Kennedy knows what she can do

16:00, Dec 13 2011
ALL THE RIGHT MOVES: Sarah Kennedy says her return to New Zealand was a natural progression after completing a Sloan Fellowship at MIT.
ALL THE RIGHT MOVES: Sarah Kennedy says her return to New Zealand was a natural progression after completing a Sloan Fellowship at MIT.

Sarah Kennedy was talking recently to a farmer of a large dairy farm in Balclutha, Otago.

"I remember you," he said. "You came and gave a speech about calf rearing years ago."

"Do you realise that was 22 years ago that I did that?" Kennedy told him. "Isn't that frightening?"

Then she was an animal nutritionist for feed supplier NRM and travelled around the country talking to farmers. Today she is three months into her new role as chief executive of Fonterra's rural supplies company RD1.

And, it's safe to say, this woman, all 1.8 metres of her, is on a post-travel high, given she isn't long back in the country. "I'm like an escargot, a snail, I've got my whole life packed in to the car," she says.

In an interview room on the 11th floor of Fonterra's Princes St offices, Kennedy, 48, steals a few glances at messages on her BlackBerry phone before deciding to ignore it.


She is still getting used to the dual culture of the dairy behemoth, which she describes as "disconcerting" after heading health food company Healtheries for 10 years. "I don't know all the levers. But it's great while you have fresh eyes to be asking all the questions."

Kennedy graduated in June from an "intense" Sloan Fellowship Programme – a business leadership course – at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The course gave working visas to its graduates.

She says she might have stayed, "if I were younger".

But family ties pulled her back, along with a view that she had more to contribute as one of the few female corporate leaders in New Zealand.

Her United States experience has left an indelible mark on Kennedy, however. She became close to the tight-knit group of 100 classmates from around the globe.

The business leaders were together when the US was trying to resuscitate itself from a financial meltdown. "So, you can imagine the discussions."

They are meeting again in Brazil, 2013. "It will be wild, wild," she says, laughing.

The year-long course included two trips to New York and Silicon Valley to visit Google, Facebook, and the New York Stock Exchange, and a trip to Malaysia and Vietnam.

The programme is a mid-career master's degree in general management and leadership, targeted at experienced managers who have already demonstrated a significant degree of career success.

Kennedy specialised in advanced corporate marketing and consumer marketing, which included research into consumer behaviour.

She applied to the programme with her academic results, three essays and three recommendations from people who had worked with her.

The most fascinating speaker, in her view, was Professor Simon Johnston, who had been the International Monetary Fund's chief economist just before the global financial crisis.

He talked about the Irish crisis and the subsequent International Monetary Fund input.

"No Sloan left behind" was the programme's philosophy, which meant everyone had to help each other out, academically or socially. That emphasised the importance of teamwork and forming bonds.

After exposure to the glittering, complex world of the US corporates, why come back to RD1 – a stable but arguably unsexy rural supplies business?

A former vet and animal nutritionist, Kennedy says the move feels like a natural progression. And RD1 is no minnow, especially by New Zealand standards. It has a $1 billion annual turnover, 600 staff and 64 stores serving farmers nationwide.

Anyone can shop at RD1. The retail chain supplies all sorts of rural supplies, from lifestyle products such as hen houses for free-range chickens to more traditional farming products such as generators, fertiliser, seeds and even livestock.

Before she went travelling, Kennedy spent 10 years at the helm of Healtheries, building it from a $2 million to a $185m business. In 2009, Healtheries merged with Nutralife to become Vitaco, where as chief executive Kennedy led 400 staff.

She is also pleased at RD1's strong staff culture. It recently ranked in the top three most improved workplaces for its size.

Kennedy has always been strongly supportive of her staff, says friend and former Healtheries colleague Maureen Parkinson.

Kennedy encouraged Parkinson to do management degrees, and under Kennedy she was promoted to head of human resources. She's a "ball of dynamite", says Parkinson.

Often Kennedy would come up with an idea or vision, and no-one would completely understand it, and would take a few days to catch up. But when they did, they were on board and incredibly loyal, she says.

One of the things Kennedy likes about RD1 is that its stores often form the heart of the community in small towns with large catchment areas. A store opening in Wyndham, Southland, last month attracted more than 200 farmers and their wives, for example.

Being a female chief executive in this traditionally conservative sector hasn't been a problem, says Kennedy. If anything, farmers haven't noticed, which she puts down to the strong partnership between husbands and wives in farm management.

Global Women chairwoman Mai Chen says Kennedy, as a founding board member, worked hard to get sponsorship for the not-for-profit organisation, which seeks to build meaningful relationships between peers and mentor potential leaders.

Chen says it was a brave move for Kennedy to leave her position as chief executive at Vitaco, and spend more time with her husband who was ill at the time. "She could have got depressed, or down, but she didn't."

Kennedy went overseas, got another qualification, and came back to New Zealand reinvigorated with a new passion in management and governance.

"You can never predict what will happen in life but I think the successful people are those that don't complain and make something of their situation," Chen says.

Why does Kennedy think she has succeeded in a country with a dearth of women chief executives and directors?

The New Zealand Census of Women's Participation 2010 shows women hold 9.32 per cent of board directorships – less than a 1 per cent gain in more than 2 1/2 years.

Kennedy takes a moment to consider the question, albeit one she must have faced many times.

"Part of it is luck. Always enjoying what you do, and being passionate and just getting on."

BUT for Kennedy, it's also about fostering her innate child-like wonder of the world. "I've always been intensely curious and excited about what's next."

An African-American male MIT professor spoke to the Sloan class about the "sub-conscious bias" of minorities in the workplace, from his research of the banking sector.

"The good news is there are ways around it. Get coaches at work. Look at the languages and behaviours that are used in the workplace and question the sub-conscious prejudices."

When not at the coalface, Kennedy hopes to resume horse-riding. She was an endurance rider, but is contemplating a shift to dressage.

Indulging her hobby is easier to do on the weekends now that she and her project manager husband, Geoff, are living in Hamilton. Kennedy commutes to Auckland once a week.

That year-long stint in the US remains fresh in her mind, however. While she was at MIT, a Sloan class of 1960 had a reunion, with attendees aged between 88 and 95. "Imagine what it would have looked like in 1960, with General Electric and John Kennedy and the advent of TV.

"But imagine what they will say about 2010, when the world was going through this."


Sarah Kennedy

CEO of rural supplies group RD1

Age: 48

Former CEO of Vitaco, general manager of NRM

Qualified as a veterinary surgeon

A graduate of the Sloan Fellowship in Global Leadership and Innovation at MIT (Boston)