Rod Carr : From IT to VC

It’s hard to stay in step with Rod Carr during the short walk to his office, and after few minutes of hearing him speak, it’s clear that this is not the only way in which mere mortals struggle to keep up with him.
As vice chancellor of Canterbury University, Carr occupies corner office atop the registry building, but he is no ivory tower executive – despite his academic credentials. His intellect is legendary in business circles, so the title of vice chancellor of Canterbury University sits easily upon him, and he certainly seems comfortable with the onus of responsibility it carries.
Fate played significant part in Carr leaving his position as chief executive of Jade Software to take up the vice chancellorship in February. Eighteen months ago during succession planning conversation with Jade chairman Ruth Richardson, he made it clear that he wasn’t going to stay put forever, but that there were only two jobs in the country that he was prepared to leave Jade to do.
“One of them was Governor of the Reserve Bank but a) it seemed to be occupied and b) it didn’t look so much fun. The other would be vice chancellor at major New Zealand university, but those positions all seemed to be full.’’
So when Canterbury vice chancellor Roy Sharp was appointed as Tertiary Education Commission chief executive he freed up the vice chancellorship of the university two blocks from the house that Carr – who has been legally blind since birth – and his family call home.
Carr’s contract runs for five years and as part of it he has given the University Council an undertaking that his head will not be turned should Alan Bollard vacate his position as Reserve Bank Governor during that period.
But then Carr, 50, has never been one for career planning, as he is the first to admit. As youngster he foresaw career in the legal field, completing law degree before deciding to pursue his passion for money and stock markets by taking position with Bank of New Zealand as an investment analyst.
“So did I ever think I would be chief executive of software company? No. Did I ever think I would be Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank? No. Did I ever think I would be in banking? No. So did I ever think I would be vice chancellor of major university? Probably not.’’
Having made the transition from private to public sector and back again more than once, Carr doesn’t rule out making switch or moving overseas in future, but he does say that he would hope to remain in his current role beyond the expiry of his current contract.
He describes his management style as energetic, collegial and transparent and the University Council will probably be reassured by his saying that he gets comfort from going in direction which is supported by those around him.
The lessons in efficiency and efficacy he learned in the private sector have practical application in university environment, Carr says, but he is insistent that there must also be allowances made for university’s role as the protector and fosterer of both new and existing knowledge.
“The problem in university is you need time for serendipity. You need what in business they call organisational slack. Often it is in that organisational slack that you create new things.’’
Too much focus on efficiency at the expense of creativity could be to erode something only being done in university, losing something that is part of our society, he says.
The university’s point of difference is that it is an organisation designed specifically to have the capacity for creating new things, “risky venture with uncertain pay off’’ as Carr puts it.
“The more you squeeze the organisation the more likely it is that you squeeze that very thing out of it,’’ he says.
“Who would have thought that observing mould growing in petri dish was going to be useful thing for society? But who today would deny it? If we squeezed the effectiveness and efficiency out so that every petri dish was always washed as soon as it was left dirty, well we possibly would have missed that opportunity.’’
Carr acknowledges what he calls the “academic halo effect” – predisposition to over intellectualise. There are some things within university, be they organisational or administrative, which he says do not require the excellence of peer-reviewed publication.
Having spent 11 and half years as student earning five degrees, including PhD in risk management and insurance from Wharton Business School, he knows all about academic excellence. But in recent years another admirable pursuit has entered his world.
Carr says he was always the kind of guy who could run to the bottom of his street and then walk back home. Since 2003, however, he has moulded himself into marathon runner, completing 12 in six years including those in Boston, London, Paris, Niagara Falls and most recently
in Antarctica.
His marathon achievements are second only to being happily married father of four. Running, he says, is virtuous circle.
“The fitter you are, the easier it is and the more you enjoy doing it; the more you enjoy doing it, the more you do it, and then the more you do it then the fitter you are.’’
Carr’s “slightly obsessive compulsive, type A’’ personality helps in his marathon training, but the concept of hard yakka was instilled in him at an early age in
the pool.
He has had many mentors throughout his career but two men who had profound impact on young Carr were his swimming coach and an uncle. The coach came first, setting up sense that if you pushed yourself you could exceed your expectations.
“He played pretty important role because swimming was the first area in which I got that sense of reward for effort, so then when I went off to secondary school, although I couldn’t catch cricket ball or throw rugby ball or any of those kinds of things I could win the swim-
ming races.’’
The uncle, who farmed marginal piece of land near Balclutha, taught Carr the value of something tangible. As well as farming, the uncle planted pine trees and then spent decades waiting for his investment to mature.
“It occurred to me how amazing it is to have something you can touch, and in world that is so virtual,’’ he says. “The consequence of that was to have slightly different view about horizons, the longer term, the big plan and the nature
of investing.’’
In 1982 Carr and his wife went on to buy 100 acre forestry block in the Wairarapa and plant it out with 20,000 pine trees of their own.
Carr’s belief in the importance of education borders on zealous. As vice chancellor he has the opportunity to combine that passion with his proven ability to
get results.
After all he is the man who despite being newcomer to the IT services industry oversaw two-year turnaround at Jade Software. Under his watchful eye Jade transformed from being company with revenues of $32 million in 2003 to earning $52 million in 2008.
“It is my absolute belief that education is one of the few things that you can truly say is an investment,’’ he says. “There is clear community gain from educating people. This thing compounds through the generations, so you get pretty passionate about education. It matters, it matters lot.’’
New Zealanders have strange relationship with education, Carr says, particularly higher education. He laments that all too often he hears members of the business community dismissing degree as non-essential for success.
“That may be true, and it is certainly not the case that just because you are graduate you’re going to be successful in business,’’ he says.
“But it is the case that we are living in more and more complex society where decision-making is more and more sophisticated, and that doesn’t mean in grandiose sense, it just means it is more difficult and requires more input.’’
One of the challenges of the vice chancellorship is to cultivate the discovery of new things and protect existing knowledge within the restraints of the university’s financial resources.
“We are given finite amount of

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