THOUGHT LEADERS : Aiming for the Highest Peak

New Zealand has long history of being far too modest about its successes – whether scientific, academic, philanthropic, or in business. Although as nation we yearn for the opportunity to celebrate and recognise our achievements, we are fickle in where we place our adoration and the longevity it deserves.
The passing of Sir Edmund Hillary, arguably our nation’s most authentic hero, has brought with it keen sense of loss to the people of New Zealand. It’s also reminded us of the great sense of pride we have in his achievements. But one has to question, at time when even adoration of our sports heroes comes with pre-determined list of performance measures, is it only feats with the magnitude of conquering the world’s largest peak that are worthy of our praise and good old Kiwi slap on the back?
It was the desire to celebrate local business achievement that saw Deloitte and NZ Management magazine launch the Top 200 Awards 18 years ago. Back then, the economy was haemorrhaging after the 1987 sharemarket crash which precipitated severe recession. The business press was littered with news of corporate failures and the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking there was little to celebrate.
It was also time when business leaders were held in relatively low esteem: to the extent that when they did exhibit success many seemed to feel it was achieved through luck, deception or on the backs of others. But business people, like most of us, like to have recognition, to be applauded for job well done.
Business is vitally important to all New Zealanders. Only businesses create the wealth upon which our living standards depend. So the country needs to embrace its successful businesses and to see business leaders as positive role models. We need look no further than some of our most iconic Kiwi businesses such as Pumpkin Patch and Fisher & Paykel to recognise names synonymous with success and entrepreneurship.
Although our entrepreneurial spirit fuels high rate of business start-ups, we seem to struggle to grow these into the much larger enterprises needed to compete successfully on the global stage. While this may in part be due to the difficulties of small remote economy to provide the scale for growth, it may also be fostered by lesser level of ambition, and sense that becoming ‘big’ business does not result in positive recognition in our society.
There are also risks involved in seeking success. Just as the All Blacks winning the Rugby World Cup is not certainty, neither is success for business. Businesses operate in dynamic markets so choices and risks are unavoidable. In some countries, like the United States, failure is seen as routine consequence of risk taking. In New Zealand the possibility of failure often seems to preclude the risk taking necessary for successful growth. An environment of low appetite for risk is not compatible with outstanding business success and strong economic growth.
The Top 200 Awards were conceived as pure celebration of business achievement, singling out winners and exceptional performers, and setting benchmarks for others to aspire to.
Over the years we have used the Top 200 Awards as platform to exhort businesses and business leaders to strive for greater success, to look to compete globally, and to have inspirational goals. Two such companies, Waste Management and Fletcher Building, as repeat recipients of the Company of the Year award, have done just that by showing us that success does not come from standing still but from taking calculated risks to grow and diversify. There is further evidence that we are succeeding, today the 200th firm has annual revenues of $120 million, whilst in 1990 the 200th firm’s annual revenue was only $9 million. Proof that we are making progress, the question is, is that progress fast enough to produce the results our economy needs now? Just as the Top 200 recognises success, it also reflects market trends and we have seen number of winners which no longer exist through merger and acquisition activity along with the odd winner which has failed. Such is the diversity of business performance.
The longevity of the Deloitte and NZ Management magazine Top 200 Awards gives us reason to celebrate; because it provides us with an opportunity to salute not only all current and past winners but all businesses that have had the courage to climb to new heights. We’re delighted to slap you on the back and say “well done”, and congratulate you as true business mountaineers.

Murray Jack is CEO of Deloitte.

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