Retirement for Gill means work
Elaine Gill is a remarkable woman who over the last 43 years has helped transform Taranaki’s cultural landscape. Susan Strongman talks to her about retirement, sexism and her funny accent.
When Elaine Gill arrived in New Plymouth in 1971, she thought it seemed interesting enough. Devon St had flooded and sofas were floating in waist-deep water out the front door of a furniture gallery.
Gill’s move marked the beginning of an impressive career that has seen her become an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit and arguably one of the most important contributors of her generation to Taranaki’s cultural landscape.
She’s also one of Taranaki’s most outstanding businesspeople and until last month’s announcement of her retirement, chaired TSB Bank’s board of directors for 16 years.
The 67-year-old Newcastle (United Kingdom) native has never been one to turn down an opportunity. In 1969, two months after marrying Charles, her boyfriend of six months, the fresh-outof-teacher’s college pair headed to New Zealand for ‘‘a bit of a lark.’’
Days before Gill announces her retirement from the bank, I meet her to talk about a career which has gone from placing after-dinner mints in wrappers at a chocolate factory to being a Taranaki Investment Management Ltd (TIML) director.
She has bronchitis, picked up on a business trip to Tasmania, and answers the door to her Frankleigh Park home with a handkerchief in hand and a nasty cough, echoed from upstairs by a bedridden Charles.
But she’s not one to let a cough get in the way of getting things done. ‘‘If you’d asked me two years ago, I would have said I never intend to retire,’’ she says.
Now, after 45 years of saying ‘‘yes’’, she’s also announcing her retirement from TIML.
Her climb to the top of her game wasn’t straightforward.
On arriving in New Plymouth, she became a geography teacher at New Plymouth Girls’ High School, where she stayed until she had her first son, Daniel, in 1974, followed later by Steven.
When the boys were little, she volunteered at the New Plymouth Womens’ Centre and found many people she was helping had legal problems.
With no community law service to help them, she wrote to every New Zealand university asking to do law by correspondence. In 1977 she began a degree at Otago University – the only one that said yes. ‘‘I did it with the idea that I only wanted to do various bits of it.’’ But she found it so interesting she continued.
She is one of only two students to have done law by correspondence since Dean of the Faculty of Law, Professor Mark Henaghan, started at the university in 1978.
‘‘She was remarkable,’’ he says. ‘‘I remember thinking how remarkable it was at the time, because you can’t really do law by correspondence – we just don’t offer it, it’s incredibly difficult. It’s just not the way a law degree can be done.’’
As a woman and law student, Gill said getting permission to use New Plymouth’s law library was a challenge
‘‘Then I went to be a lawyer, and I got one interview, from a law firm that will remain nameless, who basically said to me: ‘Well, that’s all very well, Elaine, but we’ve got one’.’’ ‘‘Got one what?’’ she wondered, before realising the firm had a woman on its staff.
and she had to be interviewed several times before she was allowed. ‘‘It was the legal fraternity at the time. There weren’t a lot of women about.’’
It was not the only time Gill’s gender made things difficult.
‘‘Then I went to be a lawyer, and I got one interview, from a law firm that will remain nameless, who basically said to me: ‘Well, that’s all very well, Elaine, but we’ve got one’.’’
‘‘Got one what?’’ she wondered, before realising the firm had a woman on its staff.
She says there have been many instances where being a woman put her on the back foot. ‘‘I think probably young women don’t understand that.’’
When Gill, a finalist for the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award in 2010, moved to New Zealand, she couldn’t buy a sofa on hire purchase without her husband signing the form, although they were both paid the same salary for the same job.
After being rejected by the law firm, Gill took a job in 1986 at what was then the Taranaki United Council, researching the social impact of the Think Big Projects, and what could be done to economically sustain the region afterwards. ‘‘In those days tourism was the sexy thing.’’
A report recommended the council set up a regional tourism organisation – Tourism Taranaki – which Gill ran for 12 years. She started the Rhododendron Festival and set up the Heritage Trails which now run the length and breadth of New Zealand and won her a Smithsonian award.
When Gill joined the council, she also became a member of TSB Bank’s board of directors, moving on to chair it in 1998.
Recalling the challenges of those days, she says: ‘‘It was going through that time when it was deciding whether it would join in with Trust Bank or whether it would stand alone.’’
While the bank is famous for remaining independent, Gill won’t take an ounce of credit for the decision. ‘‘While I voted for it, I definitely was the new girl on the block.’’
Kevin Rimmington, who spent almost 50 years at the bank including more than two decades as chief executive, said it was Gill’s intellect that made her so good at her job. ‘‘Many people want to be a chairperson but few make a good one.’’
Current chief executive Kevin Murphy said losing Gill was like losing his right arm.
When she joined the board it governed both the bank and the TSB Community Trust. In 1986 it gave away about $160,000 and had about $200 million in deposits.
This year it reported a $39.8m profit. Deposits have superseded $5 billion and $10.2m will be delivered to the people of Taranaki through the TSB Community Trust.
Gill still chairs TAFT, and was part of the team responsible for bringing Womad to New Plymouth in 2004, which she describes as being ‘‘like a minnow swallowing a whale.’’
‘‘Originally we were so laid back we were almost horizontal, but once we took on Womad we became a lot more serious.’’
She says Womad moved TAFT from doing one arts festival every other year to being a $5m a year business.
Having done all this and more, Gill maintains the toughest job she’s ever done was addressing the Spotswood College end-of-year assembly as a board of trustees member while her sons were pupils.
‘‘I used to get that many riding instructions from the kids about what I could or could not wear and say that I was an absolute wreck by the time I got there.’’
As far as career paths go, Gill says she hasn’t followed one. ‘‘I wouldn’t recognise a career path if it jumped up and bit me bum.
‘‘I have career lurches – things come up and you go off. It’s more fun that way.
‘‘I reckon I’ve got a pretty low boredom threshold. I think it’s a very healthy thing to have.’’
With all the time spent doing various jobs, anyone would think she’d wear herself thin, but Gill insists she’s full of beans. ‘‘I do things at funny times. You might get an email from me at 2 o’clock in the morning, but that’s fine.I don’t get tired and I don’t get bored.
‘‘As you get older, I’ve found you do need less and less sleep, but I’m not like Margaret Thatcher. I can’t survive on four hours a night – she might have been a nice person if she’d stayed in bed a bit longer.’’
Though Gill calls it retirement, she’ll still have plenty to do. Her voluntary work includes chairing TAFT and running six community projects.
She is looking forward to spending time doing things she loves. ‘‘People think it’s daft but I don’t have time to do things like gardening and I enjoy handicrafts.’’ She also loves DIY.
‘‘Most importantly I’ve got two grandchildren – one in Nelson and one in Auckland.’’
She’s looking forward to spending more time with them but has no plans to move. ‘‘Taranaki’s my turangawaewae. I couldn’t leave this place, I’m firmly rooted here,’’ she says in her accent, which is not quite Geordie.
‘‘I feel like I’m a Kiwi, but I do get accused of being a Kiwi with a funny accent.’’
When she and Charles got jobs in New Plymouth, they told friends and family back home they were heading for ‘‘Tar-ran-a-kai.’’ ‘‘Needless to say we’ve been here ever since.’’
Fill time: Elaine Gill’s retirement from paid work at 67 signals the end of a long and successful business career. Photo: ROBERT CHARLES/ FAIRFAX NZ