Lunch in the boardroom: Rob Campbell

Dining with a trade unionist turned professional director.

Former unionist-turned professional director Rob Campbell commands an impressive list of directorships.

He resigned from the board of Ports of Auckland during its industrial dispute earlier this year and has recently left the board of ACC.

Although Mr Campbell doesn’t often give interviews, he spoke to the chief executive of board advisory company Board Dynamics Henri Eliot over a steak-and-fries lunch at Everybody’s Bistro in downtown Auckland’s Imperial Lane.

Rob Campbell’s boardroom seats:

  • Guiness Peat Group
  • Turners and Growers
  • Summerset Group (chairman)
  • CallPlus
  • Murray and Co – investment bankers
  • Silverfirm Co-Investment Partners (investment committee member)

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By Henri Eliot

Rob Campbell arrived at Everybody’s Bistro in Imperial Lane casually dressed in a T-shirt, leather jacket and jeans.

We both ordered the recommended steak and fries and, with the old days of the liquid lunch well behind us, ordered sparkling water for drinks.

Mr Campbell is probably not viewed as your typical director. He may be 60 years old but he has a youthful approach to life and is an overall nice, unstuffy guy.

Mr Campbell trained as an economist and during the anti-Vietnam movement was a lecturer at Victoria and Massey Universities.

After joining the union movement in the 1970s, he became a member of the Labour executive and in 1984 was involved during a pivotal turning point in New Zealand history. Labour had just won the election win, resulting in the ousting of the Muldoon government.

The new Labour-led government was led by David Lange who implemented major governance reforms including the introduction of the State Owned Enterprises model for Government-owned assets.

During that period, Mr Campbell sat on a steering committee overseeing the sale of the NZ Post and the corporatisation of the government printing business to Graeme Hart, who later became New Zealand’s first billionaire.

“I was opposed to selling Government Print to Graeme Hart at his price. But I was overruled by the owner,” he says

Accepting a directorship of NZ Post was Mr Campbell’s first major board appointment and the beginning of a new career as a professional director.

Ports of Auckland and ACC
Earlier this month, it was revealed Mr Campbell would not be reappointed to the board of ACC, where he has had responsibility for governance of the $20 billion fund.

“The fund performance is fantastic and the management of assets and liabilities world class,” Mr Campbell says.

“It does not need people playing politics with it, so what has happened is a great shame". He would not comment further on ACC.

Ports of Auckland and its recent controversy is also a hot topic for discussion during our lunch. When asked what he learnt from his time at the Port during a very high profile and economically difficult time for the Auckland business. Mr Campbell says two things spring to mind when working with Government owned businesses.

One is that the government controls the board and that they are more politically difficult to work with than most.

But this was almost impossible to avoid.

“Government and council-controlled boards have a lot more political difficulty associated with them than commercial boards no matter how hard people try to focus purely on commercial issues. It’s hard to avoid politics intruding.

“Secondly, it’s reinforced my view that the change process in business has to be holistic rather just changing one part of the business and hoping that will create the change that is needed.”

Henri Eliots view: The Government through the Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit (COMU) has done a good job of encouraging gender diversity resulting in fresh perspective thinking. COMU oversees the appointment process for directors of approximately 45 crown SOE' including NZ Post, Kordia etc.
New Zealand Post is a great example of gender diversity and new female directors. Getting the business strategy right, mind you, has taken longer to implement but change has slowly but surely started.

View on New Zealand boards
After a 20-year career in directorships, Mr Campbell has some strong views on how New Zealand boards should be governed.

To prepare for the next generation board members, Mr Campbell says companies need to build in more governance opportunities for managers with regular involvement at a committee or board level.

“I think there are a number of things we don’t do very well which if we did better would lead to a better pool of directors.

“We could build in more governance opportunities for young managers within businesses,” he says.

“In turn, managers should take advantage of the governance opportunities available to them outside of business including on school or voluntary boards. This can help executives gain valuable board experience.”

Henri Eliot’s view: It seems logical that opportunities should exist for aspiring directors but outside of gender diversity and limited ethnic diversity, we are not seeing skill set diversity with too many political appointments. Hopefully the ACC board changes will start a trend to consider skill set diversity, in particular around stronger communication and strategic thinking.

The Institute of Directors provides some valuable resources to help educate and train directors around effective governance.

But despite being an effective chairman and popular director, Mr Campbell is not a member of the institute, but is quick to state that he had his spell with unions.

One of Rob’s ‘bug bears’ about governance is that directorships are often viewed as being a compliance role, as opposed to a creative role. And what about all the negative press around poor governance in a number of finance company collapses recently?

Mr Campbell’s opinion is clear: Their failures are failures in personal and business ethics as well as governance.

“In some cases all of these are combined with ignorance, resulting in failure though laziness.”

Ethnic Diversity
Like many directors, Mr Campbell believes diversity requirements vary from company to company but directorship skills require business ethics and curiosity about business.

Without this it’s hard to be a good director.

Boards in New Zealand also need a wider range of views including Maori representation with less emphasis on the traditional accounting and legal expertise.

“We are seeing a massive and overdue transfer of state assets to private hands in the form of Treaty settlements. This is much more important that the mixed ownership model process in my view. Working Maori perspectives into economic decision-making is not simply desirable, it is necessary.”

Mr Campbell says there are also not enough people with strong strategic and human resources talent getting the opportunity to sit at New Zealand boardroom tables. This is an issue when most companies credit their company’s success to their staff.

Mr Campbell strongly believes the best boards in New Zealand are ones that challenge management and where the environment is far from collegiate.

“The absence of debate is often mistaken as agreement. But silence can hide many sins.”

Henri Eliot’s view: The boards in New Zealand overall are too collegiate and healthy and constructive debate is an essential element that is missing. The recent challenges at ACC would prove this point.

Mr Campbel and I concluded our lunch with a discussion on life outside work. Rob enjoys spending time with his family and is an avid news junkie. He is constantly reading newspapers when travelling and online.

And if he wasn’t doing what he does today, what would be his dream job?

A cricket commentator.

The steak and fries were delicious and we both snuck in a coffee éclair with coffee to wash down our light lunch.

Mr Campbell mentioned on our way out: “Please don’t tell my wife I had desert and chips, I agreed to two chicken salads and coffee.”

I hope she does not read this column.