MANAGERS ABROAD : David Palmer

What prompted you to seek work outside New Zealand?
It started with the traditional OE – first to Australia and then to the UK. I met and married Scot so the return all the way back to New Zealand was stymied – first in the West Indies, then here in the United States.

Can you provide brief sketch of your current role?
My current role is as chairman of Infrastructure Practice in the Americas for large multinational design firm. Arup employs 10,000 staff globally and 1000 in the Americas. In this role, I’m responsible for all infrastructure projects (whether highways, bridges, tunnels, ports, or rail/metros etc) undertaken by the firm throughout the Americas, north and south – from Canada to Chile. We’re fortunate to be part of the leadership in designing some of America’s (and the world’s) largest projects.
These include new Second Avenue ‘subway’ line in New York, huge new Tappan Zee bridge, and high-speed rail system in California to name just three of our current projects.

How does it fit into your career path?
I never really had career path other than to work on interesting projects and to see the world.

What are its main challenges?
At all the firms where I have worked and on all the projects in all the countries, the ‘engineering’ is the easy part. It’s an old saw but true. No matter how difficult the work is technically, it can always be achieved. Sometimes methodically and at other times by bit of brilliance (usually not mine!). The challenges come from outside the engineering: from the politics, finances, staff and personality issues, contracts and legal matters and so on. As you get into more senior roles and responsibilities, leaving pure design behind and to others more capable, these issues far overshadow the engineering and that is how you end up spending most of your working day.

What are three learnings you will take from it?
1) Engineering is great career, particularly when you see your designs become reality for all to use and enjoy. There are no language or cultural barriers – physics is physics anywhere on the planet.
2) People are all the same but they are all quite different.
3) I’d do it again.

How do you now view New Zealand both as country and economic/business environment?
I’ve been away very long time but it is where I grew up, so the affection is strong. There’s that sense of pride when the country’s accomplishments are recognised. That is the case even when, as it was recently, listed as the least corrupt country in the world. Believe me, that is great thing to be recognised for from my vantage point here in New York.
But I guess that applies even more when it comes to Kiwi creativity. I remember friend telling me years ago that he had come to New York, to Wall St, to see if he could improve on the financial software they had developed and were using in New Zealand. He went home having first sold his version of the software to New Yorkers! I can’t comment on the business environment, although The Economist has long had special place in its pages for New Zealand.

What sort of ongoing contribution/involvement do you or would you like to make to New Zealand’s economic future?
Having been away for 40 years, I have to say not much – I guess I fit into the “could do better” category. Working through KEA would be good start, if I ever get my act together.

David Palmer is member of KEA, New Zealand’s global talent community. www.keanewzealand.com

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