Key Points:

December is a time of awards in schools - and in business.

Putting your company up for an award can put it under the microscope, which can seem like asking for trouble when times are tough. But the thing to remember is that entering the right awards won't waste your time but will ask the important questions about your company's performance and give you a useful "to-do" list at the end, whether or not you win.

The NZ Business Excellence Foundation (NZBEF), started by Doug Myers and Ralph Norris in the 1990s, recently announced the NZ Business Excellence awards. Vero Insurance won gold and silver went to Kerridge & Partners and the Whangarei District Council.

The awards are measured against a set of standards known as the Baldrige Criteria. "It's like the International Baccalaureate or the Olympics of business," explains Mike Watson, chief executive of the NZBEF. The Baldrige Criteria were set up in the 1980s in the US, as businesses realised the quality of US products and services was falling behind other nations, Japan especially. The criteria, updated every two years, reflect the characteristics of top performing

organisations and look at strategic planning, leadership, people, customers, process, knowledge and information.

New Zealand companies have won a gold two years in a row - NZ Aluminium Smelters was a recipient last year and now Vero. Before that there was a yawning gap back to 1995. In the US last year, five golds were awarded in the whole country.

"Many organisations aspire to be world-class but they don't know what it means," says Watson. "Our awards, besides being internationally calibrated, provide excellent feedback and give a report of an improvement agenda for the organisation going forward."

After 10 years' work, Roger Bell, the ebullient chief executive of Vero, is crowing from the rooftops about his Gold NZ Business Excellence Award.

"What the Baldrige Criteria gives you is the only road map that covers everything," says Bell. "There are other measuring systems - ISO 9000, Six Sigma, Lean - but they tend to be about process."

Bell says he has read hundreds of management books and articles in his career and the book which really resonated was Good to Great by Jim Collins.

Collins drew up a shortlist of world-class companies such as Abbott Laboratories and Kimberley-Clark which had grown strongly over the years. It was no miracle, says Bell. "Their management never had a breakthrough gimmick; they did not have a charismatic chief executive who suddenly came out with a strategy."

"The one common factor was that they continuously improved over the years.

"No one else can compete with that," explains the Vero chief executive.

Bell says when he is talking to a business audience, he asks them to put their hands up if they have a strategic plan, an ambition to be world-class. Usually, 95 per cent of the hands go up. When he asks if they have a road map to get there, 50 per cent of the hands go up. When he questions them about the way of measuring it, all the hands go down.

"What happened with us 10 or 11 years ago," Bell explains, "[is] we said to our staff: 'We are the best of a bad bunch' - we didn't think insurance in New Zealand was an iconic industry.

"At gold level it was not good enough to compete against New Zealand insurance companies but global companies like Disney," says Bell. "There is this view that Kiwis are apathetic, which is wrong. If they don't know what's in it for them, they don't have a sense that the entire company can be better. But if you can paint a vision of being world-class, they become tigers, they become riveted on the goal as you get close, they become extraordinarily competitive, which was the most beautiful thing. Instead of Roger Bell's vision, it was theirs."

Vero has emerged with some strong numbers thanks to the goals it has had to achieve for the gold award. The response rate to the most recent staff survey was 93 per cent; staff engagement is 87 per cent; staff confidence in the company's strategy is 98 per cent, there is 97 per cent support for values; the claims satisfaction rating is 9 out of 10. Meanwhile, sales are up 24 per cent for October on the same month in the previous year.

Alongside the almost evangelical presence of Roger Bell, executive search expert Peter Kerridge, director of Kerridge & Partners, is taking his company's Silver NZ Business Excellence award in his stride. The company was also ranked 26th in this year's Deloitte/Unlimited Fast 50.

Small businesses in New Zealand must evaluate themselves, benchmarking against the best in the world. They must look overseas for role models, says Kerridge. "Otherwise we easily convince ourselves that we are better than we are."

With a young company in its fourth year, Kerridge's plan is to build relationships with some of the best search firms in the world and learn from them.

With eight staff, applying for the Silver Business Excellence award meant Kerridge spending most of the night filling out a 50-60 page application form.

His secret, he says, is hiring some people who are seriously bright. "Don't be afraid of having people that are really quite brilliant, and then liberating them to do great work," he says.

The executive search consultant says he re-plans the business every three months, involving the entire team.

"We have a number of different plans for the future - we'll be taking our business global. We know that we are world-class - we now want to be world-leading."Gill South is a freelance business writer based in Auckland