Mood of the Boardroom: CEOs grade the National leaders (NZ Herald)

Collins tops the poll, Muller’s appointment  is seen as a mistake, but there is praise  for Bridges’ performance

National enjoyed stable leadership, with John Key serving just over 10 years, followed by Bill English, serving one year 77 days until he stepped down just months after the 2017 election.

Tauranga MP Simon Bridges was chosen to replace English as National leader in February 2018. He battled poor individual ratings but maintained popularity for National at around 40 per cent in political polls until the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

In the Herald’s 2020 Mood of the Boardroom survey, CEOs gave Bridges’ leadership of two years 85 days a rating of 2.40/5.

“Bridges was highly ineffectual as a leader and did not engender confidence,” says one company director.

A government relations firm boss said that despite Bridges being a good person, he had little personal connection with voters — “but he got National into a superb position before Covid-19”.

Bridges chaired the cross-party epidemic response committee during the alert level four lock down, receiving praise for his handling of the daily online forums which covered issues from health, media, tourism and the economy.

But he was also heavily criticised for his decision to commute between Wellington and his home in Tauranga during the lockdown to conduct the committee via Zoom. Bridges said then: “I don’t take these things lightly, but I am the leader of the Opposition, I’ve got constitutional duties, I’m running a committee in extreme circumstances where there is no Parliament.

“I have to do that in the best way possible and it seems to me that does mean doing it in Parliament where I have the resources, where I can do it in a professional way, and I’m available to media.”

A Facebook post from Bridges in April also received wide condemnation from the public.“The decision for New Zealand to stay locked down in Level 4 shows the Government hasn’t done the groundwork required to have us ready,” he wrote.

“New Zealand is being held back because the Government has not used this time to ensure best practice of testing and tracing and the availability of PPE hasn’t been at the standard it should have been.”

Of 29,000 Facebook responses the majority were negative. In retrospect, Bridges’ post had merit, but his delivery showed he seriously misread the mood of the nation at that point.

Said a transport CEO: “Bridges was probably an effective leader of the Opposition, but not well liked enough to get elected Prime Minister”.

By May a Newshub-Reid Research Poll showed National’s support had fallen to 30.6 per cent with Labour drawing ahead on 56.5 per cent. An emergency caucus meeting saw the swift removal of Bridges and deputy Paula Bennett as the little known Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller and former Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye were elected as leader and deputy respectively.

Muller has been a staffer in former Prime Minister Jim Bolger’s office. He later worked for Zespri and Fonterra. In a letter to MPs ahead of the caucus vote, Muller said it was “essential” that National win  the 2020 election.

“I share the view of a majority of colleagues that this is not possible under the current leadership,” he wrote. “I believe I am best placed to earn the trust of New Zealanders by September 19.”

But Muller’s stint in the top job was short-lived — at 53 days the shortest in modern National Party history. “Unfortunately — a number of misfires with Todd materially challenged through time in the role,” says Deloitte CEO Thomas Pippos.

These included criticism of a lack of diversity on his front bench, distractions over his Donald Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ cap, and the leak of confidential information of Covid-19 patients to media by former National Party president Michelle Boag and National MP Hamish Walker.

A company director said it is difficult to assess Muller because “he was obviously in the middle of a toxic and tumultuous period for the party.” Another wrote he “was pushed by inexperienced colleagues and self-serving advisers into a job he wasn’t up to and that mistake severely damaged National.”

At the time of his surprise resignation he said that the role had taken a heavy toll on him personally and “has become untenable from a health perspective”.

“It has become clear to me that I am not the best person to be leader of the Opposition and leader of the New Zealand National Party at this critical time for New Zealand.”

CEOs rated his performance at 1.77/5.

His successor, Judith Collins, placed both Muller and Bridges on her frontbench as spokespeople for trade and foreign affairs, respectively.

The head of a fund manager probably best sums up sentiment among respondents: “No point going over old ground. That’s in the past now.”

With Judith Collins receiving a significantly higher rating compared to both her predecessors for the same question of 3.52/5 and just 19 days until the election, perhaps that is right.

Mood of the Boardroom: Covid-19 has cast a pall over CEO confidence

Coronavirus-related issues dominate  the domestic concerns in this year’s survey, writes Tim McCready

Confidence has plunged in the 2020 Mood of the Boardroom survey to the lowest levels seen since the  Herald began surveying the nation’s leading chief executives.

CEOs are particularly concerned about the maintenance of a strong border against Covid-19, which they rated at 8.52/10 on a scale where 1=no concern and 10=extremely concerned. A suite of Covid-related issues dominates the domestic concerns in front of CEOs.

These have pushed out traditional concerns like skills and labour shortages into a secondary position.

Cumulatively, the 165 respondents to the Herald’s CEOs Election survey rated their optimism in the New Zealand economy at 1.36/5. When it comes to the global economy, where many nations are being ravaged by Covid-19, their combined rating was 1.16/5. Typically for this survey, they rated their optimism in the general business situation in their own industries at a higher level — 1.90/5.

“2021 will be a challenging year for many,” says KPMG executive chairman Ross Buckley. “Those that have solid foundations, in the right sectors, using technology and that are agile will do well.”

Those in heavily impacted industries are realistic about the future. “Our business is heavily dependent on tourism, so the impact of Covid will be significant,” says one CEO.

However, there are pockets of optimism from those who have seen an increase in business resulting from the crisis, such as shipping and logistics firms — they point out reduced commercial aviation “means more demand for our services”.

Another beneficiary of the pandemic has been grocery retailers. Foodstuffs North Island CEO Chris Quin says: “We are privileged to be in an in-demand category, but New Zealand can’t replace its second biggest industry overnight — and the global economy cannot recover quickly from the discretionary spend being removed.”

One respondent says although their industry is having to make huge changes due to Covid, it is providing the impetus to finally digitise and modernise — and the New Zealand economy will be better off in the long term because of it. “I’m optimistic we can actually come out of this with a fresh approach and a more knowledge-based economy if we play this right.”

But many recognise that despite New Zealand being a good position relative to many other parts of the world, the unpredictability of the coronavirus pandemic and long-term uncertainty means it will be a while until we can return to more optimistic levels.

“I suspect we are well shy of fully understanding the long-term economic impact of Covid and various political responses globally. We are quite exposed to political shifts in terms of trading and supply chain,” says a top recruiter.

Domestic concerns

The top six concerns are all Covid-related, although as Dame Alison Paterson points out: “In this uncertain environment, it is hard to assess. What is normal? In Covid alert levels three and four Auckland’s congestion disappears.”

“I am deeply concerned over the hopeless border, testing and isolation management we currently see that causes real concerns about the impact this may have on essential service workers and the ability to deliver these services,” says a CEO in the energy sector.

“Before focusing on being kind, let’s be competent.”

There is also heightened concern over the level and quality of Government spending (8.40/5). There is also significant concern over the impact and direction of current or proposed Government policies, which received a score of 7.96/10.

Deloitte CEO Thomas Pippos says “people are looking to the Government for a clearly articulated strategy that the population can get behind that will include changes to the existing policy settings.”

Beca CEO Greg Lowe says there needs to be a more co-ordinated effort to develop a plan that ensures we have a strong economy and achieve economic growth over the next three years “to generate government revenues that are sufficient to start repaying the debt incurred in this crisis”.

One of those looking for a clear strategy is an IT boss: “There do not appear to be any policies from the current Government for moving forward — there is no current plan that would provide any business person with any confidence whatsoever. Sprinkling money like confetti is a short-term unsustainable approach.”

But others are more upbeat, and say the Government and its agencies have been swift to respond in a way that has boosted confidence — particularly when compared to the response of other countries.

“The Government response has been incredibly thorough,” says a software CEO. “As a business owner, I feel very supported and that they’re moving mountains to provide support and keep us moving.”

International concerns

Covid also features among the top rated international concerns — with the fear of further waves of the virus receiving a score of 8.22/10 and a slowdown in world trade growth due to fallout from the pandemic scoring 7.64/10.

“The challenges of the international environment are daunting and our ability to remain agile and leverage of New Zealand’s well-respected trading legacy cannot be underestimated in our response,” says Downer CEO Steve Killeen.

Powered by Flossie CEO Jenene Crossan proposes New Zealand leverage the Prime Minister’s celebrity on the world stage as part of our response.

“Jacinda Ardern is very highly respected due to her leadership style. Let’s use this to increase our exports — especially in the tech industry.”

Increased protectionism and trade wars also rates high in terms of concern at 7.71/10, as does the lack of international leadership at 7.49/10.

The a2 Milk Company CEO Pip Greenwood notes: “The escalating tensions between the US and China and Australia are of concern for us as a small export reliant nation.”

“Volatility in world trade markets — whether they be politically motivated or as a result of health responses — will inevitably impact New Zealand as an export trading nation,” says one CEO. “New Zealand must respond in an agile way to ensure our own national success.”

“The international political situation is dire!,” deduces NZ International Business Forum executive director Stephen Jacobi.

Mood of the boardroom: Seymour a single-handed success (NZ Herald)

CEOs say Act leader David Seymour has been a standout in Parliament and a de facto leader of the opposition, writes Tim McCready

David Seymour has come a long way  since  Dancing With the Stars.

When asked whether Act leader David Seymour has been an effective leader of Act over the past three years, 91 per cent responded, Yes. Just 3 per cent said No, with 6 per cent unsure.

“No matter what your political persuasion it would be hard to go past Seymour as the most effective minor party leader,” says a transport boss.

A telecommunications CEO says: “I have never rated him, but he has come from nowhere to be the most impressive MP — after the Prime Minister.”

“The surprise this year has been the development of David Seymour who can look back on this last term with a degree of satisfaction around achieving some tangible outcomes from an unenviable position in the House,” says Deloitte CEO Thomas Pippos.

CEOs were asked to rate Seymour’s political performance over the past three years on a scale where 1= not impressive and 5= very impressive. He received a score of 4.03/5 — the highest of all minority political party leaders.

“David Seymour has been most impressive over the last year,” reckons Precinct Properties chair Craig Stobo.

“David Seymour continues to impress on a regular basis. He is not afraid to take a stand on controversial matters,” says an IT service provider. Though another says they disapprove of his “unfortunate association with NZ’s version of the NRA”.

A strength  that came through repeatedly from respondents in the 2020 Mood of the Boardroom survey was his ability to communicate effectively. “He can deliver a crisp soundbite with authority (and sometimes humour) reflecting the views of his voter base,” says the head of a Crown entity.

His  abilities were demonstrated during the lockdown. He impressed during the epidemic response committee hearings, praising   Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for the initial response but also forensically examining aspects of the  response — including the management of data, issues with PPE, testing rates and contact tracing capabilities. Though  he was supportive of the lockdown, he opposed certain aspects — including the shutdown of Parliament —  and called for the allowance of safe activities. “David was magnificent on the epidemic response committee during lockdown,” says professional director and former minister of finance Ruth Richardson.

“He represents the finest political leadership — lucky us that a person of his calibre, especially as a one-man band, is so dedicated to his mission to make New Zealand a better country.”

De facto leader of the Opposition

The tone he struck during lockdown has been praised — in contrast to that of then-Opposition leader Simon Bridges — and led to some executives suggesting Seymour has become the de facto leader of the Opposition.

“David Seymour has really developed and thrived in this environment,” says a top winemaker. “He is concise, clear and asks questions that the Nats should.”

A real estate CEO reckons he “is a one-man leader of the Opposition.”

“He has shown up the Opposition Party,” says a leader in the healthcare industry.

Adds another: “He is growing in his effectiveness to present alternative arguments. We need that for good government.”

“David Seymour is beginning to act like a real alternative with  sound and pragmatic policy and comment,” says Mainfreight CEO Don Braid.

A professional director says “Seymour comes across as someone who does the hard work, thinks about issues and is willing to challenge. We need Opposition parties to do exactly that. ”

A bolstered party

The recent 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll puts Act at 7 per cent (compared to the 2017 election result of 0.5 per cent), and indicates Seymour will return to Parliament with  an additional eight MPs.

“He is measured, constructive and principled and the voting public notice and appreciate — look for a 10 per cent vote for Act,” predicts  Richardson.

A fund manager says: “Seymour has hung in there but will do well this election only because of the protest votes against National where centre/right voters have little else to go.”

One respondent suggests “Life will be different for Seymour next term if he has a caucus to lead and unite, and he has some interesting characters in there.  He will need to work hard to ensure he doesn’t have the same experience as Peter Dunne.”

End of Life Choice

Seymour’s major success has been the introduction of the End of Life Choice Bill. The bill — which will give people with a terminal illness the option of requesting assisted dying — passed its final reading in Parliament last year, four years after Seymour put it into the ballot box. The binding referendum will take place this month in conjunction with the general election.

CEOs credit the ability of Seymour to get the bill through the hurdles of Parliament and say it speaks to his hard work, tenacity, and willingness to tackle the important issues as he seems them — and not “yoyo for political gain”.

“It has been an impressive outcome for the euthanasia bill,” says The Icehouse CEO Gavin Lennox.

“He has been willing to take a position when convinced that it was the correct position to take,” says a professional director. “This allowed him to successfully get the End of Life Choice Bill through Parliament — despite being only a single MP.”

Mood of the Boardroom: Top-rankers suffer from a spell of invisibility

CEOs say the majority of National’s top 10 need to raise their profile.

“I don’t know them,” says the CEO of an IT company. “Hardly heard of most of these people,” says another. An agricultural boss reckons “many of them are not visible.” From a winemaker: “It is not appropriate to comment — I am unfamiliar with their efforts.”

For this reason,  a high proportion of respondents gave “Unsure” votes to National’s highest ranked MPs.

For example, MPs including Shane Reti, Chris Bishop, Louise Upston and Scott Simpson all received “Unsure” responses from over 20 per cent of respondents.

Some of this will likely be due to the fact that the leader inevitably overshadows the rest of the caucus — Judith Collins received the top score with an average rating of 3.55/5.

“She is more decisive and articulate than her two immediate predecessors,” says a top lawyer.

“Her leadership qualities were immediately obvious from her first press conference as leader, and from the way in which she ranked her front bench, incorporating both Simon Bridges and Todd Muller,” says a director.

Recently appointed health spokesperson Shane Reti has clearly benefited from the ongoing Covid-19 health and border response coverage. Those who know who he is have given him the second highest score of 3.29/5 — almost eclipsing Collins.

Meanwhile National’s deputy leader Gerry Brownlee received a score of 2.79/5 — taking a hit due to the comments he made around the Government’s Covid-19 response.

In a press conference last month alongside Collins, Brownlee outlined several events and said they were an “interesting series of facts”. They included the Government’s plea to the public to prepare for a possible outbreak, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s visit to a mask factory, and Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield’s public Covid-19 test just hours before announcing the community outbreak in Auckland.

“Gerry Brownlee didn’t do himself any favours by coming across as a conspiracy theorist,” says the head of a commercial law firm. “There is enough of that sort of nonsense around and an apparent endorsement from the deputy leader of the opposition is unhelpful.”

Heading into the 2017 election, Bill English’s top 10 combined received an average rating of 3.34/5 in the Mood of the Boardroom survey. This year, the combined average is 2.99/5.

Some of National’s most high-profile talent have departed politics this term — including Anne Tolley, Paula Bennett, Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams — and comments from some respondents suggest that this may have contributed to the lower score for the top 10 this time around. “This weakened team hardly fills me with confidence,” says a fund manager. “I see no depth in this party and no ability to sing from the same song sheet. I have no idea what they stand for, other than negativity and dirty politics,” says an IT CEO.

“There are pockets of ability and lots of some who haven’t quite worked out where they are going at the moment,” says a lobbyist. “They are a party in transition who — like Labour numerous times in the Key era — panicked over leadership when confronted with a PM with charisma and talent.”

Suggests one professional director: “We need to see the energetic young Nats coming through — Nicola Willis, etc.”

Mood of the Boardroom: Hi-tech contact-tracing in favour (NZ Herald)

More can be done to minimise the economic impact of Covid, writes Tim McCready

Some 91 per cent of executives responding to the Herald’s CEOs survey want greater emphasis on intensive contact tracing using best-in-class technological capabilities.

The CEOs also want New Zealand to establish secure airbridges with other nations such as China, Taiwan and Australia — so long as we their response is also under control.

“Air bridges should be considered only when Covid-19 is truly under control and contact tracing technology is truly best in class and traces beyond the border,” says a dairy chief executive.

An experienced chairperson reckons that many — particularly older people — will want to resume international travel as soon as possible. “It should be possible on a user pays basis to allow technology-enabled devices (such as ankle bracelets) to allow returning residents and citizens to quarantine in their own homes on return from overseas.”

Public-private partnerships

There is high support — 78 per cent — for public-private partnerships (PPP) for quarantine facilities where essential workers can be quarantined at their company’s cost. PPP isolation facilities for international education students were backed by 75 per cent of respondents; a much higher level of support than PPP isolation facilities for international tourists — only 48 per cent of respondents said that should be a focus.

“The tourist isolation facility idea is similarly impracticable because tourists are unlikely to want to come to NZ and stay in such a facility for 14 days at their expense (not much of a holiday),” says a legal firm boss. “Isolation facilities for students sound good in theory but the numbers involved would make this impracticable.”

Some questioned NZ’s reliance on export education as an economic driver.

“How much was international education just a feeder to the incredibly high immigration levels over the past ten years?,” asks a property boss.

“I really think we have to critically examine this sector’s contribution — painful as that might be.”

A lobbyist believes PPPs would alleviate some of the constraints around capacity.

“Our Ministry of Health isn’t up to handling this pandemic, they have dropped the ball so many times and are very economical with the truth. A future inquiry will not be pretty for some who we rate very highly now.”

Beca Group CEO Greg Lowe emphasised the pandemic is not a short-term problem, calling for a “smart” approach to a safe border. “The Prime Minister called for ‘the smartest border in the world’ early in the crisis but we are not seeing much progress towards this,” he says.

“We have three problems currently: getting an effective system of border control robustly in place, getting a contact tracing system in place that uses technology not people to capture contact data, and developing a plan that increases safe border processing capacity.”

“Maybe we can build world-class Covid management businesses out of this,” suggests Precinct Properties chair Craig Stobo.

Others differ.

“Government-run facilities have had their challenges, and they’re just the issues you get when you need tens of thousands of people to follow processes where, if it goes wrong, people die,” says a real estate boss. “Add the inherent risk of lots of people and processes to a profit motive and I just can’t see the Melbourne situation not happening again.”

Opening the door to new industries

The Covid-19 crisis has had a severe impact on two of New Zealand’s leading service export industries: international tourism and education.

Professional director Pip Greenwood says “now is the time to leverage NZ’s attractiveness as a place to live and work to attract investment.”

CEOs were asked what alternate areas New Zealand should look to increase investment in.

Agritech is the most promising area say NZ’s top executives. A fund manager says Covid could allow New Zealand to “double down” on its premium food producing status. “Move up the quality/pricing curve to drive greater yields from our premium products and sell direct to consumers via digital gateways.

Technologically-led businesses were also supported.

Spark CEO Jolie Hodson says rather than making big bets behind a small few we should be investing in building the capability, productivity and effectiveness of all businesses. “Particularly small and medium-sized businesses who would benefit significantly from going digital,” she says.

Decarbonisation of the economy and the development of a green hydrogen industry received 3.62/5 and 3.54/5, respectively. New forms of public transport such as electric planes, received a score of 3.07/5.

The latter was the top pick for Green co-leader James Shaw at the recent BusinessNZ election conference.

He said there were NZ companies doing this, including those involved with the America’s Cup.

“We do have a niche industry that is starting to emerge here, which I would like to see grow.”

“Our biggest opportunity for decarbonisation is electric vehicles. We have enough consented and existing generation to power the nation’s vehicular fleet at circa 30c per litre,” says one professional director.

“What has happened to Helen Clark’s ‘knowledge economy’?” asks Beca Group’s CEO Greg Lowe.

“Development of alternative transport solutions, the potential of alternative fuels like hydrogen to provide a new export market, export of digital solutions and services — we should be working to build a stronger national plan to advance all of them.”

But respondents caution New Zealand not be too quick to write off our traditional export earners.

One said that realism is important in this situation, noting that tourism and export education will return.

“There is no real strategy to transform the economy either from a production perspective or around decarbonisation — it’s all hopes and dreams stuff currently.”