Joan Withers on women in business, balance, and 'the most devastating experience' of her career

Withers is the chairwoman of Mercury Energy and The Warehouse, as well as an ANZ director.
HAGEN HOPKINS/GETTY IMAGES

Withers is the chairwoman of Mercury Energy and The Warehouse, as well as an ANZ director.

"The collapse of Feltex Carpets was the most devastating experience of my professional career. It was the absolute low point," Joan Withers says of her short tenure as a Feltex director in 2004-5.

The carpet manufacturer collapsed in 2006, a little over two years after its 2004 initial public offering, wiping out the $250 million which thousands of shareholders had invested.  

Withers had left the board 15 months before to take over as Fairfax Media chief executive but was still caught up in the legal fallout, although she never faced criminal charges as some colleagues did.

Withers, centre, was named Supreme Woman of Influence at the Fairfax/Westpac Women of Influence awards in 2015.
JASON CREAGHAN/STUFF

Withers, centre, was named Supreme Woman of Influence at the Fairfax/Westpac Women of Influence awards in 2015.

It was only last year that the Court of Appeal dismissed a class action against the former directors and owners of carpet manufacturer Feltex.

READ MORE:
* Joan Withers on the Feltex fiasco
Joan Withers: Supreme woman of influence
Joan Withers - why do girls in low-decile schools lack role models?
Feltex shareholders lose $185m claim

Joan Withers: "My approach to life and business boils down to this: there are no shortcuts. No silver bullets."

Joan Withers: "My approach to life and business boils down to this: there are no shortcuts. No silver bullets."

"It obviously wasn't intentional but that's what happened," Withers writes about the collapse in her new book A Woman's Place.

"Our processes were thorough and I don't honestly believe we could have done anything differently but, for me personally, some powerful learnings came from the experience."

She goes on to say that she felt lucky, after the Feltex "nightmare", that people continued to have confidence in her and give her opportunities. Although one big change - she doesn't name the company - did evaporate in the wake of it.

Read The Feltex Fiasco extract from A Woman's Place here.

Ad Feedback

Withers makes her story real. Yes, she goes through the corporate histories and includes the names and numbers as expected, but what stands out is her honesty about how some situations affected her. Obviously others involved or affected might have different versions, but Withers is open about the fact that she is telling her story.

And more than that, she shares her reactions and her responses in the hope of helping and inspiring others.

Withers has a long and distinguished career in New Zealand business. After leaving school at 16, armed only with School Certificate, she worked as a bank teller, married and became a mother, spending several years out of the workforce.

Since heading back to the office, she has risen through the corporate ranks with numerous senior executive roles - including as the boss of Fairfax Media - and is currently the chairwoman of Mercury and The Warehouse, as well as an ANZ director.

In 2015, she was named the Supreme Woman of Influence at the Fairfax/Westpac Women of Influence awards. At the time, she said successful women rarely set out to be role models.

"They just do the best they can and hopefully that becomes inspirational for other women. If I have managed to do that, I will consider my career a success."

A Woman's Place shares insights and advice on a subject close to Withers' heart - how to get ahead in your career and, especially for women, how to be successful at work and at home. There's no magic bullet, just lots of hard work, support and go-getting.

"My approach to life and business boils down to this: there are no shortcuts. No silver bullets. If you are diligent and tenacious, and make the most of the opportunities you are offered, you can still get to the top," Withers writes to open her book.

"You must be willing to put in the hard yards and be willing to continue learning at every turn."

Withers is passionate about diversity and equal pay for women, not surprising as she was the only woman on the boards she joined when she entered the governance field in the mid 1990s.

"By not acting faster to tackle gender inequality, the world is misusing its talent pool which will, potentially, compromise economic growth in individual countries and globally," Withers writes.

Her book - written with veteran business journalist Jenni McManus - covers her journey from, as she puts it, business baby steps, through her time in radio, at Fairfax, with Feltex (more on that later) and covers issues ranging for working with a chief executive and director fees, to living a balanced life and working from home.

That home for Withers and her husband of 40+ years, Brian, is a 20-acre rural property outside Auckland, complete with dogs and horses.

 - Stuff

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback