Q&A: Accentuating the positive
New Auckland Business Chamber CEO Simon Bridges opens up about his future outside politics, leading New Zealand’s oldest business association. What previous business experience did you bring to the Auckland Business Chamber, and what was it about this job that appealed to you? SIMON: My first full-time job was as a lawyer in a […]
SIMON: My first full-time job was as a lawyer in a commercial law firm where I learned the value of time and a dollar, most importantly the client’s dollar. It was a lesson I took with me into politics. It influenced how I led as a minister and identified policy needs that would deliver value to the community.
Over my time in government I was a senior economic and infrastructure minister holding portfolios including Transport, Energy, and Economic Development. These gave me a broad ambit, and a great opportunity to mix with businesspeople working at the coalface every day, and not just big businesses.
Over those years I would have engaged with many hundreds of businesses across every area of the economy, from robotics to retail, all the time I was looking, learning and listening.
When the idea of leading the team at the Auckland Chamber came up it took a bit of time and talking to make it happen but in some ways it was a no-brainer. I could see the role brought together a blend of all my skills and experiences and it’s a neat fit with my values and purpose.
What I love about the CEO role is that it’s all about enabling business to succeed, influencing the environment we operate in and seeking out opportunities to grow Auckland – which, as New Zealand’s biggest, most international city, is a place where we can make the future happen.
I also love that no one day, or actually even half day, is ever the same.
How hard was it to switch from politician to CEO, both from a professional and personal perspective?
SIMON: I appreciate that some people may think it would be a tough transition, but if anything it’s been a pleasure. It was a privilege to be in politics for 14 years and broadly speaking as a politician accountable to the people, not just delivering our strategy or policy, I did what CEOs have to do. Now I get to experience a lot of the upsides of politics, but without all the downsides.
One difference is that because politics is adversarial, a combat sport to some, negativity can surround it. Now at the Chamber we are 100 percent focused on the positive; on how we can help and enable, and provide a platform for growth and opportunity.
What have you found most challenging in your time there so far? And what excites you most about the job going forward?
SIMON: I had a perception looking from the outside about the Chamber and what it did. But you never quite know until you’re on the inside. It’s a terrific organisation, but a bit like an octopus with many, many tentacles. It does a lot, ranging from organising business events, award programmes, training support for businesspeople, young people and migrants, and international trade work, to thought leadership and advocacy for our business community – to create the best possible climate for business to succeed and grow.
It’s early days still and my focus has been on learning and listening, getting to know our team, capabilities and opportunities and the important things we do. Importantly, I have made it a priority to make sure I’m out in the community to meet members, partners and our small and medium businesses.
I am looking forward to really rolling up my sleeves for businesses and helping solve their problems, one-on-one if need be, and make opportunities happen across our region.
Since taking up the role and familiarising yourself with the needs and concerns of the Chamber’s membership, what have been some of the biggest surprises for you so far?
SIMON: The pandemic hit some businesses really hard and now they need to be supported and enabled to recover.
Critical right now is to plug the skill gaps. These people cannot be found locally so it means finding a solution so that Immigration NZ rules can be streamlined to allow employers to bring workers in to build capacity and productivity.
We also have a vital role in providing good advice and direction around support available for businesses, say from Callaghan Institute. Or if business leaders, managers or their staff are overwhelmed by stress we can help too with a bespoke programme. The work the Chamber is doing with MBIE on business and mental health is very humbling and valuable.
Our website www.firststeps.co.nz continues to help many.
What are you looking to achieve for Auckland’s business owners during your tenure?
SIMON: My aim is to really get under the skin of the business community, understand their issues, needs and ambitions, and support them to grow and reach their potential. The Auckland Business Chamber has a real heart for SMBs and always will.
A key role for me will be to advocate for businesses. The need has never been greater as we emerge from the tail of Covid which is still whipping enterprises trying to find their way in a disrupted world.
What’s your advice to business owners currently struggling under the burden of high inflation, staff shortages, rising wages, increasing rents and diminishing profits?
SIMON: Government can be the source of problems but also the holder of the key to deliver solutions. The Chamber has a responsibility to advocate to government on behalf of the thousands of enterprises who are the lifeblood of our community.
As a business owner it is also about knowing that the Chamber is a trusted and respected champion able to provide practical advice, a support network and practical tools, early signalling of trends and best practice, and continuous learning opportunities through events and workshops.
We want to enable enterprises to improve and be equipped to control costs, prices, processes and productivity, and be able to transform and rebuild a strategy and skill-base that supports innovation, and automation, so they thrive in a digital age.
What are your predictions for 2023 in regard to business performance and the economy?
SIMON: Now I am out of politics I try to make fewer predictions these days! But I’m hoping for fairer economic weather. There are plenty of scenarios. One plausible one is for supply chains and labour supply to ease up, for inflation to stabilise and possibly fall and for growth to continue. This is what I want to see.
What other changes can we expect from the Chamber with you at the helm?
SIMON: I’ve inherited a great organisation with a proud legacy from Michael Barnett. The Auckland Chamber is New Zealand’s oldest business association with wide local and international linkages. On that basis a bit of humility is in order and I want to walk before I run.
I won’t be daunted. We live in challenging times and there is a heap of issues and priorities for me to deal with, or to, right now.
I will be looking to grow our membership, continue to build our advocacy for SMBs, devise and run a vibrant events calendar for our members to participate in, and run a service portfolio that works to make business go better and faster.
The Chamber is going to be a busy business for business!