BY LYNDA PAPESCH
With a life-time of outstanding business accolades to his credit already, Nelsonian John Palmer still has one more to add to the list. Chairman of the newly transitioned Nelson Regional Development Agency (NRDA), John has given himself until the end of next year to help develop and promulgate the region’s rebranding. His aim is a brand that will last for decades.
John is no stranger to boards, branding, governance and the demands of big business. He’s the former chairman of Air New Zealand Ltd and Solid Energy New Zealand Ltd, a former chairman of Wrightson Ltd, and a former director of Trust Bank NZ Ltd. High profile directorships have included AMP Ltd, AMP Life Ltd, Rabobank Australia Ltd and Rabobank New Zealand Ltd.
A professional director for several decades now, he is also passionate about Nelson, having lived in the region all his life, “except for four years at university”. And he proudly traces his ancestry back to the region’s earliest European settlers. “My forebears settled on the land here in the 1840s and we’ve been on the same land ever since. We think of it as our land. We are tangata whenua. We’ve lived and worked the same land for 170 years so our roots run deep,” he explains.
His ancestors sailed as cabin passengers to New Zealand on the Phoebe, arriving in Nelson on 29th February 1843. They settled in the Waimea West area where John lives today with Sally, his wife of 47 years. He grew up on the family farm, with sheep and cropping both prevalent; a factor which contributed largely to his early education choices.
Initially educated at Nelson College, John enrolled at Lincoln College in 1965, completing a Bachelor of Agricultural Science in 1968, majoring in Farm Management and Economics. Being named joint Senior Scholar in his final year marked the start of his successes.
Returning to the family farm after graduation, John bought the property from his father. There, during the early 1980s, a switch to kiwifruit became a defining moment in his life.
“Prices were low and growers were being forced off their properties by foreclosures. I was elected president of the Nelson Kiwifruit Growers Association from 1982 to 1985, and then in 1991 became a member of the New Zealand Kiwifruit Marketing Board.”
With the industry in crisis when prices collapsed in 1982, John took on the role of board chairman for five years and almost immediately gained national prominence.
Tough decisions were part and parcel of the role, along with a major rethink, industry restructure and launch of the highly successful Zespri brand.
That was his first major rebranding exercise and it has stood the test of time. Today, with sales revenues of $1.5 billion, Zespri is one of the world’s most successful horticulture marketing companies and the Zespri Brand is recognised as the world leader in premium quality kiwifruit. Based in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand, it is 100 percent owned by current or past kiwifruit growers.
John was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1999, in recognition of his service to the New Zealand kiwifruit industry. Two years later he took on his next major role – as chairman of troubled national airline Air New Zealand. That was in 2001 at a time when the airline’s Australian subsidiary Ansett had collapsed, requiring an $855 million government bailout.
Again the man from Nelson led the recovery charge. After the airline posted one of the largest losses in New Zealand corporate history, John set about establishing a new board and senior management team before leading them through a successful rebuild.
Numerous top level awards and accolades flowed his way as he moved from company to company successfully developing and leading change in tough economic times. He’s been described as “an outstanding chairman who has tackled some of New Zealand’s most difficult governance leadership roles, including the kiwifruit industry, Wrightson, Air New Zealand and Solid Energy” and more latterly as having the competency to “foot it with the best in the world”, “capable of taking organisations from difficult situations through to positions in which they can rally and regroup for the future”.
Such accolades augur well for his time at the helm of the NRDA, the new organisation formed with the merger between Nelson’s Economic Development Agency and Nelson Tasman Tourism.
Working to a fixed term ending October 2017 at his request, John’s newest role is to guide the NRDA to clearly focus on sustainable regional growth opportunities to enhance its economic vitality.
The time limit is because of his own plans: “I don’t rule out continuing in the role, but I have deliberately set a hard line given I am supposed to be working towards some form of retirement. I’ll be 70 next year,” he laughs.
Retirement, he says, will mean more leisure time, more leisurely travel and working at a slower pace. Married to Sally for 47 years, and with two adult sons, John also plans on spending more time watching his five grandchildren grow up.
In the meantime, he is also committed to putting Nelson on the economic growth map. Two month after a seamless transitioning, he believes the challenge is progressing well, predicting a fit-for-purpose organisation by December this year. “By then people will see a new organisation with a tighter focus and clearer communication with its stakeholders.”
Part of the new modus operandi will include reporting formally to stakeholders on a regular basis, meeting all around the region, not just in Nelson. “We’re looking to be visible, not just an office hidden away.”
The biggest priority, however, is for the agency and major stakeholders to get through the branding process.
“The working party identified that development of a regional identity is paramount to moving forwards. I’m a strong believer in getting that right.
“The issue for Nelson is that the people who live here have an image of what it is like, but that is not the same as having a compelling regional ID; something unique that sets us apart from the others; something that encourages investors to come and develop their businesses here.”
Getting it right is a big task and might take a while, says John, but the benefits of doing it once and doing it well will be far-reaching and long-lasting.
“It is still only in the research stage, but we must do it right. The new board is well equipped to do that. By getting it right the benefits will last 50 years not two years.”
The task of rebranding is about capturing something magical about the region that is suited to all forms of media. “I am sure when we do get to the end of the journey there will be some controversy, but think back to Zespri. Now it is globally recognised as a benchmark. That’s what we want for Nelson too.”