Fletcher Building's "pompous old farts" will be having the last laugh as Mark Adamson walks the plank in the wake of the latest profit downgrade.

The company has been leaking ever since Adamson unceremoniously sheeted home responsibility for cost explosions on two major projects - which led to a surprise profit downgrade of $110 million - to executives in the building and interiors division of Fletcher Construction.

As an email revealed by NBR on Thursday made clear, even before the March downgrade Adamson did not hold the division in high regard, describing them as "incompetent", "highly politicised and chauvinistic" and "full of pompous old farts who are hierarchically obsessed".

The email was written at a time when questions were emerging over the major contracts.


That this was finally leaked more than six months after it was sent to seven staff on December 15, 2016 was no accident.

But it formed a momentary diversion in a week when Fletcher chairman Sir Ralph Norris and his board were lining up to reveal another profit downgrade, on the back of wider losses on projects believed to be the New Zealand International Convention Centre and the Justice and Emergency Services precinct in Christchurch.

The fact that the board itself has yet to be subjected to strong shareholder and analyst scrutiny is a surprise. Until now, the focus has been on Adamson. Fletcher has been nothing but collegial.

But it was just this week - after well-placed strategic leaks to media and the Shareholders' Association about mounting concerns over major contract bidding and the extreme level of executive churn at one of NZ's largest listed companies under Adamson - that the email surfaced.

Nor was it an accident that the company's new PR was empowered to speak to media about the $8 million in shares that Adamson has had to leave on the table after the final board discussions ahead of Thursday's public announcement.

This puts the onus squarely on the departing CEO.

But in my view, there are strong questions that also ought to be asked of the board, about its own level of comfort over the bidding for major construction projects; the role of the audit committee and the board's approach to managing risk; and the length of rope given to Adamson to undertake such a swingeing restructuring of a company that has had a strong reliance on core competencies and institutional knowledge.

The feelings expressed in the email are vintage Adamson.


He was a breath of fresh air when he first arrived at the company's Penrose HQ. He was certainly not the sort to socialise with his core team over a drink after he had reamed them out over various failures (he does not drink alcohol).

But when Sir Ralph became chairman, he put Kate Daley (the company's HR guru) alongside him to modify his style.

This was successful to the point where Adamson got the HRINZ Supportive CEO of the Year award in February last year. Adamson was recognised "for his contribution and ongoing commitment to diversity, talent development, employee engagement and significant advancements in HR technology at Fletcher Building," the citation said.

But in truth, if Adamson felt some of his executives were "old farts", he also had some colourful criticism of the directors who sat around the Fletcher board table when he first took the reins.

He had questioned the fitness for purpose of some directors of the Fletcher conglomerate, and what some added to the company's governance and strategic focus.

He also had strong doubts about the worth of Fletcher Construction to the overall Fletcher Building business and made that known in discussions with me when he first came into the company.

But the construction business had secured major work from the Canterbury rebuild and for building Auckland infrastructure, to the point where it could boast a $3 billion pipeline.

Was Adamson's initial instinct right?

There have to be questions about the level of rigour the board exerted when it came to signing off major contracts. Particularly when the Crown - with the input of professional infrastructure competence - had insisted on terms where the downside for any blowout or delay lay with the contracting companies, not the taxpayer.

Did Fletcher underbid? Or did it get caught out in a perfect storm of mounting construction costs across New Zealand and a growing shortage of skilled staff and labourers on the back of an infrastructure boom?

You have to wonder.

Fletcher audit committee chairman John Judge and Adamson were the picture of calm when they turned up to an NZ Initiative retreat just days after the first profit downgrade announcement.

But behind the scenes, major work on reviewing all contracts was soon to be under way.

Fletcher is not the only major NZ construction company to face difficulties. Rival Hawkins was sold into the clutches of an Australian competitor.

The question is, are there more dominoes to fall?