By ESTELLE SARNEY
Patsy Reddy figured out early that to get on in business she had to understand her enemy.
Not that she would class the men she works with as such - they are colleagues, friends, and, if they're sitting on the other side of the board table, interesting opponents. But when, in the 1970s, she looked at the 305 male students in her law intake of 320, she knew she had to learn what made them tick. If that meant getting to grips with who was who in the All Blacks or in Formula One racing, so be it.
Today she is just as keen to attend a rugby game as indulge her other passions of art and opera. Reddy is also one of New Zealand's few women professional directors - holding places on the boards of Telecom, Sky City Entertainment and Active Equities, the investment company she formed with two old colleagues from Brierley, Bruce Hancox and Paul Collins.
She has helped to direct New Zealand Post, Ansett New Zealand when it started flying domestically here, and Air New Zealand after its privatisation. She is the only woman on any of the boards to which she has been appointed, apart from Telecom's chief executive Theresa Gattung.
"There was no point in trying to be different, because I wouldn't have been accepted," says Reddy of her early days in business.
"I grew up in a family of girls, and went to an all-girls school, so I didn't understand much about men. I had to learn what they were interested in, what motivated them."
I was reluctant to play the gender card first up in this story about Reddy - surely we're past that. But her pragmatic, post-feminist approach to her male-dominated career has been a key to her success, and shaped the businesswoman she's become. Her early perception of male psyches developed the skill she now values most - adeptness at taking the measure of people and their abilities.
"So much of my job is understanding people's strengths and weaknesses, identifying talent and supporting it. To be a good director you need to listen, be a good communicator, and be flexible about changing your point of view."
Reddy thinks the way girls are generally raised to be conciliatory has helped her to gain consensus around board tables, but it has also produced her biggest hurdle.
"One of the things I find hardest is knowing when to say no, to disagree or to hold my ground. I like people to be happy, to agree, but you can't always be nice."
She's talking about a board's need to play the devil's advocate to its chief executive and management team. While supporting them, it must also challenge them, and stay one step removed, always ready to ask, "What if?"
"No matter what your job, everyone needs someone to come along and say, 'Hang on, have you thought about this? What if this happens?"'
Reddy doesn't think directors need years of experience in their company's field to be effective, but every board should have a mix of specialists and generalists.
"If someone at university now is thinking, 'I'd like to be a director one day - what should I do?' I'd say it doesn't matter. You can't train to be a director, but the more experience you have the more valuable you are."
Reddy never set out to become a professional director. She started out as a lawyer and just took the opportunities that presented themselves.
After lecturing in law at Victoria University and then working for a Wellington law firm, she joined Brierley as legal counsel in 1987, just months before the stockmarket crash. Her first big lesson came quick: what do you do to keep a company afloat amid such crisis? Sell, sell, sell.
"You can't afford to keep your leverage if your stocks have suddenly halved, so I got involved in helping to sell a number of things - Brierley's stake in NZI, Winstones, its industrial equity. That strategy really saved the company at the time."
Around the same time the company gave Reddy her first shot at being a director. They were days of tax-propelled oil hunts, and Reddy worked on Brierley's acquisition of a small exploration company called Southern Petroleum.
"Many ventures were false starts, but lo and behold, Southern Petroleum struck oil at what became the Waihapa Field off Taranaki. Suddenly we had to develop the field, and the company had to have a board, so I thought I'd give it a try."
Her next directorship followed a similar path. In 1988 she was part of the Brierley team that put together a consortium of international airlines to bid for Air New Zealand. They won, and then had to put together a board to help to run the national carrier. Brierley asked Reddy to step up.
She remained with Brierley until 1998, when, seeing the company become so big that it became unwieldy, she realised that every company has an optimum size.
That's not to say she isn't a passionate advocate for big business. Heck, someone has to be.
"The most frustrating thing to me is that it's so ingrained in our culture to be egalitarian, and while I absolutely agree with that, the downside is that we become very anti big business.
"We become innately suspicious of any business that grows big - be it in telecommunications, electricity supply, an airline or forestry.
"But if New Zealand doesn't look after its own business, no one else will. If we don't value size and success, we'll lose it, and that's what we nearly saw happen to Air New Zealand.
"I don't have any one answer. I just think we need a cultural change. We don't want a country full of cottage industry - we won't survive."
The meat industry is one crying out for consolidation says Reddy, who spent two years on the board of meat processor and exporter Richmond.
"That industry would benefit from having two or three players instead of myriad small players, who cannot make a real mark overseas. The meat industry depends on export to survive, New Zealand depends on it."
Reddy's "can do" attitude helped in her proudest achievement to date - the winning of the licence by Brierley and American casino company Harrahs to set up Sky City, and overseeing the casino's construction.
"The whole project was so multifaceted - there were all sorts of litigation ongoing, we had to sift through the Americans' input to find what would work here, and we had a two-year deadline to complete the casino at a time when the construction industry was very depressed.
"We also had to hire and train a huge number of people. And we couldn't have a soft opening - when we opened the doors it had to be as good as it could ever be."
It's the diversity and challenge of jobs like this that make directorship worthwhile for Reddy. You wouldn't get into directing to make your fortune, she says, as despite all the public debate about directors' fees, she says she could make more by becoming a partner in a big law firm.
She is also inspired by the people she works with, both around the board tables and in management.
"I think the great secret to enjoying your work is to surround yourself with people who are more talented than yourself - then you're constantly stimulated."
Sharing their interest in rugby, racing or art helps too.
* Age: mid-40s
* Lives: Mt Victoria, Wellington with
partner David Gascoigne, also a professional director
* Born and raised: Hamilton, with one sister
* Attended: Hamilton Girls High School, Victoria University
* Top qualification: Masters degree in law with first class honours
1976-1981: Victoria University, lecturer
1982-1986: Rudd Watts and Stone (now Minter Ellison), senior associate, then partner from 1983
1987-1998: Brierley Investments, group legal counsel, then group manager strategic planning from 1996
* Previous directorships: Richmond, Air New Zealand, Oil Basins, New Zealand Post, Warehouse Clothing, Southern Petroleum, Ansett New Zealand
* Present directorships: Telecom,
Sky City Entertainment, Active Equities, Infinity Group
* Other positions: Trustee of Sky City Community Trust, New Zealand Festival of the Arts, and Victoria University Art Collection Trust. Director, Adam Art Gallery Advisory Board