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(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

BusinessMarch 13, 2021

The Campbell enigma: Corporate juggernaut with a socialist heart

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

From picket line anarchist in the 1970s to chair of SkyCity today, Rob Campbell is a rare breed. Michael Andrew asked the man once included on Robert Muldoon’s list of ‘dangerous communists’ how he reconciles his ideological evolution.

‘I’ve never been happy,” says Rob Campbell. “I’ve never really been happy my whole life, to be honest.”

The words thud like falling cinder blocks in the middle of our interview, so heavy and sudden that I’m temporarily derailed from my planned line of questioning. They’re said so matter of factly, with an air of resignation, certainly not what you’d expect from the chairman of multi-million dollar NZX 50 companies.

I’m tempted to say something comforting. But Campbell doesn’t seem sad, merely accepting. And besides, I quickly remember I’m on the phone with one of the most influential businessmen in New Zealand, and it pays to be professional.

So I stay silent, and let him continue answering my question: is he happier in his current phase in life?

“No. I thought it would be better, but it wasn’t,” he says.

The honesty may be raw and jolting. But it’s consistent with the kind of frankness he delivers throughout our interview; a candour that makes him such an unusual business leader.

As the chairman of SkyCity, Summerset Holdings and Tourism Holdings, Rob Campbell is a colossus of corporate New Zealand. With over 30 years’ experience on countless boards, he is one of the country’s most esteemed professional directors, valued for his acumen, his work ethic and the impressive financial performance of the companies he’s worked with. 

At the same time, he’s also fostered a reputation as an outspokenly progressive business leader, infusing his roles with an awareness of social responsibility, and encouraging other directors to adopt more holistic ways of working with their businesses and the community. His clout is such that when he talks, everyone, including the government, takes heed.

Shareholders evidently love him, despite his egalitarian streak, and he was named Deloitte chairman of the year in 2017, awarded a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to business in 2019, and recently appointed as chancellor of Auckland University of Technology.

Rob Campbell (Photo: Supplied)

However, all of these accomplishments and accolades are recent, and well reported in the media. What isn’t discussed so much is Campbell’s former life – the many years he spent in picket lines and union halls as one of New Zealand’s most prominent trade unionists, rubbing shoulders with “dangerous communists” and incurring the scorn of former prime minister Robert Muldoon.

I wanted to know more about those days: who he was; why and when he switched over to the “dark side” of corporate governance. But mostly, I wanted to know how much of that left wing socialist ideology he took with him and still governs his thinking today.

Campbell replied minutes after I first texted him, and was happy to share his story.

He was born in Featherston in 1951 to a middle class Pākehā family, but spent most of his childhood in the Hutt Valley, where his father worked as a banker. He attended Hutt Valley High School at the same time as a group of students active in Labour Party politics including Tim Groser, who would go on to become a National Party foreign affairs minister, and Alick Shaw, who would become deputy mayor of Wellington.

At high school, however, Campbell was “more interested in playing rugby”. It was only after he attended Victoria University of Wellington to study economics and political science that he fell in with Groser’s crew and immersed himself in left-wing politics, even running an anarchist bookshop on Willis St.

“It was hard to find anyone who wasn’t left wing on campus in those days,” he says. “Right through university I was involved with various causes, such as the anti-Vietnam War and anti-apartheid movements.”  

After he graduated with an honours degree, he got a job as a junior lecturer in economic history. He eventually achieved his masters in the philosophy of economics, and was intending to pursue a career as an academic. However, one night when he was drinking at the former Panama Hotel in Wellington with the late trade unionist Pat Kelly – father of Helen Kelly – his career took another trajectory.

“Pat worked for the drivers’ union, and he had some colleagues with him. They were expressing the view that when they went to their wage negotiations and said ‘we’d like more’ and the boss refused, all they could do was either sulk about it or go on strike,” he says.

“I volunteered that I could take a look at the economics of the road transport companies and try to prove that they could afford the pay increase. It struck me, frankly, as an academic exercise that was interesting at the time.”

While his work had an impact on the drivers’ union negotiations, it also caught the eye of other unions. Before long he was working for the 60,000-member Distribution Worker’s Federation and contributing to the general wage applications for the Federation of Labour, the predecessor of the CTU.

Rob Campbell with store workers circa 1980 (Photo: NZ Trade Union Moments and Memories)

A skilled economist, Campbell says he was drawn to both the intellectual challenge of the work and his commitment to the cause to lift low wages and improve working conditions. The late 1970s and early 1980s was a tumultuous time for trade unions and workers rights movements, with a hostile Muldoon-led government imposing the infamous wage and price freeze in an effort to combat inflation. Campbell says it was only natural that he rallied to the side of the workers.

“The conflict and agitation was very real with wage freezes going on, as well as intense political arguments about the wider issues. There was a very repressive attitude from the national government and major employers towards union activity. You would hope that as a young person, or a person with any degree of social conscience, you would get involved in those things.”

Malcolm Arnold (Alltrans), Alan Ware (Stores Union), Mike Jackson (Stores Union) and Rob Campbell (DWF). On back of photo it says – “The days when unions were more powerful”. (Photo: NZ Trade Union Moments and Memories)

With the balance of power typically lying with employers and big business, failed negotiations would often deteriorate into confrontational and at times violent worker strikes. Campbell recalls one such picket held by the cleaners and caretakers union, which was campaigning for better wages.

“I joined the picket line outside BP house in Wellington. There was a bit of pushing and shoving and a representative of the employer kicked a worker who was standing alongside me. I responded by hitting him and got arrested for assault,” he says.

“That charge was eventually dropped after I appeared in court. But it was quite a long way from the university lecture theatre.”

Throughout the 1980s, Campbell’s star continued to rise both within the unions and wider left-wing movements. He co-authored a book called After the Freeze; an economic strategy book for unions, was secretary of the Distribution Workers Federation and sat on the Federation of Labour executive, where he often campaigned for more racial and gender diversity among union leadership.

He had also been brought under the wings of legendary trade unionists and Marxists Bill Andersen and Ken Douglas, both leading members of the Moscow-linked Socialist Unity Party. Having such prominent mentors boosted Campbell’s profile so much that Muldoon dubbed him the “undercover communist”, and publicly accused him of being a member of the SUP, which Campbell neither confirmed or denied.

Former prime minister Robert Muldoon (Photo Supplied)

According to Bill Andersen’s son, Karl, Campbell’s eloquence and intellect led to conjecture through the trade union movement that he was being groomed for leadership, possibly as president or a secretary of the FOL.

“Rob was a bit of a rarity in the union group,” Andersen says. “Most of us never even completed high school, so we were hardly academics. And here comes Rob from university, a trained economist and very talented one as well.”

Andersen says both his father and Ken Douglas saw Campbell as the “Great White Hope” – a highly skilled economist and academic who “appeared to have a social conscience and a working class heart as well”.

“He fitted the bill remarkably. Dad used to roll him out to meetings with 10,000 drivers and put him on stage. Rob had this ability to talk about micro and macro economics, but communicate it to truck drivers and store workers. My dad really thought the world of Rob.”

The SUP’s Bill Andersen arrested for protesting at Bastion Point (Photo: Dictionary of New Zealand Biography)

Despite the huge promise and expectation on Campbell’s shoulders, by 1987 it had all gone a different way. He had resigned from the FOL executive, announced his intention to resign from the Distribution Workers Union, and taken directorship roles on boards of a number of private companies including BNZ.

The transition was condemned by many in the union movement, who denounced Campbell as an academic sellout and turncoat, spurning working class ideals in favour of capitalism.

“I feel Rob was unjustifiably trodden on over his role on the BNZ board,” says Karl Andersen. “He was actually encouraged by the FOL executive to go on the board as a workers representative.”

Andersen recalls a FOL conference in which a vocal minority of people lambasted Campbell. “They said he was in with the bloody gentry and the right wing and the business community. Yet we had put him in there to try and provide a workers voice! I think it was most unfair and was the start of Rob exiting from the union movement.”

Today Campbell says he “copped a lot of flak” and was called a “class traitor”. However, it wasn’t so much from the genuine unionists or his mentors, but more from whom he calls the “white middle class people who thought they were left wingers rather than the genuine working class”.

He says there were two main reasons for his gradual transition into corporate governance. Firstly, the fourth Labour government under David Lange and finance minister Roger Douglas had been elected in 1984, ushering in an era of sweeping deregulation and privatisation known as Rogernomics. While Campbell saw it as an opportunity for unions to participate in positive social and economic progress and “shift the balance of power” away from big business, he grew disillusioned with their unwillingness to change.

Former prime minister David Lange and former finance minister Roger Douglas of the fourth labour government (Photo: Supplied)

“The opportunity was lost, mostly because the force of business organisations was very strong,” Campbell says. “But equally because the unions decided to take an oppositionist, rather than a constructive relationship, with the Lange government.”

The second reason was to do with his health. He’d been diagnosed with cancer, and the stress of the “brutal” union work had taken a terrible toll on his mental health.

“Not many people knew that I had become very depressed. I was using a lot of alcohol as well. My personal life was really unravelling while I was functioning at this really high level. I just decided something needed to give,” he says.

“The union life was and is very stressful. While there are tremendously positive things about it, there’s also a constant negative barrage of emotion that some people deal better with than others.”

Campbell admits that while he had, and still has, strong convictions, it perhaps wasn’t as grounded as someone who came from a poor working class background.

Veteran trade unionist Robert Reid, who was at Victoria University with Campbell and crossed paths in the same movement, says there was no question about his commitment to the cause. “Rob could give a Marxist speech as well as any of them,” he says.

Campbell’s middle-class background almost invariably made him suspect among some fringe members of the unions, who made jibes when he moved into directorship, says Reid.

“They said stuff like, ‘we told you he was never really one of us, his Dad was a banker,’ things like that.”

Campbell says that while many people were disappointed in him for leaving the unions, those in his inner circle, including his mentors, were aware of his personal issues and respected his decision.

“I understood why people were angry and disappointed because I was disappointed in myself,” Campbell says. “I was proud of what we had tried to do and what I’d contributed. But we didn’t succeed.”

After Campbell had completely left the unions, he was approached by Trevor Farmer, the then chief executive of Freightways and Associated Companies, whom Campbell had fought with over board tables for the past decade. Farmer offered him a job.

“That became my working life for the better part of two decades really.”

For the next 20 years, Campbell says he went AWOL. He kept a low profile, shunned media attention, preferring to focus on his work for various boards and develop his portfolio. While he continued to think about social issues, they became less a part of his life as he dedicated his time to the financial challenges of his roles.

It wasn’t until the 2010s when he was appointed as chairman of Guinness Peat Group that he reluctantly resurfaced in the news, telling Stuff that media profiles on businesspeople were “a good predictor of poor performance, imminent retirement or imminent death”. From then on his visibility increased along with his corporate presence and reputation as a conscientious director. “I started regaining a lot of my old social aspirations. I tried to integrate those two parts of my history, much more than I did for a significant period of time,” he says.

After joining Summerset and Tourism Holdings and guiding them through successful expansions, he was appointed chairman of SkyCity in 2018 and has since often been quoted calling for changes to corporate norms, an end to excessive CEO salaries, and more women representation on boards.

Robert Reid, who held a half-hearted grudge against Campbell since his union “betrayal” until they reconnected a few years earlier, says he has emerged as something of a paradox – a highly successful company director who is subtly channelling working class advocacy into his roles.

“I’ve sort of been following his statements. I guess more and more he has sort of been calling out other directors for not taking broader social issues into account and only looking at the financial bottom line. He’s one of the few directors to be supportive of the labour government changes when other directors complain about the sky falling in.” 

First Union general secretary Robert Reid (Screenshot: First Union)

Serving currently as president of First Union however, Reid fundamentally disagrees with many of Campbell’s positions, and is certain that despite his sentiments and positive influence on boards, his primary allegiance is to his shareholders.

“If he’s on a commercial board, then his fiduciary duties to the shareholders are absolutely clear. He can be quite strong on that and doesn’t shy away… that does come into conflict with the aspirations of the working people in his companies – particularly in a time of crisis.”

I put this question to Campbell: how he reconciles his obligations to his shareholders with his desire to benefit the community. “It’s hard,” he says. “When you’re on a board, you have only persuasive power. You don’t have control. On paper it looks as if you can tell people what to do, but that’s not what happens.”

Rather than forcing changes, he says his aim is to use his presence to subtly improve an organisation’s accountability and awareness of its role in society. “In the upper echelons of business, you became very insulated from the day-to-day concerns and struggles of people. If you don’t recognise that then you’re a fool, and you’re probably quite dangerous as well. And there are a lot of dangerous fools around.”

“I’m very accountable to shareholders but shareholders are just one group of stakeholders, along with employees and the community. That’s the area where I try to make a contribution and I don’t see it as soft or divisionary. It’s at the heart of what will make a business continue to thrive and contribute to the community.”

Jessica Moloney, CEO and founder of marketing agency Moloney Moloney, met Campbell four years ago and sees him as one of her key mentors. She says he’s a new breed of business person, drawing from life experience to bring an altruistic world view to his role. “He walks the walk and is not afraid to put words into action or fall on his sword if things don’t go right,” she says.

Campbell is exceptionally humble and generous, giving his time, energy, and ideas to anyone who seeks it, and has been a constant advocate for her work. He’s fully aware about issues plaguing both the corporate world wider society and knows that change is necessary and inevitable, she says.

The incongruence of chairing a company that profits from gambling, while advocating for social well being is not lost on Campbell, who says “it’s hard to find that balance” at SkyCity. However, he says the company has a constant vigilance about its potential role in causing social harm; reminders about the host responsibility to mitigate problem gambling have been placed throughout the company’s structure; from the board table to the website and every employee’s key cards.

“How many other businesses have that level of focus on the potential harm that they can cause?” Campbell asks. “How many petrol companies have that level of focus on the climate damage their products are doing, or fast food companies on the health issues they cause?

“The answer is, there’s none I’ve ever come across that has anything like the ongoing focus on wider stakeholder issues that SkyCity has.”

Jess Moloney agrees that Campbell’s role at SkyCity has always seemed a “mismatch” with his personal brand. However, she thinks he does incredibly well to find a balance and bring a positive influence to the company. “There’s not a single person that I’d rather have on that board than him.”

Of course, SkyCity’s controversies were not limited to gambling. In May 2020, during the worst of the Covid-19 fallout, the company came under fire for taking a $31.1m wage subsidy but also making 900 employees redundant. Then there are the other companies on which he chairs, such as Summerset Group, which took millions in wage subsidies and declared a substantial profit and shareholder dividend only a few months later. Does he have qualms about that?

With the methodical reasoning of a director, Campbell explains: both the redundancies and the wage subsidy were calculated and necessary decisions to ensure the survival of the companies; their future growth and capacity to create more jobs.

“Some of the companies I’m involved with did not need to take the wage subsidy and didn’t. Others needed to take the wage subsidy and did. The fact that some might have reported a profit on June 30 was not relevant – they had eight months of good trading before Covid.”

As to repaying the wage subsidy, Campbell says it’s something most companies will keep revisiting. However, he says it would be grossly irresponsible to investors, staff and suppliers if any hospitality and tourism business decided to repay the wage subsidy without ensuring they were out of the Covid-19 woods.

Summerset Group repaid its $8.6m wage subsidy in December 2020.

Rob Campbell (Photo: SkyCity)

By this point in our conversation, it became clear that despite Rob Campbell’s truly valiant and sincere effort to balance both sides of his ideology, it was infinitely more complicated than simply adopting opposing principles. This was business after all – the rational and calculated world of commercial growth at odds with the zealous compassion that drives so many people to the left.

Whether or not this complex dichotomy had any bearing on Campbell, he didn’t say. But when he revealed his lifelong struggles with alcohol and depression, it was evident that that despite his wealth of experience and skill in the boardroom, he still struggles, like all of us, with questions of identity – and the ungainly dance between his two lives.

“I’ve reached the conclusion that I don’t know what goes on inside anyone else’s head, but I know what goes on inside mine is pretty messy,” he says.

“Meditation provides me with islands of peace but the war continues as soon as I stop.”

Much like some of his union colleagues in the 1970s, many people today will regard Campbell with suspicion, regardless of his socially progressive sentiment and statements. After all, in this era of unctuous PR, many corporate figures and organisations make “progressive” gestures in an effort to improve their public image. Pretty words are cheap when there’s millions of dollars to be gained. But personally, based his unvarnished honesty about his struggles during our interview, he didn’t strike me as the kind of man to try and shine shit and call it gold.

In any case, aside from the governance style and union background, there is something that clearly distinguishes Campbell as unique among the corporate ranks – his relationships out of work.

For the last few years, Campbell has been an active member of Dave Letele’s BBM exercise community in Manukau. He trains with them daily, chairs its charitable trust, and has become one of Letele’s closest friends and advisors.

“I met Dave while I was drinking again one night – it’s a part of a pattern in my life really – at a SkyCity fundraiser,” says Campbell. “We started talking and he suggested I stopped drinking and eating the sausage rolls I was eating, and invited me for a training session at 6am the next morning. And, possibly because I was still drunk, I did.”

Through BBM, Campbell spends a large part of his social time with people from working class and socially disadvantaged parts of Auckland. Dave Letele tells me that Campbell provides assistance and mentorship to the community, using the charitable trust and his corporate connections to increase its capacity to provide social services. Since he first started training, he’s also lost 40kg, become vegan, drives an electric car and hasn’t touched another drink.

“He’s one of my closest friends and advisors and he does a lot of stuff behind the scenes,” says Letele. “I’ll get tragic calls from struggling families looking for help, and I’ll share it with Rob. Next thing he’s setting up payments to help people with food and help kids get the basic necessities.”

“In the past people would have just looked at me as some brown guy training fat brown people, but when I started mixing with Rob, people take us more seriously. It’s opened up a lot of doors.” 

Dave Letele (Photo: BBM Motivation)

Despite Campbell’s high profile in the business world, Letele says he didn’t know anything about him when they first met, and only learned about his influence and legacy after googling him. He says it’s only added to the diversity of BBM, where you can have CEOs and chairmen working out alongside former gang members.

“He is one of the team. We have 14000 members, and everyone knows him. He’s a beloved member of our group.

 “I love that guy and value his friendship.”

As one of Campbell’s closest friends and a community leader, Letele is well placed to give me a personal and honest perspective of his life. So I ask him: what does he truly make of Rob Campbell – the chairman of SkyCity who hangs out in South Auckland?

“He’s sort of gone full circle,” Letele says. “He was in the unions and with the people, and then he went into this corporate world, and now he’s come back and he’s with us. And when you’re with BBM, you’re with the people.

“That’s one thing I can say with 100% certainty: he has a heart for the people.”

As for Campbell, he says he’s “honoured” to have been welcomed in the community that offers so much connection and support, and has had such a positive influence on his life. Does this make him happy, then?

“Happy? No. When I’m working out my brain is controlled, like focusing on a work issue. But there is no real peace.”

The same raw candour, the same heaviness. It’s almost as if, after a lifetime of searching in union halls, board rooms and gyms, Campbell has resigned himself to the fact that the intangible prize of happiness will be forever elusive.

When he talks about BBM, however, something changes slightly in his usual slow and stolid voice. It may not be happiness, nor excitement, but it sounds to me something like gratitude.

“I do enjoy the warmth of being with our BBM gang. I’ve never felt anything like that other than with close family or in union activities,” he says. 

“I was recalling with Ken Douglas a while back, about a time when we were chopping wood in the mud and rain of a Wellington southerly, raising money for some socialist activity or another – and I was saying it was one of the best times I have ever had.

“How mad is that?” 

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