When Fraser Whineray started his management career as a young man in the dairy industry he was given a lot of freedom — maybe too much freedom.
But that trust and encouragement to make decisions stood him in good stead for what was to come as he worked his way to the top of Mercury Energy, one of the largest electricity companies in the country.
And now, as he prepares to head back to the dairy industry to be part of Fonterra's senior leadership team he can reflect on those early days and look forward to what lies ahead.
"When I started out we got to do some really amazing things, even at the age of 24, 25, and we were making it up as we went along," he says. "I think I got given much greater rope to experiment and try things early on.
"That was when organisation structures were slightly deeper. Now that they are shallower we still need to make sure we give young people some really decent opportunities where we really let them have a go."
Whineray — this year's Deloitte/Service Now CEO of the Year — says good leaders bring people along on the journey with them but first you need to find out what your organisation's kaupapa, or purpose, is.
"You have to be able to communicate what that's about but also listen very carefully and that's a fine balance; to bring a lot of passion to a job but also make sure that it doesn't overwhelm your people and tour team.
"And you need a great executive team because without that your role as CEO is unsustainable: it's too hard to do it all on your own."
Whineray, who incidentally doesn't appear to have a LinkedIn profile, joined Mercury in 2008 (when it was known as Mighty River Power) and became chief executive in September 2014 — 16 months after the company was partially privatised and listed on the New Zealand share market.
During that time, he simplified the business through the divestment of overseas interests and the sale of the company's former smart metering business, Metrix.
He oversaw the mothballing of the Southdown gas-fired power station in Auckland as the company turned its focus fully to renewable generation; led a rebranding to Mercury from the two brands of Mighty River Power and Mercury Energy and developed with his executive team a strategy for sustainable growth.
Sustainability is a something Whineray takes very seriously. You can tell.
"To make a finalist in this category I'd like to think you'd have made some meaningful changes to sustainability, not just within the business itself but also for the sector and ultimately the country.
"Sustainability is much more than simply looking after the environment. It is all forms of capital: people, customers and brands, financial capital, natural capital and in our case, partnerships."
Whineray says the Mercury's big joint venture partnerships with Māori land trusts to build geothermal power plants is something he's particularly proud of.
Geothermal generation is now the country's second biggest source of electricity.
"That investment by us, Contact Energy and the Tauhara North No. 2 Trust is New Zealand's greatest decarbonisation this century," Whineray says.
"It's a very little known fact [but] that has shifted base load fossil fuels out of the electricity mix."
Another example he gives is that seven years ago Mercury procured the largest carbon tenders from New Zealand forests for exotic and native trees — more than 10,000ha — to the point where Mercury is now carbon positive. He's one who believes when it comes to climate change, companies need to go all in.
"Unfortunately, with the challenges we've got on sustainability not every little bit helps.
"We think just doing a few little things and they will all add up. But we actually have to tackle the big things in terms of that natural capital and I think that's what Mercury has been privileged to be part of."
Deloitte judge Neil Paviour-Smith said Whineray has delivered record earnings for Mercury along with solid dividend growth. Total shareholder returns over the past 5 years average over 25 per cent per annum.
Not only had he delivered those strong returns but also re-positioned the company around its 100 per cent renewable generation position, while undertaking an active capital investment programme especially around wind generation, Paviour-Smith said.
"He has overseen a successful rebranding of the company and has demonstrated passion for electric vehicles, renewable energy, sustainability and innovation.
"Fraser is highly regarded and is motivated to contribute to New Zealand's long-term success — including leading New Zealand Initiative offshore missions, his involvement in the Aotearoa Circle, and his recent appointment to chair the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council."
Whineray is leaving Mercury for a challenging new role as chief operating officer at Fonterra.
With all he brings to the table it's no surprise that Fonterra stake-holders are cheering the move.
Finalist: Volker Kuntzsch, Sanford
Volker Kuntzsch had already carved a strong reputation in the international fishing industry before taking up the chief executive's reins at Sanford five years ago.
Born to German parents, he spent his first 18 years in Namibia before moving to South Africa to complete a masters in zoology and starting work in the seafood industry. After suffering a personal tragedy (he lost his wife and daughter in a car accident) he returned to Europe and roles that included Unilever and then Nissui, the world's second largest seafood company.
When he joined Sanford in 2014 he quickly leveraged his experience in creating awareness of seafood sustainability in markets such as Japan and the US to set a vision for Sanford to be the best seafood company in the world through having the finest sources, uncompromising care and providing beautiful seafood.
He has played a role in the development of the Marine Stewardship Council certification of key fisheries and the early accreditation of the New Zealand Hoki.
"Volker Kuntzsch has transformed Sanford, following a strategy of repositioning the business to move up the value chain," said Deloitte Top 200 judge Neil Paviour-Smith.
"His leadership has seen the Sanford team collectively focus on its strategy and authentically embrace core values of care, passion and integrity and the principle of achieving together.
"With Sanford holding about 20 per cent of New Zealand's commercial fishing quota as well as extensive aquaculture interests in salmon and mussels, Volker has acknowledged that sustainability sits at the heart of the business.
"On top of that, Sanford's diversity has reduced the risk that the volatility of the commercial fishing industry brings and helped to deliver improved financials with total shareholder returns over 17 per cent per annum for the past 5 years," Paviour-Smith added.
Finalist: David Mair, Skellerup Holdings
David Mair's deep knowledge of manufacturing and product development was critical when he became chief executive of Skellerup Holdings in August 2011, with a mission to strengthen the company's manufacturing and distribution base.
Skellerup, an iconic brand in New Zealand, may have been around the scene for more than 100 years but it continues to re-focus and grow strongly.
Famous for its Red Band gumboot, which celebrated 60 years in 2018, Skellerup now supplies a wide range of engineered solutions for customers here and overseas in dairy rubberware, water and related infrastructure, roofing, plumbing, automotive, mining and other industrial applications.
The Auckland-based company posted a record net profit for the year ended June 30 of $29.1 million, up 6.5 per cent on the previous year.
Revenue lifted 2.2 per cent to $245.8m and its earnings before interest and tax were up 5 per cent to $41.8m. More than 75 per cent of the company's revenue is generated offshore.
The industrial division saw its ebit lift 10 per cent to $22.9m and revenue lift 4 per cent to $157.1m.
Under David Mair's leadership, Skellerup Holdings has delivered robust profit growth, and has placed a strong emphasis on delivering operational efficiencies that assist with both margins and responsiveness to customers, judge Paviour Smith said.
"Skellerup's strategy of targeting selective growth opportunities in the US in its industrial rubber business is helping deliver robust growth.
"Mair has ensured Skellerup remains relevant to its customers, forming strong relationships with key partners, original equipment manufacturers and major distributors."
After many years in which Skellerup struggled to deliver, total shareholder returns over the past 5 years are in excess of 15 per cent per annum.
Much of that turnaround can be credited to Mair's leadership.