Face to Face: Kim Campbell Business in the DNA

The EMA’s Kim Campbell is immensely amused by comparisons with that other Kim Campbell, Canada’s first-ever female prime minister, who was once famously described as “a tart-tongued, unapologetically determined, razor-sharp intellectual”.
“Oh God, I’d hate to be called an intellectual,” he laughs. “That would be absolutely inappropriate.”
All of which is interesting because ‘our’ Kim Campbell relishes nothing more than sharing the results of good poke through dense policy reports to debunk the gobbledegook and dig out the useful bits for business.

He’s packed in solid learn-as-you-go career in manufacturing and exporting, and worked in Australia and more recently the Philippines, before taking on his current role as CEO of the Employers & Manufacturers Association (EMA) just over one and half years ago.
Pushed to distinguish himself from his Canadian namesake, Campbell says he’d like to think he can bring intellectual rigour to discussions, accepts he can be “unapologetically determined” and rejects the “tart-tongued” tag. “I think I’m bit of pussy cat, actually, but I am direct.”
Campbell’s love of straightforward language serves him well in his advocacy role for the EMA’s 8000 member organisations. His rolling list of “the important things that are happening in the community” includes pretty much most business-related topics pushed out by Wellington’s, and Auckland’s, policy wonks and being chewed over in the media at any given time.

He says it helps that he’s not shy about standing up on his hind legs and delivering an occasional speech or two. “It’s all about putting face on what the organisation is trying to accomplish.” He usually makes five or so presentations week. He’s already made two the day we talk.
“At the moment, we’re trying to get transport going in Auckland,” he says. “We’re dealing with the unitary plan and housing issues. We’re concerned about working capital for business. We’ve got big workstream on energy because New Zealand’s energy policy is in disarray.”
Then there’s the huge issue of water and wastewater pricing, funding of infrastructure, labour laws, and the IRD’s “nutty” and since-dropped suggestion that work car parks, mobile phones and laptops should be taxed. “We circulated that one to wide number of people who, once they realised what the issues were, saw it was nutty,” he says. “That became self-evident in Wellington too and we were able to make difference.”

He favours collaborative approaches, partnering with other organisations as their views align. Teaming up with the unions against taxes on car parks was, he says, “risky strategy… I know from [Unite Union national secretary] Matt McCarten’s viewpoint it certainly was”.
Such unlikely bedfellows are now working together against unscrupulous employers’ mistreatment of immigrant workers. “These are dreadful stories… this woman paid $27,000 to buy job, got sacked, got no compensation, the employer got fined $10,000. It’s appalling.”

Campbell says he could see from very early age how interaction between industry and government could make difference to the work environment. Right from the beginning of his career he’d been involved in the Export Institute and the Manufacturers Association. He’d served on the EMA’s board before heading off overseas. “I’d been active in business politics and knew what this place could do.”

So when he took over as the EMA’s chief executive, Campbell said he felt some of his experiences in the pharmaceutical sector, manufacturing, distribution and export business might prove useful. Rather than approach the job from political point of view, he layers on business development viewpoint.
“I look at what goes on in the business environment very much as business person would,” he says. “I want to know if something is going to work.”

The grainy detail of each issue reveals layers of complexity. The EMA works through an avalanche of dense door-stopper discussion documents laced with opaque jargon.
“We spend lot of time trying to debunk lot of what is basically gobbledegook,” says Campbell, “some of it written by technocrats who don’t know any better.”
An example? Energy pricing: “The pricing models used for transmission costs are absolute gibberish.” Or the funding of infrastructure: “The Treasury documents are full of inconsistent… it’s hard to say it’s gibberish because it’s well intentioned but lot of it could be presented in way that’s much much simpler.”

Still, Campbell refuses to buy into personal criticism of those generating big-picture doorstoppers, saying the public servants that he deals with are “to person” dedicated and well-intentioned towards New Zealand.

“We all seem to want the same thing. It’s really about how we’re going to get there. And I won’t brook criticism of politicians as individuals because they all work really hard for not lot of reward. They’re committed to New Zealand. What we’re arguing about, or discussing, is the best way to get there. It’s not the what, it’s the how: both at local and national level…

“Yes, I do use straightforward language. I get very frustrated with opaque obfuscating long-winded stuff that serves to confuse. I like short clear sentences. Especially when dealing with economic development issues, you get lot of palaver. I want to know: what are they trying to tell me? When are we going to do it? And how are we going to get it done?
“The fact is, when you run business, short is good, fast is good, accurate is good. Busy people haven’t got time to read lots of stuff.”

Inundated with options, the EMA picks the issues of most importance to its members, running ideas past members to try to get consensus view and sifting through issues to ensure it is advocating good public policy.
“Our group,” says Campbell, “has great deal of experience in recognising what is bad public policy.”

He says the EMA represents “a slice of New Zealand” and that its membership is far more diverse than many people imagine. “You’d be amazed. We have Maori business community, women, Indian business groups…. People say we’re right wing and, yes, many of our members are from the right but equal numbers are from the left.”
He sees the EMA’s job as making life easier for members. “Our mission is to make New Zealand more prosperous. We don’t care who’s in the Beehive or City Hall as long as they are contributing to that mission.”

Much of Campbell’s pragmatism may stem from growing up in household where business was very much part of the DNA. Campbell was born in Sweden to American parents. “Mum was quite decorated WW2 test pilot in the American Air Force. Dad was in the rubber industry and research chemist.”
The family later moved to Hamburg, Germany, where he spent his formative years. He can still rustle up some German “with the vocabulary of nine- or 10-year-old child”.
The move to New Zealand followed when his father was transferred to Christchurch to run Firestone. “I can remember as 13-year-old going into the Firestone factory and seeing these big machines. I was transfixed. I thought it was the most wonderful thing. From very early age I wanted to be businessman like my dad.”

He’s never wanted job shuffling paper. “I didn’t even think it was legitimate way to make living. I couldn’t understand what advertisers did. And banking? Government? Always what attracted me was people making stuff… the process of actually conceiving of something that people could use.”
He says he’s very practical. “If I’d been better at mathematics I might have been an engineer but I’m too left-brained to be an engineer.”

His father always reckoned liberal arts degree was the best qualification for business: “He was way ahead of his time.” And when young Campbell graduated from Canterbury Univers

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