FACE TO FACE : Helen Robinson – A Kiwi in full flight

Every second Sunday evening, Helen Robinson packs small carry-on bag and catches late night Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to either London or New York. She returns the following Friday, works for week from her Albany home in Auckland’s northern reaches and then repeats the exercise.
Her life on the long haul makes her one of Air New Zealand’s top half dozen customers. That status delivers few privileges. She gets to sit where she wants – seat near the door that ensures she is first off the flight and off to her New York or London office before most fellow travellers have unbuckled.
Robinson has always been manager on the move. Her CV is peppered with impressive leadership appointments. She was chief executive of Microsoft New Zealand until 2007 when she was shoulder-tapped to become the founding CEO of TZ1 Registry, an NZX-sponsored carbon trading start-up venture, that eventually led to her becoming the Markit Group’s global managing director, environmental markets. Markit is the London-based global financial information services company that bought TZ1 in June 2009 for reported US$20 million.
Originally recruited by NZX chief executive Mark Weldon and TZ1 chief executive Mark Franklin to help establish TZ1 as carbon-trading platform, she takes no credit for the original registry idea. “NZX had spotted that idea some time ago.”
But she can take credit for spotting the global opportunity that the registry presented and for taking it offshore to capitalise on scale.
She admits that when Franklin approached her to join the TZ1 start-up she had no idea what carbon trading meant. “My background was software. I knew next to nothing about financial or commodity markets.”
Robinson turned to one of her brothers for help. He had formerly headed New Zealand Futures and Options and was, and still is, running Chinese foreign exchange and stock-broking firm. She also took herself offshore to bone up on the environment trading business and returned with findings which, she admits, had nothing to do with New Zealand but instead represented “huge gap” in rapidly emerging global marketplace for trading clean air in markets like the United States, United Kingdom and Europe.
With the TZ1 team Robinson built strategy to deliver global registry which, up to that point, did not exist. While she moved quickly to set up offices in New York and London, at home NZX was grappling with the fallout from attempts to drive the Emissions Trading Scheme legislation past reluctant legislators and establish local carbon trading enterprise.
Her quick action soon established TZ1 as “the international registry”, particularly in the voluntary carbon trading market. “We built module on the NZX trading platform to underpin the registry,” she says. “And we used that as the software to run the business. There was no existing precedent.”
She hired team of smart Kiwis to man the operation’s processes. That team now operates out of New York.
Robinson saw the registry as means of providing authenticity, transparency and stimulation to the carbon market she had been asked to investigate. Just as in the securities market, share registry records both the share’s existence and its traded history. carbon credit registry does something similar. It records the existence, legitimacy and traded history of credit.
There is, however, difference with carbon credits. The registry employs rigorous process of credit acceptance or rejection. When the registry is finally satisfied that the processes followed to create credit have been completed it assigns unique serial number and issues credit certificate. “We effectively monetise the asset,” says Robinson. “That allows the credit to be bought and sold.”
Unlike share which might, in theory, exist forever, the average life cycle − churn − of carbon credit is 4.3 times before it is “retired” and taken out of circulation. Companies typically acquire carbon credits as “offsets” to cover the gap between their physical emission-reducing actions and, say, target of complete carbon neutrality despite what many people think, it’s not easy to create carbon credit, says Robinson. “A robust, internationally recognised standard and expensive validation process must be followed to establish both the existence and ongoing monitoring of credit.”
While NZX and the original TZ1 shareholders had not intended selling their successful new registry business, Markit Group offered the kind of global leverage needed to secure its longterm future. So, in little more than two years, they sold the business, lock-stock-and-carbon credits, to Markit with Robinson staying on to run the registry.
She is now leading advocate for monetising environmental commodities as the fastest and most effective way to deliver clean and sustainable environment. “Paying for traditionally free services like water and clean air is inevitable,” she says. Paying for these things changes behaviour. That is why we must do it.”
Money talks – whether through controlling costs (the stick approach) or providing incentives (the carrot). “In regulated environmental market trading scheme, the emitters pay for the services and those that do the right things by reducing emissions, using clean technologies or whatever, get incentives.”
The market creates its own snowball effect to drive changed attitude toward environmental abuse, she adds.
Involvement in the carbon credit marketplace has influenced her thinking about all environmental issues and the options available to world economies for dealing with them. “There is,” she says, “no question that humanity causes huge degradation of the environment. And it is our responsibility to do something about it. We are not just talking about carbon dioxide emissions. We are talking about all the ways in which humans destroy our planet. I believe wholeheartedly that market-based mechanisms can really make the difference.”
She sees certain irony in the fact New Zealand initiative is now global enterprise while New Zealand is still grappling with how to formulate what are to her mind “more enlightened” environmental management strategies.
Robinson sees her own expertise as growing businesses. “I am good at commercialising companies. There are two things that are important to company’s success. One is scale and there are not many markets in New Zealand that provide the scale that business needs to be super successful. The second prerequisite is governance. Getting the right governance structure in business is paramount. Get those two things right and you are well on the way to success.”
She describes herself as “big picture leader with an innate sense of knowing where the opportunities lie and with the tenacity to go for it”. She is also good at picking “the right people” and putting them in place to deliver the strategy. “I am people person and ensure that my team is values aligned.” Her core values include integrity, openness, honesty, drive, trust and loyalty, innovation, being savvy, professional and “having heart”.
She is not, she says, driven by money though concedes it is “great to have it”. She likes to win, to succeed at what she does. “My priority is always to run the best company to do business with,” she adds. “What is important is that our customers delight in doing business with us.”
What worries Robinson most is that New Zealand is now letting the opportunity to leverage its strong green, environmental reputation slip. “When we first went to market internationally everyone was interested in what we were doing, saying that New Zealand was forward thinking – particularly in the agricultural and forestry sectors. But when people like Rodney Hide start denying things like global warming, I now find attitudes are changing toward us,” she says.
There is still the op

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