Management guru Tom Peters’ advice for NZ businesses

The man credited with almost single-handedly inventing the public management guru industry outlines what Kiwi businesses should be doing better

Tom Peters has invested in New Zealand.

The management guru – famed for his co-authorship of the 1982 book In Search of Excellence – has a bach on Golden Bay, at the top of the South Island, bought when the exchange rate was at about US49c for the New Zealand dollar.

That was just luck, he says.

The 71-year-old, who has been worrying about businesses for 40 years, is quick to say currency isn’t his game and he’s no economist.

That said, he quickly launches into a discussion about what New Zealand can do to lift its economy – his investment in New Zealand appears also to be cerebral; he cares about the place.

It’s no surprise his thoughts are framed by the primacy of business and the excellence of companies.

“Golden Bay is agricultural and the Kiwi economy is the hottest thing since sliced bread – or baby formula.

“And I have a bias that that’s fabulous, but you can’t build a long-term success story based on something that fundamentally is, (a), a commodity and (b) is dependent [which I realise is a really hot issue right now] on building a lot of big barns, bringing the cows out of the fields and transforming a lot of land, as is already happening – lamb exports not-withstanding – from lambs to dairy.”

Economic concerns
Mr Peters' comments come as New Zealand’s economic ties to China are under increasing scrutiny, given new government targets for two-way trade between the countries and as analysts and economists start to sound the drum louder on China’s economic risks.

The Business Ministry is also warning over the country’s continued over-reliance on the dairy sector.

In recent weeks, NBR Rich Lister Alan Gibbs and columnist Wayne Brown have pointed to Singapore as an economic example for New Zealand.

Some of New Zealand’s best business minds are being exercised trying to lift the country’s productivity, despite the small market and, in some industries, a lack of competition.

Productivity Commission chairman Murray Sherwin said during an Ask Me Anything session in February that regulation and policy in New Zealand need to be world-leading to offset disadvantages elsewhere.

Mr Peters says one of the big issues for New Zealand is the best and the brightest leaving.

Reasons to stay
“I know that many of you come back after your journeys. I acknowledge the reasons for that. The opportunities are different and, on some dimensions, better than other places.

“But my argument is that from retail to high-tech, if you were the best damned employer in the world, then there’s a reason for people to stay.

When you look at the best firms around the world, unsurprisingly, he says, there’s an incredible variation within the same industry.

“I don’t buy the act that we can’t induce you to stay – again, whether it’s retail or high-tech I’m totally indifferent. 

“We have these lists in our Fortune magazine of the 100 best companies to work for in America.

“One of them was a grocery chain, a few years ago, called Wegmans, a regional grocery chain, not a monster; one of them was called The Container Store, which makes bins.

“It doesn’t have to be Google, and it doesn’t have to be Facebook. It can be an apparently boring retail operation.”

For the full Tom Peters interview, in two parts, read the National Business Review print editions of April 17 and 24

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