Mark Callander is one of New Zealand’s most prominent telecommunications executives. A serial deal maker, he has orchestrated a string of transformational mergers and acquisitions in the sector. During his career, he has developed challenger brands including Slingshot and Orcon and integrated businesses including Vocus NZ, Woosh, Stuff Fibre, and Switch Utilities. Following Vocus NZ’s takeover of 2degrees, he leads a $1.2 billion company with 1800 employees. Callander started out in the FMCG sector before an early switch into the telecom industry. He holds a bachelor of management studies degree in marketing and international management from the University of Waikato and also participated in the Harvard Business School leadership programme for senior executives in 2013.
I grew up in South Auckland. I had a typical New Zealand childhood, out playing with mates on the streets until all hours. When I was 13, we moved to Ngātea on the Hauraki Plains, which, being a small town, was quite a change. I have good memories of being a kid, playing sports, especially rugby league – a classic New Zealand upbringing.
My parents divorced when I was reasonably young. My mother worked in a manufacturing plant that made wall coverings, and I spent the bulk of my time living with her while growing up. When we moved to Ngātea, she met another man, a commercial fisherman, who she’s still with today.
I had to put in work at school. I got serious about my studies towards the end of high school but really had to graft to get the results. Balancing sport and work was always a challenge growing up, but I managed to do it and that got me into university.
I initially wanted to be an English or PE teacher, and applied to become one, but got rejected. I subsequently applied for a commerce degree and decided to go down the management route. Thankfully, it all worked out – again, down to grafting.
I went travelling. I did my OE, got a Eurail Pass, and travelled through Europe. I worked as a golf caddie in Scotland, as a waiter in a restaurant – anything that would give me money.
My first proper job in New Zealand was in the FMCG industry, working for a company called Andrew Brands, which did everything from olive oil to cat food and pool products. It was phenomenal. The culture was amazing. It was the sort of place where you could put countless hours in and you’d never have any regrets about it.
That gave me a grounding and discipline, and within five years I was running the company. I learnt all about running a business there. For a young person in my mid to late 20s, it was an amazing experience.
I then moved to Telecom, where I was suddenly a small cog in a big operation. I was able to round out my skills, and I loved it. I worked there when dial-up internet was all the rage, and learned a lot about how large companies work. After moving to the telecoms sector, I never looked back.
Small companies can give you an opportunity that you might not get at a bigger business, and that’s what I had at CallPlus and Vocus. From the very early parts of my career, I’ve thrived in high-energy, high-growth businesses. Working in that kind of environment and having an intensely competitive streak have definitely helped.
I always get asked why I’ve stuck around in this business for so long, building it up to where we are today. It’s because it’s been fun. You can’t get a better ride than we’ve had over the past couple of decades.
What have I learnt from failures in my career? That if it doesn’t feel right, it normally isn’t. There have definitely been times when I should have made a decision sooner, and that’s gone on to have a negative impact. Like everyone, I’ve made bad decisions. But the goal is to make more good ones than bad ones.
You spend so much time at work that you need a passion for what you do. If you don’t have that, go and find something else. I tell anyone who joins our business to find out whether this is the place for them. If it isn’t, the best thing they can do is leave as soon as possible.
I’m pretty good at managing stress and staying active. I’ve been involved with my kids’ sports for the past 10 years, and try to support the community where I can. I’m also big into exercise. I make sure I get out, whether it's morning, noon or night, for a run on the streets or something physical.
Coming back to that competitive streak, I had a misspent youth and got a very low golf handicap when I was younger. But now I have kids, I only play a little bit. Nowadays, one of my favourite things to do is to go out fishing on the jet ski with my son or daughter at Omaha. There’s nothing more relaxing than throwing a fishing line off the back.
Now we’ve completed the Orcon/2degrees merger, I’m revaluating our targets. I’ve always had the ambition of capturing one in four Kiwi customers and getting a 25% market share, but now that seems a little bit low to me. We looking for more growth and disruption, and that’s what excites me and keeps me in business. As long as we’re growing, there’s still fire in my belly. That hunger and drive are the reasons I get out of bed in the morning.
As told to Daniel Dunkley.
This interview has been edited for clarity.