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.
Chris Quin is chief executive of Foodstuffs North Island, the co-operative behind the Pak’nSave and New World supermarket brands and Four Square. He was previously chief executive of Spark’s retail division, having spent more than 20 years in various roles at the telco. In 2010, he received a Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award for his leadership achievements and contribution to the community.
My dad passed away when I was 21, my mum when I was 30. I remember a few things that dad taught me, but you know, when you’re 21, you’re still kind of thinking your dad’s an idiot and you know better, right?
I wasn’t a Sport Billy in school – I was in, like, the fourth or fifth fifteen in rugby – but I was head boy. I did debating – that was something my dad gave me. He loved to write speeches and to do that sort of stuff.
My uncle and aunt owned the New World in Warkworth, so I went up there on the holidays and my uncle taught me hard work. I look back now and think those were quite formative times. You know, he would tell me off if I was being a dick. I started at about four or five in the morning, drove the truck to the Viaduct, got the veges we needed and then spent the rest of the day filling the Coke and lemonade stands and all that stuff. Whatever was needed.
I did accounting and law at university and started working in accounting. It took two years to go, “I don’t want to do this all my life”.
I remember in the second job I had, the European president of the company was visiting. We were talking about the results and he was critical. And I just kept thinking, I’m just the guy counting, it’s not me, it’s the salespeople! It was probably a moment where I just went, yeah, I want to be more in front than at the back.
When I joined Telecom, it was Telecom Wellington and it was five companies. I think it was well over 25,000 people – it was huge. I joined working for the director of sales and marketing because each director had an accounting person on the team. He wasn't really sure why he wanted me there. It was a completely different place when I left Spark. When I look back, it looks big, organised – it wasn't.
It's a complicated industry because of the technology moving so fast, the jargon, and just the way you stitch things together. You had to read up on the products and market them, price them – all those sorts of things. It was never not exciting.
I don't think there was a time where I went, I want to be that. It was just taking on another challenge, trying something new.
I was acting chief executive of Telecom for four months and it was hard to go back, so it was great to have the new challenge of being retail chief executive. We changed the name of the company [to Spark] and did some cool stuff. Simon Moutter [the new managing director at the time] was very supportive and very respectful.
There’s an advantage to the co-operative structure, if you’ve got your culture right. One of the things I've learned about co-ops is you influence with excellence, not with power. In corporates, you can issue instructions, and people do it because the boss told them to.
We are conscious at Foodstuffs about stories about our owner-operators, but what people don't know is that these might be people working seven days a week at Four Square at the start. People don’t know about the tens of millions of dollars of debt the owner-operators take on when they buy a store and the pressure they’re under when paying that back.
Covid-19 showed how, during a crisis, accountability goes through the roof, people stop politicking and just go, what do you need from me?
I’ve got a great group of friends who are into cars. What I love about it is it’s nothing to do with work so that’s my happy place.
I got roped into doing a marathon. If you’d seen me at the time, you’d have thought, you’ve got to be joking. It was for Catriona Williams, the New Zealand equestrian who is now a quadriplegic. I saw her at Tony Carter’s farewell from Foodstuffs. She said, “Are you going to run a marathon next year for me? I can’t walk around the corner.” Long story short, I did, and then four or five more.
The last thing I splurged on was a mountain bike – a cool New Zealand-designed one. It’s probably the last mountain bike I’ll buy. The brand is Zerode and it’s designed by a guy in Rotorua who literally works out of his shed.
I tend to read stuff that is not hard work. I read Wilbur Smith. I recently read the Jimmy Barnes autobiography. I am reading the latest John Grisham at the moment because that’s how I relax. For proper reading, I’m reading Gearing Up: Leading your Kiwi business into the future.
As told to Victoria Young
This interview has been edited for clarity.