended, additional cranes, and completion of the dredging, enabling Port of Tauranga as the only big-ship-capable port in Australasia. This was a very big capital project for our company at around $350 million and involved considerable commercial risks. This has unlocked significant efficiencies for our exporters and more importantly, into the future to meet our climate change commitments - it will offer the lowest carbon supply chain, 30 per cent lower than exporting through competing NZ ports that can only handle smaller ships.
Of course, I am really proud of the $4.5 billion increase in market capitalisation of the company over the last 16 years - despite the many curveballs and challenges thrown our way. But, I am most proud of the development of our team and the special culture that exudes out of every pore in the place. This almost-palpable culture more than often results in one plus one equalling three or more.
Looking back, if you change one thing that you did what would that be and why?
There have been mistakes and learning along the way, but that is part of growing and I can't single any one thing out. Obviously, I would have preferred the Rena to have avoided Astrolabe Reef. That was a very dark time for me.
I think also we have tried to hide our light under a bushel and I think we need to do a better job of telling our story. We occupy a very special piece of real estate here and I am proud of the contribution Port of Tauranga makes to our community.
We are Tauranga City Council's largest ratepayer, and last year we paid $32 million in corporate tax (nearly five times that of our neighbouring port) – a shame this is not hypothecated to Tauranga and we might have had the state highway connection to the Mount Wharves by now. We contributed dividends of $67 million last year to Quayside Securities, the regional council's investment company. Since listing, Quayside has received more than $860 million in dividends and a $2.7 billion increase in the value of their shareholding in the port.
I know you credit every staff member for the success of Port of Tauranga, but who has been indispensable to you and why?
We do have an outstanding team. I have had very good CFOs; Colin Boocock and then Steve Gray who have been fantastic 'wingmen'. Of course my chairman, David Pilkington, for providing support over most of my 16-year tenure. He has kicked me up the arse, when required from time to time – the trouble is that he does it in such a nice way, that it is often not until I have hung up the phone, that I have realised I have had a telling off. Being a CEO can be very lonely at times and David has provided enormous support to me in some of the darker times.
What mechanisms did you use to cope with stress?
You know that I love my diving and fishing. There is something about being on the water and you leave your stresses on the land when you cast off the lines at the marina.
What was your most challenging task as chief executive and how did you overcome it?
It would have been the Rena grounding and then dealing with the unknowns of Covid. Our people were placed under huge stress with the Rena grounding and also in the early phases of Covid unfolding, when the rest of the country was at home in full level 4 lockdown.
How have you separated work from your personal life and what makes you happy?
Being a CEO is a 24-7, 365-day-a-year job and it is often very difficult to separate work and personal life. When the phone goes in the middle of the night, it is not often for good news. What makes me happiest is seeing our people develop and grow.
What will your last words to your staff be and how do you plan to spend your final day?
Thanks for all the hard yakka over the last 16 years. I am delighted that Leonard Sampson [chief operating officer] has been appointed as my successor. He will never be as good a fisherman as me, but I know that he is a great leader with a really strong customer ethos. Port of Tauranga is in excellent shape and I am excited to see where it goes next. I will probably spend my last day cleaning out my office and then having a cheeky chard down at Pizza Library with mates.
Where do you imagine yourself to be in the next three months and why?
I will still be living in Tauranga, but having a bit more control of my diary and using the boat a bit more. I plan to take on three to four board roles to try and put a little back into business and to keep the brain active.