The driving force behind strategy

When it comes to governance, Joan Withers is the person you want chairing your board. This was the view of the Top 200 judges, who have chosen to name her 2015's Chairperson of the Year.

Withers has a number of governance roles under her belt.

She is the chair of the board of Mighty River Power, a position held since 2009. During her tenure, she has steered the energy retailer through its transition from a state-owned-enterprise to a publicly listed business.

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The company has thrived despite a year of low rainfall and near-record low hydro generation. Nevertheless, Withers has helped Mighty River deliver a return of $296 million to its owners, representing a 59 per cent year-on-year boost to cash returns. This year, she was appointed Chair of TVNZ and has led the board in a year that has seen the state broadcaster perform strongly against private sector and global digital competitors delivering a 15 per cent return on equity to the government shareholder.

Her work ethic can be seen from her rise to business prominence. Having emigrated from the United Kingdom at a young age, she quit school at 16. She worked in advertising and sales, before eventually pursuing an MBA in her 30s, when her son was a teenager. It enabled her to move on to executive roles at Fairfax and The Radio Network, before shifting into governance.

As chair, she is notable for consistency.

She has successfully guided her charges through public floats and is highly regarded in the business community. No matter the organisation, while she has a role in governance, she will be taking an active role. The judges praised her for often being the driving force behind organisation-wide strategy. The Top 200 judges noted that she is highly regarded by her board colleagues, has a calm head and is seen as a strong strategic thinker who teams with her chief executives.

The judges also commented that in giving the award they look for a chair of standout character.

The Top 200 judges noted Withers is highly regarded by her board colleagues, has a calm head and is seen as a strategic thinker.


In addition to being active as a chairperson, Withers has been a dominant advocate for board diversity. She was the first woman to win the NZ Shareholders Association Beacon Award, in recognition for her leadership and guidance in corporate practice, in particular her courage in standing out from the crowd on controversial issues.

Previous recipients of the Beacon award include former Air NZ chief Rob Fyfe, Ryman Healthcare boss Simon Challies, Sir Michael Hill and former FMA chief Sean Hughes.

Withers is also a member of the 25 per cent group, an organisation looking for female membership of boards rising to 25 per cent by the end of 2015.

Mark Verbiest, Spark

Mark Verbiest has been the chairman of Spark since the end of 2011, the chairman of Transpower since 2010 and the chairman of Willis Bond Capital since 2010.

As well as these appointments, Verbiest is a director at ANZ and Freightways, and is a member of the Commercial Operations Advisory Board for the Treasury.

The Top 200 Judges consider Verbiest well-respected around the markets and an all-round "top guy."

Rob Hewett, Silver Fern Farms

Rob Hewett is best known as the chairman of the board at Silver Fern Farms, though he has a wide governance profile.

Hewett was appointed chair of Silver Fern Farms in 2008. The country's largest meat exporter had an eventful 2015, with September's confirmation of a 50/50 joint venture between itself and China's Shanghai Maling Aquarius. The announcement received much publicity and Hewett was largely the public face of deal. Progress towards that deal is very much on track, with Hewett announcing positive financial results in the lead up to the joint venture.

This included a 28 per cent increase in earnings before interest, taxation and amortization for the year ending September and an increase in net profit after tax from $500,000 last year to $24.9 million this year.

The judges praised Hewett's leadership of the Silver Fern Farms board as it grappled with adversity by reducing debt, introducing a new CEO and forging a joint venture with a new Chinese partner.

Greg Hall