Five heroes of the corporate sector have proved themselves in what was another testing year.

This has been another testing year for New Zealand businesses as they rock along the decade of "grumpy growth" that Finance Minister Bill English has signposted. It's not been plain-sailing by any means for the five "business heroes" I have singled out for my Boxing Day reflections. But each has proved to be a stayer.

So hats off to:

Fonterra chairman Sir Henry van der Heyden
Van der Heyden repeatedly had his nose bloodied by 10,500 farmer-shareholders as he steered the cooperative towards its highly successful capital restructuring.

There's been plenty of stress as he finished the melding of two rival dairy companies and a state trading desk into one new commercially driven entity, then set about introducing 'trading among farmers' and a shareholders' fund which allows private investors to have an exposure to NZ's biggest company.


"Hey, it's politics," he said when we discussed the lengthy time it had taken to get the restructuring in place.

His attention has now turned to the meat industry which - like the dairy sector a decade or so ago - is riven with competing players which have not achieved the offshore success of the big dairy player.

Van der Heyden believes the meat sector is ripe for change.

"It is a job for a young man," he said when I asked whether he would get involved. But he was happy to lend his insights to younger players wanting to progress change.

Van der Heyden will step down from the Fonterra board this year after incoming chairman John Wilson is bedded in.

It is an end of an era for Fonterra. But for Van der Heyden new doors have opened - the chairmanship of Tainui Group Holdings, and directorships at Rabobank and Auckland International Airport for starters.

He was recently awarded Chairperson of the Year at the 2012 Top 200 Awards "third time lucky". The judges said "his strong leadership this year successfully delivered the giant cooperative's Trading Among Farmers Scheme that will be critical to Fonterra's equity raising capability in the future. He also successfully completed one of the most important of all governance tasks - the transition to new chief executive, Theo Spierings.

Mainfreight MD Don Braid
Don Braid plays a long game as he continues his mission to make Mainfreight New Zealand's biggest listed company.

At the inaugural China Business Summit, Braid disclosed Mainfreight might buy a local business as it ramped up growth in China; rather than continue on the organic growth model which had served it well for 10 years.

China is central to Mainfreight's growth trajectory (they were no longer just "truckers from New Zealand") but it was still a small player in the global logistics business. It could effectively double its footprint with just one acquisition.

The great thing about Braid - and the other Mainfreight visionaries at board level - is they remain "proud to be New Zealanders". "I think that we can do this and continue to grow the business without needing to raise capital offshore and without needing to be listed offshore," he told the summit.

Braid speaks his mind. He reckons the Government and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade do not understand the full possibilities from the relationship with China. "Certainly from a service industries perspective, the earnings we've got on that China to the US trade helps our profitability, which we bring back home in what we view as export earnings.Yet perhaps that's not necessarily understood by the Government. But in terms of what we do, that helps us develop our business."

He also reckons the three-year electoral cycle is too short and holds New Zealand back. China with its five-year plans ensures a longer term focus. Intriguingly when he put this to TVNZ's final Q&A programme for the year, the five-strong panel of politicians agreed with him.

Finance Minister Bill English
English has had another tough year as Finance Minister.

Firstly, Christchurch continued to rock hard during the first six months of the year, delaying the start of the full-on rebuilding effort and with it a projected economic growth bonanza. Then the Maori Council threw its toys out of the cot by launching an ownership claim for water and geothermal energy at the Waitangi Tribunal thus delaying the Mighty River Power IPO.

Throughout these frustrations English has been his usual sanguine self. Business organisations like his approachable nature ("masterful" said one admirer).

He has also maintained the relative confidence of ratings agencies. But fiscal pressures have intensified and there are questions over how long the National Government can continue to maintain the expensive bribes of its predecessor. With Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan now conceding he will not make his targeted date for posting a return to Budget surplus, scrutiny will inevitably also come on English's timeline.

English has not confronted Prime Minister John Key head-on over the latter's absurd refusal to deal with the long-term sustainability of the NZ Super scheme at the current age of eligibility. But he has given the nod to the Treasury to do the hard yards on such issues.

Where he also deserves plaudits is for the way he has worked to close the infrastructure deficit this country accumulated through years of neglect by succeeding Governments. The Christchurch earthquakes mean many of New Zealand's school and hospital buildings will have to be strengthened - which added to the overall pressures. He retains the confidence of the PM, Cabinet and business - which is no mean feat.

NZX chief executive Tim Bennett
Bennett followed a business rock star but the NZX chief's culture change programme is building new confidence in the exchange.

There is renewed confidence in the NZ capital markets after Bennett's first year as CEO of the NZX. Bennett has tackled the difficult issues that had built up under Mark Weldon's reign: concerns over how the NZX managed the perception of a conflict of interest between the interests of a CEO who was a major shareholder and stock exchange clients; relationships with the broader investing community and the exchange's own culture.

Within months Bennett announced he was implementing regime change at the NZX by bringing in additional staff to underpin what was a very entrepreneurial business. A new market services team, headed by Simon Smith, was tasked with improving interaction with customers. Head of market supervision Robyn Day was charged with leading a "tightly focused"regulation team after the Financial Markets Authority pointed out deficiencies in the NZX's systems.

Bennett told me he has added 70 new staff this year (about 40 have moved on).

Bennett has been lucky to ride a positive tide which began with the work of Rob Cameron's Capital Markets taskforce.

Market players believe the foundation stones of the market are now much better. There have been plenty of runs on the board: The Fisher & Paykel Appliances takeover, selldowns at Trade Me and Sky TV, IPOs for A2, Xero, Goodman Property and the successful launch of the Fonterra Shareholders' Fund.

And contrary to the views of one commentator who fatuously slagged off the annual Herald Capital Markets (which I edit) as being guilty of "magnificent isolationism", the NZ market was not spooked by Europe. Thanks Rod Oram.

If the Government IPOs do finally get underway next year, the NZ market will be on the international map, making Bennett's task much easier. But there's still plenty of steam in the private sector. Bennett reckons there could potentially be up to three IPOs ahead of Mighty River Power.

It pays to be in the right place at the right time.

The Icehouse's Andy Hamilton
And finally - someone who works hard for the little guy.

The Icehouse's Hamilton is a rock star in the startup community and a great mentor for owner-managers who want to expand their business.

Hamilton may have been 10 years now at The Icehouse, but he hasn't run out of juice as the recent Geeks on a Plane event showed.

He's now got his eye on the opportunity for The Icehouse to run the Wynyard Quarter Innovation hub where he will be competing against international players for the contract.

What's great about Hamilton is he is not afraid to kick the shins of more complacent business leaders - particularly when it comes to getting access to capital and resources for startups to develop.

If New Zealand is to reach its full potential, startups must progress to strong companies. Hamilton is an important piece of the jigsaw to that future.