Susan Peterson says it's in a crisis that you really get to see how people perform under pressure.

And she would know.

The professional director and former banker had the job of finding alternative funding for the country's largest bank in the midst of the global financial crisis.

Then she dealt with the fallout from two funds which collapsed in value as a result of the GFC and oversaw a payout to ANZ customers.


Since leaving her corporate career four-and-a-half years ago and moving into directorships, she has seen business failure and the pressure of being scrutinised by regulators.

Peterson's first board appointment was on crime fighting software firm Wynyard Group, which collapsed three years after listing.

And now she sits on the board of ASB bank, as the financial services sector is undergoing intense scrutiny.

But far from putting people off hiring her, she says those experiences have counted in her favour.

"It was an intense and draining experience," she says of the Wynyard failure, "but the experience has actually increased the demand by boards (and others) for my skills.

"Experience in serious crisis management is highly sought after. You develop and learn your most during these times — and how you deal with those moments is conspicuous to others. I learned that you can earn a lot of respect in the most scary times."

Peterson is part of a new wave of women forging a path into the boardrooms of publicly listed companies and leading the call for others to join her.

Just 20 per cent of directors on NZX-listed companies are female, although at the bigger end of town — the NZX50 — that rises to 27 per cent.


Peterson, who also sits on the board of Global Women New Zealand, this week spoke out, saying she increasingly believes that quotas may be necessary to boost the number of women on boards.

"I think we have got to the point where progress has been — as [director] Joan Withers described it — glacial, and we have to think about different ways," she tells the Weekend Herald.

It's not the first time Peterson has tried to break through some of the barriers faced by women in the corporate world.

Her first job out of university was at law firm Bell Gully in Wellington.

When she fell pregnant, Peterson negotiated 12 weeks' paid parental leave at a time when there was no statutory paid leave.

It was such a unusual situation that journalist Duncan Garner came to her house and covered it.

"If I hadn't received paid parental leave, economically it would have been very tough for my household."

She then managed to negotiate to go back three days a week when her son was four months old, taking clients' calls while she was at home.

Two years later and 38 weeks pregnant with her second child, Peterson got a job with the ANZ — her biggest client while at Bell Gully.

"ANZ was very supportive. They took me on as general counsel while pregnant, part-time and agreed to pay me during my second parental leave."

She says that was largely because being an in-house lawyer was unfashionable at the time.

After seven years as general counsel with the bank and a move to Auckland, Peterson led the takeover of National Bank, allowing her to broaden her capabilities further.

When ANZ's HQ moved back to Wellington, Peterson approached then chief executive Graham Hodges about staying in Auckland.

He promptly created a new role for her, leading the digital side of the business which included internet banking, mobile banking and payment strategy innovation. "He gave me a huge development opportunity and the chance to lead 1100 staff."

She had never managed so many people before and Peterson describes it as both a crazy and wonderful opportunity to learn and appreciate diversity and the social issues that come with managing a large team.

But 18 months later it was a new challenge and a much bigger problem as the global financial crisis struck.

The New Zealand wholesale funding market began to get expensive and Peterson was pulled out of her day job to start thinking about alternative funding.

She ended up creating and heading the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group NZ branch — using the balance sheet of its Australian parent to tap into funding which had virtually dried up for New Zealand.

"It really was a crisis," says Peterson. "But it was so well managed that not many people realised how close to the wind we were."

She says the experience taught her how to take a problem and simplify and solve it as quickly as possible.

They worked with the Reserve Bank to get the application for the bank's New Zealand arm through in just nine days. "Suddenly we were Team New Zealand."

It was also a big reminder of the importance of having international friends in difficult times.

Peterson headed the ANZ NZ branch business for three years before moving to tackle the next bit of fallout from the GFC.

ANZ had a 50 per cent share in the ING New Zealand business, which struck problems through two funds which plummeted in value as the financial crisis hit.

ING had sold the funds to the public via ANZ and the bank ended up having to make payouts to investors as compensation for some of their losses.

ANZ then bought out the remainder of ING NZ in 2009 and later rebranded the company.

After setting up the wealth division for ANZ, Peterson says she was asked to help set up a private bank in Asia, but the resulting international travel didn't go down well with the family.

"I was away too much. Emily was 13 at the time and I felt that I was effectively training those closest to me to not need me. It was a time of real reflection."

She returned to New Zealand and resigned without a job to go to.

Not long later the calls began to come in for consultancy and governance roles.

She was asked to be on the board of new float Wynyard Group, and former National Party Finance Minister Ruth Richardson invited her to get involved in the NZ Merino Company.

From there she has added Trustpower, Property for Industry and Vista Group to her range of directorships, which also includes more recent appointments to Xero and ASB bank.

Peterson is also a shareholder and co-chair of Organic Initiatives — a New Zealand start-up which makes biodegradable feminine hygiene products.

Peterson comes from a family of successful siblings. Her older brother is NZX chief executive Mark Peterson and another brother, Richard, is an orthopaedic surgeon.

She puts their success down to their home life growing up in Lower Hutt.

"We grew up in an environment where education was highly valued. It was absolutely expected that we would go to university."

She says her stay-at-home mother deserves a lot of recognition for the work she put into her children.

It was also her mum who looked after her first child, enabling Peterson to go back to work without worrying about daycare or nannies.

"If I had to work five days a week from the get-go or didn't have my mum helping with childcare in those early days then I don't think I would have had a career at all."

Peterson managed to climb the ranks despite being part-time through most of her career — she has never worked full-time since having children.

She says the secret is to put yourself in your colleagues' and customers' shoes and be sure you understand what they need. "Then you have to find a way to give that to them."

She says most people want to know that you are available, that even if you don't pick up the phone straight away, you will call them back.

Her rise through the ranks was not always easy and she admits to facing sexism along the way.

But she says those challenges also made her stronger and more able to cope with crises along the way, and she wouldn't want to take that away.

Susan Peterson

Job: Professional director - on the boards of ASB Bank, Xero, Property for Industry, Vista Group and TrustPower. Shareholder and Co-chair of Organic Initiative. Tribunal member of the NZ Markets Disciplinary Tribunal. Worked for Bell Gully and ANZ Bank during her executive career.
Grew up: In Lower Hutt
Family: Married with two children
Age: 49
Education: Bachelor of Commerce and LLB at the University of Otago, majoring in economics and law.
Last book read:The Necklace
Last overseas holiday:Hawaii
Last movie: Crazy Rich Asians