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.
Manchester-born Joan Withers, a company director since 1997, has held numerous high-profile roles, including chair of the Warehouse Group, Mercury Energy, Mighty River Power, Auckland Airport and TVNZ, a director of ANZ Bank, Origin Energy, Sky Network Television and Feltex Carpets, a member of the Treasury’s advisory board and a trustee of the Sweet Louise Foundation (supporting women with incurable breast cancer) and Stephen and Margaret Tindall’s Tindall Foundation. She is also a former CEO of Fairfax New Zealand and The Radio Network. In 2015, she was named the supreme winner at the New Zealand Women of Influence Awards.
I was nearly six when we landed here in New Zealand from the UK. It was the best thing that could have happened to us as a family, no two ways about that. My father already had his mother, father and two sisters here.
Mum and dad were, not to put too fine a point on it, quite hard up. Dad worked 60 hours a week in a rubber factory in Penrose, coiling hose. He was an incredibly intelligent man so that must have been really difficult for him. Mum worked most of the time; she was a state registered nurse.
I get my work ethic from my dad. His whole focus was just to earn enough money so we could get a house. We never did without, but really, it was hard. We often had to ask my uncle and aunt who lived next door for money to tide us over. Because of that, I never wanted to be dependent on anyone else for money ever again.
I wasn't particularly close to my mother. She and I had quite a difficult relationship. I think my feelings about my childhood were somewhat coloured by that.
I was 15 when I met my husband, Brian. My parents wouldn't let me go out with him during the week, only on the weekend. So, after I sat School Certificate, I said, “I'm leaving school.” I was quite wilful.
Our son Jamie was born 18 months after we got married. While at home looking after him, I became more conscious of the fact I didn't have any qualifications other than School C. I made a decision at some point in that five years that I didn't want to have any more children. I wanted to get back out into the workforce.
I had started a cadetship as a journalist just before I got pregnant. I thought it might be fun going back. I got a job selling ads and writing advertorial copy on the local newspaper and that was really the start of my career.
I still had this feeling that I wasn’t qualified because I didn't have any tertiary qualifications. So, I did an MBA, which the company supported me through, and that really was the catalyst for putting my career on another whole different trajectory.
I'm pretty hard on myself, which is not a good thing. When I do something that I don't think is to the best of my ability, or I get it wrong, I'm quite down on myself for a period of time.
I’ve been through a few tough things. I was a Feltex director, and going through that period from 2005, after the profit downgrade, there was a black cloud hanging over everything and that was really hard.
What I've learned is that you have to just keep moving, you've got to keep breathing and keep working, which is a good distraction. I wouldn't give myself a 10 out of 10 but I think that naturally, my disposition is pretty optimistic, and once I've worked through things, I'm okay.
The due diligence you do on the people you'll be working with is the most important piece of due diligence you can do. Because no matter how glamorous the role or how big the pay packet, if you don't like, trust and respect the people around you, it's going to be almost impossible.
It's enormously important to celebrate success, because for most of us, whether we’re in governance, or leadership, or in the professions, a lot of days are really, really hard. So it's about enjoying the moment before you dig deep again the following day.
Horse riding is always a great stress relief for me. I didn't take it up until I was in my 40s. You can't think about anything else when you’re on a horse, you’re just totally focused on riding.
I enjoy having a glass of wine and listening to jazz. Brian cooks most of the time; he doesn't let me do much of the cooking now.
I never scrimp on clothes. I always make sure I've got what I need in my wardrobe. And a corporate wardrobe is not cheap. But it is necessary, because you do not want to be scrambling around on the morning of a board meeting trying to find what the hell you’re going to wear.
As told to Jacqui Loates-Haver.
This interview has been edited for clarity.