For a proud, small and passionate nation such as New Zealand, I am astounded at how bad we are at celebrating our global business success.
Don’t get me wrong: rugby is important. I more than anyone love the electric vibe that circulates through our great nation the day after an All Blacks victory, especially if that win relates to the Rugby World Cup.
But here’s the thing: rugby, or more broadly sports, is only one part of New Zealand, so why don’t we celebrate anything else?
Okay, that’s not quite fair… the arts get a bit of coverage too. Lorde gets plenty of kudos, as does Sam Neill, as does Sir Peter Jackson. All incredibly deserving Kiwis.
On the global stage, however, business is forgotten. Kiwis are extremely poor at celebrating insanely good business success.
As the co-founder and CEO of Unfiltered (www.unfiltered.co.nz), I am currently in New York City where I have been interviewing some of the most amazing business people in the world (including Y Combinator President Sam Altman, Basecamp Founder David Heinemeier Hansson and Unity Technologies CEO John Riccitiello).
But let me throw a few other names at you.
Sarah Robb O’Hagan
Any of them ring a bell? I would be very surprised if they did.
At Unfiltered I am literally in the game of tracking down successful business leaders and interviewing them. I am absolutely crazy about business (like most New Zealanders are about rugby), having turned down a law scholarship to have a crack at launching a startup straight out of school. I go to bed thinking about business, and wake up thinking about… you guessed it, business. (That and food. I love food too).
But even still, until very recently, as New Zealand is so terrible at celebrating our own business success stories, I did not know who these people were. I was as guilty as you are.
Let me explain… I guarantee you’ll be amazed.
Glenn Renwick is a Dunedin-born Kiwi who is an Old Boy of Otago Boys’ High School. He is currently the CEO of Progressive Corporation in the USA which is number 153 on the Fortune 500. Progressive has a market capitalisation of $19.52 billion, 27,250 employees and last year made $19.3 billion in revenue, with a cash profit of $1.3 billion. Glenn joined Progressive in 1986 as Auto Product Manager for Florida, when the business had revenue of $400 million, and became CEO in 2000. Glenn Renwick is one of a very small handful of Kiwis in charge of a Fortune 500 Company, yet the percentage of Kiwis who know of him would be negligible..
Dan Ammann, a University of Waikato Graduate, is the President of General Motors (GM), a role he has held since January 2014. GM has 215,000 employees, and in 2015 delivered 9.8 million vehicles globally. Dan was former CFO of General Motors, and alongside another former CFO of GM, Chris Liddell (also a Kiwi!), was an instrumental part in leading GM through its IPO in 2010 after a $50 billion bailout from the U.S. Government. Did you hear about that IPO? It only raised $23.1 billion, making it (at the time) the biggest IPO the history of the world. GM’s return to profitability after six years of losses was described by financial commentators as “near-miraculous, if not totally miraculous.” Kiwis were a major part of this. Dan is also a Director of Lyft, UBER’s major competitor, and tech giant Hewlett Packard.
Greg Foran, also a Kiwi, is the President & CEO of Walmart U.S., and is responsible for the strategic direction and performance of more than 4,000 Walmart stores. Walmart U.S. serves more than 140 million customers each week and had revenues of $279.4 billion in fiscal year 2014. Globally, Walmart employs 2.2 million people worldwide – 1.4 million in the U.S. alone. That makes Greg our biggest business leader worldwide in terms of the sheer numbers that he is dealing with. He is literally leading 1.4 million people, more than one quarter of the population of New Zealand.
Sarah Robb O’Hagan, who had her start at the University of Auckland, was until very recently the President of EQUINOX, a global fitness and lifestyle brand across America and the United Kingdom with 18,000 staff, before leaving to launch her own startup, ExtremeYOU. Sarah is the former President of Gatorade (globally!), GM Marketing of Nike, Director of Marketing at Virgin Atlantic Airlines, and has been named among Forbes Magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in Sports” multiple times. She is literally killing it on the global stage, and she is only 43-years-old.
The list is endless, and each and every one of these Kiwis make me incredibly proud.
And I am not alone… on the Unfiltered Facebook page, we recently posted a link to our Unfiltered interview with Josh Bayliss, with the headline: “From Mt. Albert Grammar To CEO Of The Virgin Group By 38.” This became our most viewed interview ever, reaching over 233,000 people, with 1,500 likes, 113 shares and 106 comments. People loved it. Why was this interview so popular? Because New Zealanders had never heard of Josh’s incredible story before. Be honest, did you know that a New Zealander is Richard Branson’s second in charge at Virgin? Unlikely.
New Zealand is a small nation. We are also an incredibly proud nation. So here is my challenge. Let’s learn to celebrate our amazing business success around the world. If we can learn to pride ourselves on amazing Kiwis killing it in business, New Zealand will have a much brighter future.
Kids grow up believing that becoming an All Black is the only true road to success. I would know, I am an Old Boy of Christchurch Boys’ High School, the school that produced Dan Carter and Andrew Mehrtens. But I felt like a total outsider at school just because I was interested in business, let alone obsessed with it.
Except a few amazing teachers, my school did not put nearly as much effort into business as it did sport. And from talking to heaps of my mates, it is clear that nearly every other school in New Zealand is the same.
I also observed this worrying truth first hand at a primary school recently. Speaking to a bunch of six and seven year olds as part of Sir Peter Blake Leadership Week, I went around the classroom and asked the kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. Can you guess? At least 70% of the boys wanted to be All Blacks, and most of the girls Silver Ferns. Any student who said “architect,” “engineer,” or, even, “professional magician,” said it very quietly, as if that was a dumb suggestion in this sport-crazed world.
This is dangerous as the future of our country is not going to be built on the back of chucking a ball around.
The future of our country is going to be built by Kiwis building startups, and scaling them into billion dollar businesses. And it is these billion dollar businesses that will provide jobs for these aspiring sports stars when they realise that becoming an All Black is incredibly unlikely.
I know what you’re thinking. “How can you talk about building a brighter future for New Zealand when all of the business leaders you listed are away building America’s future.” Let me be clear, there are hundreds of amazing business leaders in New Zealand who receive very little recognition. I am just quoting U.S. examples in the context of my current global interview tour. If you don’t believe me, Google Brendan Lindsay, Hamish Kennedy and Peter Cooper; a few examples who immediately spring to mind.
If New Zealand celebrated (and I mean truly celebrated) amazing business leaders such as Glenn Renwick, Greg Foran, Sarah Robb O’Hagan, Dan Ammann, Josh Bayliss, Brendan Lindsay, Hamish Kennedy and Peter Cooper, kids would have more to aspire to. Adults in business would also have much more to aspire to, rather than becoming lazy, content employees who suck up shareholders’ money, as is so often the case within New Zealand corporates.
Imagine what this could do for New Zealand.
That is a New Zealand I would be passionate about.
Jake Millar is the publisher of Unfiltered.co.nz, a new business education platform which helps businesses grow in New Zealand and abroad.