On brisk Auckland July evening with the air still cool inside the imposing white manor on fashionable Paratai Drive, Elizabeth Coutts backs up to the gas fire in the antique-adorned drawing room. She shares her immaculate home with husband, Roger.
She is diminutive, youthful looking woman. Her small face is fringed by blonde hair. She is dressed top to toe in black, save for modest splash of gold jewellery. Coutts once wore glasses but had her eyes lasered to correct her sight.
Elizabeth Mary Coutts. Haven’t heard of her? In June this magazine published small one paragraph announcing her appointment as chair of Meritec Group. She was, said the announcement, also director of Air New Zealand, Vending Technologies, Industrial Research, Pharmac, NZ Tennis Inc, Public Trust Office and Viking Pacific Holdings.
In short, Elizabeth Coutts is at once, one of New Zealand’s least exposed but most successful and now influential, business women. But articles featuring the clique of woman who make up this country’s 14 percent of female directors invariably omit her from the list.
The reason? Simple. This woman, who packs her heart into directorships of some of our most challenging boards, is not self-marketer. She may be director of headline company of the moment Air New Zealand but, apart from inner circle speculation fuelled tad by retired chairman, Selwyn Cushing, that she would make his ideal replacement, her involvement has attracted little more than whiff of media attention.
Should she be higher profile? Not as far as she’s concerned. How many people knew much about Theresa Gattung before she got Telecom’s top job, she asks? Interesting analogy. Coutts is couple of years older than Gattung but they have cut similar career paths, though in vastly different companies. Gattung in high tech telecoms. Coutts’ career is more traditional forestry based.
Like many of New Zealand’s most successful and influential executives, Coutts admits she is “a private person”. Then she adds: “You can always market yourself when you get the top job,” which is itself an interesting observation. She perhaps doesn’t yet feel she has “the top job” whatever that might be.
But whatever, Coutts is challenge driven. Work sits soundly to the fore, perhaps explaining her not having any children. “I focus on business goals rather than on my own personal goals. Sometimes that has worked for me and sometimes against,” she says.
Coutts joined the Air New Zealand board year ago, tapped on the shoulder by Sir Ron Carter. He’d known her since her days as chief executive of Caxton Group and her involvement on the board of Industrial Research (formerly the Crown Research Institute). The airline, according to Carter, needed woman on the board with sound business and financial background. They already had quite enough lawyers.
Coutts’ first taste of directorship came in 1993 when she was just 33. She was appointed director of Trust Bank. She was already chief executive of the Carter Holt subsidiary, Caxton Group, and “working hard. Seven days week, 24 hours day at times,” she reflects.
Coutts believes that as chief executive “your focus becomes very inward because you are just looking at this one company. I wanted more directorships but I couldn’t do it while I was full-time CEO.” So she quit Carter Holt.
Then came the offers of directorships, first to the Viking board, then to the Commerce and Earthquake Commissions. Coutts wanted variety both for her personal development and her “enjoyment of life”. And (variety) “is what I enjoy now. That, and the people.”
These days her weighty portfolio of duties not only includes the boards of the organisations listed above, on virtually all of which she chairs the important audit committee, but also commitments to the Ministry of Health and the financial reporting standards board of the Institute of Chartered Accountants.
To sate her sporting interests she sits on the boards of the Recreation and Sports Agency (formerly the Hillary Commission) and New Zealand Tennis Inc . An enthusiastic tennis player Coutts rises at cock-crow to practise. She plays mid-week ladies.
But back to business. Does she agree with the decisions made lately on the Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, and political front to secure Air New Zealand’s future? She tosses her head and laughs. The conversation threatens to go behind boardroom doors and that is no go territory. Coutts is already accomplished at saying something but nothing, particularly when discretion is of the essence.“That is hard one. In terms of what happens in the boardroom and what is said in the media, the media’s view isn’t necessarily that of the board. It is complex subject,” she says politely suggesting chat with the “relevant people concerned” rather than her.
But she happily switches to the subject of directors and corporate governance. The responsibilities and liabilities of directors has become prickly issue. Does she agree with the school of thought that says some directors are so busy trying to avoid being on the wrong side of the 1993 Companies Act that they neglect the wider issues, particularly their responsibility to generate shareholder wealth? “No,” she doesn’t.
“You don’t become director if you are not confident of your own ability and with the job being done by your fellow directors,” she asserts. “We know the responsibilities and the liabilities before we take on the job.”
In her relatively short, if spectacularly successful life as director, Coutts has noticed “big changes in attitude” as companies become more competitive in an open and global market. “It is big picture thing,” she says. Whereas once the local focus was on day-to-day running of the company, boards are now spending more time on strategic issues. “There’s more maturity in attitude and experience,” she says. And directors are more likely to bring others with experience and expertise on board if they perceive weakness.
While corporate governance is key director responsibility it is not, she says, mutually exclusive and separate from generating shareholder wealth. “It’s more case of the two being inter-linked in properly run company. Being good director is combination of the right skills and the right timing,” she offers.
“My girlfriend said to me ‘you are always so diligent and hard working. If I had business I would definitely put you in charge of it because I know you would look after it.’ I guess you have to have responsible approach.”
Coutts’ plan for the following day is to be up at 6am, at tennis by 7am, then to Viking Pacific board meeting before catching Wellington flight at noon. She will return in five days.
She is highly organised and good at handling stress. Currently her husband is in Blenheim developing their latest joint investment, 56 hectares of lifestyle blocks on prime vine-planting land, stone’s throw from Montana’s winery. Coutts is excited about the rural subdivision called Dry Hills Estate “It’s bit much work for us but we have learned how to build bridges and roads and we are in the middle of putting in tennis court for the sub-division part,” she laughs.
Add to her passion for tennis, rekindled yearning to play the piano. Not just any old piano mind. She recently fell in love with an 1880s’ solid walnut German grand piano during few spare moments when she was donkey deep in Air New Zealand board talks. On the day it was to be delivered, Air New Zealand suddenly called her to Wellington. “Thank goodness for the housekeeper,” she says, confessing that portion of her mind was on the piano’s safe delivery instead of on safe landings.
Recent rumours had Coutts as dark horse contender for the chairmanship of Air New Zealand when Sir Selwyn Cushing retires. It’s story she quickly denies. “I am still very young at this game in terms of getting people’s acceptance of me for such position,” she adds. “But no, it doesn’t me