Ports of Auckland chairwoman Liz Coutts is one of New Zealand's top professional directors. She says board diversity is improving but it takes time to change a culture.
1 Growing up in Matamata, what did you learn about business?
I grew up on a dairy farm, one of six children. We were all conscious of farm management because we'd sit around the dinner table each night and plan the jobs to be done the next day. I drove the truck for hay making from age 12. I learnt practical skills like testing the spore counts on grass for eczema with a microscope and fixing a leaky pipe with a thermos of hot water to stretch the pipe. I also did the filing for mum so was familiar with invoices and statements from a very early age.
2 Did you have early ambitions for a corporate career?
I didn't realise I was good with numbers until college. When you're number five of six children you're always trying to keep up with your older siblings. I did a management and marketing degree in Hamilton and spent most of my 20s as an accountant at Tasman Pulp and Paper and Lumber in Kawerau. When the Spencer family sold Caxton to Carter Holt Harvey I became group financial controller at age 29. By 31 I was chief executive. That's one of my greatest achievements, I had nearly 1000 staff.
3 Did you ever get a hard time from the men at work?
It was very difficult. Some of that was because of my age. There weren't too many 31-year-old chief executives. I was a director of Trustbank in my early 30s as well so I was a decade or so younger than others. Looking back there were inappropriate comments, mostly due to unconscious bias, but I was too busy to notice at the time. Thirty years on I think it is appropriate to call them out. I have done it from time to time in recent years. Sometimes it's more effective if I to talk to someone else and they do it.
4 How many women company directors do we have in New Zealand?
Women directors made up 19 per cent of listed company boards last year and 17 per cent the year before. Women executives went from 18 to 20 per cent. So it is going up but we still have a long way to go. In terms of board chairs, we have 10 women chairs of NZX companies. Only Joan Withers and I have two; she chairs Mercury and The Warehouse; I have Skellerup and Oceania Healthcare. A number of women also chair crown entities not listed on the stock exchange, for example I chair Ports of Auckland.
5 You're also president of New Zealand's Institute of Directors. What is your organisation doing to address gender imbalance?
It's our job to equip the directors of the future so we have to ensure a pipeline of capable female directors going forward. We run future directors' programmes, mentoring for diversity and hold an emerging director's award. We have some very qualified women– it's just getting them opportunities to get the right experience.
6 Do boards value diversity?
Our annual director sentiment survey shows diversity is important to over 70 per cent of directors of listed companies, government and not-for-profit boards. For smaller company directors it's important to 62 per cent. We know diversity leads to better decision making because you get a richer discussion that contributes to more creative thinking, innovation and better business performance.
But it takes time to change a culture. Just putting quotas in doesn't do it. You have to win over hearts and minds. We need people to talk about it more so everyone can see the benefits.
7 What's happening with the Ports of Auckland - are you planning to relocate?
Any decision on relocation lies with the Auckland Council, which owns 100 per cent of shares, and the government, which has an interest through the Ports Companies Act. We're about to invest in major capital works to meet Auckland's growth but there's nothing permanent that can't be undone if we move.
We're keen to improve the aesthetic appeal and public access so we're developing freight hubs in Horotiu and Wiri to take as much activity off the waterfront as possible. We're looking to build a low rise car-handling building opposite the Britomart carpark with green space on the rooftop, and demolish some older buildings.
We've also bought new driverless straddles to move containers round the port which will have less environmental impact because they're quiet and energy efficient. We're retraining the drivers to work in other areas.
8 Do boards have a role beyond delivering a profit to shareholders?
Yes, it's not just a financial return. Society's expectations of business have changed significantly over time. The average person now expects us to drive economic prosperity, foster innovation, train staff, keep them safe and protect information privacy. In the decade since the GFC the rules for regulators like the NZX and FMA have improved. Our Institute of Directors is a founding member of the global network of directors and we're discussing the same issues as everyone else.
9 You're on the board of Tennis Auckland. What's happening with the ASB Tennis Centre?
We have to upgrade it or we'll lose the ASB Classic. It's no longer fit for purpose. Every year we have to get an exemption for failing to meet certain requirements for hosting international tournaments. We've raised some of the money but we still have a way to go. The ASB Classic is not only a top sports event, it's also our main fundraiser for grass roots tennis. So if we want kids playing tennis we have to do this.
10 Oceania Healthcare listed on the NZX last year. What are the current challenges?
There is a significant increase in demand for aged care so it's important we grow to accommodate this. We have major redevelopment underway for our 4000 residents with new apartments and homes in Browns Bay, St Heliers, Meadowbank, Mt Eden and other major centres. Better minimum pay for care workers was the right thing to do and we welcomed that. It's really important to me that people get the best possible care. My 93-year-old father is in care so that makes it especially real for me.
11 What do you do to look after yourself so you can manage such a big workload?
I make time for exercise and friends. I run four times a week. I have a gym and swimming pool at home where a yoga instructor comes once a week, and I go to a personal trainer for weights training. My husband and I go on holiday regularly and I schedule time to catch up with a group of girlfriends from university. We used to be a walking group but these days we mainly meet for dinner.
12 Is your husband related to Russell Coutts and what makes your relationship work?
No relation. Probably his support for the work I do. He does most of the cooking, food's more important to him. We've enjoyed working together as property developers for many years building rural residential subdivisions. We've just done one in Waiuku and one in Blenheim. We take a lot of pride in creating beautiful landscapes people will be happy to live in.