Tribute to Craig Norgate

Geoff Lorigan on Craig Norgate.

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Craig Norgate (arguably New Zealand's most widely known and respected chief executive) died this week in London, aged 50. 

Craig’s sudden death has created a sense of deep loss throughout the New Zealand business and farming communities, particularly among the people who worked with him.

Craig was a big man in every respect: he had a big heart, a big intellect, and a generous spirit. He stimulated people’s growth by stretching them, trusting them and believing in them. Those lucky enough to work for him gained self-belief, confidence, and resilience, and flourished as a result. Responding to his high expectations, they went the extra mile and regularly exceeded their own anticipated achievements. 

Craig’s own achievements were considerable. He was a leader in the agribusiness sector, having been appointed CEO of Kiwi Dairies at 29 years of age. By his mid-30s, he had negotiated deals, merged companies and forged Fonterra, New Zealand’s largest business and the central cog of New Zealand’s economic and social welfare. Fonterra provides a livelihood to 18,000 employees, services 10,700 dairy farmers, processes 2.8 million tonnes of dairy products annually, and earns $22 billion of overseas earnings each year that flows into our community – funding jobs, spending, and taxes to fund education, health, security, local and central government. 

Craig was the organisation’s CEO at the age of only 36. When he attended SLP6 at Millbrook in 2006, his talent shone like a beacon; he was a leader to watch on everyone's radar. 

Despite his high-flying career, Craig maintained real connections with his community and the wider world. He was proud of his roots in ‘The Naki (Taranaki), and supported local activities – from spending time out on farms with the 'cockies' to underpinning business, sports, and community events. Like all CEOs, he had his share of setbacks, disappointments and criticisms, which he took in his stride, always with grace.

Craig’s vision stretched people’s thinking and fired their imaginations, inspiring them to scale the heights and take in the wider view. He had a genuine talent for leading with both his head and heart. A down-to-earth man, he recognised people’s faces and remembered their names. People will remember and cherish the way he exuded warmth: from the kind timbre of his voice to his dry sense of humour and mischievous persona. 

Yesterday the entire business community buzzed with the sad news of Craig’s death. I received numerous calls and messages from his former colleagues and ISL classmates, as people wanted to talk and share their memories and express their respect. A selection of these comments:

"He had a big heart, Geoff! ...and oh yes, he had a big strategic brain too!”

"I’ve been fortunate to have shared experiences with Craig from many aspects, as a good mate, a family friend, a peer, my boss and as also a counter-party in commercial transactions (some of which were pretty hotly contested!) I’m a much better person for having been close to Craig and I’ll miss his wise counsel, even if he often told me things I didn’t want to hear!”

"Craig had a positive influence on the careers of very many young New Zealanders these past few hours many of them have reached out to me to express their sorrow and share precious memories.”

"Craig was a visionary boss who inspired and stretched everyone he worked with. He took people way beyond their limits and they achieved things they never thought possible."

"I can’t think of anyone who worked with Craig for any length of time who wasn’t full of admiration for the man."

"I was drawn to this man. He cared that much about Fonterra, and he cared that much about my experience and whether it had lived up to his promise. I can say definitively that it did. And I can say, with equal fervour, that I loved Craig Norgate for giving me such an incredible opportunity which indeed changed my life for the better. I will cherish my memories of this great man." 

These words reflect the man and the leader we all simply called ‘Craig’. I could share plenty more about his leadership – and I will, in due course. For now, doff our hats for this great leader. He leaves behind cherished memories for those who knew him and a strong legacy for our country. Let’s reflect on his qualities and acknowledge what he did for others.

With great respect,

Geoff Lorigan

Geoff Lorigan is the founder and director of the Institute for Strategic Leadership and Adjunct Professor of Leadership at Queensland University of Technology (Science & Engineering Faculty).

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