Companies should use ethnic diversity

17:00, Aug 16 2014
Sean Kam
FRESH PERSPECTIVES: Sean Kam says New Zealand companies are missing on the value of diversity.

New Zealand companies need to diversify their boards and executive management to take advantage of Asian New Zealanders who can bridge the gap culturally to new Asian markets.

So says Partners Life chief financial officer Sean Kam.

According to his sleuthing, Kam is the only person of Asian ethnicity to have been a CFO of an NZX top 50 company in recent times.

Before joining insurer Partners Life two years ago, Kam was CFO for NZX-listed Heartland Bank and was part of the management team that turned around struggling Marac Finance. He led the largest ever rights issue on the NZX - $273 million for Heartland, and the $2 billion merger of Marac with the Southern Cross Building Society and Canterbury Building Society.

While not a director due to his current heavy workload helping ready the growing Partners Life for a NZX listing within the next one to two years, he has been in the past.

However, overall Asian representation on NZ-listed company boards is still almost negligible.


He thinks Kiwi companies are missing out in the diversity stakes at both board level and senior management.

"There are a lot of New Zealand Asians who understand both sets of cultures, who understand how Kiwi business works but also culturally how to operate in Asia. It can be simple things like business card etiquette."

He cited an example during his 10-year stint as chief operating officer for ABN Amro in New Zealand where a staff member wanted to send gifts to an Asian client wrapped in black. In Asia though the colour black is associated with funerals and is culturally inappropriate for gifts. He was able to advise what colours would be preferable. It may seem inconsequential but in Asia this sort of respect matters for forming the long-term relationships required to do serious business together.

While he may look Chinese, Kam is very much a "Shore boy', having been born and raised in Takapuna on Auckland's North Shore where he is now back working. He's a second-generation Chinese New Zealander and his grandparents emigrated to New Zealand from Guangzhou in southern China, fleeing the second Sino-Japan war in the late 1930s.

Kam views himself as a Chinese Kiwi and looks bemused recounting a story about someone asking where he came from. "I said ‘ Takapuna' and they said, ‘No, where are you really from?' and then got told I speak very good English."

In fact, Kam speaks only English. Even his parents only have a smattering of Cantonese.

"Asian New Zealanders have a lot of resilience having grown up as an ethnic minority in New Zealand," he said.

He's as much a die-hard All Blacks and rugby fan as any Kiwi and was given the moniker "Orient Express" when playing centre or wing quarter at Westlake Boys' High.

He remembers the excitement of his father taking him to the Rugby World Cup final in 1987 and he later did the same with his eldest son for the 2011 Cup final in Auckland.

One of the main misconceptions he thinks other Kiwis have about Asians is that they are quiet, academic types who don't socialise, or won't make a meaningful contribution to company culture and strategy. Like many a Kiwi bloke, Kam likes to chew the fat while knocking back a bevvy and said he has always tried to be an "outspoken contributor" on the management team.

He socialises with the Chinese community through the Kwong Cheu Club where he is treasurer and, like his grandfather before him, previously served on the board. The incorporated society was formed in 1923 by a group of Chinese migrants from Canton after facing social prejudices and language barriers on arrival in New Zealand. The club's activities these days centre on family gatherings to preserve the Chinese culture but also to encourage social inter-mixing.

Sunday Star Times