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. 

Venasio-Lorenzo (“Vena”) Crawley is the chief customer officer at Contact Energy. He also sits on the board of retirement village operator Summerset Group Holdings and the advisory board at Auckland University of Technology. He has an MBA and BA from Steinbeis University in Germany and has also studied at the Darden School of Business at Virginia State University in the US. He is fluent in five languages. 

I was born and raised in Samoa. I came here as a migrant child unable to speak English. We were given a home that we lived in with lots of other people, but no one taught my parents how to use an oven. I remember we lit a fire in the living room and the fire brigade came out.

We've grown up with commercial cleaning. I would go to school, and in the middle of the night, we would go clean buildings and toilets.

One of my proudest moments was being able to teach my nearly 60-year-old mum how to read her prayer books in English. And I think that's a gift for any child.

The Johnson family took me in. Their son was two or three years older than me. And I remember going to their house for the first time and seeing a TV. I just thought, wow, what white-man magic is this? I said, “What does your father do?” My friend pulled out his dad’s business card. He couldn’t quite read it. He just said, “Chief something”. It was chief executive. So, in my head that was the pathway to success.

I crafted my way through life. I got myself through jobs. I put myself through a first phase of education through design school, doing fashion. And then I found myself in a senior management position for a big bank. And I did really well.

Vena Crawley in 1993


Then at IAG, the big boss came in and said, “Hey, we think you've got everything it takes to be a group CEO. And that thing that's holding you back is education of any sort.” They said, “We believe in you so much that we will sponsor you – pick any MBA programme in the world.”

At the same time as studying for my MBA, I went from New Zealand to the UK to do the company turnaround of the IAG UK business that had gone really badly. I thought, I've done New Zealand, I've done Australia, this is easy, cookie cutter, no problem. I'll be the hero – CEO, here I come. But it just failed.

I realised culture is so important to people, and people are so important. Just because we speak English, that doesn't actually mean that it's all the same culture.

The in-laws were sick, and mum was dying, so I came back to New Zealand – even though I didn't want to. Then literally within half an hour of my father-in-law being at the airport with our children, that feeling just dissipated. You just cannot replace that.

I got offered a CEO role but went for the challenge of Contact Energy – I had never worked in energy.

I quit after my second week. My boss went back to his office, the board disappeared into their corners, management just left me to it, and gave me a nice title of chief customer officer, and I said, “‘I quit. This is going to take more than just one individual. It requires everyone to lean in". I stayed on and it’s been a lovely story although it’s time for me to transition and hand on to someone else.

I did the interview process for the future director programme at The Warehouse and they said, “Oh, you’re brown, and you’re gay – that’s cool”. I was really honest with [Warehouse Group chair] Joan Withers and said, “I don’t want to be your diversity tick”. I got a few smacks from Joan – she would put me back in my corner, but also I stood my ground.

My late father-in-law was Sir Don Rowlands [company director and Commonwealth Games gold and silver medallist in rowing]. He always used to say he was a man of the people and for the people. He used to say, “Don’t employ arseholes, and if you’ve got arseholes, get rid of them, respectfully”. He taught me that you don’t have to have all the answers and you don’t even have to know all the right questions to ask.

I watch trashy romcoms. Ross McEwan [chief executive of National Australia Bank] and I, we have a little club. Ross is the president of the Shallow Film Society and I am the vice president.

The last thing I splurged on was this jacket from Politix at David Jones, because I’ve recently gone plant based and lost 49 kilos. Then I went to Tarocash and got these new pants, which were $30 – but they go together well.

For the house I bought a new piece of art by Patrick Hughes. I spent a rude amount of money, six figures.

As told to Victoria Young
This interview has been edited for clarity.