Joan Withers left school at 16 with minimal academic achievement, yet she is now highly regarded in New Zealand business. She talks to Judy Bailey about her humble beginnings, her fraught relationship with her mother, and making it to the top against the
Not many people know this, but if you go into labour unexpectedly, Joan Withers is the woman you want by your side.
One of our leading businesswomen, Joan commands respect in the boardrooms of some of our biggest companies and has been the recipient of several awards, including the Supreme Winner at New Zealand’s Women of Influence Awards in 2015. But in April this year she found herself at the business end of helping her daughter-in-law give birth.
By her own admission, Joan is “not good with blood or anything like that”, but it’s amazing what reserves she discovered she had when the chips were down.
Her son Jamie and his partner Margaret had come to stay in the granny flat on her lifestyle block at Karaka. Joan and her husband were woken by the phone at 3.30 in the morning to hear that Margaret had gone into labour. They arrived at the flat to find Margaret doubled over in pain. While Joan and Jamie supported her, Joan’s husband Brian rang the ambulance. But Joan discovered the baby’s head appearing and realised the ambulance wouldn’t make it. So, with phone instructions relayed by Brian, Joan and Jamie delivered a beautiful baby boy, Alexander Jamie, a brother for little Indiana Rose.
The ambulance duly arrived and took the proud parents and baby to hospital while Joan and Brian were left to clean up. “It was like an abbatoir,” she laughs. “Honestly, it was traumatic, I’d never want to do that again.”
It was a thrill though. She tells me, with a grin, that she bounded into a board meeting that afternoon and announced, “You’ll never guess what just happened to me!”
Family and young love
Joan was born in Manchester, England, in 1953, to Lilian and Jack Blinkhorn. She is the middle of three girls – her sister Mary is five years older, and Ann
four years younger. The sisters remain close and live not far from each other.
“Dad was easygoing and had a great sense of humour. He loved singing.” Jack was straight-up. “I’ve never met anyone with more integrity. He was honest and stable,” Joan tells me. He was also extremely bright and had been offered a college scholarship but, needing to support his family, he became a sheet metal worker.
“I had a fraught relationship with Mum,” Joan admits. “She was a complex person, with a demanding personality. I suspect that she was suffering from post-natal depression. She was wedded to her northern England upbringing. Hygiene was an obsession.”
Joan is obviously still distressed by this strained relationship, although is quick to add that Lilian was a devoted grandmother to Jamie. “I wanted to ask her why our relationship was so difficult,” she confesses, but sadly Lilian died of emphysema, at the age of 89, before that conversation could happen.“I think it [the challenges of her relationship with her mother] makes you work hard on your own relationship – give and take and trust. I hope it makes me a better person.”
A dance meeting
The Blinkhorn family came to New Zealand to join other members of Jack’s family who were already here. “We sailed on a Dutch immigrant ship. There were no bells and whistles. It proved to be an extremely rough crossing,” Joan recalls.
After a number of moves they ended up in a two-bedroom house in the south Auckland suburb of Papatoetoe.
Staunch Catholics, the Blinkhorns soon became involved in the life of the local parish, their Catholic values the foundation to everything. The girls would go to youth club dances and it was at a dance at the local rugby club that Joan met the love of her life. She was 15. Brian Withers, an apprentice electrician, was a couple of years older. “He was good looking. I’d noticed him as I was hanging out with other kids.” He asked her to dance and the rest, as they say, is history.
Joan wanted to spend more and more time with Brian. She admits to being a rebellious teen. “I wasn’t going to stay home, I pushed the boundaries. I wasn’t compliant.”
Despite the fact that she was a high achiever at school, she was intent on being with Brian and decided she wanted to leave the minute she’d passed school certificate. At 16, she found a job at the BNZ in Auckland’s Queen Street.
Joan and Brian were married when she was 19. They’re now just three years shy of their 50th anniversary.
She says of their relationship: “We’re completely different but complementary. He knows me. I tend to fly off the handle but he is more measured.
“He won’t let me walk all over him,” she laughs. “And we both share the same sense of humour.” Brian now works in manpower planning at Air New Zealand.
It was when they were first married that Joan began writing a column in her local paper, the South Auckland Gazette. “Out and About with Joan and Brian Withers” was a restaurant review. “The restaurants would host us so it was an absolute rort,” she grins. “There was no way you’d ever say anything negative about them.”
The reviews meant that at least the young couple had one square meal a week they didn’t have to pay for.
Their son Jamie was born two years after they married, on Joan’s 21st birthday. Motherhood didn’t come naturally to her. “I was scared stiff. I thought, ‘I have this enormous responsibility, I’m going to kill this baby because I don’t know what
Joan struggled to breastfeed her baby son and felt isolated and lonely. But she was determined to be with Jamie for those early years, so she worked from home, buying a knitting machine on layby and making jerseys for city shops. There was a nagging feeling, though, that she hadn’t completed her working life; she wanted to get back into the workforce.
Once she’d settled Jamie in school she took a job with what was then New Zealand News, selling advertising and writing editorial copy. She stayed for nine years and, as she says, “kept getting promoted”.
Despite her growing success, Joan was conscious that she had no UE (University Entrance) and no tertiary qualifications. That’s what prompted her to enrol in an MBA.
“There were lots of hurdles, but my employer said yes to the tuition fees and time off for lectures.”
There was no holding her back.
“At the beginning I just wanted to survive and get my degree… but I got sucked in. I surprised myself. I wanted to get As all the time. I got a B – in one paper – and persuaded the lecturer to let me draw it back and do it again.” She eventually got the A.
She credits the MBA experience as
Never work for someone you do not trust and respect.
being an important turning point in her life.
Soon after she completed the degree she spotted an ad for the position of general manager of what was then Radio i. That would mark the beginning of her career in governance. “I was lucky in media, especially in radio. It is a meritocracy, it’s easier for women to get ahead.” Career low point
Joan quickly made her mark. After proving herself at Radio i, she moved on to become the CEO of The Radio Network and later media company Fairfax. Her steady hand has guided some of New Zealand’s biggest companies. She currently chairs the board of The Warehouse and Mercury Energy and she is a director of the ANZ Bank. She was also, until recently, on the government’s Treasury Advisory Board – not bad for a girl who left school at 16 without UE.
She’s quick to admit her rise hasn’t always been smooth sailing, citing the collapse of Feltex Carpets as the low point of her career. More than $200 million in shareholder value was wiped out. “It was devastating,” she says. She was on the board when Feltex issued its first profit downgrade. She’d left the board by the time it went to the wall, but she still feels the failure keenly. “I’d been part of something that hadn’t worked. I angsted about it.”
She was particularly upset about its effect on shareholders. Bitter court battles ensued, which are ongoing. It was a sobering experience. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” she says ruefully. The lessons learnt, though, have definitely made her stronger.
“I realise how quickly things can go wrong. You have to be prepared for the worst case scenario and think ahead.”
How did she cope with the stress? “I just kept going. I couldn’t hide away. There’s nothing better than hard work to keep your mind off something.”
In her autobiography, Joan Withers – A Woman’s Place, she says when people approach you to be a director “they want someone with scars on their back. I have been involved in what was probably one of the most successful floats in New Zealand history – the Auckland Airport public offering – and perhaps the worst, the Feltex collapse.”
She has sage words for young women entering the business world.
“Take responsibility for your own training and development. Take advantage of any training offered by your employer and think about how you can differentiate yourself, what can set you apart from others in the same field.
“Find the gaps in your skill set. Never work for someone you do not like, trust and respect. Never compromise yourself.
“Preparation is everything. I’ve never seen a woman go into a board meeting without having read every page of the board documents. You have to make sure you’ve covered every angle.”
In 2014, Joan won the Shareholders’ Award for Top Director of the Year, a coveted honour that recognised her outstanding governance skills, ability to lead, high ethical standards, respect for rule and avoidance of selfinterest. She is now focused on encouraging more women to enter the boardroom and is part of a new initiative, “On Being Bold”, which will provide a forum online and in person where successful women can share their ideas and experiences with others.
Joan is committed to finding balance in her life and with that in mind she took up horse riding at the age of 43. She and Brian ride at least once a week. She loves her horses and when she’s riding she can leave the boardroom behind her and live completely in the moment.
The couple are also prodigious bottlers and jam and pickle makers.
“Brian peels and chops and I do the rest. I’m particularly proud of my plum sauce,” she grins.
Think about what sets you apart from others.
OPPOSITE PAGE: Joan in 2011 at the annual meeting of Mighty River Power, of which she was chairwoman.