Mike Rolton: Business discipline, non-profit motive

Seasoned manager Mike Rolton was all set for a new career coaching rugby and cricket, when he was asked to help restructure Waikato charity St Vincent de Paul.

The former Fletcher Challenge and Waikato-Tainui fisheries manager wasn't keen: he'd just earned Waikato University diplomas in national coaching and sports management and was itching to put them to use.

But he agreed to help out the moribund Hamilton-based regional charity because the job wouldn't take long. Seven years later, he's still there, managing a rebranded "Vinnies", which is now a $1 million non-profit business.

Vinnies depends on volunteers, but Rolton runs it strictly along business lines, with sales targets for its five op shops, annual business plans and a strategic plan for the future.


When he fronts up to Waikato businesses for help, he comes armed with a solid business case and supporting figures. And those figures are grim.

Demand for Vinnies' food help in the Waikato region doubled last year, says Rolton. Vinnies provided 90,000 school lunches last year and its vans, which nightly deliver food to Hamilton suburbs, are eagerly greeted.

Rolton reckons Vinnies keeps nearly 460 kids at school every week by providing lunches in response to SOS calls from school nurses or social workers.

"Families keep their children off school on Mondays and Tuesdays because they ran out of money on Saturday. I'm a big believer in education. If you want to break the cycle, get them educated. You won't break the cycle without education and it's my goal to do that."

Contrary to popular belief, low decile schools aren't the most in need of food support.

"Most of our schools are between the 4 and 9 decile range," says Rolton. "Poverty is not restricted to deciles 1, 2 and 3."

The demographics of the people who come to Vinnies for help have changed "dramatically" in the past four years, Rolton says.

"When I arrived, 90 to 95 per cent were Maori and on the benefit. Now that demographic is 52 per cent, and 48 per cent are what I call the working poor and generally they're European.

"The whole thing's changed dramatically and we're just lucky we've built it [Vinnies] so strong we can still help."

If you want to break the cycle, get them educated. You won't break the cycle without education and it's my goal to do that.


Low wages and rising costs are the culprits, says Rolton. Couples who need Vinnies' support may both be working, but just one unexpected bill like a new tyre or a power bill blowout in the winter can be enough to demolish their budget, he says.

"We break our year into [demand] blocks. In January it's school fees and uniforms. From May to September it's power bills. After that the pressure starts about Christmas. So we budget our cashflows for the peaks to make sure we can cover them."

With Hamilton growing fast, Rolton and his team have made a strategic plan to deal with the associated rise in demand for its services.

Rolton will be stepping up his presentations to businesses for help.

His current mainstays for food donations and cash are Greenlea Premier Meats, ProLife Foods, Maggy's Catering, McDonalds Hamilton, Tetra Pak, WEL Energy Trust and the DV Bryant Trust. They've been strong supporters for years, but Rolton will need to widen his hunt.

"Unless charities reach out to the business community, they really struggle. So my job was about building really strong relationships with key people in the market."

The strategic plan calls for a sixth op shop to be opened. Around 75 per cent of Vinnies' near-$1m income comes from its shops. The rest has to be raised.

The Catholic church doesn't influence Vinnies' work and hasn't contributed because it hasn't been asked to, Rolton says. "But we keep in touch with the Bishop ... and I think that will change."

When Rolton arrived, St Vincent de Paul had about 40 volunteers and two shops. It lacked momentum and volunteers, and different activities didn't talk to each other, he says. Revenue was about $180,000.

Today, Vinnies has seven paid staff and more than 260 volunteers. Shop managers are expected to meet sales targets and must manage their volunteer staff.

"Volunteers have to be motivated and you do that through communication, so I have monthly staff meetings with my managers and we lay out goals and sort out problems. I update them on our achievements and they go back and pass all that information to their staff."

Thames-raised Rolton is a long way from his career beginnings as a cost accountant and manager with then-Fletcher Timber and Fletcher Challenge. After deciding that a bank job wasn't for him when he left school - he wanted to do a BCom at university but his dad said to get a job - at 19 Rolton became a clerk at Fletcher's newly built Kopu timber sawmill.

At 26, after support from the company to study business after hours, he became the youngest cost accountant at any of its sawmills and went on to management positions.

After 14 years with Fletcher, Rolton moved his family to Hamilton for schooling, doing several management jobs before being asked by Tainui to be marketing manager for its inshore fishery business.

Then followed a stint overseas while he researched inshore fisheries for his own interest and dabbled in online seafood commodity trading.

A yearning to be a coach then took the rugby-mad Rolton to Waikato University to study sports management, a path he never quite made it down.

Heading Vinnies can be emotionally draining, but there's a simple reason why Rolton hasn't gone back to the for-profit world.

"I can make a difference to someone's life every day of the week," he says. "To that woman who comes in here with a black eye and split lip and hungry kids. For the kids who come in in the middle of winter with clothes you could spit through and no shoes. That's a real driver."

Jon Calder: From Fieldays to the law

Waikato Inc. was startled when Jon Calder, chief executive of the Southern Hemisphere's biggest agribusiness show, Fieldays, and the Mystery Creek Events Centre, announced he was off to head up a law firm.

He wasn't a lawyer and it was hard to think of anything that the huge $400 million-generating, non-profit Fieldays had in common with a legal practice.

Very little, except "good people", says Calder, now in his second year as chief executive of Tompkins Wake, an 86-year-old law firm with offices in Hamilton, Auckland and Rotorua and more than 100 staff.

Calder, 43, arrived at Mystery Creek in 2012 via executive and senior management jobs at Air New Zealand and NZ Bus in Auckland, so he's no stranger to changing horses to progress his career.

But the move to the law firm was the result of a lightbulb moment back in the early 2000s, when the young, green Air NZ manager heard an address by veteran transtasman business leader Rod McGeoch, at that time dubbed Australasia's most influential director.

McGeoch, a former chairman of SkyCity Entertainment Group and director of Telecom, leader of Sydney's successful Olympics 2000 bid and chairman of one of Australia's biggest law firms, was speaking at a leadership conference.

"He talked about the journey his law firm had gone on to culturally change and really live their values. The way they did that was to bring in a ceo who wasn't a lawyer and pull the thing to bits and redesign it," recalls Waikato born and bred Calder, who is the second chief executive at Tompkins Wake.

"I didn't have to do that, thankfully, but that whole story about what it was like to take a law firm that was good and make it exceptional really resonated. Ever since, I've had in my mind a leadership role in a professional services firm."

For Calder, there's an obvious common denominator to the diverse sectors he's taken on.

"It's all about people. It doesn't matter if it's planes, buses, an events centre, a law firm. If you haven't got the best people and your people don't feel valued and rewarded and know what they're doing, and you're not providing an environment in which they can be their best, you've got problems."

At Tompkins Wake, his job is to build on the firm's success, marrying the "exceptional" talent of its lawyers with strategy to deliver for clients. And having had a brush with the serious end of cancers in 2013, he's a champion of the firm's focus on the importance of family time and work-life balance for its staff.

It can't have been easy adjusting to the hush of legal corridors from the four-year job with the New Zealand National Fieldays Society, where he pushed through structural change which spurred significant growth at Mystery Creek, while vigorously promoting Fieldays and New Zealand agri-business.

Tompkins Wake's corridors can be quite lively, thank you, says Calder, and he can promote the firm, its people and successes to his heart's content – he just can't share the details of their work.

It's all about people. It doesn't matter if it's planes, buses, an events centre, a law firm.


What has been tough has been learning to work daily as a chief executive, alongside the firm's owners, who are its partners and shareholders, and often, its board members. But it's Calder as chief executive who conducts their performance reviews, is the compass for their future direction and recommends how the business should operate.

"One of my biggest achievements at Fieldays [National Society], and which probably made me most unpopular, was redesigning the structure of the society. We took the board from 14 to seven and co-opted a couple of directors. Almost everything had been decided by a committee of up to 40 people.

"I was 38 and probably a bit of a bull in a china shop. I could see what I wanted to do. There were some good learnings there about taking people with you.

"Stepping into this role, I've gone to the extreme opposite. It's a very different dynamic. One of the things we talk about here often is navigating these relationships where I have a partner, who is a shareholder, a board member but also one of my key staff. We can transition those relationships on an hourly basis.

"Some of the most positive and constructive conversations are when we sit down and talk about that. A partner says 'yes, we do own the firm, and yes, I am a board member and I work as a lawyer, but you are the ceo. And if you decide as the ceo that's what we want to do, then that's the way we roll'."

Calder says his role works because of the quality of the partners.

He doesn't have a law degree. Does that matter?

"Yes and no. When I was at NZ Bus, I didn't want to drive a bus to be a driver but to understand the challenge our people faced every day.

"Sometimes not having a law degree is hard because I can never understand the level of detail that goes into the advice we craft in the problems we solve for clients. You can understand at a high level but [in that respect] it's not too different from learning the different legislation when you go from planes to buses.

"There's a set of rules that lawyers operate by and that is what I have to have an understanding of. I have to understand the world our people live in and the rules by which they are bound to operate.

"But in some respects it helps not being a lawyer because it stops the waters getting muddied [with detail]."

Calder says he has been "lucky" to have had such diverse leadership roles.

"I certainly don't think I'm anything special but three times someone has reached out and said 'would you be interested in having a look at this role?'."