Kay Chapman

Kiwi musician, Kings in his recording studio for 12 Questions.  Photograph by Dean Purcell.



From tomboy to Supersize business entrepreneur, Nelson-based Kay Chapman has always followed her own path. Born in the shade of Paeroa’s big brown bottle, she ventured into the army, then to London and back. Lynda Papesch follows her new trek into an HR app.

When Chapman Employment Relations was one of three winners nationally in the BNZ’s Supersize SME programme, founder Kay Chapman saw it as a huge plus for employers throughout the country.

The judges selected her firm because of the way it is using new technology to expand the business, especially via its development of a specialist employer app. Company director/owner Kay views the app as a vital tool for businesses once it is rolled out later this year. Its development is a reflection of the needs of clients she has already helped.

Helping employers is Kay’s specialty, and it is a huge growth industry. Established in 2011, Chapman Employment Relations provides employment law and human resources advice exclusively for employers. It has offices in Nelson and Christchurch, with another soon to open in Marlborough

Growing demand for the company’s services helped to drive the app development. “There is a lot of fear and misunderstanding around the area of employment legislation and I’m working hard to take that burden off our clients in the easiest way possible,” Kay explains.

The app is unique, she adds, and will save businesses time and money, in addition to providing peace of mind by ensuring they’ve met their legal obligations. “The interactive nature of the app allows them to complete some employment relations tasks themselves. This means they can know they’ve ticked the boxes for what they need to do and then come to us for advice for their more complex issues.”

Kay says it is exciting to be able to offer clients this service. “I believe that to service businesses we need to continually try to make things as easy as we can. If we can simplify employers’ obligations while at the same time making it less expensive, then we’re really able to give the best service we can.”

While clients will have to pay to access the app 24/7, they will then be able to undertake tasks themselves, whenever they need to. The prize for the company is mentoring over three months to help the business go to the next level; something Kay is looking forward to, although having had experts challenge her has already proved invaluable.

“I’m hoping that with the launch of the app and the honing of my business I’ll be able to see the company grow significantly within the next 12 months.”

Rural roots

Although a 23-year veteran of employment relations, Kay found her way into the industry by chance rather than early foresight. Born in Te Aroha, she grew up on a farm near Paeroa, ‘under the sight of the big L&P bottle’. The third-born of four girls, she remembers an idyllic childhood running round the farm.

“Poor Dad – there were five females in the house and only one bathroom,” she laughs. “I was very tomboyish, into everything.”

Growing up in rural New Zealand in the 1960s and ’70s ensured Kay and her sisters experienced many freedoms not readily available to young people today. That and the fact she was ‘unruly’ – a claim her mother made and she hotly disputes – helped to shape her into a strong, determined young woman from an early age.

Educated initially at Netherton School, Kay then attended Waikato Diocesan School for Girls in Hamilton as a boarder and ‘loved every minute of it’. Notwithstanding, she gained her University Entrance and left at the end of what was then the sixth form. “I went to Waikato Polytech to study for a New Zealand Certificate in Electronic Engineering. I have no idea why I chose this field of study, and I did very poorly.”

Her next career move was to join the army. “I loved officer cadet school; being outside; every aspect – that is, until I graduated.”

Quick to point out that this was 30 years ago, Kay says she was quite naive and did not realise how sexist the army was then. Had she known she would never have joined. “I eventually came to the realisation of exactly how sexist and very insular the army was. I couldn’t join the corps I wanted to, and then I found that I did not like taking orders from others.”

Adding to that was the drinking culture of the time. “Every Friday night I had to go along to the mess and was expected to drink [alcohol]. I wasn’t allowed to leave unless I asked the commanding officer and he gave me permission, or until he left first. I really resented this.”

The big OE

After almost three years, Kay left the army when she could and headed off on her big OE. She initially planned to travel with a friend, who ‘pulled out’, so she carried on solo and spent a good five years exploring. “I’d already bought my ticket so off I went. The IRA was the big issue then, but it didn’t stop me.”

Using London as her springboard, Kay took on a variety of jobs – in bars, nannying etc – to work her way round Britain. “When I went over there I was still very naive. I remember flying over the terraced houses in London and I could not believe they looked just like Coronation Street. I had no idea people actually lived in houses like that, with no gardens, and so close to each other.”

She became engaged to an Irishman she’d met in Scotland, and returned home to New Zealand with her fiancé. “This time I went to Waikato University and studied for a BA majoring in Chinese, but after two years we moved back to the UK and I finished my degree via correspondence.”

Kay’s return to Britain also kickstarted her move into human resources, or ‘personnel’ as it was then called. “I’d applied to a hotel a couple of hours out of London to be restaurant manager and was unsuccessful, but they contacted me and asked if I would be their personnel manager. I said ‘Yes’, then went to the library and took out a book to research what a personnel manager did.”

The next step was a move into general management and her own hotel to look after, followed by a job in HR at the Heathrow Hilton. In the meantime, Kay separated from her  husband.

The Millennium/Copthorne group beckoned and she moved to working at the 825-room Copthorne Tara in Kensington, London. “It was massive, and came with a huge ‘family’ of staff. I had chefs throwing knives and all sorts of cultural issues amongst staff, especially ongoing tribal conflicts among the African workers. Sometimes we had to separate the different tribes to separate floors to avoid conflict.

“One incident that sticks in my mind is when a room attendant died on-site and I had to deal with it. But the most disturbing thing that happened is when one of the London bombings happened in 1997 in a gay bar. It was a nail-bomb and one of our staff lost three limbs. Dealing with it was horrendous.”

Return to New Zealand

Continuing to climb the corporate ladder, Kay moved to the company’s head office and became HR Manager UK/Europe for the Millennium/Copthorne group. She’d met her current husband, Englishman Dave Chapman, marrying him in medieval style in a castle in Wales in 1999, and by then was ready to come home. “I’d been overseas more than 10 years.”

The couple had previously holidayed in New Zealand, visiting one of Kay’s sisters in Nelson. “We fell in love with it and decided to move here.”

Move they did in 2001 with no jobs, ‘just the clothes on our backs’ and some money in the bank. “We had been really fortunate with the housing price cycles in the UK and I remember looking on the Internet at properties for sale in the Nelson region. I could not believe what we could buy for our money. Of course, at the time the exchange rate was about three-to-one in our favour.

“We found a lifestyle block at Hira and built on that.”

Kay joined NMIT as HR adviser for a couple of years, then moved to the Employers and Manufacturers Association, which is where she started to specialise in employment relations. “I see my role – then and still – as the employer representative; sometimes as a conduit for communication, other times as more.”

During her seven-plus years as a consultant with the association, Kay found she particularly enjoyed the problem-solving side of the job and the psychology of employment disputes. “By understanding the psychology, you can arrive at a resolution more easily.”

Then she was ready to go out on her own. “A week before Christmas in 2010, I decided to contract directly with one client. There was no big game-plan, no marketing etc, just a singular contract. I left EMA, and previous clients started tracking me down via my husband. Suddenly I had three clients and it escalated from there.”

A growing business

These days her staff numbers seven, including five employment relations consultants. Kay is studying towards a post-graduate diploma in dispute resolution and her employer app is progressing. Business is booming.

“In the time I’ve been specialising in employment law, the propensity for employees to challenge employers has grown significantly, especially during recessions or downturns in the economy. When there’s a good employment market, employees can usually find another job fairly easily, but during recessions when jobs are scarce they are more likely to take on their employer.

“There’s also the perception that if an employee takes a personal grievance, they will make a lot of money. You read about the big awards in the media, but what you don’t see are all the cases where no award is given.”

Employer/employee problems are becoming increasingly common in all types of industries and often prove expensive to resolve. That’s where Kay and her team come in. Her special app will soon be an option too.

“My ethos is to have employers educated so they don’t make fundamental errors from the start.” The best advice she has is for employers to build good relationships with their staff, and if an issue arises, deal with it during the early stages. “Know your staff and know your business. The worst thing to do is let an issue fester.”

Usually the first question she asks employers is what they’ve said to an employee to deal with an issue. An employer might not be able to deal with a specific issue on their own, but they need to know there are processes and ways to address staff issues.

A major factor in disputes is the human aspect, Kay adds. “The law is the law, however every employee is different and that is where knowing your workers comes into the equation.”

Seeking help from a company such as hers may be intimidating and scary, especially for small businesses contemplating the firm’s hourly charge business model. “They want to know how long it will take and that’s not a question that can be readily answered.

“That’s where the app comes in. One of the initial drivers for its development was to get information out to employers in such a way that they’d know what the cost will be, i.e. by pricing it via an app for a fixed price for set hours. This provides surety in terms of cost for potential clients.”

Looking ahead, Kay says that technology will change types of jobs, but some form of human interaction will always be needed, hence an ongoing requirement for services such as hers. Not to mention that she loves what she does. “I love helping employers and I have a fantastic team here. And I love Nelson too.”

That love includes the great outdoors where Kay – still a tomboy at heart – spends much of her spare time. She also works with the elderly and Age Concern – awarded a National Dignity Award in 2013 for her work with them – but for relaxation and recreation it is tramping, kayaking, gardening (with natives) and family time.

Husband Dave is national sales manager for marine and aviation safety specialists Survitec, and teenage daughter Chontelle completes the family dynamic. Cable Bay is home, on a bush-clad slope with the estuary at the bottom – plenty of scope for outdoor adventure, and lots of birdlife.

“We have weka – dozens of them – and if we don’t keep the door shut they make their way inside, much to the annoyance of our dog. Then there are the fantails, bellbirds, wood-pigeons, pukeko, a flock of spoonbills and more, including numerous stingrays in the bay.  It’s a great place to be. A good life/work balance.”

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