Talented director builds on skills

Professional director Jane Taylor has an impressive list of board appointments. In the background...
Professional director Jane Taylor has an impressive list of board appointments. In the background is Dunedin’s former Chief Post Office which now houses Silver Fern Farms’ headquarters. Photo: Gregor Richardson.
Queenstown barrister and professional director Jane Taylor is the Otago Daily Times business leader of the year 2016. She speaks to business reporter Sally Rae.

Jane Taylor’s career has taken a few  twists and turns.

Reflecting on her years as a forester, accountant, barrister, planning commissioner and professional company director, she saw it simply as "building on skills".

"You get to the stage in your life, you look at all the people you’ve worked with and the contributions they’ve made. Ultimately, it’s about working with people.

"People are any company’s biggest asset. That’s the part I’ve really enjoyed, working with so many diverse and talented people," she said.

Mrs Taylor’s current focus is as a professional director and she boasts an impressive and diverse list of appointments.

That includes chairing the boards of New Zealand Post, Landcare Research and the newly formed Predator Free New Zealand 2050, deputy chairwoman of Radio New Zealand and a director of Silver Fern Farms, Kiwibank, Hirepool Group and Ontario Teachers New Zealand Forest Investments.

Warm and engaging, Mrs Taylor speaks enthusiastically about each appointment, dismissing any suggestion she must have an exhausting diary.

"I really enjoy it. I like being busy. It’s a matter of being really efficient with your time. I’ve always been quite good at managing my time  and putting effort in. I never really look at it as a burden."

Brought up in the Coromandel — a proudly fifth-generation New Zealander on both sides — Mrs Taylor’s father was a commercial fisherman and farmer. Neither of her parents had a secondary school education. With the absence of a local secondary school, she was packed off

to boarding school in Auckland, which was initially a little overwhelming for a shy country girl but a move that was to prove beneficial.

After leaving school, Mrs Taylor completed a forestry science degree at the University of Canterbury, followed by a postgraduate commerce qualification from Victoria University.

It was not until she was in her late 30s that she decided to study law and, even then, it was never with the intention of completing a law degree.

Prior to that, she had been working in the forestry service and then as a partner in an accounting firm.

Her work largely involved business valuation, mergers and acquisitions, restructuring and insolvency and included a lot of work with lawyers, including as an expert witness.

She figured studying some law papers would help her understanding. But she got "hooked" — finding it stimulating and fascinating — and went on to complete a masters degree at the University of Auckland and then work as a barrister.

In 2001, the Taylor family had a major lifestyle change when they shifted from Auckland  to Queenstown.

Mrs Taylor and her husband Mark owned a holiday home in the resort and enjoyed spending time there, never wanting to return home at the end of the summer holidays.

Deciding it was a great place to bring up children, they moved south permanently. Internet and email technology was developing rapidly, making it easier to work remotely.

In 2006, Mrs Taylor was approached by the Queenstown Lakes District Council to sit as an independent hearings commissioner.

She decided to take up the opportunity, having studied the Resource Management Act as part of her law degree.

It was a role she found very interesting, tying in well with much of her background, not only law but also going back to some of her forestry science, around ecology, landscape values and land use.

"Once I got to know the District Plan, it was really great to be able to give something back to the area and do something local.

"That was part of my motivation — and being involved in setting parameters for development in the area. I had some really interesting hearings, lots of interesting projects," she said.

The Resource Management Act was about public involvement and fair process and, as a commissioner, she had to be mindful of that at all times.

It was about making a decision based on the facts and evidence presented, in an unbiased, impartial way and then give the reasons for doing that.

If people could understand why a decision was reached, then it was often acceptable to both sides even though one party might not necessarily like the outcome, she said.

Until recently, presiding over hearings was something she was fairly heavily involved with.

Mrs Taylor’s first directorship dated back to 1992 when she was appointed to the board of Forestry Corporation of New Zealand.

With no previous governance experience, she acknowledged it was daunting but she was fortunate it was a very well-run company with strong leadership and it was great learning environment.

While reasonably unusual for a woman  to be appointed to such a governance position in those days, the board was chaired by Dame Rosanne Meo.

Since then, there had been a big increase in female directors and Mrs Taylor expected that would continue as there were some "very capable" women coming through.

Forestry Corp was sold in 1996 and she decided to continue to take on one or two governance roles.

With governance, it was very hard to strike a balance — one or two directorships could be juggled with a "day job" but, take on more, and it became more difficult.

It was after joining Silver Fern Farms in 2013 that she started to feel the pressure on time and had to decide whether it was the path she would follow. 2016 was a big year of change for some of the companies she was involved with, including Silver Fern Farms, which completed its joint venture partnership with Shanghai Maling.

It had been an "amazing" tenure on the board so far which had also "definitely had its moments", she said,  laughing.

"It has been a challenging but very interesting three years. We are very fortunate in that Rob Hewett is an incredibly talented chairman and [chief executive] Dean Hamilton is a strong and capable leader.

"Really, part of the secret is having the right skills around the board table, the right people in the executive leadership team and the best possible external advisers when you need them," she said.

The SFF board had a very good mix of skills — its independent directors had  complementary skills and the farmer-elected directors had demonstrated a great aptitude for governance, she said.

Mrs Taylor has been appointed to the new board of Silver Fern Farms Ltd, which included representation from Shanghai Maling. The dynamics of the new board would change, but all change could be positive, she said.

In August, Mrs Taylor joined the New Zealand Post board, taking over as chairwoman three months later.

Mail volumes were declining but the parcel business was growing so it was about reconfiguring the business to cope with that. New Zealand Post had a very sound strategy and it was now in the execution phase of that, she said. In November, Mrs Taylor was appointed to the Predator Free 2050 board, a project she was particularly passionate about. Her 4.4ha lifestyle property, on the outskirts of Queenstown, is  home to rabbits, stoats, possums and wild cats.

Her interest in supporting predator control  dated back to her days in the Forest Service and understanding the damage that the likes of possums caused. The long-term answer ultimately lay in science, she said.This year,  the Government committed to the ambitious goal of eradicating rats, stoats and possums from New Zealand by 2050.

The role of the board was to direct investment into regionally significant predator eradication projects and the science solutions needed to achieve predator-free status.

It fitted in well with her Landcare Research role, with obvious synergies, and her interest in the agri-sector.

2017 was shaping up to be another busy year; there would be a lot of effort involved with both New Zealand Post and Silver Fern Farms.

Landcare Research was in a "really good space", with increasing recognition of the importance of environmental science and bioheritage to New Zealand’s prosperity, Mrs Taylor said.

A lot of work on branding and communications had been done over the past two years and it was currently going through a strategy refresh.

She was excited about Radio New Zealand’s transformation plan to maintain its relevance to its audience and also grow that audience.

Any democracy needed an independent public broadcaster, free of any actual or perceived control, and that was the role Radio New Zealand fulfilled, she said.

It was an "incredibly important" role and one that was also a lifeline utility when the likes of earthquakes struck.

When it came to the skills required to be an effective director, Mrs Taylor said an ability to think strategically and have clarity of vision were crucial.

That was coupled with a thorough understanding of the business and its culture, good communication skills, the ability to make tough decisions and a ‘‘can-do’’ attitude.

A strong sense of purpose and values and an ability to create strong teams to face a range of challenges was also needed, while enthusiasm tempered with humility was important, she said.

Mrs Taylor was a very active governor, putting time into all aspects of a company, including health and safety, which was key focus for any business.

"You’ve got to  put the  time in, talk to people at grassroots level right the way through, and have an open-door policy. You’re always learning in this job, you never get to the stage where you know it all," she said.

Managing her workload was easier now three of her four children had left home, with her youngest having one year left at school.

She has a daughter who is a doctor at Middlemore Hospital, a son studying law and another daughter studying science.

They had always been a close-knit family with the four siblings supporting each other. Queenstown was an environment that encouraged them to step up, take responsibility and develop skills that would give them a good grounding in life.

The worst part, over the years, had been missing a prizegiving or other school event but that was an issue encountered by many parents, she said.

Living in Queenstown meant plenty of flights to attend meetings, but the upside to that was it allowed time for reading and reflection.

And the resort was also the perfect environment to enjoy long walks during weekends and come back reinvigorated to face the week ahead.

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