Lead­ing lady

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

I’m do­ing.’”

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.

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