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Name: Ross McEwan
Qualification: BBS

Taking it to the Top



At 43 Ross McEwan is one of New Zealand's youngest chief executives. Di Billing talks to him about organisational change and hiring the right people.

It's a 'casual Friday' at AXA's head office high above the Terrace in Wellington on the day I arrive to interview Ross McEwan. But before I talk to the graduate of choice, Ross insists that I meet some others. In jeans, boots and a branded dark blue vest, Ross strides around the elegant open-plan rooms, introducing one Massey graduate after another. They are a diverse lot. "Major in religious studies," says one. "Right!" says Ross.

As befits someone who has made his way to the top via HR, Ross McEwan is particular about the people he hires. Many are Massey graduates. They are, he says, well equipped and productive. And they also fit AXA values: honesty, integrity, and ambition.

He likes to take on university graduates at the end of every year. "We look at generalists as well as people with specific skills, obviously in areas such as finance, technology or the like. A large number of people working in our Call Centre have university degrees. It's a stepping stone for many of them. They learn a lot about our business in a very short period of time - the products, the systems and the people who use our services. They're talking to clients all day.

"I would be happy to employ a graduate on the reception desk for a while. If they can deal with clients successfully, then we'll move them on through. At the moment, a couple of graduates are dealing very successfully with process re-engineering. Another is part of a transformation team, which looks at where our business should be going. You have to start somewhere. Then you move on and start specialising or managing a team of people."

Ross looks back on his own Massey University days with a mix of fondness and regret. 'since attending Massey in the late 70s many things have changed. Gone are the days of cramming study into the last eight weeks of the varsity year, long hours in the cafeteria and not the library, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at the Fitz... weekdays spent at the Massey gym and a degree made up of C passes. I got there in the end though and was part of the first group of students in New Zealand to graduate with a business studies degree majoring in human resources. At that time this major was unique for a New Zealand university. Massey was an innovator."

He now says he might have run those years a little differently. "I'm more comfortable with people than with figures. No regrets there. But if you check my academic records you'll see I failed Accounting Level 2 twice before getting it on the third attempt. It wasn't a priority for me then. Now I'm in this role, it would have been nice, very nice, to have put more time into it.

A business and technology merger

Massey and sport run in the McEwan family. Ross and his wife, Stephanie Duncan, met while they were both studying at the University. He was business. She was technology. They were a concourse apart. But she was on the University women's basketball team and he was on the men's team. The teams travelled together. The teams played together. Then Stephanie graduated and travelled overseas. Back home in 1983, she returned to Palmerston North and the University gymnasium. There was Ross.

Stephanie graduated with honours in Food Technology in 1978 and worked in the industry in Australia and New Zealand, including time at the Gilbert Chandler Institute in Geelong and with the Dairy Research Institute. She has also lectured part time at Massey. These days she is adding new skill sets to her portfolio, including web page design. Ross and Stephanie have two daughters, aged 11 and 14, both active in sport, including basketball.

Ross McEwan talks transformation

Call it change or business transformation, Ross McEwan lives and breathes it. He sees change as a necessity, an imperative, a constant. That may be why he is one of New Zealand's youngest chief executives. How do you move that fast? Ross puts it down to drive, ambition, commitment to communication and strong people skills. Above all, there is the king-sized appetite for change.

To what extent should universities, like businesses, shift resources to meet patterns of demand.

Well, first of all, if you are not delivering what the consumer wants - and in this case I count students as consumers because they pay money and expect results - then you have to restructure accordingly. If not enough consumers want to buy what you are offering, you will go out of existence.

A university is in the business of delivering up education, increasingly on a global basis. New Zealanders can now get an international education from here or take themselves offshore to get it. Most people go to university thinking about the future. It's a step to where they want to be. In Massey's case a significant number of students are saying, 'This is what I want you to give me, so that I can get there'. And yet any moves by universities to change traditional study areas have been criticised?

Several questions need to be asked. Is the subject viable for the university to continue, remembering that students finally pay the cost of that? Does it add something very significant to society?

An abbreviated C.V.

1976-79 Massey University. Bachelor of Business Studies, majors in industrial relations and personnel management.

1980 Personnel Manager , Foods Division, Unilever, Hasting

1984 Personnel Manager, Tyre Division, Dunlop New Zealand, Upper Hutt

1985 Travel to USA, UK, Europe

1986 Human Resource Manager, National Mutual

1989 Melbourne University Business School Executive Management Programme

1990 General Manager, Agency Operations, National Mutual

1993 Life Insurance Manager, National Mutual

1994 Distribution Manager, Life Insurance, National Mutual Australia

1996 Change Manager, reporting to Chief Executive

1996 General Manager Financial Services, National Mutual

1996 Stanford University National University of Singapore Executive Programme

1996 Chief Executive AXA New Zealand


If the answers are no, and nobody is prepared to subsidise, then the subject should be taken out or phased back and the resource put into the wider student community. That is the only way the larger group will get educational value for their money - and move forward.

I really don't see it as any different from our own business. At AXA, some parts have growth potential - specifically, funds management and risk insurance. In others, interest is falling so we have to stop investing in them. We also have to make sure the people displaced in that process, who often have great skills and knowledge, are helped to find opportunities in the company or elsewhere. Obviously, change can be painful, but business is in transformation and I think universities are in transformation. The world has not stood still. For example, a university that did not go into information technology 10 or even 20 years ago would be a university without a solid base today. We all have to keep changing in this world environment. Manufacturing, telecommunications, finance, education: we all have to keep up. Every day we live with some form of change, large or small. If people want to work for an organisation that is static - be warned. There are very few left.

What is the best way to manage change?

You have to start with yourself. Deep down, as an individual, I am actually not that comfortable with change. So I have to manage myself before I can begin to bring others along. Communication is important. If the reasons for change are made clear to people, if the directions are explained and people understand what the organisation is trying to achieve, then they are happier about moving forward. To communicate in an organisation the size of Massey, you need to chunk the change down into smaller work groups. We do a lot of transformation and planning work in teams, as projects. At any given point, we probably have about 10 major projects running. To run, you need good people who can work together, communicate and bring their individual skills to the group.

National Mutual became AXA. Wellington Polytechnic merged with Massey University. What happens when team members come from different cultures with different rules and values?

First establish the common bonds and values and agree on those. Then agree on the differences, identify potential compromises and common positions and work on them together. You do it that way; we do it this way. Which is best, for us all to go forward? Sometimes, someone has to let go. At other times, you actually decide that neither way is best and you find a different model.

Where organisations have not gone through a lot of change, they will try to hang on to what they have had for 30 or 40 years. But once through the second and third and fourth change process, it becomes easier. They understand how to make the best use of the consultation process. At the end of the day, however, someone has to make a decision. That is what leadership is about. You can have all the consultation in the world, but someone has to say, 'This is what we will do.' You will have a number of people who disagree. They can agree to disagree and move forward. Or if it is violent disagreement, they should leave the organisation. It is important to allow people to do this with dignity and self respect. But you cannot keep litigating options and not move forward.

What's an AXA?

AXA stands for nothing. It's not an acronym. It was created as a company name when the French-based insurance and fund manager decided to move globally. It looks the same spelled forwards and backwards, through a glass door, for example. What's important is that people look at it, hear it or read it and make an immediate association with insurance and investments, a brand they

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