Lunch in the boardroom: Sandy Maier | The National Business Review

Henri Eliot: Giving the scorecard on governance as CEO of Board Dynamics

Sandy Maier has been on more than 500 company boards in his career – some of which involved challenges many other professional directors would avoid.

Being the chief executive of South Canterbury Finance is a prime example.

Warranted or not, he took the brunt of vitriol in public comments after the announcement of New Zealand’s biggest company failure, along with founder and major shareholder the late Allan Hubbard.

The 61-year-old, who came to New Zealand as the chief executive of Citibank New Zealand in 1986, is currently a director of more than 10 boards. These include:

Independent chairman: Click Clack, GEON Group, Learning Media, Pathfinder Asset Management, Perpetual Capital Management, Radius Property.

Independent director: Catalyst Advisory Partners, Fronde, McConnell Group, Taranaki Investment Management, Ngai Tahu Holdings, Power by Proxi and several private companies.

Mr Maier spoke to the chief executive of board advisory company Board Dynamics, Henri Eliot, over lunch at the newly opened Commons restaurant on Auckland’s North Shore about how he manages so many corporate governance roles.

From New York to New Zealand

Sandy Maier was born in New York City in 1951 and completed his law degree in 1975.

His introduction to New Zealand was as chief executive of Citibank New Zealand from 1986-90.

At the time he was appointed by the Reserve Bank and minister of finance to manage the insolvency of Development Finance Corp, a $NZ2.2 billion finance group.

This job involved the recapitalisation and restructuring of the business, an achievement which earned him a Commemoration Medal for Services to New Zealand and made him toy with the idea of retirement.

Instead, from 1992 and for the next five years, Mr Maier built a governance and consultancy career while commuting between the US and New Zealand.

When his children left home for university he put serious thought into his next steps, including the idea of seeking New Zealand citizenship.

His first directorship of substance here was with the BNZ. Over time, he built a portfolio of directorships and still sits on more than 10 boards with a mixture of public, private and iwi activities.

Thoughts on corporate governance

Although Mr Maier does not use the term corporate governance, he approaches the concept from a strategic leadership perspective in the sense of how we “identify, attract, retain, strategic leaders for these businesses”.

He is open minded to opening the boardroom doors to women and minorities, and unsympathetic when people try to close the doors to others. He feels board selection should be an open process, “looking at a wider group of candidates as future directors”.

What is his perspective on training the next generation of company directors?

In the past, the Institute of Directors provided the training ground for aspiring directors. But Mr Maier feels there is room for improvement. “We need to broaden the pool.”

His solution is for board chairmen and chairwomen and chief executive to get out of their comfort zone to ensure diversity in the boardroom.

“They need look people in the eye and [say] I will take you, following a search,” he says.

He calls himself “a carrier of viruses” in the boardroom. “Get out there and shake up the world.” I presume here that he’s the vaccine!

His directorships have an average tenure of seven years. He does not recommend other directors take on the same number of boards if they were all for companies equally the size of Telecom.

Mr Maier’s workload is spread 50% of the time on actual board work, with the balance of the time available spent travelling. Living in Devonport, he regularly gets out on the water in his boat to fish or watch for whales.

He always keeps “time up his sleeve” as a buffer in case companies require him in times of crisis or change.

Any favourite boards?

Mr Maier really enjoys working with iwi. His interest is to have an intergenerational model that he believes fits the New Zealand context well for wealth creation.

He has been involved in more than 500 boards in his career. He has no regrets but “like a surgeon, doesn’t like to lose a patient”.

He recounts a start-up that used up $25 million to $30 million of capital when the timing for the business was not right. He went in as a turnaround agent but it was too late to save the company.

Mr Maier says enjoys working with younger companies who are passionate about their product or services. This includes his role as the chairman of Pathfinder Asset Management and his own interests in fund management.

Time with South Canterbury Finance

He confesses to taking on roles that most people would avoid. More recently, this was demonstrated as chief executive of South Canterbury Finance where he was charged with saving the company from December 2009.

South Canterbury Finance was tipped into receivership in August 2010, triggering a $1.7 billion payout on the government’s deposit guarantee scheme.

“Someone has to do this for this country to flourish,” he says, adding he’s done “his fair share” of taking on jobs no one else will take: “Hard jobs, dirty and nasty jobs”, in his words.

Mr Maier says younger directors are more willing to take a chance with these types of jobs, but an older director often will not do the same.

“If a system only pushes established directors we will not have enough people to help these companies.”

What keeps you in New Zealand?

Mr Maier loved the sense of excitement in New Zealand in the mid-1980s – involving deregulation and liberalisation.

“There was pain but the sky’s the limit,” he says, but now looks back on those days quite differently.

“It’s changed over time. Some of that joy is gone. These days I look at what drove me before with different eyes.

“Now I don’t need to be in the big city. I’m a neighborhood person, which is what I know from New York City.

“Here I have a sense of community and the country has enough scale for both a big city feel as well as a sense of community.”

What would you change for New Zealand INC?

“What concerns me the most is that we are not able to retain talent in New Zealand or attract them back.

“Everyone I know has one or two kids overseas. Some are the brightest individuals or have a trade they can practice overseas. We need to find a way to attract and retain the best.

“Are we keeping as many people in New Zealand and attracting the right people as well?

“We need to provide more opportunities for our young, educated people who don’t feel they have to go overseas. My way to attack it: by sitting on too many boards and giving too many interviews.”

Henri Eliot is chief executive of Board Dynamics, a consultancy which provides strategic advice to directors and boards throughout New Zealand.