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Lunch in the Boardroom: David Kirk

David Edward Kirk, MBE, is probably best known as the captain of the All Blacks when they won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987. But, since then, he has forged an impressive career in business, culminating in some high-powered governance roles such as chairman of Trade Me. Mr Kirk was born in Wellington and grew up in Palmerston North. He attended the University of Otago, where he graduated with a medical degree. He retired from competitive rugby at the end of 1987, at the age of 26, to take up a Rhodes Scholarship at Worcester College, Oxford, taking a degree in philosophy, politics and economics. After his studies at Oxford, he worked with McKinsey & Co in London for three years and then returned to New Zealand to work in the Office of Prime Minister Jim Bolger as executive assistant and then chief policy adviser. He also coached the Wellington NPC team in 1993 and 1994.  There followed a corporate management career with Fletcher Challenge, Norske Skog and PMP. From October 2005 to December 2008, he was chief executive of Fairfax Media.  He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and children.


David Kirk profile

  • Co-founder and managing partner of Bailador Investment Management

  • Chairman, The Hoyts Group

  • Chairman, Trade Me Group

  • Chairman, Standard Media Index Ltd (portfolio company of Bailador).

  • Director Kathmandu Holdings (appointed Wednesday), to be appointed Chairman in 2014

  • Director, Forsyth Barr 

  • Director, Viocorp International (portfolio company of Bailador)

  • Director, SiteMinder (portfolio company of Bailador)

He also sits on a number of not-for-profit boards including as chairman of Trustees, Sydney Grammar School, Chairman FoodShare, and as a trustee of the Sydney Medical School Foundation.


Why did you get involved in governance?

I enjoy working with other people to achieve goals together. I am happy to sit on boards to do that. My working life has always had the consistent strand of being part of, or working with, a team.  Effective governance is a team effort and the team must have real clarity of goals and understanding of what success looks like for the organisation.  

How do you deal with conflict in the boardroom?

Conflict between directors is damaging if left unmanaged and is not focused on valid debates about the company and its future. However, it’s important to accept that there will be some natural and constructive tension in a well-functioning board. You don’t want a board in which everyone agrees with everyone else all the time. There should always be constructive debate at board meetings.

A good director will use sound business judgment that draws on their own business experience and use this to provide insights and clear points of view to fellow directors.  The board should hear and work through the possible differing views. The chairman’s role is to facilitate that debate and bring things to a conclusion. The board should come to a considered view and, hopefully, an agreed position.

How do we best prepare the next generation of directors?

We need to look at the various sources of new directors to understand what development they need to be effective directors. Directors will come from different backgrounds and have different strengths and weaknesses.

It is often helpful for the next generation to gain experience on a board while they are still an executive, for instance, but one must be careful to balance their current workload as they are generally time-poor.  

Traditionally, lawyers and accountants tend to have exposure to governance training.  The challenge for them is to become more knowledgeable in the actual work of business.  I think it is important for aspiring directors to work from their strengths and broaden themselves from there. And finally, I would say, don’t join boards where you are not genuinely interested in the business. 

What are your thoughts on board diversity?  What skill sets are missing today?

Entrepreneurial skills, exposure to technology, business growth orientation – including innovation, change management, risk taking. Growth is the biggest challenge for companies and today, more than ever, status quo management and directorship won’t deliver it. 

Gender diversity?

Slow progress here but we are heading in the right direction. The issue starts further back of course. A larger pool of experienced female executives and senior advisers would provide a larger pool of potential directors. We need to build this pool of talent.

If you could fix three things around governance today, what would they be?

Harmonise the NZX and ASX listing requirements. Dual listing requirements that differ between Australia and New Zealand create an extra burden of governance red tape.  The process needs to become less bureaucratic as well.

Regulatory bodies should not overburden boards with regulation and the associated liability. Personal liability is a barrier to attracting new directors and smart people to join boards. Many boards spend too much time on compliance. This takes away from the time spent focusing on strategy, people issues, M&A activities and so on. This is the big difference between public and private companies. Boards need to work on business improvements, not red tape!

Looking at your career to date: highlights?

For me it’s always been family first, then my career;

  • Captain of the 1987 Rugby World Cup winning team;

  • Starting my own investment management firm;

  • My time at McKinsey taught me a lot;

  • Chief executive of Fairfax when we tried hard to position the company for success in the digital age and made some big bets that came off; and

  • My time in the Prime Minister’s office working on public policy was important and valuable. 

If you could turn back the clock, what would you do differently with your life?

Not much – I’ve had intense chief executive roles (six to seven years) during which I would try to balance my personal life better if I did it again. Climbing Mt Everest would have been nice.

What is the future of media from your perspective?

Overall, media is dynamic and changing fast. There is more media than ever. Social media is here to stay. Print and other traditional media is in long-term decline as it’s funded by advertising, which has and will continue to migrate online and to mobile devices.  Audiences will continue to fragment, prices will continue to fall and the volume of content will continue to rise.   

Name one thing to change the world?

Simply to focus on education. Globalisation and information technology has created tremendous opportunities for income and wealth growth but, without education, you will miss out. We have a wider dispersion of wealth today than ever before and in many cases a less socially cohesive western world.  We need to continue to build incomes and wealth and improve education to ensure more people can share in that growth.

Henri Eliot is chief executive of Board Dynamics – which gives independent advice on the effectiveness of the board and its committees.

Comments and questions
2

No doubt achieved alot, and a bright person.

I would have thought his biggest lesson would have been the Wellington bakery he ran into receivership however; but it wasnt.

Understanding (or should I say the lack of understanding) the consequences of taking on too much debt can again be highlighted
during his tenure a Fairfax, which nearly went broke also.

He may be more suited to politics.

"I would have thought his biggest lesson would have been the Wellington bakery he ran into receivership however; but it wasnt. "

Good chance that it was. Failures are only stepping stones to success.

I would like to see him move/invest into specialised areas of medical research. Lots of cross-over interests/synergies here for him perhaps, and lots of moola to make (and spend)