Running us around the mountain

TARYN UTIGER
Last updated 05:00 30/08/2014

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Kura Denness enjoys a relatively low profile, but as she is one of Taranaki's most influential professional directors you're probably living with the consequences of her decisions.

Denness' capabilities and skills are without question, but she does illustrate what some see as an alarming development.

In line with a nationwide trend, power and influence in Taranaki's private and public sector is concentrated into a tight network of people you could number on the fingers of two hands.

Denness is one of those digits. With just over a decade of experience in professional governance Denness, a chartered accountant, has amassed an impressive portfolio that includes influential positions on the boards of Tui Ora, Pharmac, the Medical Laboratory Science Board, the TSB Community Trust, Witt, Taranaki District Health Board, and Te Atiawa Settlement Trust.

She may be the most influential woman in Taranaki.

She says the life of a professional governor is unrelenting. In her early days it was not uncommon to be reading agendas at 2am.

"I think people think it is easy, we turn up for a meeting, have lunch and go home," she says.

"But the amount of work that goes into a job like this is really big, I don't think the pay would actually reach the minimum wage."

While that may be the case, being a professional governor can be lucrative.

A 2012 University of Canterbury study found fees for corporate chairman jumped 41 per cent from $49,000 in 1995 to $83,500 in 2012. For Taradirectors, average fees almost doubled from $26,000 to $49,000.

It is unlikely that Taranaki directors would be paid this much, but when people are on several boards the money does add up and in Taranaki it is not uncommon for professional leaders to be on at least three boards.

Denness is on 12 and acknowledges that there is a concentration of power and influence in the province.

"But there has always been a concentration of power. The thing is, the demographic of that group has changed.

"It used to be, well, old white guys. Now there is a much younger demographic with a whole different range of backgrounds," she said.

The diversity of background doesn't alter that there is still an exclusive group of movers and shakers in this region, who often serve together as though on a merry-go-round of boards.

This is a growing concern throughout New Zealand says Dr James Lockhart, a senior academic in governance from Massey University.

"The first problem is you have a bandwagon effect in that a career of governance has emerged in New Zealand whereby people set out to deliberately create a pathway to get on as many boards as possible. And that is the worst possible thing that can occur because then what you have is your port thinking like your museum, which thinks like some other thing. Which is a load of crock."

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Familiarity among board members can create efficiencies, he says, but it also has the potential to lead to serious problems when a board member's desire for acceptance amongst their peers is greater than their willingness to challenge the status quo.

David MacLeod is the chairman of the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC), director of Fonterra, and sits on the boards of PKW and Port Taranaki. For him it is courage that is the prime ingredient to a healthy board. "If you've got people who are not asking questions, then you've got a problem."

In his roles MacLeod is often at tables with retired MPs, chief executives of multinational companies and generally "high calibre" individuals. Some tables can be very intimidating, but you've got to challenge, he says.

People who are in governance roles experience what MacLeod calls the snowball effect, as once you are on a board you get approached by many more.

This can lead to its own problems. MacLeod knows only too well the issues that arise from having positions of power on organisations that can often conflict. He is chairman of TRC, Taranaki's environmental watchdog and a director of Fonterra whose farm operations put considerable pressure on the environment.

"What is critical is managing that. When there's any decision being made [at the TRC] about Fonterra I should be nowhere near that.

"But in saying that, some of the experience you bring can contribute to the debate and add background. You have to be very careful. You build integrity up over many, many years and you can lose it all in an instant."

For MacLeod, it is the increasing diversity of board members that contributes to healthy decision making.

While that diversity increasingly includes women, it is still not a 50/50 split.

Women are becoming more common in New Zealand boardrooms, with female directors' numbers almost doubling in five years, but Fonterra and TRC have just one woman on their board, and Port Taranaki has none.

Last year consultancy firm Strategic Pay's research found 24.3 per cent of directors surveyed were women, compared with 12.5 per cent in 2008.

As one of Taranaki's most prominent women of power and influence, Mary Bourke's time in governance began even before her mayoralty in South Taranaki.

Starting out on the Arts Council of New Zealand, Bourke says she stood for mayoralty believing she had the ability to make a difference.

When she beat the incumbent, she become one of the country's youngest mayors. Her age and ideas created a high level of anxiety and fear among other councillors and council staff.

"I was young, I was an outsider," she says.

The establishment's anxiety about new and youthful ideas has always been an issue and may explain why younger talent is not always sought or encouraged. This can lead to Taranaki's influential citizens being viewed as an impenetrable cohort, she says.

"But I look for people with attitude and people who are not afraid to think outside of the square and are not afraid to stand up and be counted."

Neville Robertson, a senior academic from the University of Waikato's psychology department, says communities should think about what motivates their leaders. "One of the things I think we sometimes lose sight of here, is the old idea of service to the community.

"Often people will talk about the idea of making a difference and that's a fairly basic human need.

"And then of course there is recognition. Without a doubt being recognised as a person of some status in the community is quite attractive to some people."

Other times the motivation behind seeking a position of power is not about ego and is more sinister. There are people motivated by ideology and they take whatever opportunities they have to promote that ideology, he says.

But you don't have to be a board member or a high profile politician to have an influence on a community, Robertson says.

Success, charm and money can also be powerful tools to effect change.

Businessman Philip Brown, who started Tenderlink in his garage and built it up to the point where Fairfax Media bought it for $21.6 million, says he's just a normal person with a lot of courage.

His influence can be seen in and heard at the construction site of New Plymouth's first large scale luxury hotel, but also on the professional rugby field.

Along with a handful of others, Brown was instrumental in the dramatic shifting of Taranaki's rugby allegiance from the Hurricanes in Wellington to the Chiefs in Hamilton.

"This strengthened our ties with Super Rugby, we get more games here and there's greater opportunity for player development."

This shift of allegiance would have been unthinkable without the right people selling the switch and Brown always knew it wouldn't go down easily. But, he says, that's where courage comes in.

"And the outcomes of that change give real benefit to the community."

- Taranaki Daily News

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