PROFILE: From Plywood to the reserve bank

Listening to Liz Coutts being introduced as speaker at business function can be humbling experience. It takes so long, the mind can begin to wander.
For woman not yet 50, it has been quite ride already through the management of and directorships of some pretty major enterprises on the New Zealand business scene. From business beginnings in the smokey mill town of Kawerau, to control of the Caxton Group, via Air New Zealand’s boardroom during times of crisis, to influencing the decisions of the governor of the Reserve Bank. Then move into several prominent positions in the health sector, the latest being the chairmanship of LPL, which owns the Life Pharmacy and Care Chemist brands and holds 49 percent shareholding in 19 pharmacy companies, representing 22 of the 36 Life Pharmacy and Care Chemist stores.
It has already been quite journey, but one she describes as perfectly natural, with its origins as one of four girls and two boys in family of Matamata dairy farmers.
After Matamata College, already showing promise, 16-year-old Coutts became Rotary Exchange student and spent year in Canada.
Next came Waikato University where she gained double major in business finance and marketing, at time when degree in marketing was almost unknown. She went on to become chartered accountant.

A long relationship with timber was about to begin. fourth year university marketing project led to holiday job at the Forest Research Institute where an elder sister was scientist, and from there, month-long assignment to Australia for Henderson Pollard, researching feedback on the company’s newly developed plywood. Her first real job was working for Tasman Pulp and Paper at Kawerau in 1980, about the same time as its merger with Fletcher Challenge.
“The Fletcher Challenge merger provided huge opportunities for me because my role in the first three years included the monthly board reports and finances, doing cashflows and budgeting for the forest industry sector, as well as working in the cost accounting department of the mill.
“When you work in place like Kawerau, you learn to do everything. If the payroll goes down, you have to work through the night to get it done. There’s no one else you can call in, so it’s very, very good grounding.”
After three years, Coutts became the accountant for the sawmill. After several more years, she joined Caxton, working for John Spencer as financial accountant, and then the financial controller of the mill. When the Spencer brothers sold the business to Carter Holt Harvey during the late 1980s, Coutts was asked to move to Auckland to take on the group financial controller role. After short time, she was made the CEO where she remained until 1995.
“I loved it. There was so much change at that time. We had the Employments Contract Act, the Health and Safety Act, we had significant deregulation in New Zealand, and tariffs were coming down on our products at two percent every year. House brands were coming into New Zealand thick and fast, and our two competitors across the ditch, Kimberly Clark and Bowater, decided that New Zealand looked like pretty good market to them, so it was really interesting time from marketing perspective. We learned how to run very lean business.”

“While I was still CEO I was appointed to the board of Trust Bank New Zealand, which certainly helped me in terms of the governance experience – understanding boards and the role of director.”
After Caxton, Coutts ran the Carters building supplies business before leaving just over 10 years ago to become full-time director. Several key roles materialised almost immediately with appointments to the Commerce and Earthquake Commissions and directorships with Industrial Research and Viking Pacific – which included Skellerup. “The Earthquake Commission arose because I’d had experience with insurance, I’d set up the Captive Insurance Company when I was financial controller at the Caxton mill, and handled the Edgecumbe earthquake claim in Kawerau. I was bank appointee to the board of Viking Pacific, group of manufacturing and distribution businesses, which arose from the failed Main Investments and it was restructured with Goldman Sachs and banking syndicate of 13 banks.”
A directorship at Worley followed soon after. “Worley was wonderful company. It was rebranded Meritec and is now Maunsell, an engineering consulting company. Engineers were wonderful to work with and I went to couple of board meetings at Industrial Research and one of the directors there was an engineer and shareholder with Worley, and said they’d been looking for an independent director. The late Jim Fletcher had been their independent, as had Neville Jordan who had moved on. I joined them and chaired the audit committee for while and then they asked me to be their chairman.”
Directorships came and went as companies merged or were sold, but being on the board of Air New Zealand was major milestone.
“I was appointed to the board just after the acquisition of the second half of Ansett when Singapore and Brierley were the investors. It was big board and an experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world. The issues were very complex and the directors quite outstanding. As someone said to us: ‘Oh, these issues are so difficult.’ I said: ‘Well, that is the role of the board. The easy ones management deals with.”

Her career was about to take major turn towards sport and health, yet once again it all seemed very natural progression. Tennis is her favourite sport and Coutts was on the board of New Zealand Tennis. Because of this, she was approached to join the board of the Hillary Commission, which the government was in the process of combining with the Sports Foundation to form Sport and Recreation New Zealand (SPARC). She served two three-year terms with SPARC, finishing in 2007.
“I feel really pleased with what we achieved over that time and of course very recently, because of my SPARC involvement, I’ve been appointed to the Review Committee for rugby league.
“I think it’s very important to get New Zealanders interested in health and sport. If I can do anything to encourage young kids to participate, I’m very willing to do that.
“I think sport is important for our mental and physical health. People need to feel good about themselves. If we’re doing well in sport we feel we’re doing well as country and we feel we’re doing well in business.”

A current role is the chairmanship of the Life Pharmacy group, long way from her beginnings in timber. But once again, it just seemed to flow.
“I was approached by some of the major pharmacists shareholders in Life at the time that they were looking at listing the company. My name had been given to them they said by number of people.
“I liked the company, I think in particular I really liked the guys and I thought I could work with them. I hadn’t had any direct involvement with pharmacists, although one of the key reasons that my name had been given to them of course is because I’d had quite an involvement by that time in the health sector. In the late 1990s I’d been appointed to the board of the Health Funding Authority, specifically because they wanted person to chair their Audit Committee and they wanted finance person who they felt could work with health professionals. So I took on that role of chairing the Audit and Finance Committee in 1998.”
That led to the board of Pharmac, role she later relinquished to join the EBOS board, but 10 years on, she still works for the Ministry of Health and chairs the Audit and Finance Committee.
So, how important is health when it comes to economics in New Zealand?
“There is far more emphasis on health today than even 10 years ago. Some health products have seen fantastic growth, and while that’s great for business, it’s also great to know that New Zealanders are caring about themselves

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