Institute names new Distinguished Fellows

Attending a presentation to Institute of Directors (IoD) distinguished fellow Geoff Thomas ...
Attending a presentation to Institute of Directors (IoD) distinguished fellow Geoff Thomas (centre) are (from left) Norcombe Barker, IoD board chairman Ross Buckley, IoD Otago-Southland branch chairwoman Trish Oakley and Walter Rutherford. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Both emerging and experienced talent in governance was celebrated by the Otago-Southland branch of the Institute of Directors in Dunedin this week. Business editor Sally Rae reports.

It was while working as a lawyer in Dunedin that Geoff Thomas discovered business pushed his buttons.

Through his profession, he was exposed to many different activities and governance became something that appealed to him.

Earlier this week, Mr Thomas was named as one of 13 new Distinguished Fellows — the Institute of Directors’ (IoD) highest accolade — at a function in Dunedin.

The accolade acknowledged the prominent and distinguished careers of directors who had contributed positively to business and society in New Zealand.

A partner of law firm Anderson Lloyd for more than 40 years, Mr Thomas retired from the legal profession in 2013 but continued to give back to business and the community with roles on public, private and not-for profit boards.

He has governed prominent Otago organisations and companies, including chairing Dunedin Railway, Dunedin Casino, Otago Youth Employment Trust, Property Council New Zealand Otago Chapter, Larnach Castle, Principals’ Advice and Support and Lawlink Group, among others.

Non-executive director roles included Dunedin International Airport, Technology Holdings, and arts and culture boards such as the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Dunedin Fashion Incubator.

A member of the IoD for 17 years, Mr Thomas contributed to the organisation as a member of the policy and practices committee, which oversaw the rewrite of IoD’s The Four Pillars of Governance Best Practice; he was on the accreditation panel and has held positions as Otago-Southland branch chairman and as a member of IoD’s national council.

Branch chairwoman Trish Oakley said Mr Thomas had been a source of mentorship and support for local directors across many years and the branch, and governors across the region, were delighted to join together to celebrate and acknowledge his distinguished governance career.

Born and bred in Dunedin, where he was educated at Kings High School, Mr Thomas said the city had been very kind to him and his family.

It was a very easy place to live and a great place to bring up a family and he felt fortunate that, in those days, he could do his day job, go home and have dinner with his children and then go back to the office.

He started in a two-partner law firm and, when he left Anderson Lloyd, there were 30-odd partners.

He had enjoyed seeing the growth of the firm.

Rather than specialising in his career, he was a general practitioner of law and he particularly enjoyed the governance side of firm and growing the business.

His first governance appointment was in the 1980s, for a public unlisted company which was taking subscriptions from the public.

He had no better training than chairing school parent associations — "if only I’d been involved in IoD before I did that," he rued — and there were times that were scary, he recalled.

Mr Thomas had enjoyed the broad range of industries he had been involved in, including tourism, transport, engineering and education.

While he said he was "definitely" in his twilight years of governance, he was still long-serving chairman of The Grand Dunedin Casino, independent chairman of Larnach Castle and chairman of Principals’ Advice and Support.

No longer involved with not-for-profits, he had loved his time with those organisations.

Another highlight was his involvement with IoD, where he was introduced to so many businesses and had met some "wonderful" people.

When it came to challenges involved in governance, Mr Thomas said weak balance sheets and human stress over redundancies were the biggest.

Laying people off was "bloody hard", particularly when directors sometimes knew the people quite well and also were aware of their circumstances. Personally, he also hated laying people off for bad behaviour.

"I’m an old softie, is really what it comes down to."

So what makes a good governor?

"You’ve got to be committed to it and be serious about it," he said.

Add to that a lot of common sense and being very aware of compliance and having an availability whenever problems might arise.

Company culture was incredibly important, as was having sensible and committed fellow directors. Those that were there "just to keep the seat warm and collect a cheque" had to be moved on.

Things had changed greatly in the governance space since his first role in the 1980s, when there was "no sign of any women anywhere".

Latterly, climate change and diversity were on every board paper for every meeting, no matter how small a company was.

Different views and diversity of all kinds was very important and directors had to be prepared to work together. People grandstanding on a board was a recipe for disaster, he said.

Asked what advice he had for anyone considering a governance career, Mr Thomas suggested they join a not-for-profit organisation and got "a taste for it".

By joining IoD, they would then meet people who would try to help them on their governance career.

He acknowledged certain anxieties did come with governance and there were some anxious moments, some of which came home.

But he found switching off easier than some, believing it due to his personal philosophy: "If I can’t do anything about it, I’m not going to lose sleep over it right now".