Face to face: Peter Chrisp – Focus and aspiration

Google 10 pages worth of ‘Peter Chrisp’ and you learn more about the British author of Dinosaur Detectives than about the new chief executive of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE). Tracking him down is like trying to pin down the invisible man. Invisible to me, that is. When we sit down in NZTE’s Auckland offices after six months of requests for chat he tells me he’s already fronted up to 40 New Zealand companies and 30 public officials, visited seven countries and met 382 of his staff. That was the tally in his first four months on the job.
He tells me he hadn’t realised NZ Management had been asking for so long to talk with him. I believe him. The Peter Chrisp heading up our government’s national economic development agency is WYSIWYG chief executive complete with workmanlike CV and the practical mien of man who’s spent the best part of 20 years in the engineering, manufacturing, and pulp and paper industries.
From early beginnings as an educator with the New Zealand Engineers Union, he’s worked his way up through series of management roles with Fletcher Challenge Paper and, later, its purchaser Norske Skog. He’s covered off everything from training and development, supply chain, operations, and general manager’s and regional president’s roles in career that’s now taken him full circle back to Wellington after shifts to Kawerau, Tauranga, Oslo and Sydney.
These roles are linked and each underscored, he says, by “reasonably big play”.
“There’s always been something reasonably significant going on in the portfolio that I’ve had: whether it was selling our ships when I was looking after trans-Tasman logistics, or closing capacity and reinvesting when I was running the mill in Kawerau, or big productivity, lean-manufacturing global programme for Norske Skog.
“Working with people is my foundation stone: being able to get lot out of people, to lead people: that’s been common thread.”
Chrisp says he was “perfectly happy” in Sydney running billion-dollar company exporting throughout Australasia until shoulder-tapped to apply for the role vacated by founding NZTE chief executive Tim Gibson.
Coming back to New Zealand was the toughest decision he’s ever made. “But having made it, I haven’t looked back. It feels very natural to be here. We bought house the other day. It’s the first time in 16 years we’ve owned house. We’ve moved 16 times in 16 years.”
The low media profile, he says, is not deliberate but rather the result of pragmatic focus on “what needs to be done for the job”.
“I don’t feel hungry for profile. If it’s required for the impact that this organisation needs to have then I’ll get profile. But lot of things we need to do are quite tangible, concrete and practical.”
One of Chrisp’s first actions when he took over at the end of August last year, was to shift his office into the open plan area. “I wanted to get out into visible transparent environment.” He blogs his activities every week updating staff on board and senior leadership meetings, visits to customers and what he’s learnt. He carries camera and blogs his shots.
“I’m just trying to open up the organisation and make it more transparent. I’m saying to people if in doubt, act. Do what you think is right.”
Chrisp says the initial getting-to-know-you sessions with stakeholders, customers, markets and staff were part of his programme to “deeply sample the organisation”. He’s been in listening mode, wrapping his mind round the “complex organisation that’s not like normal private sector company with board, strict commercial driver and bottom line. There’s not the usual [commercial] rudder to let you know which way you’re going. Here you’ve got more complex set of accountabilities and measurement of results is really difficult. So working out whether you are successful or not is never easy.”
He’s backed these sessions up with an independent review, inviting the State Services Commission to run public sector performance improvement framework over everything from NZTE’s culture to its cost structure and customers.
He jokes that the commission was “pretty stunned that someone would actually want to go to the dentist”.
He’ll release the results in couple of months. Anecdotally, though, he can say they’ll paint picture of an organisation with solid foundation. “Our culture says most of our people are driven by very strong commitment to New Zealand. We’ve got some really great people: about 90 percent of them are recruited from the private sector. And we have some really good programmes in place.
“On the other hand, there was sense that we could be doing lot more: sense that we’re spread mile wide and an inch deep so we need to get some focus. There was sense that there are some pretty important government strategies that we really need to operationalise and implement. The economic growth agenda, for example, says [we should be] adding more value to the food and beverage sector, lifting growth of high-value manufacturing services, and focusing on China and Australia. So we need to give more impetus to these strategic directions.”
On the day that we talk, Chrisp has just announced his new leadership team. They are, he says, “mixture of people from the current team, couple of internal recruits with promotion from within, and couple of people externally with new fresh perspective”.
Next will follow two-day collaborative session pulling together bunch of NZTE’s policy partners including the Ministry of Economic Development (MED), Ministry of Science and Innovation (MSI), Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), and Treasury.
Such initiatives, he says, are an attempt to wrap his arms around, and work collaboratively with, some of these other big agencies and to co-create list of NZTE’s 10 top challenges.
All of which means Chrisp is now on the cusp of kick-starting his doing mode. “I’ll have my team and my 10 top challenges, and I’ll apply one to the other and go after results.”
He reckons there’s some pretty exciting stuff ahead. lot of it will be about sharpening up priorities. “Like China. What does China mean to us?”
NZTE already has tabs on 161 sizeable New Zealand companies that have got China as either their number one or number two priority market.
“The reality is you can’t have laser-like focus on 38 markets. China is really interesting. We’ve got Free Trade Agreement that gives us at least five-year window on the rest of the world. It’s relationship market. So we have to build that up.
“The NZ Inc strategies are co-owned by MFAT, ourselves, the MED, MSI, Tourism, Customs, Police, Immigration…. We’re all in this together. Those strategies say that in China, first and foremost, you have to build an ecosystem of relationships and networks, and through them you then transact commerce.
“That’s very important idea. It’s particularly important in China. And with the opportunity we’ve got in China at the moment that’s where lot of the effort is going.”
He argues that, internationally, NZTE must go after some of the “harder, deeper, more long-lasting stuff… such as building capability across cluster of companies, building an aquaculture, building the marine industry with good composites technology underpinning it”.
Chrisp is mindful that strategy is not static process but argues the sense in identifying, and adhering to, top few hits.
“That’s why I’m keen to get the stakeholders and the people I’m accountable to lined up to make some choices: because strategy is about choosing what not to do as well as what to do. I want some positive choices in the system so people know there are trade-offs. Once we’ve made those decisions we’ve got much better chance of success.”
Bright shiny objects will still pop up. “Then the question is which part of the strategy won’t we do if we’re going to do that one? There’s got to b

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