Facing Off

Sleep is overrated,” declares Anne Knowles with chuckle, and as chief executive of the NZ Employers Federation and representative of host of other boards and committees, she knows what she’s talking about.
As the voice of 78,000 employers she puts in the hours – away from home one or two nights week on average, and required to comment on whatever is in the news this week that might affect employers. She frequently appears before select committees, and is regularly preparing briefing papers for politicians of all parties. All this presupposes thorough grasp of issues – and Anne Knowles’ bedside reading is some very weighty tomes indeed.
A lawyer by training, she has an analytical approach to most issues. Add to that her years as legal representative and industrial advocate for the NZ Meat Industry Association and the picture emerges of talented and it must be said, tough, negotiator. After all, she was squaring off against one of the more powerful, and conservative union bodies in the country.
And once you picture the perfectly groomed Knowles, donning the standard issue white gumboots (always too large) and freezer coat and striding onto the killing chain floor, you realise there is little that fazes her.
She recalls with amusement her first of many visits to freezing works. The plant manager stood very close to her as they walked along the killing chain.
“After five seconds he realised I wasn’t going to faint and stepped back bit. It was all bit overwhelming, the noise, the sounds and of course the sights, but I’d accepted the job and there was no way I was going to let on to slight failing of the senses.
“Anyway, I’ve always had strong stomach, and after that there was no looking back.”
Her years in the meat industry taught Knowles much about management. She recalls that the year she joined the meat industry, in 1978, the Prime Minister stepped in to force settlement in the annual award because both sides were deadlocked. It was time of union and employer stand-offs and frequent state intervention. Worldwide changes facing the meat industry meant the next decade was one of massive change – and constant negotiation. Knowles relished it.
“It was change management all the way through. We went from absolute regulation and the centralised focus of the industry to the point where when the Employment Contracts Act came in, the meat industry was one of the first to move to enterprise-focused agreements.”
And throughout, she was the sole woman facing off against hard men of the old school. “I was always taken seriously, though I was relatively young woman in male-dominated industry. large part of that was knowing the issues thoroughly, doing the preparation and knowing the arguments before putting them to the other side.”
Patience and stamina are also hallmarks of the successful negotiator. Knowles recalls that in one particular year she spent 21 consecutive days in negotiation over the award. When asked what exactly was discussed over such marathon of talks, she ruefully replies, “You may well ask.”
The satisfactions of the job suited naturally gregarious person. Knowles enjoys meeting variety of people and says that often you would spend weeks together in the company of fellow company representatives, as well as meeting the union officials. “You have to get on well with people, and I enjoyed the chance to meet so many different people, and develop relationships with them.”
There were some serious legal challenges as well, enough to test the mettle of any top lawyer. One year Knowles took case against the ACC all the way to the Privy Council. The Privy Council declined to interfere, but the following year ACC acknowledged much of the case they had made and altered its charges accordingly. “We lost the battle and won the war,” says Knowles.
After 12 years with the meat industry, Knowles felt satisfaction in the progress made. She had worked through the years when New Zealand’s meat industry faced momentous change, as world markets shifted, changed and sometimes disappeared altogether. The meat industry had adjusted and gone from carcass trade to value-added one and Knowles had negotiated for the industry through minefield of disputes and labour agreements. She is proud of her role in implementing move from national, occupation-based award to enterprise agreements.
Along the way she collected appointments to various boards, government and international organisations – just smattering of which are, the Council of the Wellington School of Medicine, the Advertising Standards Complaints Board, and delegate and international spokesperson to the International Labour Organisation. She’s also past president of the NZ Federation of Business and Professional Women.
It would be easy to assume on the evidence that she’s been solely focused on her career thus far, but she’s also married with two sons, now 12 and 14. Husband Kelvin Thompson is also lawyer but now runs an importing business from home, which makes it easier for her frequent trips away from home.
Her management style is one of accepting people’s differences and allowing them enough rein to achieve in their own way.
“I have policy of management by exception. I believe professionals know what’s required and I think people can self-manage. It’s only in exceptional cases that I need to be involved, and then I expect to be alerted to anything out of the ordinary.
“As long as you get the results you require, then I’m happy for people to explore different approaches to problems and to get into new areas. It means they can expand their areas of interest if they’ve got support from the person at the top.”
Her own career has been one without five- or 10-year plan. Knowles believes her best career move was accepting the meat industry job when it came out of left field.
“Opportunities come our way and we must take them,” she says, and adds, “you’ve just got to be open to them, and not think this is too hard, or there’s not enough time. There’s always enough time if you really want to do something.” It’s credo she obviously lives by.

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