THE MANAGEMENT INTERVIEW Tony Nowell – More than sweet talk

New Zealand’s biscuit boss is cracker. chat with Tony Nowell is rapid crunch through Calvinistic work ethics, French business culture and the lamentable absence of civics teaching in New Zealand schools. Not mallowpuff in sight.
The Griffin’s Foods managing director has been back in New Zealand five years now after 13 years away. He spent most of that time in Asia working first for French multinational L’Oreal and then American global giant Sara Lee, bringing back keen international perspective and strong desire to shoulder swag of the workload needed to help define the environment in which local businesses now operate.
It is, he says, fundamentally important for business leaders to step forward and help define their environment. “You can sit back, accept what’s there and be blown by the four winds or you can take leadership position and help to make that environment work better.”
Five years on, the son of Taranaki dairy farmer juggles the daily running of the 800-person Griffin’s Foods business with his chairmanships of the New Zealand Food & Grocery Council, the Packaging Accord Governing Council and raft of other industry and broader trade organisations (see box Nowell in brief).
Re-entering the New Zealand business scene wasn’t easy, says Nowell. His old network had become fragmented and the country had been through dramatic change under Lange and Douglas. Privatisation – concept rather than reality before he left – had kicked in big time.
“There is degree of suspicion here about who you might be,” he says. “New Zealanders don’t have that great confidence to open their arms wide and welcome everybody in. There is period when they are wee bit stand-offish, just wanting to work out who you are. So you have to reconnect.”
Even half decade later, he still sees New Zealanders as “appalling” networkers in business, content to front up to lots of events and be “talked at” rather than engage in dialogue that can enrich their working lives.
In paper published by Anew New Zealand – for which Nowell is trustee – he talks of his vision of New Zealand as “a small clever country with the best quality of life in the world”. It is, he reckons, “a pretty realistic vision”.
So how far are we down that road? “Well, we’re small,” he laughs. “In this context ‘clever’ doesn’t mean 50,000 PhDs. That’s what India is producing every year at the moment so we’ve lost that race already. If you mean ‘clever’ in the sense of using what’s around us – the environment we’ve got and the limitations and the opportunities of that environment – then we are very clever, resourceful and innovative.”
But when it comes to upholding our quality of life we’re not scoring so well, in Nowell’s book. Crime and drug issues in South Auckland and other areas, for example, mean the standard of living has dropped to point where it is impinging on the quality of life there.
Alongside his business commitments, Nowell is also involved in the Kids Help Foundation and the recently launched Leadership New Zealand initiative. The latter’s new programme challenges mid-career people from backgrounds as diverse as religion, government, education and business to get to grips with how civil society works and their part in creating lasting culture of leadership in New Zealand.
What does Nowell admire in business leader? Nowell cites former chair/CEO of Sara Lee, John Bryan for his gentlemanly manner, his gift of connecting instantly with staff and his “marvellous ability” to take out the knife and cut off anyone who “crossed the line”. “You’ve got to treat people well but once person has gone over the edge you’ve got to cauterise that incredibly quickly and get on with life.” Nowell says he’s “not quite so harsh”.
“Often that behaviour is coloured by the environment in which you’ve worked. I’ve never had the luxury of working in the heartland of American corporate life. When I worked in Asia, we were desperate for good people. Often those good people had lot of learning to do and they made mistakes but if we’d got rid of them we wouldn’t have had anybody.”
Today, managers in New Zealand face similar challenges, says Nowell. Unable to find good staff they make do with poor performance or face “unfillable gaps”. “That’s really unsatisfactory because you have to keep pushing forward with one misfiring piston in the car.”
Nowell says he works hard to give his direct reports as much autonomy as possible. He can become intense “but only on the particularly gnarly problems”. He intervenes selectively, believes in giving people lot of authority, but expects lot of responsibility in return.
“We have cultural issue in New Zealand where people are very happy to be given the authority to be left alone but they’re not necessarily as happy to accept the full responsibility that goes with that.”
As he sees it, that’s not due to lack of measuring what’s happening but rather “something more invidious” that has crept into New Zealand. “I can’t put my finger on exactly why. I debate that lot with people. The general consensus among my peers, when we discuss it, is that everyone’s aware of it and it is an increasing issue.”
How does he handle that? “At times with difficulty,” he laughs. “If you spoke to my executive committee they’d say ‘he’s banging on about the work/life balance again’ because that’s the manifestation of it in New Zealand today. People want the work/life balance but they don’t understand that to get the life part they’ve got to get the work part balanced. If you don’t keep the two in good order, you have trouble. If you start veering off toward the life part and the work declines then everything’s going to fall down.”
Is it case of the pendulum swinging little too far? While in the ’80s and the ’90s it was trophy to work 80-hour weeks, people are now saying that’s not appropriate and going further the other way.
“Yes, and it will swing back in the future. It will be driven back bit by economics. Over the past few years the country has been in sunshine period with the economy performing very well. People have become complacent. When I look back to an early part of my career in the hotel industry, I was least worried when my hotel was 100 percent full and everything was going million miles an hour. Then everyone was totally focused and did fantastic job. I was most worried if it was quiet weekend and we were running at 50 or 70 percent occupancy. That’s when the waitresses and the cocktail barmen stood around with nothing to do, skived off, went out the back for fag. The service level dropped. It’s wee bit like that in New Zealand at the moment.
“We had discussion about that this morning at the board meeting. I’d been down to Queenstown for weekend conference and you see an increasingly laissez faire attitude from service people. They know if they don’t like the job, stuff it, they can go and get another one elsewhere.”
As manager, Nowell knows it is vital he not overlook the need to spend time with his staff. “This is where I do sometimes trip myself. It’s the biggest danger. You can get so busy and absorbed in other issues that you forget to give time to your people.”
And while this sometimes forces staff to be more self-reliant, at other times, “through immaturity or inexperience” they can make mistakes in that situation. “If that’s because you haven’t been paying them attention, you are entirely responsible.”
One of Nowell’s legacies from his time with Sara Lee is use of the balanced scorecard in which he says he “believes absolutely” and which he has introduced to Griffin’s. Balance is, he says, “fundamentally important” to business and where people, businesses and NGOs run into trouble is when they become “too blinkered, too focused” on very narrow issues.
According to Nowell, the scorecard would also go long way to solving our nation’s desperate need for balance. We are, he says, driven by small special interests and factions, too often petty, all with degree of legitima

Visited 20 times, 1 visit(s) today
Close Search Window