Growing Kiwi networks
Grant Shimmin speaks to a former Timaruvian taking a healthy bite out of the Big Apple, and trying to make a difference for New Zealand as well.
"So do I call you Phil, or would you prefer Philip?" I ask as our interview concludes.
"Phil," he answers emphatically. "Calling me Philip makes it sound like I'm in trouble." Childhood memories are clearly breaking through.
It's a remarkably grounded reply for someone flying as high as Phil Veal is, but completely in keeping with his demeanour throughout the previous hour. The surroundings are appropriately unpretentious too - we've been chatting across a small table in a Timaru motel unit, where he and his young family are staying for a week while they visit his parents, before heading to the North Island for a week with wife Diana's family.
Flying high is an appropriate image on more than one count. The New York- based former Timaru Boys' High School student - he graduated in 1987 - has recently assumed the chairmanship of Kea New Zealand, taking over the mantle from Sir Stephen Tindall, of The Warehouse fame.
He describes Kea as "New Zealand's global network", a concept that grew out of the "Knowledge Wave conferences, around 2001". It's a network still under construction, in truth.
Phil explains that there are believed to be around 1 million Kiwis living outside New Zealand. The aim of Kea is to connect them back to the country, in such a way as to help form an integrated global network that will "be a net benefit for New Zealand, and hopefully all New Zealanders".
To that end, a major social media project is under way, using Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, aimed at reaching "the million". It's hoped to get as many expat Kiwis as possible to be part of this "community". The number of connections has already surpassed 100,000, Phil says.
"They all want to be engaged, they want to help. But it's difficult unless you've got a specific question for them, such as 'Do you know about the dairy market in Wisconsin?' for example."
A nucleus of network members has been in place for a while, Phil explains. The aim is to get the network to the scale where it can have "a regular material impact on New Zealand".
"The million" is one of three primary aims for Kea at present. The second is "the thousand"; bringing together 1000 influential people who, because of that significant influence, can be "high impact".
The last aim is "really being world famous in New Zealand"; raising the profile of Kea at home.
Half of Kea's funding comes from government agencies, "which means we have a responsibility to spend responsibly and for maximum impact", Phil says.
So while he and Diana and their four young daughters are here for an annual vacation during the girls' midwinter break, he'll be meeting representatives of those agencies this week and next.
It all sounds like a pretty high calling, with some decidedly lofty aims but, believe it or not, this isn't what Phil does for a living. Kea has fulltime staff; his is simply a "part-time governance role".
In his working life, Phil, an investor in several New Zealand businesses, is trying to answer the question, "What's the next big thing?"
When you can ask that question, plainly there must have been some previous big things, and that's certainly the case for him. At the end of last year, he finished a contract with Nasdaq-listed company Cognizant, a major provider of technological services in India.
In 2010, Cognizant bought PIPC, a project-management consulting business that Phil launched in the aftermath of the Dotcom bust. It grew to the point where it had 300 consultants and an annual revenue of $US66 million (NZ$79m) before Cognizant bought it in 2010.
So he's looking at his options now, be it investing in a similar business or following a new idea.
He has also been talking to our Government about the possibility of changing the law around KiwiSaver, to allow at least some of the scheme's $13 billion investment pool to be invested in assets that are longer term and less liquid.
A lot of Kiwi firms are capital- constrained, he argues, and while he goes against some of the thinking from within New Zealand in saying he believes foreign investment is "a good thing", he believes it would also be a good thing if there was the ability for that massive KiwiSaver pool to be providing the capital investment local companies need for growth.
Asked if he has found support, he says the idea has some "momentum", and has provoked "a lot of nodding heads in Wellington".
"It would require one little change to the law, but I'm not sure there's the stomach to do it politically," he says.
It's all heady stuff for a man who was at school in Timaru a quarter of a century ago. But then Phil's had plenty of involvement in important projects, and rubbed shoulders with well-known people, throughout his working life.
Like working for a catering company in Miami after leaving New Zealand in 1993 - he had an engineering degree but jobs were hard to come by in a depressed New Zealand market - which catered a couple of parties at Madonna's house.
A can-do attitude, and the ability to wing it to some extent, have clearly helped.
"We used to do a lot of silver service. I wasn't always sure what I was doing, but if you make a plausible excuse in a funny accent, you can get away with a lot," he laughs.
Having discovered in 1994 that there was "a sell-by date to bumming around" and moving to London with $40 in his pocket, he found himself employed by a large engineering consultancy company, Mott MacDonald. He got the job by calling their number from the phone book, having worked as a labourer for three days and realised it was a dead end.
The first of two interesting and complex engineering jobs he worked on was the extension of the London Underground's Jubilee Line.
"It was the first big expansion of the underground for around 30 years. It was the first line to have glass barriers to stop people falling on to the tracks," he says.
Phil's role was as site engineer for Westminster, monitoring the process of tunnelling under the River Thames and important buildings like Big Ben.
Because they were tunnelling through soft ground, Phil found himself modelling the ground movement.
One of the concerns was Big Ben, a tall structure with a shallow foundation - "there were no piles or anything" - which was already leaning to the north by about half a metre, and stood to move more during the tunnelling.
"We covered it in instrumentation," he says, at a time when technology such as GPS had not yet made its appearance.
"There was no thought that it would collapse, but we needed to be aware of how it would move."
It took a bit of getting his head around "coming from Timaru and getting to make these decisions", he says.
After another big project involving Heathrow Airport, he was moved to Mott Management, and involved in some of the management tasks around several big projects, but there wasn't the hands- on aspect to the role that he craved.
"I'd said I'd love to run some of those big projects and I ended up in the back office. I'd gone from a position of high responsibility to being a spreadsheet jockey, which I really struggled with."
So he answered an advertisement from management consultants PA Consulting and found himself involved in some major bank mergers and acquisitions. "There were some big, ugly hairy banking deals," he recalls.
When the opportunity arose to open a PA Consulting office in New York he was quick to put his hand up, opening the office at the height of the Dotcom boom.
He left the company in the wake of that boom fizzling. He and Diana too a year off to travel before he launched PIPC.
That certainly turned out to be a "big thing". Now he's looking for the next one. Watch this space.
- © Fairfax NZ News