City Executives Could Learn Much From Their Country Cousins

Having had the privilege of a country and later, a provincial town upbringing prior to beginning my professional career, I have had the opportunity to both experience and observe first-hand the benefits of co-operation, networking, community and the support infrastructure, which combine to make the rural sector still the most efficient and productive contributor to this nation’s wealth. There are very few countries, if any, that have better grassland farmers than New Zealand, and it is my belief that there is no country in the world where the rural sector has been so responsive and rebounded from adversity so spectacularly in such a relatively short space of time following the economic reforms of the 70’s and 80’s. Having always enjoyed a close affinity and an ongoing relationship with people both on the land and in the agri-business sectors, I am always very surprised that major industry conferences and seminars (outside rurally based businesses) do not have at least one guest or keynote speaker representative of the primary/farming industries on the programme. Whilst it is probably true to say that most public listed, commercial, industrial and/or service industry executives/managing directors have a higher profile than their rural counterparts, it is my belief that there are equally as many and possibly more outstanding and talented “rural executives” numbering among them many of this country’s top farmers. Whilst style, approach and most notably values may differ significantly, the fundamental business skills are inherently similar.

What do I mean by differing values? Could you imagine a manufacturer of card-board cartons for example offering to provide his own labour and say that of two or three of his staff to his competitor next door who is struggling to make an export order? Farmers frequently help their next door neighbours and rural sector colleagues in both good times and bad (who could also well be looked at as competitors) e.g. give them three or four days labour at shearing or haymaking time – share equipment, machinery, implements, give feed in times of floods and willingly share ideas and knowledge etc on an ongoing and mostly spontaneous basis. On the other hand, it seems that in cities and the corporate world generally, the objective is to make life as difficult as you can for your competitors and if at all possible eliminate them. Whilst being competitive is fundamental to business success, taking it too far is both destructive and frequently results in negative impact with little if any positive result for the “so called” victor.

Fortunately, things are changing in the city and we are starting to see rivals which used to fiercely compete against each other forming strategic alliances, in order to gain and retain business – this is particularly noticeable in the computer industry. Going back a few years WANG New Zealand provided what I saw as the first outstanding example of this – viciously persecuted by its competitors when its parent company went into Chapter 11 in the USA, the New Zealand subsidiary continued to produce what turned out to be some of the best financial results within the computer industry in this country. It became a listed company and subsequently the envy of most. In spite of its competitors attempting to drive it to the wall, this organisation smartly repositioned itself and subsequently many of its competitors. Perhaps to further illustrate the point, WANG actually ran a full page ad in various business publications throughout New Zealand with a simple message. In the left hand column it listed the names of its competitors and in the right hand column opposite, listed the names of its business partners – the lists were one in the same (not only a profitable company but a smart one!). Like many before it Wang New Zealand’s operation was subsequently acquired as the Computer/ITS industry evolved however it set a great example to the New Zealand business scene.

Perhaps a company literally has to face survival situation before it sees commercial reality and opportunity. How much useless wasted energy, time, resource and money is spent by the commercial and industrial sectors focusing on combating and competing against the opposition rather than placing total focus on it’s own business performance. And critically….. meeting it’s client needs? The alternative, combining smart management, cooperation and perhaps some lessons from our country cousins could result in mutual benefit. The rural sector entered a massive downturn when farm/fertiliser and other subsidies were removed and when interest rates hit the roof during the early to mid 1980’s (well before the share market crash which struck their city neighbours). By any standards the rural sector has responded, adapted and recovered with stunning speed.

Dairying has obviously set the standard and whilst there may be some drag or delay particularly by the wool. Sheep-meat and deer farming co-operatives in getting their act together, this is currently poised for big change.

Whilst the sector has seen significant merger and acquisition activity over the last 8-10 years, along with some highly competitive and at times hostile marriages of long time rivals, it still appears to retain a much wider and greater appreciation of the big picture situation being mindful of the fact that it is playing in the “International sand pit”.

Perhaps major corporates, industrials, commercial and professional firms should look to some of the country values and practices for a lead and to gain access to the thinking which has retained this country’s rural sector as a world leader. I am sure those “rural executives” with a success story to tell would be happy to share some valuable tips gained from real experience – unlike many of the visiting international University Professors frequently invited to address New Zealand conferences. Most have analysed the trends, looked at the case studies and provide an in-depth analysis based on history, research and observation. Obviously they have a great deal to contribute BUT……in the great majority of cases however, these so called “experts” have not run the risk of putting their reputation or capital on the line and experienced the blow torch of competition. Neither have they had to make the tough calls expected daily of a leader nor initiated, developed actually successfully managed or owned a stand alone profit centre business enterprise.

Barry T Knight

YSKER P.O. Box 27 Christchurch, New Zealand, Phone: +64 21 999 799
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