A good education can open doors

NO CONFLICT: Ebos chairman Rick Christie
NO CONFLICT: Ebos chairman Rick Christie

Few people would have as wide a perspective on New Zealand business as Rick Christie.

The career of the 70 year-old "former scientist" has spanned the oil industry, the agricultural and the high-tech sectors and he has had feet in the public and private sectors. Setting out all his roles would quickly become an indigestible list, but they included heading the Trade Development Board, chairing AgResearch and a lengthy string of directorships.

He is now chairman of pharmaceutical and animal products distributor Ebos and of technology company ikeGPS.

Christie has kept his own counsel, avoiding the media gaze. A column he wrote in 2011 suggested "more pragmatism and less political correctness" would cost the country little and better underpin our future growth.

Though he has spent much of his career traversing the boardroom, Christie wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

When aged 4, he was part of one of the first 100 families to move to Wainuiomata outside Wellington, immediately after the satellite settlement took off following the end of World War II.

"My father bought a section straight after returning from the war in the Pacific. A bus went over the hill I think once a day and the school was pretty basic as well," he says.

"It was very much a community and people were close knit. We used to go to the town hall to watch black and white movies every Saturday afternoon."

He spent a couple of years at Suva Grammar when his father, a schoolteacher, got a job in Fiji. But soon after Christie returned to New Zealand to complete his school certificate, his father died, and his mother returned to a state house in Whanganui. "We didn't have any money, but I have never felt that has been a barrier to getting to where you want to go."

Christie's attitude toward success seems mainstream Kiwi. "I am a believer in where New Zealand came from. We have traditionally been an egalitarian society and I'd like to believe we can continue to be. That doesn't necessarily mean I am a socialist but at the same time it is not good to have too big a disparity between those people with the money and those people who don't have it," he says.

"Taxing the people with all the money isn't necessarily the right way to go about it without gutting the country of all your entrepreneurs. Part of it is about education. If people get a good education the opportunities are there to be taken."

When he was criticising political correctness, he was thinking about the Resource Management Act and corporate governance rules that could cause companies to turn into passive institutions, he says.

"I am not suggesting companies could or should push the boundaries of ‘governance' but governance doesn't grow companies; it enables you to stay where you are without breaking the rules. Once you rely on ‘business as usual' you are doomed. It's grow or die in my book, unless you are in a space where you have got monopoly power."

After completing a chemistry degree at Victoria University and a one-year stint as a chemist at Unilever, Christie joined BP for what would be a 21-year stint. This was a time when multinationals offered a defined career ladder and Christie grabbed the opportunity and moved up the rungs.

"I had a fantastic time with five postings overseas, a massive variety of businesses and a huge amount of training," he says.

In 1987, Christie was appointed managing director of diversified industrial group Cable Price Downer just in time for that year's stock market crash.

Christie was faced with cutting its workforce by 2000 jobs through a mixture of divestments and redundancies.

"It was a high point and a tough point," he says. "We restructured the business and took a $25 million provision. Some of the businesses like Amalgamated Batteries and Rex Consulting simply had nowhere to go under the new tariff regime.

Christie can't recall having to make people redundant himself but his advice to business leaders in a similar situation is to act early, be upfront and be fair. Nowadays, making people redundant is largely a statutory process, he says.

"I should have bought Downers but I didn't have the courage at the time to go and get the money."

Another tough episode came with the collapse of eftpos company ProvencoCadmus, which he chaired and which was put into receivership in 2009. The Shareholders Association, unhappy with aspects of the company's disclosures, awarded Christie its "Golden Glob" award, an unwanted spoof accolade.

Christie took that on the chin but says by the time he joined ProvencoCadmus' board the company was "already stretching itself".

"I worked with shareholder Todd Corporation to try and get it out of the strife it was in but despite our best endeavours we elected to say it wasn't going to work. The board didn't have a lot of options, to be honest."

He hints the firm had difficulty protecting its intellectual property in China.

A highlight was his six-year chairmanship of AgResearch, which he relinquished in 2008. During his tenure the focus of the Crown research institute shifted away from genetically-modified organisms towards more everyday applied research.

"I trust the scientists before I trust the conspiracy theorists. [But] when I was there we came up against the reality that however good the science might be, there is a strong resistance to genetic modification in most communities and we had to be realistic about what we could usefully do," says Christie.

"Despite spending $16m on a Royal Commission that could find no reason we should fear GMOs, it still didn't convince everybody here in New Zealand, in the same way that Europe turned away from GMOs. Things like that are ‘political' in the end. People have say and they should often prevail."

The stars appear to be coming into alignment for the New Zealand economy and its capital market at the moment. So does Christie believe the country is on the right track?

"If you have got good management they will take you where you need to go with technology and I think we have got most of the management talent we need here," Christie says.

"I have never been a great fan of importing people, it is a ‘cultural cringe' thing that a number of boards and governments seem to have from time to time."

Technology companies should resist the temptation to sell out to overseas owners too early, he says. "We have got the capital here now, but we have got to have the courage to invest in our own businesses a little bit more than we have been inclined to do."

Courage isn't lacking at Wellington technology firm ikeGPS which Christie currently chairs and which is going through the throes of a $25m IPO.

IkeGPS makes devices that can be used to "geo-tag", model and photograph objects from a distance. The devices have been used for everything from clearing minefields to monitoring the condition of overhead power lines.

Ingenious its product may be, but its annual revenues of $1.9m last year beg the question of just how big the size of its opportunity is.

IkeGPS' prospectus invites investors to view it as a start-up. Christie acknowledges it is a fair question why investors should do that, given ikeGPS and its product have been now been around for 10 years.

But he points to a licensing deal ikeGPS signed with General Electric late last year and growing interest in its products from the United States intelligence community as indications ikeGPS may be at a turning point.

"Before I became involved I asked myself why I should and part of me said I had never been involved in a small technology business and it was time to give some time to the businesses that are going to be the companies of tomorrow, rather than the companies of today. I know a lot about growth from the Ebos experience."

While there might be concerns in some quarters about the flood of small-cap technology companies lining up to list on the NZX, Christie says the sector is making up for lost time.

"It is probably not surprising in a market that has a lot of cash around that technology companies would be putting their hand up.

"Markets do get indigestion from time to time, but I don't think we have reached that point at all."

He would like to see more agribusiness stocks list on the exchange, particularly those involved in agricultural technology.

"Given our country depends so much on our primary sector we really need to invest more public money in its intellectual property."

Christie's personal interests include travel. He holidayed in Cuba before that became popular, tackled the Outback in a four-wheel drive and is now embarking on a five-week campervan tour of the national parks of the US west coast.

His youngest son, a former skiing instructor, has followed him into the business world, setting up his own insurance broking business in Australia. His eldest daughter is a television producer and his middle child a psychiatrist.

Christie is now shedding rather than accumulating professional commitments, but it is not all one-way traffic. Retiring from the board of Tourism Holdings in 2012 was a big move, he says, and he will step down from Ebos next year.

"I'll probably shed another couple of things in the next 12 to 18 months and I'll only pick up what I really find interesting now."

He says he'd like to hand on his batons to directors perhaps 20-years younger than himself, rather than five-years younger.

"I am a great fan of getting more women on boards. Ebos has two women on the board, since I've been chairman, and I have been involved in the Institute of Directors mentoring programming for diversity for three years.

"I don't think there is nearly enough representation from engineers, scientists and technologists on company boards; there is an absolute dearth of them. I would like to see a lot more attention paid to that, but it is easier said than done," he says.

"The process of appointing directors is still a little bit traditional - 'who do we know who would fit that slot?'."

Sunday Star Times