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.
Avan Lee has been chief executive of the Wellington-based Hurricanes Super Rugby franchise since June 2015. Before that, he worked at the Northland Rugby Union as commercial manager (2006-07), New Zealand Rugby (2007-12, mostly as broadcasting and commercial operations manager), and at World Rugby headquarters in Dublin (2012-15, initially as commercial manager and then general manager of the World Sevens). He has a bachelor of management studies (marketing) degree from Waikato University.
I was born in Dargaville, but grew up in Whangārei. I’m a very proud Northlander and I had a great childhood living up there. My parents were strong on good values and manners; we were a pretty straight and conservative family. I have two younger brothers, Gifford and Clark. The three of us were very competitive – which would probably be a nice way of putting it, especially around sport. Now they both live in Australia so I don't get to see them very often, but I have good memories of my childhood.
I was pretty studious at school. I guess I was a bit of an all-rounder. I did well without being the top of the class, and it was similar with sport, which was a massive part of my childhood. My dream was to be an All Black but I didn't get anywhere near it. It's probably akin to saying I wanted to be a superhero, to be honest, because not many people become All Blacks. But working in sport somewhere was my fallback option. So here I am.
I did management studies and marketing at Waikato University. It was really good for me in terms of having to fend for myself, learning how to cook and clean and meeting new people and being more confident. I had such a great time there and some of my best friends are from those days, so it's hard to say a bad word about Hamilton, that's for sure.
After university, I left New Zealand and went straight to Ireland to play rugby. I played premier rugby, the top division. My first job there was for a marketing company doing event marketing and management; it was very much an entry-level role. But I was pretty happy living in Dublin.
One of the things I've learned as a CEO is about making good choices, in terms of what I think is the right thing to do versus what is normalised within rugby or sport. If you've got a problem with something that's happening, you need to stand up for what you believe in. You can’t worry about going against the grain.
Some people still think that to progress your own career, you need to step on other people's toes. I don't believe that. You do your job well and put your hand up for extra responsibilities. If you're a good person, I think you’ll go a long way and you don't need to burn bridges on the way.
Covid was a stark reminder about stress. One of the things I learned was that I just couldn't do it all on my own. We had some staff who resigned just before covid. So we were understaffed and, you know, I tried to take up some of that slack. I think that’s my big learning – focusing on work-life balance and making sure that you're keeping yourself well. But, yeah, I didn't manage my stress very well through for that period.
Some of my biggest learnings have been around being myself. Sometimes, you get put in situations where you feel pressured to be a certain way or do things a certain way. It took me quite a long time to work out it’s best to just be yourself. If you try to be something you're not, it's very easy to see through that.
I’m most proud of my three children. I try to be a better dad every day, I suppose. That's a bit of a goal for me. I'm certainly proud of my career, too, that I've worked my way through various organisations to get to CEO. I never thought I would be a CEO, but it’s been six years now.
I think my friends would describe me as being very open. I'm a big believer in being vulnerable and giving people a chance to open up to you as well. I’m fiercely loyal to anyone I care about; that's important to me.
There have been times when I've thought, should I change my name? The Irish say it more correctly than New Zealanders. I don't know why. New Zealanders just really struggle with it. I've had times when people say, ‘Oh, it's such a nice name.’ And that makes you feel good. But, yeah, then someone calls you Avon or something. I'm kind of stuck with it now.
I like to exercise. My youngest boy plays tennis and I like playing games with him. I also love fishing. But then, I also love lying on the couch watching whatever is on TV. It might be mind-numbing stuff sometimes, but I do genuinely enjoy doing that.
The last thing I splurged on was a nice suit – it’s pretty smart.
As told to Jacqui Loates-Haver.
This interview has been edited for clarity.