Stewart's work far from finished

Last updated 16:10 14/05/2014
adrienne stewart
DEAN KOZANIC/Fairfax NZ

ACCOMPLISHED: Beginning from a holiday job 40 years ago, Adrienne Stewart is now one of Christchurch's most prominent philanthropists, arts patrons and business spokeswomen.

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Lady Adrienne Stewart looks over the bio her assistant has printed. "These things always sound like obituaries," she says. "It's amazing. But I read it and think, how on earth did she fit all that in?"

The page of credentials she holds is indeed formidable, covering a lifetime of involvement in business management, mentoring and arts patronage. But while her listed achievements read as a retrospective, Stewart, 78, says her work is far from over.

Beginning from a holiday job 40 years ago, she is now one of Christchurch's most prominent philanthropists, arts patrons and business spokeswomen.

She made her entry into the business world at just 19, on a holiday from Australia, and started at the then small manufacturing company Plastics Diecasting (PDL).

She was personal assistant to Sir Robertson Stewart - who would later become her husband.

Stewart began on 50 cents a day, and each day would cycle the 6 kilometres to the central post office to collect the mail. "In nor'west winds and wearing a peasant skirt - what a sight!"

Her role quickly evolved to overseeing staff, mentoring young women and day-to-day running of the factories.

Both the Stewarts took a hands- on approach to running a business, and she began by memorising the names of all 100 staff. As the company grew, Stewart says, "It got hard to remember 2500 names".

"It was an interesting start of a career," she says. "It was a small factory, and he believed in delegating, so anyone who worked for him in those days had the chance to pursue their own excellence, I suppose."

Under Lady Adrienne and Sir Roberston Stewart, PDL Industries became one of the country's largest and best-known manufacturers and exporters, with a strong presence in Malaysia and across the Pacific.

The Stewarts sold PDL Industries in 2001 for $97 million to French firm Schneider Electric.

Her time with PDL Industries gave Stewart experience and prestige in the business world, at a time when few women had yet climbed the corporate ladder into manufacturing and industry.

"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, when I was young," she says.

But her involvement in the Christchurch business world stretched much further than PDL.

She was New Zealand's first female public company director, and the first woman on the board of the Institute of Management.

As chairwoman of the New Zealand Institute of Directors, she took the organisation from "dormant" with a membership of 10, to a thriving 400-strong membership within a few years. Today, the institute has a membership of more than 800.

She considers this one of her proudest achievements. "Because I took it from nothing, to a thriving organisation."

Stewart has continued to use her business experience long into her retirement, turning her skills to arts patronage and philanthropy.

"I've always been interested in the arts but not as a practising artist. You just use your skills that you learn through business and transfer those to the arts," she says.

Stewart draws on her extensive networks and resources, taking a fairly pragmatic approach to supporting and funding the arts.

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"You know what the goal is, you've got your network, you've done the hard yards yourself, and you just go for it. I still carry that can-do attitude [from the business], but mostly I take it into the arts now."

She was named Patron of the Year by the Arts Foundation in 2009, and takes her patronage seriously, preferring to be an active participant rather than figurehead.

"I don't believe in being a patron for a name. I like to be involved, and give the benefit of common sense to drive them forward."

The Arts Foundation described her approach as "intensely personal, and focused on ensuring that an individual is able to benefit from an opportunity or career development at the time it is happening".

As in business, much of her work is in mentoring and seeking potential among young people, then supporting those she thinks have the ability to succeed.

"You can smell it," she says - potential for excellence. Stewart has personally helped a number of young artists, choreographers, conductors and composers with grants or support for further study.

Most recently, she provided four $10,000 scholarships to young people in the arts.

Her more recent recognitions, including Patron of the Year and an Honourary Doctorate from the University of Canterbury, were "out of the blue and amazing", she says.

"I quietly go about my business, and you don't know who's looking at you."

Today, while retired, Stewart remains active in New Zealand's business and arts worlds.

"I don't sit around drinking cups of tea and having ladies' lunches. There's always someone or something I need to be addressing."

The "can-do" attitude that helped her to business success is still evident, including in her new hobby, motorcycle riding, which she took up 2 years ago.

"I think my family think I'm mad," she says, and laughs.

"But I just think it's the best thing. If I could go back in years, that's what I'd be doing. Riding motorbikes."

The 2014 laureates will be inducted into The NZ Business Hall of Fame on August 7 at The Langham, Auckland. Order tickets online at businesshalloffame.co.nz or call Young Enterprise Trust on 04 570 0452.

FITTING IT IN

Governing patron of the Arts and Industry Trust

Chair of the CSO foundation

First New Zealand woman to be a public company director

Governing patron of the SCAPE Public Art Trust

Arts Foundation Patron of the Year

Honorary Doctorate of Letters, in recognition of "outstanding contribution to the university as an arts adviser, philanthropist and patron of the arts"

Distinguished fellow of the NZ Institute of Directors

Fellow of the NZ Institute of Management

Patron of the Court Theatre Supporters

Queen's Service Medal for the NZ Order of Merit, 2006

- The Dominion Post

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