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Heart & art: Dame Alison Paterson on her career and passions

Dame Alison Paterson: people are the key to business success. Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

Alison Paterson has witnessed the best and the worst of governance and business conduct. Even so, she’s still capable of being surprised.

Alison Paterson, a long-time player in corporate life, is also a serious art collector, reader, nature lover and traveller. The sunny Auckland waterfront apartment she shares with husband Barry, a retired judge, reflects her quiet, calm personality: it’s spotless, tidy and carefully organised. The couple chose it, in large part, because it offered good spaces for their impressive art collection.

Glass is a favourite medium and Ann Robinson a favourite artist. Works by McCahon, Hammond, Hanly, Smither, Fomison and Killeen are among those that grace their walls.

The eldest of six children, Paterson grew up in comparatively modest surroundings in the small King Country town of Kākahi. Her father died when she was three and her brother, Ian, a baby; her other siblings are from their mother’s second marriage. She says Ian, who died in 2002, was her best friend, but adds that she and her half-siblings are close – “we love each other”.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

An accountant in a previous career, Paterson has been a professional company director since 1976, when she became the first woman to be appointed to the Apple & Pear Marketing Board. Her record in corporate governance includes serving on the board of the Reserve Bank and chairing state-owned enterprise Landcorp. Her services to business were recognised in the 2014 New Year Honours in which she was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

She is still active, chairing energy company Vector, Kiwi Wealth, the Forestry Industry Safety Council, Te Aupouri Commercial Development and Te Aupouri Fisheries Management. She is also a member of the Health Quality & Safety Commission.

After more than 40 years working closely with management and employees in a range of companies, Paterson might have been able to claim she’d seen it all, but she’s been taken aback by the findings of the independent inquiry into bullying at Parliament, the mental stress many young people feel in the workplace and the rise to riches of one of the famous-for-being-famous Jenner/Kardashian clan.

Lunching with husband Barry. Photo/Supplied

What role did your working-class upbringing play in terms of the way you relate to people?

My grandmother and mother were both competent and hardworking. I inherited their service ethic – if you make a work commitment, that comes first. My grandmother did cleaning at the local school. She had nine children and did that to keep the household afloat. My grandfather worked, but he did not provide enough. My grandmother and mother’s backgrounds ensured that I identify with the average New Zealander.

So, what’s your approach, and that of your companies, to employee safety and well-being, which have recently been in the spotlight, particularly with the report into bullying at Parliament?

I’m not shocked that there was harassment and bullying but that it is as bad as is reported. Part of the fallout from the Pike River tragedy is that we, as a board and a chair, are called to account and that is appropriate because that’s where the buck stops. So there has to be reporting all the way through to the board and the legislation includes safety and health and mental well-being. What has surprised me recently when talking to young people is how much pressure they feel they are under. Whether it is real or just perceived is irrelevant – that is how many people feel and the impact on them is real. You can’t ignore the responsibility to be sure that there isn’t bullying in the workplace. The only way you can protect against that is to have an effective whistleblowing policy where people are guaranteed anonymity to make a complaint.

A glass vase by Elizabeth McClure. Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

How have you driven values in your companies?

Culture and conduct are the two words used now, although the values have been around a long time, and they start at the top. If you’ve got a board that is cohesive and works collaboratively and treats the chief executive and senior leadership team and all the people under them with respect, that sets the tone. I may be a dame, but nobody at Vector calls me Dame. They all call me Alison and they’re all aware that I care about them. That’s my expectation of everyone around me – that people are an important resource and the success of the business depends on them, so we need to look after them. A large part of putting together a successful business is taking people [the staff] with you.

Another recent surprise for you was the business success of 21-year-old Kylie Jenner. How did she come on to your radar?

I’ve been getting the Architectural Digest since the late 1970s. I think it’s the best interior design magazine. I enjoy some light moments reading it, so when I found Kylie Jenner on the front cover, standing on a pouffe, I wondered a bit. Then I read she is the youngest-ever billionaire, and self-made, so you have to take her seriously. She made her money out of make-up [Kylie Cosmetics], experimented with it and was persuaded to make some available online. Now she’s a billionaire.

Rocks in the Sky, by Colin McCahon. Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

What do you make of that?

I’m astonished. It’s a bit like the fortunes that have been made in IT and other things, but with make-up, there is no real value creation, is there? It’s pretty ethereal, but it shows you the power of a Twitter or Facebook account and having millions of followers. Your market is there.

Do you require your executives to be on social media and develop that sort of presence for customers?

The whole point of the Australian banking inquiry [the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry] was to look at best practice. The focus coming out of it is that you put your customer first. I heard a story today about a Parnell restaurant owner being told by Vector that her power was going to be switched off for repairs at 9pm on a Saturday. The woman said, “You can’t, I have 100 people booked in”, and she had to make quite a fuss until Vector agreed to change it to 11pm. She was reporting this positively to my friend, because Vector sent her a card and $200 to apologise for the inconvenience. But my reaction as chair of Vector is, “How on earth could they make a decision to cut off power at 9pm on a Saturday to do repairs in a street with a lot of restaurants?” Somebody is seriously misunderstanding the customer and their requirements, and I’m going to be saying to the chief executive, “We should be better than this.”

Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

You got out a special teaset for the benefit of the Listener. What’s the story behind it?

When Barry and I shifted to Auckland in 1996, I discovered Masterworks [Gallery] and bought a lot from them, including the teapot, cups and the rest with $250 that my mother gave me. It’s by Chris Weaver. Most of the art we have is from New Zealand: Terry Stringer, Emma Camden and Chris Charteris. We have an Antipodean Bowl by Ann Robinson. The original was cast for the World Expo exhibition in Seville [in 1992].

I’m very passionate about good design. I’ve always had well-designed homes: Michael Fowler was the architect for two of them, and since then we’ve had a couple of Ron Sang homes. It’s important that there is light and that there are good walls for art. You hone your design instinct over a long time.

You’re also serious about reading. What do you like?

I enjoy reading history from all perspectives. I’m reading The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One, by Miranda Carter. We’re soon going to be cruising from Amsterdam to Budapest in the countries that the Rhine and the Danube flow through. It is a matter of understanding the history and the transition from monarchies to democracies so that you better understand the people.

We go to the northern hemisphere annually to catch up with Barry’s daughter, my stepdaughter, and our grandchildren in London. Last year, we had a cruise down the Dalmatian coast and I read The Fall of Yugoslavia, by Misha Glenny, and Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War: Explaining World War I, which shows that economics dictate the result. I also read his The Square and the Tower, which shows that, for centuries, networks have been a more effective means of influence and communication than hierarchies.

Paterson at home. Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

What else interests you?

Stories of natural resources: Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World; The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell; Salt: A World History and also his The Basque History of the World. The story of salt, upon which so many cities are based, is fascinating. When Portuguese fishermen found the Newfoundland cod banks, they didn’t tell anyone because they wanted to reserve the resource for themselves. The cod were so plentiful that instead of fishing, the fishermen just put buckets over the side of their boats and brought them up by the bucketload. It’s extraordinary that there was that kind of resource.

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, by Paul Greenberg, looks at cod, salmon, tuna and bass, and how we are overfishing them and neglecting self-sustaining stocks. Larry Zuckerman wrote The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World, tracing it from its introduction from the Americas into Ireland. They’re all very interesting books, as was Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. That was probably the best book I read that year.

What’s a good way to switch off?

I’m a bit of a loner, so my idea of something special is to take myself off to the Subantarctic Islands, which Barry is very happy about as long as he doesn’t have to go, too. As chair of Landcorp, I’ve done some special things, such as getting on to Molesworth [in Marlborough], which is huge and isolated. I’m passionate about nature. Every year, I go to Miranda [on the Firth of Thames] with some egg sandwiches and sit in a hide and watch the godwits before they fly off to the Arctic.

This article was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.