First woman wins shareholder award

The top director of the year according the New Zealand Shareholders Association is Joan Withers, the first woman to win the award.

She was chosen for the Beacon Award because of her outstanding governance skills, ability to lead others, high ethical standards and respect for rules, and avoidance of self-interest, chairman John Hawkins says.

Ms Withers, who is currently chairs both Mighty River Power and Auckland International Airport, tells NBR ONLINE she was “blown away and very humbled” to receive the award.

Her rise to the top is motivating, especially since she started out in life with little privilege. Ms Withers left school at 16, with just School Certificate, before taking a job as a bank teller and later having a child. She worked her way up the bank, before moving into media, where she also climbed the ladder. She started university aged 36, getting up at 3am for two years while working fulltime to complete an MBA, before becoming chief executive of the Radio Network and Fairfax NZ.

The indomitable Ms Withers says doing the MBA was the “single best thing” she did to advance her career, and meant she could move easily into corporate governance in 1997 after leading the Radio New Zealand assets through privatisation as chief executive, coinciding with a drive to find qualified women to sit on boards.

However, it has not always been plain sailing. The hardest time Ms Withers has faced in her 17 years of corporate governance was the fallout from Feltex Carpets, she says.

This year, upset Feltex shareholders sued the former directors, owners and sale managers for $185 million including interest, saying the 2004 prospectus had misled them. Within a year of NZX listing the stock was virtually worthless, thanks to a series of warnings that the company would miss its forecasts.

In September, the High Court cleared directors of liability for alleged disclosure failings in the failed carpet-maker's prospectus.

While Ms Withers, who had resigned from the board 15 months before Feltex’s liquidation, welcomed the court’s decision, she says, “You never shake a real sense of dismay that shareholders that you were representing on that board lost value in terms of their investment.”

But Ms Withers says while corporate governance has not got any easier for her in the 17 years since she started, it has got better.

“There has been real change in the last decade around the board culture, with genuine assessments of board appointments and more companies doing formal board reviews. These things really go to improve the performance and behaviour of the board and this, in tandem with more awareness of the board’s role in driving strategy and overseeing risk and making sure the best possible people are in the key roles within the business, means that on the whole we’re in far better shape than we were 10 years ago.”

Directorships have changed in the past two decades, and are no longer about showing up to a board meeting once a month.

“Directors have to keep up with economic trends and what’s happening within an industry as well as immersing themselves in what specifically matters to the company. That requires a considerable amount of time and commitment and also being able to work with other people to get a collaborative and constructive environment around the board table is critically important,” she says.

Despite the award, Ms Withers – whose past directorships include The Warehouse, Tourism Holdings and Meridian Energy – remains modest, and says she most enjoys revitalising boards and working with talented chief executives.

“Look, I won't tout myself as having the optimal qualities [for directorship]. The biggest issue for directors is continuing to learn – the more I learn, the more I realise I still have to learn.

“But I think for directors the platform to build on has to be uncompromising integrity. There’s a lot of mana attached to these positions, so you have to have an orientation to always act in the company’s best interests, rather than self-interest.”

Will we see a Joan Withers autobiography hitting the bookstores soon? She laughs. “Well I wrote a book in 1998 called A Girl's Guide to Business, and I have seriously considered writing another but I just have to find the time … But these things, writing about yourself, are very self-indulgent and I would want to make sure such a book is valuable to other people rather than just recounting my experiences.”

Ms Withers pushes for gender diversity in the boardroom – one of the reasons she won the award – although she says it isn’t happening as quickly as she would like. However, she thinks there is a groundswell of momentum to encourage diversity, through initiatives such as Global Women and The 25 Percent Group (she directs both), the Future Directors Initiative and DiverseNZ Inc.

Ms Withers is a director of the Treasury board, a trustee of the philanthropic Tindall Foundation and the Sweet Louise Foundation. She is also involved in a South Auckland project creating employment opportunities for disadvantaged Maori and Pacific children.

Previous recipients of the Beacon Award include Sean Hughes, Simon Challies, John Parker, Rob Fyfe, Sir Michael Hill and Bruce Plested.