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Rob Campbell, the anarchist who conquered the corporate world

Rob Campbell, the new chairman of SkyCity, rose to public prominence in the 1970s and 80s as a union leader.

It's a well-known story, reflecting New Zealand's political transformation during the era.

But it's still a surprise to hear the senior business leader, who also chairs Tourism Holdings and retirement village operator Summerset, say he'd like to see more business leaders coming through from a union background.

Campbell actually began his governance career running an anarchist book shop.

He was a director of the Resistance Bookshop in Wellington. "We had a problem with people stealing the books," he recalls.

"It was the 60s and 70s and I had the requisite shoulder-length hair and the political opinions to go with it."

The transition from that world of left-wing politics and unions to become chair of Sir Ron Brierley's investment company, Guinness Peat Group (GPG), seems a radical one.

It's a point not lost on Campbell.

He cites the Lange-Douglas Labour Government as a big influence. "As it was for many New Zealanders".

"I was on the national executive of the Labour Party at the time. And there were opportunities to look at the economy in a different way," he says. "That was when I first met Ron Brierley. He was being appointed to the board of the BNZ and Roger Douglas thought the only way he could get that through caucus was to appoint me at the same time."

In the past, there was more of a pathway for union leaders to rise into governance and business leadership roles.

"I hope that will come again," says Campbell. "I think – and you can see it with Andrew Little – people who have occupied leadership positions in substantial trade unions have learned a lot about the way the economy works. They've learned a lot about how organisations work and about motivation. And I think it would be quite good if we saw more of those people progressing into business governance roles. It's quite common around the world."

For many years Campbell was reluctant to front for media profiles and publicity opportunities.

But he has found himself back in the public gaze.

This year he was named Deloitte Top 200 chairperson of the year and received the New Zealand Shareholders Association Beacon Award for business leader of the year.

"If you hang around long enough, eventually your name comes up," he jokes.

"For me it's a change. I had a pretty high profile as a union official and I found that a little bit self-destructive. So I spent quite some time avoiding the media."

But it has been a big year - both for the companies he's involved with and the extent to which he's been prepared to speak out on broader social issues.

Tourism Holdings, in particular, has experienced a remarkable turnaround under Campbell's watch.

Campbell says he has started to feel more comfortable and confident speaking out on bigger issues as he has settled into senior roles.

"More businesspeople are these days," he says. "The 'only talk at the annual meeting' days are over. I recognise what other businesspeople are doing in that way and I think it's positive."

Before the election Campbell went public with his view that business was over its "fear" of Labour/Green governments.

And in speeches - such as one he gave to the Parnell Rotary Club in July - he has argued that business and ethics are inseparable.

"If our model is extractive or exploitative we will all bear the downsides of that," he said at the time.

He also described his generation's "quest for identity", explaining how issues such as gender diversity, Maori identity and nuclear-free New Zealand were "at one with the removal of economic restrictions and regulations".

New generations were now on a "quest for authenticity which has strong social values and ethics at its core", he noted.

There is a sense of "there and back again" about New Zealand's conversion to market freedom and its more recent return to softer, more interventionist capitalism.

"We've had the extremes of freedom from regulation and seen some of the benefits and dis-benefits of that," he says. "I think now some of the businesses are recognising that the social licence to operate is really important."

That more socially conscious world view actually sits better with most board members and chief executives in this country, he says.

The "hard-line hatchet approach has never really sat that well ... because there is that fair go thing that most New Zealand people have."

"I don't think terms like neo-liberalism or socialism are that helpful today in New Zealand. We're a fantastic place to be and to do business but we do have some pretty big challenges. They're challenges that won't be solved purely by the Government or purely by private enterprise."

Rob Campbell
• Age: 66
• Born: Featherston 
• Married to: Judi Lambourne
• Chairman: Summerset, Tourism Holdings, Sky City (from Jan 1)
• Last book read: What Is Nirvana by Traleg Rinpoche

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