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Dame Alison Paterson on her success

Alison Paterson attributes none of her success to feminism or wanting to prove women can make it in the boardroom.

Alison Paterson was named a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DNZM) for services to business in the 2014 New Year Honours list.

This article was originally published on 17th October, 2012.

Interview - successful New Zealand businesswoman, Alison Paterson
Alison Paterson, photo Richard Robinson/NZH

Alison Paterson is possibly the most successful New Zealand businesswoman you have never heard of. She served on the Reserve Bank board for 15 years, sparring with Don Brash and Alan Bollard, and reached the position of deputy chairwoman. She has chaired the giant state-owned enterprise Landcorp, served on the market surveillance panel for the New Zealand stock exchange and been a trailblazer for women on boards since the mid-1970s. Last month, she was named by an independent consultant as one of 17 men and women who are New Zealand’s most influential and connected directors. She was the first woman to be president of a regional Chamber of Commerce, the first female director of a publicly listed company and the first to be appointed to a producer board. In 2009, she received an honorary doctorate from Massey University, and in 2010 was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit – both awards for services to business.

She attributes none of her success to feminism. In fact, if you ask what it was like to be the first woman to sit at the decision-making table of the Apple & Pear Board in 1976 and expect an anecdote of cringing Kiwi misogyny, you’ll be disappointed. “I have always found men incredibly generous and willing to help and support – they are very good,” she says, making “they” sound just a little like some type of pet. Her success, and her relative anonymity, stems from the same source: a steely resolve. The signs of that success are obvious as she pads about the swanky apartment on Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour that she shares with her husband, former High Court judge Barry Paterson. The walls are adorned with New Zealand’s best artists, including Bill Hammond, Colin McCahon, Pat Hanly, Michael Smither, Tony Fomison and Richard Killeen. Not that this came easy.

Paterson is from a poor rural background. Her father died when she was three. Her role models were her mother and grandmother, both housemaids. “They were just good, hard-working women with good work ethics,” she says. It’s an ethic she has carried into the boardroom. She recalls a Reserve Bank meeting where directors were trying to factor in the behaviour of “the average person” as they deliberated on the Official Cash Rate. “I can remember saying, ‘How would you know? There is nobody average in this bank. It is the top 2-3% of New Zealand. None of you exceed your own income; you all own your own houses. You save for your retirement, you’re responsible citizens. You would not know what the average person thinks.’” How did that go down? “Well, I read in the paper a couple of weeks later that the bank had hired a psychologist.” She doesn’t laugh. She is a serious proposition. Her apartment is strewn with board papers from her numerous directorships, which now include Stevenson Agriculture, energy company Vector and private healthcare provider Abano. But those who’ve worked with her say she is also capable of great empathy.

Last year, Paterson was named by Management magazine as the Chairperson of the Year, beating such esteemed rivals as Sir Henry van der Heyden and Sir John Anderson. The judges made a point of noting her “personal humility and humanity”. “She treats all with the same level of respect and always takes time to say hello to support staff, listen attentively and be genuinely engaged in conversations with them,” Abano Healthcare boss Alan Clarke was quoted as saying. Nevertheless, Paterson, now in her mid-seventies, has not succeeded by ingratiating herself in the right company or with the right companies. In fact, she craves isolation: a getaway house in the Marlborough Sounds; trips to the Galapagos and subantarctic islands. She likes her own company, perhaps a lingering trait from her upbringing in the King Country and adolescence in rural Kakahi. “I find that spending time with people can be exhausting because you try to give something of yourself in the communication.”

The communication is not undertaken lightly. She has written notes to prepare for this interview and she writes notes to the interviewer afterwards, clarifying this and expanding on that. The last one ends with the observation: “You are slimmer than you look on TV, which is a worrying thought if you ever did put on weight.” There is no punctuation – certainly no emoticons – to denote jest or irony. Sometimes the things you think are barriers turn out to be bridges. “Negatives usually turn out okay” is how Paterson puts it. “I succumbed to a hereditary deafness when I was 18, and by 20, I couldn’t have had this conversation,” she says, gesturing across the table as the yacht masts sway on the water outside. In the mid-1950s, young women became primary school teachers or dental nurses. Paterson’s hearing loss – now largely solved through a series of operations – forced her to take a different path. “I couldn’t pass the medicals and so I ended up the petty-cash girl in a local firm of accountants because no one quite knew what to do with me.” She worked at a Taumarunui accounting firm and in her mid-twenties studied accountancy by correspondence. After qualifying, she became a partner in the firm and in her mid-thirties set up her own practice, focusing on farm accounting and estate and trust planning. “I used to work 60 hours a week when I wasn’t busy and 80 hours a week when I was.”

By 41, she had landed her first directorship. Fast-forward 36 years and women on boards is a political cause with worldwide debates about how to achieve a better gender balance. Paterson encourages women to follow in her footsteps, but she cautions them, too. “In fact, when I talk to aspiring women directors, I say, ‘What on earth do you want to do this for?’ It is not a secure job and it is not incredibly well paid. Usually, they think it sounds sexy.” She says she often has to disabuse younger women of their ideas about boardroom glamour. “I say, ‘Tell me what you think you’ve got to offer. Could you enunciate to a board that, given a successful career, you can be responsible for the stewardship of someone else’s assets?’” You must add skill, experience or expertise and be able to demonstrate that. “If you can’t, I doubt your motivations.” For directors, male and female, the recent debate has focused on whether the role has been taken seriously enough. The finance company collapses highlighted the problem of directors who were only there as figureheads, who discovered how bad their company’s books were only when they got into serious difficulty.

Successful New Zealand businesswoman Alison Paterson
Photo/David White

Paterson believes governance has actually improved. “I think there is more scrutiny and I do think that the performance of boards has improved dramatically. My first large board appointment was 1976 – so that’s 36 years ago – and when I think back, we were quite cavalier at the time.” Back then, many board members had too many directorships to do them all justice, she says. “There has been a real revolution in board performance and there is a lot more scrutiny of boards.” She says she has been “lucky” to have been on boards with highly intelligent, experienced and competent people. “You actually don’t get into trouble if you choose your company well.” But what about being chosen? Being a director of state-owned companies, as well as private ones, brings political risk. She won’t speak about it, but it’s obvious she has felt the sting of political bias at times, given her National Party membership in the mid-1970s.

She hasn’t been a member of any party for years and has been offered jobs by the left and the right – sometimes the same job. Paterson was first appointed to the Reserve Bank board by National Finance Minister Bill Birch, then by Labour Finance Minister Michael Cullen, for the next two terms. She says you have to be neutral but also be seen to be so. “Your biases can show. I am very commercial. I am obviously someone who is driven by commercial norms – not by socialist norms.” Not that she doesn’t have political views. She is scathing about New Zealand standards of financial literacy and how ill-prepared we are to engage in meaningful debate about the economic consequences of our actions. “It drives me nuts, actually. And it is an example of financial illiteracy. I come from a pretty poor family and a lot of my family members take for granted the government funding without a thought to where it comes from,” she says. “The demands for health and education are huge and they have to be funded.” Yet when we propose to pay for those things by mining or energy extraction, the national conversation is immediately polarised, she says.

“In terms of that particular issue, the National Government handled it hugely badly. They just tossed the notion into the environment and we had people marching down the main street with Robyn Malcolm and Lucy Lawless. With that kind of head of steam, you wonder whether you could even approach the topic again in a decade.” She says New Zealanders need to do a simple equation: “This is what we’ve got, this is what you want, this is what it is going to cost, these are the trade-offs, are you prepared to go along with it?” She does, though, understand the political realities. “I don’t know that a three-year political term is long enough to be able to achieve that – it needs to be five.” And no, those political terms, whether three or five years, will not involve her. She looks to business, not politics, for her heroes, and perhaps surprisingly those heroes are all men. “Hugh Fletcher would probably be embarrassed if he heard me say it, but I have never worked with someone with a bigger intellect than that guy,” she says of the former director of construction giant Fletcher Building. “He sits and waits until everyone has said their piece and then he says something and you have to start all over again. Alan Bollard said it to me once, ‘Can you please ask Hugh to speak first so we don’t have to start all over again.’”

Successful New Zealand businesswoman Alison Paterson

After the interview, Paterson emails through her considered list of heroes – “all high-achievers and none have huge egos”. Her top four are: Dwayne Crombie, her CEO at Waitemata Health; Chris Kelly, the CEO while she was at Landcorp; Alan Bollard; and Hugh Fletcher. No women. She grew up without a dad in a country town in the 1930s and 1940s, entered the male-dominated world of accounting in the 1960s and the all-male boardrooms of the 1970s, yet she doesn’t hold up even a shard of the glass ceiling she has shattered. “I’ve been driven by other things,” she says. “The service ethic meant my farmer clients were incredibly important to me and I did their work, some of them, for about three generations. My mantra was: ‘You tell me what you want and I’ll get it for you.’” The mantra may have been designed for her clients, but it could equally apply to her career: she knew what she wanted and she went out and got it.

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