From Matamata to the White House
For a man just named as one of US President-elect Donald Trump’s White House assistants, Kiwi Chris Liddell has displayed very few political aspirations.
Focused, driven and intellectually very smart is how people in business and political circles describe him - but a man on a definite corporate rather than political path.
‘‘He runs things well, climbs to the top, earns lots of money. He’s a straight up businessman,’’ one said.
Chris Pell Liddell was born in Matamata in 1958, the youngest of five children. His father was a school teacher who died when Liddell was young. His English mother then took on a variety of jobs, including working in the cafe in upmarket Auckland department store Smith and Caughey, to support the family.
Academically bright, Liddell went to Auckland’s Mt Albert Grammar and the University of Auckland before gaining his doctorate at England’s Oxford University.
Straddling a working class/ middle class upbringing before moving into investment banking draws obvious similarities with former Prime Minister John Key although their later career paths diverge. One reason could be that while Key was widely known as a people-person, that is not acknowledged as one of Liddell’s many strengths.
His corporate path is well covered (from investment banking via Carter Holt Harvey to US giants General Motors and Microsoft) and while he has given interviews periodically, more recently focusing on his philanthropic work, he manages to avoid the personal.
For example, his quote in the press release announcing his White House appointment was vanilla, with quotes saying he was humbled, honoured and excited to effect change.
It was his third and current wife, wealthy American socialite and philanthropist Renee Harbers, who brought him into the Republican fold. (Both his former wives, New Zealand businesswomen Sarah Kennedy and Bridget Wickham, keep their personal lives private and have never spoken publicly.)
During his earlier life in New Zealand, Liddell held no public ambitions for political office but had political views on the right hand side of the spectrum where they supported his corporate ambitions.
He supported Bob Jones’ (now Sir Bob Jones) New Zealand Party in the 1980s as it waged battle against then Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. The party won no seats but is credited with having split the vote in the 1984 general election which saw the Labour Party head to the Beehive.
Liddell’s first public foray into US politics came with news that he was earmarked for a job in the White House Administration during Republican Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful 2012 Presidential campaign.
It is also rumoured, but not verified, that he was interested in returning home for the top job at dairy giant Fonterra at the time incumbent Theo Spierings was appointed in 2011.
Liddell’s most recent US corporate job was to oversee finances at American talent agency and media company William Morris Endeavour, best known for owning the Miss Universe pageant.
Chris Liddell with his then-fiancee, now wife, Renee Barbers.