Success in the UK for Kiwi businesswomen

By Mary Fenwick In Commentary

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17th December, 2011 Leave a Comment

Emma Loisel and Bronwen Horton, photo Stephen Lock

In the UK, Kiwi businesswomen appear to be flourishing. This year, for example, Bronwen Horton, the London-based founder of the New Zealand Business Women’s Network (NZBWN), was honoured in Washington as one of the top 100 women around the world for her contribution to women’s economic power. Why are New Zealand women managing to get on so well in the country that invented the concept of “the old-boys network”? There is a suggestion that people might see “foreign-ness” before they see gender, so women get on better freed from the assumptions of their own native environment.

Jacey Graham, co-author of A Woman’s Place Is in the Boardroom, says the view that being foreign counteracts any potential negatives of being female is to some extent backed by the fact that out of the five female chief executives in the top 100 listed British companies, three are American. As foreigners in the UK, New Zealanders also tend to benefit from a generally positive prejudice. The occasional antipathy in the British tabloids towards “economic migrants” does not touch Kiwis; indeed one think tank found New Zealanders and Iranians ranked as the highest-earning migrants.

Despite the general British economic gloom, around 600 New Zealand women are part of Horton’s London-based business network, which is going from strength to strength. Horton, who has found time this year to help raise around £3 million ($6 million) for Christ­church earthquake relief, is quick to point out that she defines business very broadly. The membership of the NZBWN ranges from those on the corporate ladder to independent consultants and entrepreneurs, and those who defy categorisation, such as charity founder Molly Bedingfield and world-leading nutritionist Jeni Pearce.

These ideas about smashing across boundaries are what brought Horton to the attention of Christina Ioannidis, co-author of Your Loss: How to Win Back Your Female Talent. Ioannidis runs a marketing and communications agency focused on women as customers. She’s a diversity specialist of Venezuelan and Greek origin who grew up in the UK and is married to an Australian. She sees Antipodean women in general as having a different perspective on the world. For example, she sees Horton “as not only a thought leader, but a radical change agent. She really understands the challenges for women – not just in corporate life, but as entrepreneurs. I interviewed Bronwen for the book, as well as Sarah Gibbs, co-founder of skin-care brand Trilogy. We had significant input from women in New ­Zealand and Australia.”

The experience of being under-appreciated in her native land or in corporate life does not apply to Horton as much as it might to some in her group. She was already on ANZ’s talent programme before she left Christchurch four years ago, and she’d helped set up the bank’s office for expat business in London when Lehman ­Brothers collapsed.

“From my office, I could see this row of ants – people walking out with their boxes. I just couldn’t quite believe what was going on. In 18 months I’d helped set up a business unit, then we were winding it down.” In parallel with arranging her own exit from ANZ, Horton decided to undertake a three-month personal development programme, with the challenge of seeing how she could carry over what she’d learnt already into this brave new world.

“I thought, ‘Bugger it, I’m going to set up a network around the connections that I’ve got and things that I’m really passionate about. I could really see the need for women in business having some support – a really good network of not just sitting around talking but forming strong business relationships that were going to last.”

It’s no easier being a woman in public life in Britain than in New Zealand – only 22% of British MPs are women, for example, compared with 31% in New Zealand, and both are decried as dismal figures. A recent report by the Guardian on why British public life is dominated by men revealed that 78% of newspaper articles are written by men and 84% of the reporters and guests on the BBC’s popular Radio 4 are men. Only 14% of FTSE 100 board positions are held by women – or 152 out of 1086 seats. Female board representation in the FTSE 250 companies is still low, at 8.7%. In New Zealand, 9.3% of the board members of the top 100 listed companies are women.

Being a banker – her new daytime job is as a project manager with Credit Suisse – Horton is not just about the touchy-feely stuff. Her goal is to create wealth for women. “I want to see that grow. It’s really important.” Horton says the “magic” of the network is partly down to a Kiwi openness and willingness to share, partly down to a specific level of trust among women. “Females do this very well if it’s in the right context. If they feel safe and secure about talking to somebody on a total par with them, then it happens. When they don’t, and if they go into a situation, then the guards go up, you just get the frivolous talk and nothing actually happens.”

But she believes the true value comes from the “springboard”, beyond being a New Zealander or a woman. It’s about making connections. “It’s saying ‘these people would help your business really fly.’ Nine times out of 10 they’re not New Zealanders, they’re well-established people, maybe British, whatever nationality, but they’re in the right industry. It takes that connection, it takes somebody else to say, ‘You need to talk to so-and-so, and I will introduce you.’”

The big picture for Horton is that businesses that don’t make these leaps across nationality, gender, ethnicity or other perceived barriers are in danger of having the rug pulled from under them. Such ideas have won support for the network from prominent New Zealand women in the UK, including the highly influential Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas, and Katherine Corich, founder of Kiwi business management consultant company Sysdoc, but it has also tapped into people who might have avoided such a network in the past.

“I think what really stifles a lot of networks is they focus so much on their own little profession and keeping up to date with what they’re doing, not looking further afield,” she says. “When you have an artist and you have an accountant, they come at things from such a different perspective, they walk away with so much. I’m also talking about my generation. We’ve grown up with a lot of choice. And with that comes the responsibility that actually you’ve got to do something.

“What really annoys me is when people blame certain areas of society. We are all responsible. The credit crunch wasn’t just created by bankers. We allowed people to do this. We’ve somehow got to come together and create something that’s going to deal with the problems that we’ve got at the moment. You can’t look at the old rules, the way they used to be. I do wonder if there are a lot of corporations [with] boards of directors who’ve always done things this way and they’re not agile enough to change – they will get left behind at some stage. Are they all bringing something quite different to the table? You’ve got to look at this whole team diversity and get the right mix.”

This attitudinal shift is what the New Zealand stock exchange may be looking for with its moves to force listed companies to report on their diversity strategy. Jude-Martin Etuka was one of those consulted when the UK Government asked former trade minister Lord Davies of Abersoch to look at diversity in British business, compared with other countries in continental Europe and beyond, including Australia. Etuka, founder of consultancy Diversity Is, says Kiwi business thinking is definitely heading in the right direction. “I do agree with ‘comply or explain’ as opposed to the legislative approach, because it derives more from a desire to create positive attitude change. That’s what is needed.

“There’s a culture shift that’s required to break the old-boys network that exists at a senior level.” In fact, he says, “although gender is a driving force, there has to be a larger spread across other areas of diversity. That’s of fundamental importance for the larger strategic initiative if companies are going to remain innovative and competitive.” There’s a further argument that as boards do start to seek diversity, women with international experience may be particularly well-placed.

Jacey Graham says boards have generally shrunk significantly in size over the past 20 years, so “two for the price of one – being a woman who also knows a totally different market, for instance – could become very appealing”. If New Zealand ever decides to follow the British example of compiling an annual list of women in the so-called “marzipan” layer – one below the top and therefore eligible for board selection – then there are plenty of female achievers in the UK to include.

Mary Fenwick is a former chair of the UK branch of Kea, a network of New ­Zealanders around the world.

Case study  1

The chief executive

Janene Madden, photo Stephen Lock

Janene Madden is chief executive of London’s Portland Hospital, owned by the world’s largest healthcare company, HCA. She has two sons and is expecting her third baby in January.

“You could say that I’ve got here because no one understands my CV. I came up through a clinical pathway, and it’s unusual to jump, but maybe the New Zealand piece distracts from the female piece. People just saw me as a Kiwi: we show initiative, we’re proactive and tend to have a solution-orientated approach, which is very much liked.

“My first permanent job in England was as a physio in a private hospital. There was a vacancy for a physio manager. I didn’t apply, but as a New Zealander you work hard and get on with it. Six months later I realised I was doing the job and I was formally given it. I went on to manage other departments, did an MBA, then at the age of 29 I was appointed to my first private hospital manager job. I moved to the Portland at the age of 35.

“I’m the first CEO in my company to take maternity leave, but I accept that the next 10 years of my career will be limited by my children. Nobody else has limited it. So, I’ve got mixed thoughts about anyone assigning places that have to be held just for women. Partly that’s because I work in healthcare. Around 70% of our workforce is women. I’m always surprised how much they want us to change the whole way we work to accommodate them and their children. I’m quite willing be flexible, but they have to see it from a business perspective as well.

“I see women at senior levels who go off on maternity leave with their jobs hanging in limbo for nearly a year. If they aren’t willing to be honest and tell me early that they’re not coming back to work, then that gives women a bad name. I don’t want women to be victims. We shouldn’t be in board positions just because they have to allocate a certain percentage. There’s a huge number of opportunities out there and I believe the right women will get there. I grew up in a farming family with the attitude that life is what you make it. I want other women to look at me – a pregnant chief executive – and say, ‘I can get there too if I want to.’”

Case study 2

The investor

Emma Loisel, photo Stephen Lock

Emma Loisel’s career has taken her from Matamata to studying criminology in Melbourne, via fraud-prevention work to professional services firm KPMG. At the age of 27, she was the only non-partner to attend KPMG management board meetings. With KPMG backing, Loisel moved into smaller internet-based businesses, until the sale of one gave her the money to set up as an angel investor in 2007. She’s expecting her first baby in January, sits on several boards and continues to focus on her private investment portfolio.

“In the UK, I’ve found it advantageous being female and a foreigner. You don’t fit into the traditional social class structures, which is helpful as you can move between the different classes to get stuff done. I’m sure one of the reasons I got results at KPMG was because I was female, so there was no point in the men wasting time with macho chest-beating when I was around.

“My view is that inequality on boards is a problem for the performance of businesses. I am less interested in the fairness argument, but I very much support the commercial argument. We know women make 70% of the buying decisions in the home, so there are very few companies where women are not a critical customer. Am I going to buy stock in a personal-­care company that’s got all men at the top? Probably not; that feels high-risk. I was chatting to a very lovely chairman of such a company with an all-male board. I said, ‘Please tell me someone on your board understands the colour fuchsia.’

“I’m on the fence on the quota argument. I’d prefer it was not necessary. Quotas seem to have worked in Norway but I’d prefer more education around the commercial argument and to help boards find the right women. It’s a healthy debate: men and women together ensure you don’t get every­one thinking the same way. Men and women look at things from different perspectives; you run the risk of getting male group-think if you only have men. Like in Holland in the 15th century when people were buying tulip bulbs and no one stopped to ask, ‘How much do you reckon one that flowers is worth?’

“I recently heard Sir Paul Callaghan speak about how New Zealand companies need to grow globally by focusing on niche markets. What I took away from this is that for New Zealand companies that want to export, it is vital to have one or two board members located outside the country, whether or not they’re expats, to help spot niche opportunities from within their markets.”

More by Mary Fenwick

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