This article originally appeared in the NZ Herald.
The biggest decision facing the Fletcher Building board is the appointment of a new permanent chief executive.
Should they appoint an individual with similar characteristics to Mark Adamson, the former chief executive, or should they be looking for someone completely different?
At the phone conference after the profit downgrade, chairman Sir Ralph Norris was asked: “What type of person are you looking for, is it someone that takes more costs out, consolidates, restructures or looks to grow?”
Sir Ralph replied: “I think it is a combination of all of the above; we are focused on ensuring that this organisation is operating effectively and efficiently and our cost base will always be a focus. Obviously, growth will be an area we will be concentrating on. We will be looking for someone who is well rounded, has a good mix of skills and has also demonstrated success in other management conditions. We are certainly looking for someone who is very high calibre and has very good leadership skills.”
The most disappointing feature of this reply is that Sir Ralph should have been able to appoint a permanent CEO last week. This is because Fletcher Building has always had potential leaders in its senior management team and there had been serious question marks about Adamson’s management abilities since March.
It appears that the company may no longer have these internal leadership capabilities, as the board didn’t appoint one of its senior managers as the permanent chief executive.
What are the distinctive characteristics of a top class New Zealand chief executive?
New Zealand is different from most other countries, including Australia, as employees here are more responsive to a collegial, rather than an autocratic style of business leadership. This is often a characteristic of low-population countries where most employees work for small, rather than large companies.
The last three winners of the Deloitte Top 200 CEO of the year – Mike Bennetts of Z Energy (2016), Christopher Luxon of Air New Zealand (2015) and Simon Challies of Ryman Healthcare (2014) – are excellent examples of this collaborative leadership approach.
These three leaders appear to have a co-operative leadership style complemented by excellent communication skills.
They don’t tell the media, as Adamson did in his December 2013 interview with The Australian, that their senior management team is underpaid, nor would you expect them to call senior staff members “old farts” in an internal email.
The three award-winning CEOs also talk about their companies in terms of “we” and “us” rather than “I” and “me”.
Air New Zealand is an excellent example of the importance of choosing a high-quality CEO with a collegial style. The company was bailed out by the Crown in 2001, partly because of poor management, but it has had three excellent chief executives since then: Sir Ralph Norris, Rob Fyfe and Christopher Luxon.
Given the company’s dramatic experience in 2001, the directors could have chosen an autocratic chief executive, but the collaborative styles of Norris, Fyfe and Luxon have transformed Air New Zealand into a world class airline.
These three CEOs have also showed they can be decisive when they must.
Another way to assess the characteristics of New Zealand’s most successful businesspeople is to look at the wealthiest NZX entrepreneurs, in terms of their shareholding values (see accompanying table).
These range from Rod Duke at Briscoe Group, with a shareholding worth nearly $700m, to Peter Harris, with a CBL Insurance stake worth almost $200m. Harris is less well known because CBL Insurance only listed in October 2015.
These individuals have all had big visions for their companies and they have created huge wealth because of this, rather than a focus on their personal position. Their wealth has also been accumulated over a long period of time and they have had many difficult periods along the way. These difficult periods have been character forming and have led to better decision making in later years.
Rod Duke is a superb retailer, who understands his customers and the psychology of retailing, while Rod Drury has enormous drive and a global vision for his company.
Jim Delegat and his sister Rose dragged their family company out of receivership and turned Oyster Bay into a global brand, while Bruce Plested’s collegial relationship with chief executive Don Braid has been a major driver behind the success of Mainfreight.
Kevin Hickman, along with John Ryder, founded Ryman Healthcare, although the latter has sold most of his shares, while Sir Michael Hill and Sir Stephen Tindall have been major innovators in the retail sector.
One of the problems with Fletcher Building is that the board doesn’t seem to know exactly what type of chief executive it wants. Sir Ralph confirmed at the recent analysts’ briefing that directors hadn’t discussed the issue, but when queried by analysts he agreed that they wanted a CEO who would “cut costs”, “restructure”, “consolidate” and “grow” the company. He also wanted someone with a “good mix of skills”, who was “well rounded”, “had demonstrated success” and has “very good leadership skills”.
The Fletcher Building board unanimously appointed Adamson as CEO in 2012 when the Englishman was 46 years of age. It was an internal appointment as Adamson had been responsible for two Fletcher Building offshore operations but hadn’t worked in New Zealand.
It seemed from the beginning that Adamson adopted an autocratic style, as he regularly used the words “I” and “me” when talking to analysts. He appointed many senior executives from offshore when his best option would have been to work closely with a small group of senior executives who have in-depth knowledge of New Zealand business conditions and practices.
He made it reasonably clear at times that he didn’t have a particularly high regard for New Zealand executives.
Under Adamson’s stewardship, Fletcher Building’s construction division went from a work backlog of $1.1 billion in June 2012 to a backlog of $2.4b in June 2015 and $3.3b in December 2015.
Who signed off these contracts in what is a high-risk, low-margin sector? What involvement did the board have? Former Fletcher employees relate how Jack Smith, who played a major role in the company in the 1970s and 1980s, used to examine construction contracts with a fine-tooth comb. Smith, who had extensive construction experience, was a major contributor to Fletcher’s former collegial culture. Nevertheless, he could be particularly tough when scrutinising construction contracts.
Who has played that important role at Fletcher Building in recent years? Did the board, or a sub-committee of the board, have full oversight of the Christchurch Justice Precinct and Auckland’s International Convention Centre contracts?
The situation with Fletcher Building also highlights the importance of comprehensive corporate whistleblowing policies. If Fletcher Building began having construction problems a year ago – as its competitors believe – then an effective whistleblowing policy may have helped make the company aware of these issues sooner.
An effective whistleblowing policy could have encouraged lower level Fletcher Building employees to communicate construction sector problems to directors.
There are clear issues at Fletcher Building in terms of the complexity of its business, construction contract oversight and the strength of its senior management team.
Shareholders should be demanding a comprehensive review of the board because the current board is partially responsible for the company’s massive “own goal”.