Our British hangover
Owen Glenn (72) was sixth equal on the NBR Rich List 2011, with an estimated wealth of $900 million.
In January, he sold the international freight company he founded, LA-based OTS Logistics Group, to a London-based private equity group.
His philanthropy includes an $8 million donation to Auckland University, and $1 million to Christchurch quake relief.
His controversies include a $100,000 donation to Winston Peters in 2008. Mr Peters was censured by parliament for not declaring the donation.
In this extract from his forthcoming autobiography Mr Glenn says he "puts the facts straight once and for all" on the Peters saga - CK.
CHAPTER 8 — SETTING A HIGHER BENCHMARK
I think I'm really just too much of a loner to be a public servant.
I am often asked, usually when I’m having a bit of a rant about something that frustrates or disappoints me, about the way New Zealand is being run or the direction it’s going in: Why don’t you enter politics? Or, more commonly, Why didn’t you enter politics?
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Overall, I have no political ambitions. There’s the obvious reason: I have poured all my time and energy into two things, business and philanthropy. Second, I don’t think I could handle the lack of integrity in the political arena. Third, I’m too old! If I’d taken an interest 20 years ago, even 15, maybe, maybe then, but I haven’t got the patience to become part of a political party.
On top of that, I think I’m really just too much of a loner to be a public servant. However, I am very interested in economic policy and how it affects our country.
Looking at all of the past political parties in New Zealand, at their threadbare policies, I don’t really see enough substance. But we get the government we deserve. It’s a national malaise: ‘Will my life be disturbed if I make that decision? Probably. Then I’m not going to make it.’ How did this inertia happen?
When we finally came out from under the aprons of Mother England, we struggled to find out what the hell we were and who we were. It was only when England and the Common Market turned its back on New Zealand in the early 1970s that we were forced to do something about that.
So we created government departments and government-heavy organisations like the Lamb Marketing Board and the Dairy Board, and now we have Fonterra.
In my opinion, Fonterra could double its revenue if it marketed its products with more vigour. Instead it is driven to simply achieve an increase over the previous year’s results. The western world is finally looking at poverty properly, and looking at problems in Africa and other developing nations.
There are huge amounts of money that are available globally to basically feed the starving, and there is no shortage of undernourished people, it’s painful to say. Fonterra, clearly, makes products that meet those needs. We could sell such products through a ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼UN fund. Are we doing that? If not, why not?
In a general sense, I think we went too far down the socialist path in this country. It was an overflow from industrial Britain through their successive Labour governments. We just became a country that operated on the basis that we didn’t have to earn a living, that Britain would buy everything we produced, which they did.
When the European Economic Community was formed, it really hit everybody in the guts. Suddenly we had to find other markets, but it didn’t change our socialist status. The government said, ‘We’ll just borrow the money, we’ll trade out of it.’ The funny thing is New Zealand did trade out of it many times . . . and it just continued spending beyond its means.
Spend more and get more back and then spend more. Austerity was never part of our national make-up. Hot pie, cold beer, couple of bob to put on the gee-gees, no sweat.
It doesn’t breed aspiration, a willingness to better yourself. Why would you bother? If you’ve got a hot pie and a cold beer, hell, what else is there? A pair of shorts and jandals. I don’t think, in general, that New Zealanders are lazy people, I don’t at all, I just think we fit in and if the community we live in doesn’t set a higher benchmark, everyone just conforms. So often New Zealanders don’t aspire to better their lot.
And while I do believe that’s partly a hangover from our British background. The funny thing about the Aussies is they’re not like that. They came out below decks so they were always challenging authority and the norm. Aussies have a far stronger attitude towards making things happen, whether it’s on the sports field, in business, whatever you care to name. They’re our cousins just some 2000km away but the attitudes of the people are totally different.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼New Zealand is struggling with that ill-informed promise that it’s going to match Australia in years to come. They’re going away faster than we’re growing up. It’s never going to happen. Show me what New Zealand is going to do to increase its GDP to the extent that it will match Australia’s.
And yet United Nations statistics state that we’re the world’s second-richest country in terms of natural resources per capita, all under the ground — oil, gas, minerals. We are second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of our natural capital per capita.
It’s an absolutely amazing statistic. So my argument is: Look, if we do allow somebody a permit to explore our waters and find a gas field and it’s 250km offshore and they build a platform, exactly whose view are we impeding?!
I realise some may consider the term ‘responsible drilling’ to be a touch ambiguous, but if we apply rigorous and well-researched science and technology to the processes, as we have done with both agribusiness and manufacturing, I firmly believe that we can proceed confidently in the exploration of this ‘gold mine’ under our feet.
We don’t want a repeat in this country of the Gulf of Mexico disaster; nor can we possibly put lives at risk, or have the dreadful tragedy that was Pike River reoccurring in this sector.
Permitting responsible organisations only to get involved in the exploration of our mineral wealth — and these are easily vetted to strict criteria — is one very simple, tangible and effective way of ensuring any investigations are done in a way that is sympathetic to all our resources: our people, our land, our environment.
Responsible exploration of renewable resources could generate huge gains in jobs and growth. It’s irresponsible not to pursue this to some degree.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Two crucial factors are required to make this happen: political will and courage from the government, and buy-in and belief from the public.
The noise that has built up around the current government’s proposed partial asset sales shows that certainly the second of these characteristics is in short supply on this particular issue and, while the government has shown some political courage and stuck to its guns over this one, political will and stamina are not the usual stock-in-trade of any government or political party.
I hope the National government holds its course on the asset sales strategy.
Why? If ‘selling the family silver’, as opponents of this strategy like to term it, actually produces some real ‘gold’, in terms of a return on investment, then it makes political sense. The same concerns about what sits on the negative side of the accounting ledger, which makes responsible mining exploration a winner, apply here too.
We need to fund a phenomenally expensive rebuild in Christchurch, we have a wealth of leaky home payouts to deal with. Our ageing population, as it will in most of the developed world, is going to become an increasing and ongoing financial burden to the rest of the country. And there’s a billion dollars’ worth of Treaty settlements in the offing, at last count.
To those who ply the public sentiment for opposition to both these sound economic plans for no other reason than column inches and perceived political gain, I say, shame on you.
Despite the ‘zero budget’ the government’s debt is monumental. Our private debt figures are even more frightening; depending on which statistics you look at, New Zealanders owe more per capita than the US$50,000 (and rising) that saddles the neck of every American citizen. What’s even more concerning about this level of private debt is that ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼much of it has been used to finance non-productive assets in property markets.
Put these two financial facts together, the public and the private debt levels, and the picture is woeful. Partial privatisation and responsible mineral exploration are two very clear ways of heading away from this position of unacceptable indebtedness and moving towards a self-supporting, responsible society.
We need these sorts of practical steps from our employees in the Beehive and no one with a conscience and a belief in this country should shoot them down in flames when they float such ideas. At least consider them, surely?
I would go much further than mere consideration, naturally. I would implement these strategies and once the returns began to materialise, as they would, I would look closely at how we allocate the funds. Yes, as I’ve just said, the mountain of debt needs to be addressed. But, as they’re starting to say in Europe, ‘austerity’ and debt reduction are not the only drivers of growth.
Even with the financial albatross around the neck of every New Zealander, we need to invest as well. We need to look for investment opportunities that will directly help individual New Zealanders, the ones who are working hard and using their abilities to progress themselves and the country, in whatever sector they’re operating in. We support them, and get the rest of the country in behind them. And we move forward.
Do we keep ploughing (!) money into agriculture, the tired old mainstay, the fallback provider for New Zealand Inc.? Yes! Agriculture and the related food industries are a huge part of this country’s competitive advantage. Agriculture and forestry account for approximately 65 per cent of this country’s ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼exports, and the world, right now, is screaming for quality food products from reputable, that is safe, producers.
I’ve said it before: Here’s our chance to be the mouse that roared. We have a well-deserved worldwide reputation in agribusiness — if we really work at twinning that with the technological expertise we have in this country, surely we could become unstoppable in this area?
What if Massey University worked more closely with Crown Research Institutes to keep on finding those niches that we are so good at exploring and turning to our advantage? What if there was an institute, along the lines of the very successful ICEHOUSE model at the University of Auckland, that combined science and technology with agribusiness research, that showed a commitment of resources and intent in this area, that helped establish products and processes that were saleable on a global scale, that was capable of producing a real and ongoing economic return for the country?
Science writer Julian Cribb has said that New Zealand has the potential to become ‘the Silicon Valley of agricultural knowledge’ — and he’s absolutely right. Imagine it. What would that look like? New Zealand needs to profitably connect with the world if it wants to be a highly successful small country and trading force. And these are ways it can do that.
Of course we need the educational environment to help develop this in the first place. My investment in the University of Auckland Business School and the AUT Millennium Institute of Health and Sport was to encourage this type of framework, one of educational excellence, and to explore and develop the potential inherent in our bright young people.
It is shameful that we spend so little on research and development compared with most OECD countries: our finest entrepreneurial minds ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼should be encouraged, not made to strike out on their own in spite of the environment in which they are trying to succeed.
It’s vital that the average New Zealander receives the exposure or experience that they need to keep them challenged, to keep their intellect developing, to ensure they reach their potential. We need to ask ourselves: Do we have the right environment here?
The figures say (all the time) that up to 25 per cent of good Kiwis have left the country, and they’re the ones who have done the hard yards, developed their intellect, reached their potential. When you talk to people like Sir John Buchanan or Sir Douglas Myers, people like that, you have a different level of conversation. These people know. They have done battle in the international marketplace.
Of course, not everyone who leaves New Zealand becomes globally significant or amazingly successful but, generally speaking, New Zealanders are considered good employees, trustworthy people to deal with, not as brash as the Aussies but that doesn’t matter.
What’s of concern is the widening knowledge and experience gap between New Zealand and elsewhere. The rest of the world is striding ahead, and we are not keeping pace.
I never want to be someone who only shouts from the sidelines. While I will do that — and the series of articles I wrote for the New Zealand Herald in 2011 was exactly that — what I prefer to do is take meaningful action. I am also aware that there are already existing channels there to ostensibly change things for the better, such as government, so I have done my utmost to talk to whoever is in power and offer some suggestions.
I have said, ‘Look, we can harness Kiwis overseas, we really can, but we’ve got to give them a blueprint to work with.’ ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Kiwi Expatriates Abroad (KEA) strives to do this and needs our support; well done Sir Stephen Tindall.
I talked to the CEO of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE) and he accepted the point and said he is trying to change things for the better. I believe him.
I said to him, ‘Let’s take China as an example. You don’t have to employ just New Zealanders in NZTE positions: employ good Chinese people. It’s easy for them to come to New Zealand, have a good look around and discover what we’re all about and take that back. As well, the best place to recruit from is the ex-alumni of our universities who are now back home. There are thousands of them. What great ambassadors they could be.’
He liked it. And that’s where some of the recruits already come from. These are the people who love New Zealand, they’ve come through our education system and succeeded; they have benefited from an education here. They know what the All Blacks and Warriors mean, they know what decent dairy food tastes like. These are the people who have some affiliation, some loyalty and some belief that New Zealand has credibility.
There’s an intelligentsia in New Zealand, not more than 12–5 per cent, who do care and who really want to understand and really want to make a difference. But the government doesn’t see any need to appeal to those people and rally them to this cause. What about forming a think-tank? I’m a starter!
In general, I believe the government has become frustrated about poverty and child abuse and everything that goes with those problems. Have we grown to accept it? This country’s record in child abuse is a national disgrace. We have the fifth-highest rate in the OECD: a child dies of child abuse in New ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Zealand every five weeks; a child under two is admitted to hospital with preventable injuries every five days.
Let’s add in that we have the second-highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the world, with only the US taking top honours in this area. Our suicide rate for 15–19-year-olds is the highest in the OECD and double that of Australia.
Now, I know from personal experience, having invested heavily in community development projects in impoverished areas around the world, that there are a raft of complex issues behind these statistics. But we cannot let those issues, or the great Kiwi ‘she’ll be right’ attitude, blind us to our responsibilities.
We must do something. We can’t leave it solely up to the government, and I’ll talk about this in the next chapter, as I am hugely passionate about putting this right.
Now something dominated life in New Zealand during my time down here in 2011, dominated the headlines more than it usually does, and that was rugby. I’m okay with that. It’s well documented: I’m a rugby nut. I love the All Blacks. I’ve watched them play all over the world.
But there needs to be a sense of balance. There’s nothing wrong with following sport, it’s a healthy outlet and good for the country if we achieve recognition. But why can’t we put the same sense of purpose and determination into trade and products?
The Aussies have a far greater identification with pushing Australia. Australia Made, the lovely little kangaroo. We need stronger country brand identification. We used to have it, but it’s lost visibility.
There simply aren’t the crusaders out there. I don’t criticise to embarrass anyone; I’m just asking, Why don’t we look at this?
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼One thing I very much like about the United States is that you can come from anywhere in the world but if you get American citizenship you are an American. Whether your origins are in China or Nigeria, it doesn’t matter.
I believe in New Zealand there is still a lingering bigotry. Australia suffers from it a little, too. Where its attitude towards Aborigines is concerned, Australia is guilty as charged, no question; but the era of the White Australia policies has passed and everyone needs to move on.
Maori have shown far greater resilience and anger than the Aborigines in insisting their language and heritage be protected and I certainly don’t blame them for that. What I worry about is Maori feeling they’re so different that we get to a place where Maori are first and New Zealand is second.
Sir Howard Morrison and I used to have fierce arguments about this; I don’t deny that I used to provoke him!
Howie said to me, ‘You don’t understand Maori history.’
My message to Maori is simply this: I’d just like you to think you’re New Zealanders first. Yes, you’ve got grievances and, yes, they should be resolved, but let’s resolve them once and for all. Let’s close the book. In the end you’ll cause division.
Howie never accepted that point of view from me. Never. His heart was in the right place but he couldn’t see that change is necessary for us to move forward as one country.
I believe certain iwi elders have feathered their nests at the expense of their own people, particularly their people who so desperately need assistance both economically and from a health perspective. Instead of working with the troubled communities, they buy buildings, they buy sports clubs and they deny their own people opportunities to flourish.
They’re ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼amassing more wealth as they go along. Even if they subdivided the wealth and gave every person in the iwi a share . . .
When a percentage of commercial fishing rights was restored to Maori, Rex George, who used to coach for me at Belmont Shore Rugby Club in California and had been captain of the Maori All Blacks, emailed me and said, ‘I’ve just received a letter telling me I’m entitled to all these fishing rights. What on earth do I do with them?’
I sent him back two words, ‘Go fishing.’ He had no idea what the rights meant; it wasn’t practical in any day-to-day sense.
I bring that up only in the context of being a Kiwi. I believe we are a multicultural society and that is a huge advantage but we need to integrate Maori culture, not isolate it.
Howard said to me once, ‘You know, Owen, I’m actually 85 per cent Scottish.’ I said, ‘Aren’t you proud of your Scottish heritage?’ ‘Not as much as I am of my Maori heritage.’ Isn’t that interesting?
As for the Winston Peters debate, all I want to do here is put the facts straight once and for all.
I was very naive when I backed the Labour Party. I will admit that. I hadn’t been in New Zealand and I thought Helen Clark had the tiller in her hand and that New Zealand wasn’t doing nearly as badly as I finally found out it was. I didn’t realise just how heavily the Labour Government was borrowing to prop up New Zealanders’ standard of living and the welfare programme.
So why did I do it? Why did I give them money?
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼For the record, they didn’t ask me. I met Helen at a tourism function that the New Zealand Government was sponsoring in Sydney. So, because I thought they were doing a good job, I offered to support them. A few weeks later Mike Williams (then Labour Party president) contacted me and we met in Sydney. I agreed to donate $500,000.
Over a period of two years we met in New Zealand, Australia and the South of France, and Mike raised with me my ongoing interest in New Zealand and politics.
Given my business connections, I was constantly rubbing shoulders with influential people, including royalty and various government associates from around the world. My initial thought was, How can I make this work for New Zealand?
What I had in mind was an ambassador at large role, but completely at my expense; at no point did I expect the government to contribute — that was never the idea.
If the ambassador at large role didn’t appeal, I thought I could host New Zealand trade delegates in Monaco as an honorary consul, bring a rugby Sevens tournament there, be a contact for New Zealanders if they needed assistance when visiting Monaco, again with no financial assistance from the government.
While I had been invited to the palace in Monaco, the reality was in order to have credibility with the palace and other official channels, I would of course need an endorsement from the New Zealand Government.
Mike said he would speak to Helen Clark and it was then referred to Winston Peters as Foreign Minister.
I then met with Winston in Sydney at his request and again ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼when he was in France for an All Black rugby test. He said to me they had decided they didn’t need such a role. I outlined to him the ideas I had and told him it would be at no cost to New Zealand, and he said he would ask his bureaucrats again.
Then in the 2008 election he lost his seat in Tauranga and he contacted me asking for assistance with his legal fees of $100,000. Within minutes of speaking to him I had an email from his lawyer with the details of his bank account to pay the money into.
Meanwhile, Mike Williams contacted me and asked for a further $100,000 for new computers, which I agreed to provide in the form of a loan, to be repaid within the following 12 months. I discussed with him the approach I’d had from Winston and he came back to me and said he’d talked it over ‘with the powers that be’, and there was no objection. So I paid the money to Winston’s lawyers.
I actually felt a bit of a fool that I’d given the Labour Party the money. But what really turned me against them was that I felt they lacked integrity.
Winston saying he never received any support from me and my then having to come down to New Zealand and prove that he had — well, it was done to death in the newspapers and you’d know all about it from reading them. Or at least whatever bits of it the media wanted to tell. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you’re lucky! A very small episode in my life.
The overall lesson for New Zealand, whether you know, understand or believe the details or not, is how can a country elect someone who, when he held the privileged portfolio of Foreign Minister, was found by his peers to have effectively ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼misled the House?
Where is our self-respect as a nation, that we would let that man hold a role in our parliament again? Extraordinary.
Making a Difference by Owen Glenn ($39.99) will be published July 17 by Random House.