Remembering a visionary leader and thinker – Rob Cameron

Harkness Fellows in New Zealand have expressed their deep sadness at the death on Thursday 22 February of Rob Cameron, founding partner of Cameron Partners who was a former Harkness Fellow. 


Rob Cameron

Rob studied in the United States in 1980 and 1981 while on his Fellowship. He spent time at Harvard and Rochester Universities, and it was during this opportunity that he did the research that underpinned his later contribution to economic policy reform in New Zealand,  beginning with the formation of the SOEs in 1987.

The Chair of the NZ Harkness Trust Board, Ross Tanner, says that Rob was an outstanding leader and intellect, and has left an indelible mark on the management of economic  as well as social policy in NZ.

“He gave freely of his time also to philanthropic causes and was a valued adviser to the NZ Harkness Trust Board. We express our deepest sympathy to his wife Maureen and to his family and close friends,” says Tanner.

Rob Cameron was 67.

Harkness Fellow and business journalist Pattrick Smellie reflects on his relationship with Rob Cameron is this piece for BusinessDesk.

Feb. 23 (BusinessDesk) – The last time I heard from Rob Cameron was out of the blue, just before Christmas.

I was hard up against a deadline, but Rob‘s familiar bark commanded a good half hour, after which I was left in no doubt that he thought Xero’s decision to de-list from the New Zealand stock exchange in favour of the ASX was absolutely the right thing to do and that parochial nay-sayers should get back in their box.

A passionate believer in the potential of New Zealanders to make a difference on the world stage, Rob may have lamented Xero’s move, as a Kiwi. He certainly had a few choice words for the “pricks” at the international rating agencies who make the arcane rules governing the indices global investors use to allocate their funds. Because of those rules, Xero wouldn’t get a look-in with international funds manager unless it went to the ASX. But Xero couldn’t change that.

Anyway, Rob was a patriot, not a nationalist. New Zealand companies growing up and going out into the world didn’t bother him.

What did bother him was that all too few ever succeeded in doing so. Xero was an outlier. Founder Rod Drury made clear at the event marking Xero’s 10th anniversary of listing last year – a listing that Cameron Partners helped make happen – that Rob Cameron‘s shrewd advice and courage to back a big idea were part of the reason for Xero’s improbable creation of a global IT challenger from the Wellington waterfront.

Rob had no doubt that New Zealanders were just as smart and determined as anyone else and should be able to do the same thing as Xero over and over again, if only the country’s thin capital markets worked better.

To that end, he’d given a huge slab of his time to the Capital Markets Development Task Force, which he chaired after appointment by then Commerce Minister Lianne Dalziel before the change of government in 2008.

He was to work closely with Dalziel again as the mayor of Christchurch, grappling with funding not only the city’s quake recovery, but its renaissance if the formula could just be got right. He knew the politics of the city selling any assets would be unpopular, but being the economic rationalist he was, Rob could see all the things Christchurch could do if it took a more creative approach to its asset base.

As chair of the CMDT, an unpaid gig that consumed him for more than two years, he poured his combination of principled and practical cleverness into threading a path between the need for new law to improve New Zealanders’ trust in capital markets, while simultaneously lowering the costs and regulatory burdens that discourage small and medium-sized firms from seeking public funds.

He was partially successful, although the NXT second board never took off.

Over the years, Rob was at the heart of so many of the great dramas of New Zealand corporate and political life.

A Treasury official in 1984, he was one of a group who experienced the appointment of Sir Roger Douglas as Finance Minister as a source of liberation after years of impotently battling the Canute-ish economic interventions of Sir Robert Muldoon.

Although he left the Treasury just before the 1984 election, he had been a prime mover in the thinking that created the state-owned enterprises model. For that, Rob would to some still be seen as an agent of destruction. At that time, the state-owned railways, postal, electricity, telecommunications and coal-mining operations were over-staffed, over-capitalised, politically rather than commercially governed, and a drag on the wider economy because of their low productivity. To get a phone connected within a week back then, you had to know someone in the office of the Cabinet Minister improbably known as the Postmaster-General.

Rob saw the hurt, but believed New Zealand would only go backwards if the deep inefficiencies that had become embedded in the economy by the early 1980s weren’t tackled.

Moving from the Treasury to broking firm Jardens and then to merchant bankers Fay Richwhite, Rob Cameron was deeply involved in the privatisation and listing of Telecom, now Spark, and such high stakes exercises as the 2001 recapitalisation of Air New Zealand.

At his own firm, Cameron Partners, established in 1995, his formidable capacity to marshall not only an argument but also an army of willing helpers saw him at the heart of the creation of the Fonterra Shareholders’ Fund. Rob would have preferred a more orthodox listing than the farmer-controlled FSF units, but he was pragmatic about the political impossibility of that. Far more important was giving non-farmer investors some exposure to the country’s single largest industry.

The same desire to give New Zealanders better investment options, to bring commercial discipline to government-owned businesses, and to overcome political objections saw him become one of the principal architects of the so-called MOM (mixed-ownership model) partial privatisations of Mercury, Genesis and Meridian Energy earlier this decade. He served on the last government’s Tax Working Group.

Rob met his cancer diagnosis in 2010 with customary vigour, researching treatments and approaches like another due diligence exercise and throwing himself into experimental regimens. He was delighted to discover that he could justify a glass of good red wine under one of those approaches to treatment. He bounced back again and again and was a source of strength and advice to others with cancer.

That process also allowed him to marry his deep commercial experience with a big-hearted willingness to give both time and money to philanthropic activity.

For many years, he served on the board of the New Zealand chapter of the Special Olympics and, as a compassionate libertarian with a deep belief in the rule of law, supported human rights organisation Amnesty International. He was the sort of person who was always being shoulder-tapped for both advice and contributions to major fundraising efforts.

“I’ll have to talk to Maureen about that,” he’d say in response to such approaches, referring to his lifelong wife and partner.

In 2015, he brought his commercial skills to a philanthropic capital-raising for the Gillies McIndoe Research Institute to advance globally novel cancer and birthmark research of Wellington-based Dr Swee Tan.

To all of these activities, including during low points in his illness, Rob brought a combination of enthusiasm, integrity, high intellect and generous commitment.

He was a very rare and special breed of New Zealander, whose influence is widespread in the more resilient, competitive and outward-looking country that New Zealand has become. He died in Wellington yesterday, aged 67.


2017 New Zealand Harkness Fellow: Joe Beaglehole

A policy analyst with a passion for the environment will work alongside top experts in the US as the 2017 Harkness Fellow explores the implications of rapid urbanisation and how to better plan for it in New Zealand.

The Chairman of the New Zealand Harkness Fellowships Trust Board, Ross Tanner, has announced that the New Zealand Harkness Fellow for 2017 is Joe Beaglehole. 

Mr. Beaglehole is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Ministry for the Environment where he works on urban policy issues. He was chosen from a strong field of candidates for the fellowship.

joe beaglehole

Joe Beaglehole, the 2017 Harkness Fellow

Mr. Beaglehole will spend three months in New York on a Harkness Fellowship researching new tools for addressing the challenges of rapid urbanisation. His project, titled “Policy solutions for New Zealand’s urban growth challenge” will address New Zealand’s rapid urban growth, which according to Mr. Beaglehole, has led to deteriorating housing and environmental outcomes, and is increasing pressure on New Zealand’s local governance, planning and infrastructure investment policy settings.

“The objective of work supported through this Harkness Fellowship is to gather insights for current New Zealand policy thinking into how urban governance and planning institutions and policy frameworks can deliver the benefits of growth while mitigating the costs. Basing myself for 12 weeks at a leading urban policy think tank in New York City, I will have access to world leading thinkers who are confronting these issues,” said Beaglehole. He will be based at Marron Institute, New York University for the duration of his fellowship.

As a Fulbright Scholar in 2009, Mr. Beaglehole completed a Master’s degree at New York University in political economy, and worked at the New York University Office of Sustainability. He graduated with a BA (Hons) in Philosophy from Victoria University of Wellington in 2005.

The purpose of the Fellowships is to reinforce New Zealand-United States links by enabling aspiring leaders to benefit from a programme of personal study at a US research institution or other organization.

“The Trust Board is delighted to announce Joe Beaglehole’s appointment and to welcome him to our programme”, concluded Ross Tanner. “What Joe will focus on in the US goes to the heart of what the Harkness Fellowships are about – exploring evidence-based approaches that have worked in the US with the aim of informing policy decisions back here in New Zealand.”

About The Harkness Fellowship

The Harkness Fellowships programme has over the last sixty years enabled mid-career professionals who aspire to significant leadership roles within New Zealand, particularly in but not limited to the public sector, to benefit from new ideas, practices and contacts in the United States.

The Fellowship programme in New Zealand has supported over 100 talented people to pursue study and research programmes in the US. Many have gone on to become leaders in their profession and to make outstanding contributions to science and technology, health care and education, economics and public sector leadership.

To find out more about the Harkness Fellowships and the work of past Fellows, visit http://www.harkness.org.nz

Note: The Harkness Fellowship is administered by Fulbright New Zealand. For all inquiries, please contact Rachel Tilghman at rachel@fulbright.org.nz

Leading from the future – insights from the US

by Peter Coleman, 2016 Harkness Fellow and strategic adviser to the Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force. 

The final third of my Harkness Fellowship has flown by, with it ending up the most interesting and diverse phase in terms of the range of people I got to interact with on my topic exploring organisational culture and how it might be quantified.

prof paul hanges

Prof. Paul Hanges

Two experiences stand out, and are worth sharing. The first was travelling to the University of Maryland to see Paul Hanges, one of the original members/authors of the GLOBE Project’s 2004 book Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies, which had strongly influenced the culture work of the U.S Army War College paper that had inspired my Harkness project.

Paul is the Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology in the University of Maryland’s Psychology Department, and he took time to up-date me and share the latest insights from his research. He was also very interested in my Harkness project, and offered very useful advice as to how I might consider using the GLOBE’s cultural dimensions – that had been conceived thinking about societal culture – in an organizational setting.

East Coast wanderings

The other standout was being able to attend the Boston University Questrom School of Business Executive Development Roundtable (EDRT). The Executive Development Roundtable is a research center and consortium of leadership development professionals that operates at the intersection of academic research and contemporary business practice.

Established in 1988 by the School of Management at Boston University (now the Questrom School of Business), and has a collection of corporate and non-profit members. EDRT provides its membership community with leading edge research, best practices and essential strategic content, in collaboration with the Center for Creative Leadership. The Centre for Creative Leadership was just ranked No.4 in the Financial Times worldwide survey of executive education.

The EDRT meeting I attended in late May in Greensboro, North Carolina was focused on the topic of Leading from the Future: Living in the Moment and Listening to the Voices of Change. One of two keynote speakers was Bob Johansen, of the Institute for the Future. He drew on his work in industry forecasting by sharing his framework of New Leadership Literacies.

The other was Mark Johnson, Co-Founder and Senior Partner of Innosight, a consulting firm specializing in disruptive technology. Johnson’s work centered around innovating within a company while maintaining the integrity of the company so that disruptive innovation, especially through disrupting business models, becomes integrated and continual inside of a company rather than gasped in moments of crisis. Both speakers emphasized the role of leaders championing culture, as the owner of an organisation’s narrative.

Measuring culture

The EDRT event allowed me to make many contacts beyond the military community, with people in or consulting in industry, who have been using approaches to measuring culture, which was valuable to my Harkness Project. On a personal note from the EDRT event, on the final morning we visited to the Civil Rights Museum in nearby downtown Greensboro, where an incredible guide led us on an emotional and impacting tour of the people, ideas, and actions that brought about major changes to the cultural norms of segregation. It was an awesome experience for this Kiwi.


A visit to Kitty Hawk

My family and I left our Pennsylvania ‘Harkness base’ about a fortnight ago, and have been travelling seeing some more of the North-East of the United States, before returning to New Zealand. We got to see the amazing Niagra Falls, spend the 4th of July in Philadelphia (including on the 4th itself a tour of the rooms where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and the a visit of the Liberty Bell).

And the last few days as New Zealand has been gripped by winter, we drove to the Outer Banks, North Carolina, where we’ve visited things like Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers first flew, with daily temperatures not below 30 degrees C. So coming home to New Zealand will be quite a shock to the system. But New Zealand is certainly ‘home’.

In plain sight

Nonetheless, the opportunity to spend time in the United States at this moment in their history has been fascinating. It has felt many times like they are in the grips of a crisis as the wider populous – generally incredibly warm, friendly and inquisitive people throughout our travels – have lost confidence in the political system that makes the important decisions affecting their lives.

The distance between government and those governed has grown, it seems to me, dangerously large. And institutions like the media are no longer viewed as supplying impartial information that allows people to make informed decisions, so entrenched views simply grow more entrenched. What this means exactly for this Super Power’s future isn’t clear, but the warning signs appear to be in plain sight.


4th of July in Philadelphia