Inside the not so ordinary life of Justine Smyth

Justine Smyth: One of a rare breed in New Zealand

She sits on the board of two of the country's highest-profile companies yet Justine Smyth has managed to duck below the public radar. Until now.

Already a director of Telecom and the Financial Markets Authority, the Auckland woman was last month re-elected to the Auckland International Airport board.

In April, she stepped down as deputy chairman of NZ Post.

A condition of NBR ONLINE's interview was to steer clear of talk about the airport's operations and future.

AIA spin doctor Richard Llewellyn says that is because Ms Smyth felt if anyone is going to talk about that airport on behalf of the board it should be chairwoman Joan Withers.

Ms Smyth, 46, owns Albany-based business Lingerie Brands, which supplies Caprice Intimates, The Underwear Club, Zabu and Girls Room brands to shops in New Zealand and Australia.

Her sparsely-furnished office is a typical accountant's lair – except for the brightly-coloured brassieres occupying one shelf.

It turns out she is a bit of an over-achiever. She skipped her last year of Papatoetoe High School to attend Auckland University, where she did her accounting training.

Within 10 years of joining Deloitte she was made tax partner, a female rarity at the time, and was eventually lured to Australia to become Lion Nathan's group finance director.

She comes across as a contrasting mix of confidence and vulnerability – she talks confidently about her credentials but worries she will come across as an arrogant know-it-all.

Moment of Zen

Ms Smyth's moment of Zen came during a three-month, intensive course at Harvard Business School in 2003.

"I'd worked 12, 15 hours a day since I was 20," she says. "It was a revelation for me to actually take a break away.

"And I decided from doing that programme that I really wanted to do something on my own and for myself. And I also thought it was time to concentrate on having a child."

Soon after, she left Lion Nathan and Sydney.

On their return to New Zealand, husband Paul Lockey, who is now an Auckland Transport director, bought an infrastructure company.

It had "too many gumboots", she says, so she invested in Lingerie Brands.

In a bid for a better lifestyle, for the last three years their family, including seven-year-old daughter Mikayla Smyth and their golden retriever, have spent the colder, skiing half of the year living at Lake Hayes, near Queenstown.

Other than her board responsibilities, Ms Smyth also chairs the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation board of trustees and is a trustee of green growth group Pure Advantage.

Financial pedigree

Being a chartered accountant, and her mergers and acquisitions experience with Lion – including buying Wither Hills winery for $52 million in 2002 – give her a financial pedigree.

But she believes the lessons from running a business are equally important around the board table.

Ms Smyth calls herself an extremely hard-working "girlie-swat", who asks direct questions.

"I'm quite a detailed person and I do a lot of work. I'm not saying others don't, but that is my style. I do spend a lot of time reading the material and making sure I understand and am up to speed."

Telecom chairman Mark Verbiest rates her "extremely highly".

"She's an independent thinker – she doesn't necessarily tow a line. She does what she thinks is most appropriate, but by the same token she does it in a constructive, supportive way.

"She's got very strong analytical skills, she's good with people, she's very collegial."

Entrenched attitudes

Ms Smyth is reluctant to talk about it, but Mr Verbiest confirms she was approached after a Telecom meeting by a shareholder, who asked her if she was a personal assistant.

Mr Verbiest says it's a short-sighted view.

"There's still an attitude among some shareholders that doesn't relate to women directors.

"Generally, women tend to get to the nub of issues more quickly. I find that quite refreshing. I prefer people that are just out there stating their views quite quickly and there's less testosterone, shall we say."

Ms Smyth is a rare breed in New Zealand. As reported last month, of the 574 NZX-listed board positions 11% are held by women.

But only 50 women sit on boards when multiple directorships are removed – one woman is on four boards, three sit on three and 11 serve two.

Ms Smyth says there is not an "old girls' network", but women are doing their best to increase their representation on boards. She will not join a board as the only woman.

"The boy's club and boy's network – there's no questions that it is how it works and did work, and women are not as good as men at networking.

"Women aren't as good at promoting themselves and women for various reasons, not just at director level. There are very few women ceos.

"Most companies have great representation in the belly but they don't at the top.

"If boards of directors are looking for varied type of experience they don't necessarily see those women qualifications.

"That's not to say they're not there, they don't just see them."

Woman role model

She says one of the key reasons for joining AIA was to learn from chairwoman Mrs Withers.

"In my life, in all the things I've done, I've never had a woman role model, so I thought that was a bonus."

She's loyal – but not at a financial cost. When she became a Telecom director she changed her personal phone from 2degrees to Telecom. Lingerie Brands is still with 2degrees.

"That will change, but only to the extent that Telecom can be competitive. I'm not going to change for the sake of changing. Telecom will decide to what extent it wants to compete in that market."

She would like to be chairman of the "right" company one day but hasn't set a time to achieve that goal.

"No, I'm very comfortable.

"I couldn't be a chair of something and do all of the other things I do – with this business, FMA, Telecom, AIA, because the time commitment of being a chair is huge, so something would need to change.

"I don't have a timeline and if I'm never a chair I'm not going to be worried, either."

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