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.

Taranaki Daily News - - Monday Business -

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

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