Welcome to My Net Worth, our regular column on the lives and motivations of our country’s top business, legal and political people in their own words.
John Kippenberger was appointed to lead Scott Technology, the publicly listed automation and robotic technologies company based in Dunedin, in November 2019, just months before businesses worldwide were thrown into turmoil by the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. With many hundreds of employees in the US, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, China, Australia and New Zealand, he cut his global workforce by 20%. It was a tough call that his years in senior corporate roles had prepared him for. His career had included leading Weston Bioproducts in New South Wales, director of the NZ Food and Grocery Council, and CEO and director of Mānuka Health, which markets branded healthcare and wellness products internationally. But his longest stint by far – nearly nine years – was as managing director of smallgoods manufacturer, distributor and exporter Premier Beehive NZ Ltd, of which he was also a shareholder. Under his leadership, it was eventually sold to a private equity group. Kippenberger has a bachelor of business studies degree from Massey and an MBA from the University of New England in Armidale, NSW.
I grew up in Wellington in a tight-knit family with my mother, father, brother and sister.
I’ve been fortunate to take some of the friendships from school right through to today. At Wellington College, I was the smallest in the year and I was hit on the head during a yachting accident when I was 16. My mates joke that I shot up in growth at that point.
I rolled through school not knowing what I wanted to do. My late father was in business and finance and my brother had gone down that business route. Through family, I guess, I gravitated to business. It wasn't a burning desire that I even wanted, or even believed I wanted, to be big in business.
My early career was in banking and currency trading. One of the things I still laugh about is when I was working for Barclays, my dad used to say, “But what are you making?”, and I said, “Well, Dad, we’re trading millions of dollars and making big deals, and I'm getting paid reasonably well.” He would still say, “But, at the end of the day, what have you made?” I never really got that when I was younger.
I’m a simple guy, I like things that produce things. I don’t think I’d ever run an energy company or an insurance company. Companies that make things fit with the way I think through processes and production environments.
One thing I love about business in New Zealand is the informal connections that you make. Even coming back from Australia, I was always intrigued and pleasantly surprised that New Zealand is a culture and environment, both socially and in business, that if people think you’re acting with integrity, they will help you where they can. In Australia, I was far more often asked where I was from or what school I went to.
At the end of the day, my family comes first. My wife, Julie, and children Emily and Tom, they are the most important thing for me. My trips abroad have always been about 10 days, not four weeks. They’re focused: good-quality time with people and being present. But the gravity is always towards coming home to my family.
My best advice is to do something you can be passionate about. Life is too short to be in a role that doesn’t get you jumping out of bed excited.
I don’t have regrets. I just try to make the best decisions within the environment and with the information that I've got around me .... knowing that the future might not play out that way. But in that time and moment, I’ve honestly made the decision with integrity.
Sometimes I wonder if we sold Beehive too early. It was the first capital event for me and my family. The first time that comes across your path, it’s very enticing to think there’s more runway, but we made that decision and Beehive has gone on to do great things. That decision opened up other opportunities, such as private equity and Scott Technology. It’s about making decisions and making the most of everything that follows.
I play particularly average golf; it’s even more fun when it’s erratic. A nice drive followed by a shanked seven iron keeps us all grounded. It’s always with friends, because four hours of walking around a golf course is a great way to spend time with good people.
I’m also one of those weird-looking guys out in the morning in Lycra. I’ve got a good group of mates I ride with early a few times a week from about quarter to six – most importantly for my health and fitness, but also just to chill and spend time with some guys. It’s a great way to get up, get out, and get going.
The most valuable thing I have is my health and my energy.
On a walk during lockdown, Julie spotted a pair of shoes that were, for our range, on the expensive end. We got talking with the owner and ended up splurging on them – partly because they were beautiful, and partly because it was a family business trying to survive. I bought into the story of a second-generation retailer. If my wife loves the shoes and these people are working hard, it’s the least I can do.
As told to Henry Burrell.
This interview has been edited for clarity.