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Director opens up on charting courses through pandemic

By Sally Rae, Business Editor, Otago Daily Times
7 Mar 2022
read time
6 min to read
Whitestone Cheese board chair Sarah Ottrey and chief executive Simon Berry in the company’s Oamaru office

Whitestone Cheese board chair Sarah Ottrey and chief executive Simon Berry in the company’s Oamaru office. Photo credit: Sally Rae/Otago Daily Times

Covid-19 has undeniably thrown massive challenges at businesses. ODT business editor Sally Rae talks to experienced professional director Sarah Ottrey about governance during a pandemic — and being creative and brave.

For Sarah Ottrey, the most difficult part of the Covid-19 pandemic has been seeing the "languishing" effect.

Described simply by her as the "feeling of blah", languishing was a commonly used term to describe the feeling of emptiness or lack of focus felt by many.

It might be that a business was "going along OK" but everyone was feeling a little bit less than motivated. And that was not just in business, but generally in everyday life.

That mindset could slow things down — "you want people to be motivated, and staff to be motivated and excited about what’s happening in the workplace".

So the key for company boards was to make sure their chief executives or managing directors had the tools — "and we’ve got their back" — so they could do what they needed to do to keep their teams motivated, she said.

Queenstown-based Ms Ottrey is a marketer by trade, having held senior marketing roles both in New Zealand and internationally, including with Unilever and DB Breweries/Heineken where she created the Tui "yeah right" campaign.

Her first board appointment was to Public Trust in 2000; at the time, she was marketing director for DB and had a 3-year-old child and thought she would "do both for a bit and see how it goes".

Her current portfolio comprises EBOS Group, Skyline Enterprises, Christchurch International Airport, Mount Cook Alpine Salmon and Whitestone Cheese.

Reflecting on a Christchurch Airport full board meeting, held online earlier this week, Ms Ottrey said it was "all about thriving from here".

"It’s changing your languishing and focusing on the future, having milestones, goals, projects launched," she said.

Before Christmas, the airport launched a renewable energy park and initiatives like that were "super exciting", she said.

"These are the things, as a board, we can say let’s bring that forward. Let’s not put too many barriers in place. We might not have 100 out of 100 of the answers, but we’ve got 90."

She acknowledged New Zealand had done a great job responding to Covid-19 in the earlier stages of the pandemic. But one of her frustrations in the later period was the lack of trust — that individuals and businesses could be trusted to do the right thing "and actually have some nous".

She cited the example of Whitestone Cheese where staff were using rapid antigen tests (Rats) and business contact-tracing service SaferMe.

"Why don’t the Government trust us to do that? We know people will do it because they want life to get back to normal."

Earlier in her career when she worked for Unilever, Ms Ottrey lived in Bangkok where traffic was "terrible".

She tired of people giving traffic as an excuse for being late to meetings.

"Just get out of bed 10 minutes earlier. It’s all about your view and mindset," she said.

For a long time in Christchurch, there had been a focus on the Canterbury earthquakes and, now, for New Zealand, the challenge was Covid-19.

But if businesses let that pervade their decision-making, then that was not a positive place to be in, she said.

The other side of Covid for Ms Ottrey was the detail of it; the likes of the wage subsidy and "how does that work in real life?".

At Skyline Enterprises, 600 people had to be let go at the start of the pandemic; every one of them had to be consulted via a screen as they were at home isolating.

The company would never have previously considered having to do something like that, she said. It should have been face-to-face and after a consultation period, but such a situation had not been considered within employment law as ever arising.

There were some positive things to come out of Covid, including what she believed was the "future of work" arriving.

And at an EBOS meeting last week, when directors were examining the company’s risk register, pandemic was not in the top 10 risks.

"We know what it is now, it’s not an unknown risk. We know we can handle it."

It also came down to doing the right thing for the business and, while there might be processes and protocols written down, "on the day, you’ve got to do the right thing for your business and it may not be within that process".

Covid-19 had given people confidence that they could make decisions quickly and rapidly "and be OK", she said.

It was about being both creative and brave and she attributed some of her strengths there to her rural West Otago sheep farming upbringing.

On the farm, if you found something that needed fixing, then you just did it, she said.

Columba College, where she received her secondary education, was also very encouraging, particularly then principal Elizabeth Wilson. For the young "country girl", there was real encouragement that "you can do whatever".

Forget any preconceived ideas about stuffy, suited board directors; Sarah Ottrey is a breath of fresh air, engaging, warm, down-to-earth and undeniably smart.

When she looked at a company she might want to be part of, her first port of call was the balance sheet.

She wanted to know it was strong and that revenue streams were diverse, and also that there was strong branding and a point of difference.

"I like to like what I do."

Every company she was with was in a good position pre-Covid — "not because of me", but because of the ethos of the company, she said.

She had been approached by numerous companies and, when she did her due diligence, she would "step away if its a bit of a wing and a prayer".

The companies in her portfolio are diverse.

EBOS is the largest and most diversified Australasian marketer, wholesaler and distributor of healthcare, medical and pharmaceutical products.

A company like that had been "flat out" because of Covid, she said, while — at the other end of the scale — her most drastically affected company was Skyline Enterprises.

The common theme between both Skyline and Christchurch International Airport was both entered the pandemic with strong balance sheets, especially Skyline which had no debt and a very diversified portfolio with operations in Canada, Singapore, Korea, Rotorua, Christchurch and Queenstown.

Over the past two years, each business had been going up and down — there had always been one part which helped out another part — but Queenstown had always been "the mother ship" of Skyline and that had been the one that was most dramatically affected without international tourists.

The hardest part of the Covid experience had been going into the Red traffic light level and then into Phases 1 and 2 of the Omicron response on the back of that, which meant people did their own isolation. They were not going out and not taking a risk.

For those businesses affected by Covid and the rules that came with it, the hardest thing had been forecasting, she said.

For the companies she was involved with, there had been a lot of forecasting in the first six months, but in the last 18 months, it had much more been about "have we got enough cash to keep operating in the way we intend to, given the plans we’ve got?".

Forecasting could also make teams feel "a little bit defeatist and that could be demotivating."

"With the companies, we’ve just said, ‘it’ll be what it’ll be’.".

The opening of the border this week, without managed isolation and quarantine, had started to provide encouragement that there was "light at the end of the tunnel".

Asked about the personal effect of governing companies through a pandemic, Ms Ottrey said directors were "humans just like everybody else".

"You’re thinking, ‘is this going to be when my first company fails?’. You don’t want to have that. It was all day, every day, meeting to meeting."

Many hours were spent in front of the screen, yet online meetings were very transactional. So much happened in the work environment, when people were together, that was good for the company; it was where ideas happened.

"It doesn’t happen when you make an appointment to have a meeting at 3.30pm with Teams. It’s very transactional, there’s none of the magic."

She was keen to do as much as possible to make sure people were together, and the likes of Rats were one way to do that.

People were key when it came to business.

"If you haven’t got the people bit right, that’s where all the trouble starts in a business."

The first and best thing a board could do was get the best possible chief executive or managing director it could for its money — "a person that’s right for your business, understands it and gets it. From then on, life is pretty straight forward".

She recalled having coffee with the late Sir Eion Edgar, who was a great mentor, when she returned home from working overseas. He said to her, "Sarah, you’re back down south, you need to contribute down south".

She looked at that with her governance portfolio and becoming involved with the Institute of Directors (IOD) had been a great process for her.

A member of the Otago-Southland IOD committee, she was noted for her generosity with her time in developing and supporting others, as she gave back through mentoring aspiring directors.

As a director, Ms Ottrey said you could never think that you could not walk away from a directorship. There always had to be the ability to do that if there were decisions made that you did not like.

"You have to get up and say, I’m no longer part of this company".

But it was not all poring over agendas and dealing with pandemics.

"Sometimes, it’s just a listening ear," she said. 

About the author

Sally Rae is the business and rural editor for Allied Press, taking responsibility for business and rural coverage across all of the company's platforms, including the Otago Daily Times, Southern Rural Life and Central Rural Life newspapers, and ODT Online. 

Article republished with permission from The Otago Daily Times: Director opens up on charting courses through pandemic.

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