THE MANAGEMENT INTERVIEW Evan Davies – Action pact

The cement in the Sky Tower weighs the same as 6000 elephants. The Prince of Jordan, Lucy Lawless and Tom Cruise have all jumped from the tower – although, presumably, not all at once. And in the past decade conference attendees have collectively quaffed their way through over 175,000 bottles of wine.
These and other helpful facts have come floating through the electronic ether as part of SkyCity Entertainment Group’s year-long 10th birthday party plan.
So why, in recent press releases, does managing director Evan Davies sound tad defensive? For someone fronting group just blowing out the candles on its 10th birthday cake, it packs surprise.
Amidst the balloons and streamers celebrating decade of “exciting and memorable experiences”, Davies saw fit to press the point that the group is also “a significant ratepayer, taxpayer, employer, consumer of utilities and purchaser of local goods and services”. SkyCity is “mature, reliable and responsible” participant in all the communities where it operates.
It sounds like the corporate equivalent of 10 year old telling you they now help mummy and daddy with the shopping and feed their own rabbit.
To his credit, Davies is quite happy to discuss the notion of being on the back foot. Talking in his Auckland office just opposite the company’s iconic Sky Tower, he agrees that there is thin line between an executive championing the cause of an organisation and defending its very existence.
He acknowledges that the press release may sound “a fraction defensive”. He’s not sure whether SkyCity has crossed the thin divide between champion and defender. But he agrees that his business requires greater sense of justification and explanation than others.
It’s tone that you wouldn’t have heard in the early years of the business’ operations in New Zealand, he says.
When workers first started digging the famous hole in central Auckland that would later become the tower and epicentre of the SkyCity empire, all eyes were on the community benefits to come, he asserts. “Employment in particular, tourism to an extent – economic impacts, broadly.”
Community and regulatory attitudes have since shifted, he says. “Over recent years the focus has changed to concern about harm that can be caused to some of our gaming customers and more broadly to those that they might impact. And the benefits that were at the core of the original development decisions have been banked and forgotten.
“As consequence we feel the need, rightly or wrongly, to attempt to give – from our perspective – balanced view of who we are and what we do.”
He doesn’t warm to the idea that this is corporate social responsibility role. Rather, he sees it in terms of working at the sharp end of the pacts that organisations have with their communities.
“We take our pact with any community within which we operate very seriously,” he says. “And part of that is requirement to give back to the community some of what they offer us.”
Hence the press release stuff.
Under Davies, SkyCity has clearly come long way in its first decade. Over the past five years, the organisation has edged its way up the Deloitte annual listing of New Zealand organisations ranked by revenue, coming in at 40th place for 2005.
Davies says the company has been sound investment, over the past decade shelling out $670 million in dividends. From its beginnings in Auckland, the empire has expanded south through Hamilton, Christchurch and Queenstown. Across the Tasman, it entertains Ozzies and their mates in Adelaide and Darwin. Staff now total 5000.
Add to that raft of awards both local and international. One of the first went to Davies, who just over five years ago scored the coveted executive of the year title at the Deloitte/Management magazine Top 200 awards. Davies, they said, was “natural chief executive” who had made the transition “from project management specialist to all-round, top-performing executive and team leader”.
Said the judges: “The directors of Auckland-based tourism icon SkyCity really hit the jackpot when they took gamble on this bright young project manager of the original casino development.”
A year later, SkyCity outclassed all other contenders to take out the company of the year award: clinching the deal as one of the “best performing and most professionally managed” gaming-based entertainment companies in the world.
“It delivers what customers want,” noted that year’s judges. “It succeeds in difficult environment, maintains high corporate governance standards and has never once blemished its statutory compliance record.”
Looking back, Davies says he is particularly proud of the “physical things” such as building the Sky Tower. Given his background, the choice isn’t so surprising. His career has, by and large, taken pretty direct path through town planning and tourism management to where he sits today. (Also see box story “Davies in brief”.)
Fresh out of school, there was no conscious and deliberate plan, he says, although with hindsight, subsequent education and training provided significant building blocks for what he does now.
The attraction of town planning stemmed partly from his father, founding partner in what is now leading architecture and interior design practice Jasmax. The younger Davies was also fascinated by the interaction between built environments, people and the broader community. Town planning “seemed reasonably natural path” for him to explore.
Later, returning to New Zealand freshly anointed with postgraduate studies in tourism management and urban and regional planning, Davies quickly grasped the impact of significant openings in the country’s blossoming tourism sector. “I thought there were opportunities for the country and therefore opportunities for me to positively influence and contribute to the way in which that might develop.”
That was in the mid 1980s. Initially working as planning consultant for number of clients in the tourism sector, he was offered and took role with Rainbow Corporation which had developed, among other attractions, the Rainbow’s End theme park and which owned Kelly Tarlton’s.
“So that was the transition, I suppose. It was an opportunity to be directly responsible rather than advise others.”
He won’t take the bait that it’s akin to journalist becoming PR person. “Well, given what I generally read about journalists’ views of PR people, I’d think not.
“It’s more of case of on one side of the fence you’re advising your client what you think they should do. On the other side of the fence you may well have exactly the same thought processes but you get to do it yourself and you get to be there from the beginning to the end of the process.”
Does that provide greater sense of contribution?
“No. It’s different sense of contribution. It’s kind of narrower but deeper, if that makes sense, because your breadth of coverage is by necessity much narrower. Working as consultant you get to be involved in very broad variety of things, in all sorts of places, touching on all sorts of issues but the depth of involvement tends to be quite shallow. Having made that transition the range of things you’re involved in is much narrower but you’re in much deeper. Is the contribution greater? I’m not sure. It’s different.”
For Davies, they were exciting times. “It was in the midst of the ’80s rush of enthusiasm that New Zealanders had for our ability to do extraordinary things. And we did do some extraordinary things but in the end we weren’t so extraordinary after all. In the end, the property operation of Rainbow was closed down and I was offered role with Brierley’s.
“I didn’t go there with the expectation of SkyCity becoming anything in particular,” he says. “But the project – which when I joined was no more than broad concept and was located on land that Brierley’s owned at the top of Symonds Street – became all-consuming.”
So counting back to his original responsibility for the SkyCity project, Davies has nurtured t

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