Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” It’s a phrase that immediately comes to mind when talking to Grant Webster, chief executive of Tourism Holdings and this year’s Deloitte Top 200 Chief Executive of the Year.
When the country’s borders closed in early 2020 in response to the Covid pandemic, Webster was steering into the abyss, with his business completely stripped of customers.
“If the business was a ‘being’, it would probably have been a lucky survivor of a horrid car crash,” he told the Herald later that year.
“There were a lot of cars in this crash. Luckily, we had good airbags and plenty of other safety features.”
But it wasn’t just about surviving. Webster not only navigated his staff and the company through the lockdowns and the pandemic’s aftermath but also set about creating a bigger, stronger business with the aim of it coming out the other side in better shape than it went in.
While the company didn’t have to raise capital like many other heavily exposed NZX-listed companies, it was forced to make about 140 staff redundant in 2020 as its Kiwi Experience bus tour operator and Waitomo caves and rafting businesses ground to a halt.
It also undertook a massive sell-down of its campervan fleet to bring in cash and enable the company to slash debt by $153 million to $35m by the end of 2020.
And it sold other assets, including peer-to-peer businesses Mighway and Share-a-Camper to ASX-listed Camplify Holdings. That brought in another A$7.4m while ensuring Tourism Holdings maintained a presence in the peer-to-peer sector in New Zealand through service supply agreements and a shareholding in Camplify.
The pandemic would still take a heavy financial toll, with Tourism Holdings posting a $14.5m net loss in the year to June 2021, followed by a $2.1m loss in the 2022 financial year. Unsurprisingly, dividends were suspended throughout this period and shareholders were warned of a “hard road” ahead as the industry held on for a recovery.
All the while, Webster and the Tourism Holdings board remained focused on the future and began to look for opportunities.
These came first in the form of a deal to acquire the half share it didn’t already own in campervan manufacturer Action Manufacturing and in its UK partnership, Just Go.
And then the big one – the acquisition of its largest rival, Australia’s Apollo Tourism and Leisure. It took some jostling with the Commerce Commission to get the merger over the line.
To get the green light, Tourism Holdings reached an agreement with Apollo to sell $45m of its assets, including 110 four to six-berth motorhomes from Apollo’s rental fleet in NZ and 200 four to six-berth motorhomes in Australia.
For Webster, the Apollo merger was a game-changer that coincided with the industry rebounding as tourists emerged from the shadows of Covid with a pent-up demand for travel.
“Luckily, we didn’t have to ask shareholders for any funds or anything, but we feel like we’re standing up now, and I guess … we’re not quite standing up as tall as we’d like yet, but we’re getting there,” he told the Herald in an interview for the Deloitte awards.
“So, for us, it’s been about rebuilding, getting the right people in the right places, getting our fleet back, and re-engaging with customers on an international basis.
“We’re very much in that recovery mode and adapting to a new way of operating around all of the things that have changed around the world.”
Webster’s drive to build back better was not lost on the Deloitte Top 200 judges, who described him as a “transformative leader”.
“As CEO of Tourism Holdings, Grant Webster has demonstrated exceptional resilience and strategic prowess, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said judge Neil Paviour-Smith.
“His leadership was crucial in navigating the world’s largest campervan rental company through a drastic downturn in international travel. By selling assets to protect shareholder value, he achieved record results, showcasing his ability to make tough yet effective decisions.
“Under his guidance, Tourism Holdings not only survived but expanded, with key acquisitions like Britain’s Just Go and a merger with Apollo Tourism and Leisure bolstering its market position. This strategic expansion, combined with Grant’s adept relationship-building, spurred remarkable financial recovery: turning a $2.1m loss into a $49.9m profit and a 92 per cent revenue increase.
“Grant’s 15-year tenure as CEO, after serving as COO, has been defined by steering the company through major crises and positioning Tourism Holdings for future growth. His legacy is that of a transformative leader who successfully converted challenges into opportunities for innovation and growth.”
The winding road to success
Webster is literally a towering figure in New Zealand business. Standing nearly two metres tall, he is hard to miss in a crowd.
While he has embarked on various roles in various industries, tourism has always been around him.
In a 2008 Herald profile, he recalled one of his fondest childhood memories was hopping on his dad’s coach and going on tours of the Waikato and Hawke’s Bay regions, visiting attractions like the Waitomo Caves.
“My father was a tour driver for Newmans, and in the school holidays at this time of year he would go through Napier, where I grew up, and I would join him on the day tours,” he told the Business Herald’s Tamsyn Parker.
Webster studied commerce at Victoria University in Wellington and majored in management and commercial law, before being snapped up by supermarket giant Woolworths for its management trainee programme.
There, he travelled the country learning the retail business, and by 25 was in his first general management position - heading up 2000 staff in the South Island.
A while later, he wanted to try something new, and when a job came up at SkyCity Entertainment, he jumped at the opportunity.
There, he looked after the Sky Tower, hotels, the convention centre, property services, security and surveillance, carparks and The Force, an entertainment centre.
During his time there, he helped open the convention centre and the Grand Hotel. It was a busy time.
Three years later in 2008, he joined Tourism Holdings, partly, he said, because it was a much smaller company.
Over the years since, Webster has helped shape New Zealand’s tourism industry, holding leadership roles and influencing policy, including a co-chair position on the Tourism Futures Taskforce during 2020.
Tourism Holdings now appears to be well on the road to recovery as tourism settles into a new post-pandemic normal, and the company’s merger with Apollo Tourism and Leisure has bolstered the company’s profit.
The travel and tourism operator reported a net profit of $49.9m in the 12 months ended June, a remarkable turn-around from the losses due to the lingering impacts of the pandemic.
Total revenue bounced up to $663.8m, a 92 per cent or $318m increase from the 2022 financial year, with tourists having a more enthusiastic appetite for travel and not having to battle border closures.
Earnings before interest and tax (Ebit) were $88.9m, up from $6.9m in the previous corresponding period.
The company achieved some other milestones in the last financial year, including a listing on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) as a foreign-exempt entity and recommencement of dividends.
A brighter future
Webster says he’s seen a lot of change and dealt with a lot of challenges.
Blending the two different cultures at Tourism Holdings and Apollo has been a big focus in recent months.
“We were very fortunate that in any area that we’ve looked to acquire or merge, we’ve really made sure that that culture piece is right up front, and we know that there’s a good alignment,” he says.
“We’re also really fortunate with Luke Trouchet and his brother Carl as the owners and founding family of that business, in that there was a very strong alignment.
“What we found in the business, though, is people had similar problems, and once we started looking at that and going, ‘Oh, that happens to you too’, we really wanted a common approach to addressing it.
“So, it’s been really exciting that people have got on really, really well.”
Looking forward, Webster is cognisant of the part new technology can play in future, especially with the rise of generative AI.
He says there are great opportunities right across the business.
“Obviously, we’re looking at everything from … how it can work in terms of helping people [regarding] road care and what it can do for finance and processing speed.
“But importantly, I think for us, the change opportunity and threats are in customers and the way they search the journeys they create, you know - how do I get around New Zealand in the most effective way, what’s the best campervan operator, and where do I go?
“AI is already is providing that information. We’ve got to think differently about how we present ourselves to the world to make sure that we’re relevant and authentic in what we do, right?”
Keeping up with demand has been a challenge, especially when supply chain and shipping issues have held the company back.
Tourism Holdings’ current NZ fleet consists of around 1400 vehicles, which is still around 50 per cent down on pre-Covid.
“We’re on the rebuild of that right now. [It] has been a little bit challenging in peak summer, and going from nothing to being full and busy has been a real operational challenge, but the team have just sort of stood up and dealt with that. They’re reviewing what they do all the time and taking it on.”
When it comes to expansion, you get the sense Webster isn’t content just yet and more M&A could be on the horizon.
“We’ve got a number of irons in the fire, and we’ll see what comes out of that over the next couple of years.”
CEO OF THE YEAR FINALISTS
Vittoria Shortt, ASB
Since her appointment as chief executive in 2018, Vittoria Shortt has propelled ASB forward with a strong focus on social and environmental practices. The Aucklander returned to run the New Zealand bank after spending 15 years working in Australia for parent company Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA).
Starting in corporate finance in 2002, she has worked in just about every division of the bank, including IT, marketing, retail and her last role as executive head of marketing and strategy. But she never set out to have a career in banking. At ASB she leads 5900 staff, chairs the NZ Bankers’ Association and advocates for diversity, with a passion for mentoring women through her involvement in New Zealand’s Global Women and Executive Women in Australia.
“I think what we’re trying to create at ASB is just a continuation of our legacy. ASB has been part of New Zealand for 176 years,” Shortt says.
“They’ve always been known for their work in the community. So, for us, it’s about helping every New Zealander make financial progress, helping the country make social progress and also environmental progress, and I think that put together is what we’re all about.”
Deloitte judge Neil Paviour Smith said Shortt’s natural curiosity and tendency to say “yes” to every opportunity has helped her to reach the top of banking’s corporate ladder.
“During her nearly six years as CEO and managing director, Vittoria has ensured that ASB has continued to outperform the other ’big four’ banks, reaching the highest return on assets and highest return on equity ratios. Over the last 12 months, this has resulted in the bank reporting a record annual profit of $1.56 billion and a 4 per cent increase in overall lending. Vittoria has emphasised the importance of open communication with banking regulators, helping ASB to largely avoid costly regulatory reviews that have plagued banking competitors.”
Paviour Smith also noted Shortt’s focus on accelerating the export growth of high-potential food and fibre businesses and investing heavily in ASB’s digital experience to support a more resilient and sustainable New Zealand. Asked what it has been like to lead a bank through the challenges of the past few years, Shortt said it required a lot of agility.
“Because Covid came out of nowhere - no one was expecting it - it required us to turn on a dime to work really differently.
“And then, of course, with the unwinding of the quantitative easing, we’ve seen the fastest decline in interest rates, and then the fastest increase in interest rates.
“And so we’re really working out how to best support our customers [amid] these really fast-paced changes.”
Simon Limmer, Silver Fern Farms
Simon Limmer has steered Silver Fern Farms since 2018, elevating it as New Zealand’s leading red meat exporter to over 60 countries. His stewardship champions sustainability and local heritage, reflecting a global career spanning Zespri to Veolia, deeply entwined with New Zealand’s primary sector values.
Last year saw record returns for the farmers supplying Silver Fern Farms. Revenue hit $3.3b and net profit was $189m.
However, Limmer says the past year or so has been particularly challenging, with market dynamics changing rapidly.
“We’re very clear that our strategy is the right one in terms of stepping closer to the market, delivering nature-positive solutions, really linking up the viability for our farmers with the expectations of consumers.
“But we’re still very exposed to macro trends - the commodity cycle that we’ve experienced, a real downturn from an economic perspective, and just how small New Zealand is in the scheme of things when it comes to red meat.”
But he says the company’s strategy gives it the ability to adjust and maintain momentum.
“It’s really about how we manage the short-term operational requirements of the business and volatility that still exist at the same time, maintaining our focus on our strategy and the investments we need to make for the long term.”
The company is undergoing the largest and most transformative investment programme in its 75-year history as it modernises 14 processing sites and core business systems.
Silver Fern’s investment in capital expenditure last financial year increased by $35.5m to $96m, and Limmer says this will optimise everything from decision-making to risk management.
“I feel that the investments that we are making today and our strategy are going to pull us through the cycle [more quickly] and take us to a position that is going to be more favourable in the future.”
Paviour Smith said Limmer is a natural leader who engages skilfully with customers, staff and shareholders, and he’s known for establishing strong team cultures that bear results.
“At a time when the world is looking towards more natural whole foods, Simon has positioned Silver Fern Farms as a global champion of New Zealand’s natural grass-fed red meat. He’s even brought Silver Fern Farms’ name to Hollywood, with Dame Jacinda Ardern presenting Late Show host Stephen Colbert with a chilly bin full of their net carbon-zero beef last year.
“Simon successfully pushed Silver Fern Farms to improve its value-add offering in China, a market he knew well from Zespri, and was successful selling more beef and lamb as value-add products rather than commodities.”
“Although Simon is stepping down from his role as CEO in the new year, he’ll be leaving Silver Fern Farms in great health and with a clear direction.”