Another accolade for 'best connected' businessman

CLOSE TIES: Sir John Buchanan has been putting his "very good network" to work for Christchurch earthquake relief.
PETER MEECHAM/Fairfax NZ
CLOSE TIES: Sir John Buchanan has been putting his "very good network" to work for Christchurch earthquake relief.

The Kiwi-born businessman described as "the best connected man in the City of London", who was knighted last month for his services to industry, has won another accolade – this time at home.

Sir John Buchanan, currently chairman of medical device company Smith & Nephew and deputy chairman of Vodafone, has won the Lifetime Contribution to Finance and Business Award as part of the 2012 New Zealand CFO Awards.

Buchanan is best-known for his 33-year career with BP, including several years as chief financial officer before retiring in 2003, and he is a director of BHP Billiton.

Although based in Britain, Buchanan has always retained close ties here and has been putting his self-confessed "very good network" to effect as a trustee of the British branch of the earthquake fundraising appeal for Christchurch.

"As a New Zealander I was quite moved at the thought of so much devastation and loss of life. I have cousins in Christchurch, my father grew up in Christchurch, so I have some close links. But, apart from that, it's devastating for this nation."

He said young New Zealanders in London had done an amazing job raising money for the appeal in a number of ways, including pop concerts and auctions.

So far the UK branch had raised about 2 million pounds (NZ$3.78m) directly with the money going to a variety of causes such as Women's Refuge, sports and arts facilities in Canterbury, and the Burwood community.

"When you consider what's needed it's a scratch really. Nevertheless it's another step forward."

He said there were still some British funds looking for a big-ticket item they could donate to and the trustees were "continuing to work that".

The award judges described the 68-year-old former south Aucklander as an outstanding New Zealander who had achieved success at the highest level of international business.

"His early days growing up in Papatoetoe fortified him with a competitive `can-do' attitude that has served him well in his career: from a packer at the Otara freezing works through to the boardrooms of some of the world's most respected companies," said Chye Heng, chief financial officer and executive director of Beca Group.

Sir John's tips for CFOs aspiring to work offshore or move into the CEO role include doing your current job as well as possible.

''Think about the broader strategy and commercial interests and also seeking relationships outside the financial area.

''Nevertheless, doing the current job well, not losing sight of the basics is usually important and then connecting up with companies that are more internationally minded. When you think about moving from CFO to more CEO-type activities, then it's the wider strategic orbit and commercial interests of the company and that's quite a big step.''

Sir John is in hot demand as an independent director, a role he said is invaluable in governance.

''As we've seen with the banks in the UK and elsewhere, that monitoring of the executive is crucially important. People do the best they can, but in large organisations, people start to think the organisation is the most important thing.

''But having people with an outside view to monitor, challenge, help people keep their feet on the ground is very important.''

Over-generous CEO salaries is also something the experienced director has been outspoken on, as he thinks they have reached unsustainable levels.

''Most of the jobs I've done I would have done for half as much compensation,'' he said.

Boards have to take a stronger line and not be panicked about losing talent.

''I think some of the banking boards have been rather weak. For me team players are the most important, the best companies work with strong teams. The ego has its place, but it's a second place.''

Sir John hasn't forgotten the role his education played in providing a springboard to his success.

An interest in science at Auckland Grammar led to a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Auckland and post-doctoral study at Oxford University.

He serves on the UK Friends of both the University of Auckland and Auckland Grammar School and sits on the advisory board of the University of Auckland Business School. He has no directorships here, but hasn't ruled out doing so in future. 

''If the right thing came up I would consider it.''

A frequent visitor to the country, Sir John said he ''never left, I just went away for a year or two and one thing led to another.

''Sometimes I do sit back and think, how on earth have I managed to get into these rather senior positions in a different country. I suspect some of my attitudes would have been seen as a little bit direct, possibly a little bit blunt early on, but it's worked out okay.''

The Dominion Post