On rugby, attack memes and modern leadership: The Spinoff meets David Kirk

The man who led the All Blacks to victory in the first World Cup went on to become a Rhodes scholar, political operator and business leader. Today he’s worried about tribalism and the Trumpian tendency to vilification. He sits down with Spinoff business editor Maria Slade in Sydney.

Rugby legend, Rhodes scholar, business leader and all-round national treasure David Kirk thinks Don Brash has been hard done by.

Before you fall out of your chair, let me retrace the steps that led us to this point. It begins with the unclever lampooning of a very different flavour of politician. One morning around Halloween a trader at leading share broking firm Forsyth Barr thinks it’s funny to email to clients a meme of Jacinda Ardern. Across an unflattering image of the prime minister are the words, “I bought a Jacinda Ardern mask for Halloween. When kids come to my door I’m going to take their candy and give it to the kids that are too lazy to Trick or Treat!”

The morning markets update leaves many who receive it perplexed, and coverage of the company’s apparent tone-deafness ultimately leads to red faces at the blue chip firm.

The meme sent out by share broker Forsyth Barr to its clients.

Over in Sydney’s elegant sandstone CBD the story reaches the desk of one David Kirk MBE, chairman of the Forsyth Barr board. Kirk refuses to weigh in on the Jacinda meme fiasco per se, but the inaugural Rugby World Cup-winning All Black captain takes a generally dim view of playing the person rather than the ball.

It turns out Kirk is worried. In the age of social media and polarising politicians there is a growing tribalism that makes it okay to vilify anyone who holds a different opinion to you, he tells The Spinoff when we visit him in his Australian office. It’s not like Forsyth Barr is out on a limb with its hyperpartisanship – as it gears up for the September 19 election the National Party has a well-oiled machine dedicated to churning out equally inane content. “If you work hard and go the extra mile for your family, I will tax you and give that money to people that aren’t willing to work for their families,” reads one recent effort.

“This demonisation has taken the form of a moral judgement,” Kirk says. “If you disagree with this position you are a ‘bad’ person, it goes. We have seen a huge shift to moral ad hominem arguments. We need to argue with the facts.”

These are not moral arguments, he says. These are rational debates about what produces the greatest prosperity, what delivers the greatest social cohesion, the best health outcomes.

Which brings us to Don Brash. Massey University’s ban of the former ACT leader and Hobson’s Pledge spokesperson from speaking on campus, based on an assessment that an appearance would provoke unrest, is a local case-in-point, he says. “A lot of people don’t agree with what Don Brash says, but the de-platforming of him, and the support of that de-platforming by Massey University, I thought was really sad and disappointing.”

For the record, Kirk believes structural disadvantage in society needs to be addressed by structural means, and that involves trade-offs. “What public policy boils down to is making a decision on the basis of what you think will produce the best outcomes for individuals and communities over the medium term. What’s right now might not be in two years or 10 years.

“That’s why we elect leaders, to make these decisions. And a civilised country recognises that people can be on different sides of an argument without being morally reprehensible.

“If you don’t like it get off your backside and start doing things that promote what you think is right.”

The 11th floor offices of David Kirk’s venture capital firm Bailador are lined with quotes from economists, philosophers and poets. “Men have been swindled by other men on many occasions. The autumn of 1929 was, perhaps, the first occasion when men succeeded in swindling themselves,” says the economist Ken Galbraith of the 1929 share market crash.

It’s a muggy yet mercifully clear Sydney day as I sit down with the professional chairman and investor. In a city that has felt the effects of the devastating bushfires, air quality is a constant topic. He has asked me to email him talking points in advance, and has studiously supplied written responses. “You ask some hard questions,” he says as he plonks himself down in a meeting room chair.

The first thing you notice is the former All Black’s stature. He was always small for a rugby player, but in the age of the supersized professional game his slight frame seems even more incongruous.

All Black captain David Kirk kisses the Webb Ellis Cup in 1987. (Photo: New Zealand History.)

The 1987 image of a bloodied David Kirk victoriously kissing the Webb Ellis Cup is assured of its place in the New Zealand sporting and cultural canon. His story is the stuff of sporting legends. It was a turbulent time in New Zealand rugby and society, and just a year earlier he had refused to join the rebel Cavaliers tour of apartheid South Africa. The renegade players were penalised with a mere two-test ban and meanwhile a “Baby Blacks” team was assembled with Kirk as captain. But the rebel All Blacks were reinstated, and many refused to accept Kirk’s captaincy. In 1986, he found out he’d been dumped as captain when it was announced on the radio.

The following year it should have been Andy Dalton who skippered the World Cup team, but two days before the tournament opener he pulled a hamstring and rugby bosses were forced to turn to the man they had sacked six months earlier. Kirk went on to lead the All Blacks to their 29-9 win over France in the first Rugby World Cup final.

Kirk left rugby, still an amateur sport, to take up a prestigious Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University. He went on to build a stellar business career with positions at management consultants McKinsey and the Fletcher group, and even a short stint in prime minister Jim Bolger’s office in the early 1990s. Later he became CEO of media company Fairfax, where he led the $700m purchase of auction site Trade Me in 2006, an extraordinary sum at the time.

Being the inaugural RWC-winning captain inevitably opened doors, but to stick with the sporting metaphors he still had to pick up the ball and run with it, he says. “It hasn’t made me successful in anything else I’ve done. It has probably given me a greater opportunity, but only hard work, talent and luck makes you successful in the end, it’s not what you did in the past.”

Today he heads Bailador, a Sydney-based venture capital firm that invests in promising technology companies including Australian content marketing startup Stackla and Auckland-based translations company Straker Translations. He chairs the board of retailer Kathmandu and Forsyth Barr. He is the longstanding president of the New Zealand Rugby Players Association, and chairs KiwiHarvest, a food rescue charity founded by his sister Deborah Manning.  

All very impressive, but why should we care about the views of an Australian-based former All Black who now passes his time betting on tech startups and collecting healthy directors’ fees?

Because Kirk is a leader across a broad range of organisations at a critical point in history. He sits in governance at a time when the roles and responsibilities of those who hold the capital are changing and being challenged. The New Zealand Institute of Directors says “governing for purpose” is one of the top five issues facing boards in 2020, as the effectiveness of capitalism as a system for creating wealth is increasingly questioned. The pendulum is swinging away from the rights of shareholders towards those of businesses’ other stakeholders – their employees, and the communities and environment in which they operate. Without a mandate from all four their ability to conduct business will become severely constricted.

Don Brash would probably be unimpressed to learn that Kirk is a fan of French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the unlikely 700-page bestseller Capital in the 21st Century. He agrees with Piketty that the post-war period of relative egalitarianism was a blip, that without a global system of progressive wealth taxes, the world is at risk of rapidly reverting to Victorian-style levels of inequality.

If businesses are to become purpose-led, the next question becomes “what purpose”, Kirk says. “A good part of that purpose has to be wealth creation for shareholders, you can’t get away from that.

“Nowadays you need quality committed people to have a successful business because a lot of what’s required is more demanding, so employees need to be able to serve customers more fully. So the next stage of purpose-led is ‘why should I want to work here?’

“That’s when you get into doing things that are not only good for shareholders but customers, and good in some way for broader communities. And it’s great, because it’s moving corporates to do the right thing, to have this broader sense of ‘we’re trying to achieve something here together’.”

He gives as an example Kathmandu’s partnership with the Australian Himalayan Foundation, which follows in the footsteps of Sir Ed Hillary in supporting educational initiatives in the region. “Serving your customers in a broader way than just providing them with something of economic value is also part of the mandate of boards.”

While he worries about growing inequality, he stresses that businesses are not charities and nor are they governments. “Capitalism is the best system for creating wealth we’ve been able to find in the last 300 to 400 years, and we should want to create wealth. But it has no regard for how that wealth is created, so for instance it can be created by children going up chimneys and working in factories. Nor does it care how wealth is distributed. So we’ve always known that there needs to be other systems that deal with those two issues.”

The answer is a government that stays focused on economic growth but which manages domestic inequality through investment in education, programmes to reduce intergenerational disadvantage, targeted immigration, and which argues for a global level playing field on tax.

David Kirk is no zealot or provocateur. He visibly curbs himself from saying anything rash. He is a centre-right pragmatist who remains no fan of MMP because of the difficulty in getting things done – “tyranny of the minority”, he calls it. The Ardern government’s failure to get a badly needed capital gains tax across the line thanks to its coalition with New Zealand First is a prime example. “Circumstances are determined by the facts, on what you can see, and they’re determined by moments in time,” he says.

“Be reasonable, be thoughtful.” 

National party leader Jim Bolger with wife Joan on election night 1996

Kirk’s CV includes a burst in the cauldron of politics, when he worked as chief of staff to Jim Bolger.

“Rational thinker,” says the former prime minister with characteristic gruffness down the line from the Kapiti Coast, where he lives with his wife Joan. “Doesn’t go with slogans, goes with developed thought, developed policies.”

He enjoyed having David Kirk on his team, he says, and is not at all surprised his former adviser is concerned with the rise of a destructive tribalism in politics. “The arch proponent of that of course is Donald Trump, who has been hugely damaging to world democracy. You can’t just disagree with a person, you have to totally denigrate them and try to destroy them.”

Kirk had a brief flirtation with electoral politics when he stood unsuccessfully for the National Party nomination in former prime minister Rob Muldoon’s old electorate of Tamaki in 1991. “You might speculate what role he would have played later on in New Zealand politics,” Bolger says. What does he think? “Of course, he was a loss.”

The man who had the foresight to buy Trade Me was chair of the auction site when it was eventually listed on the stock exchange in 2011. “There was such a sense of relief inside the company when it was David Kirk,” former Trade Me head of communications Paul Ford says. “He was investor-focused, but very aware of the magic and not wanting to mess with that. He was aware of the church and state, management and governance stuff. He was pretty old school in that regard, I would say.”

Old school, and yet visionary enough to see that a legacy media company like Fairfax needed to go digital, former head of sport at the company Trevor McEwen says. “He knew that the pivot to digital had to come straight away.

“I heard at the time and I’ve heard since… I think it was [Trade Me founder] Sam Morgan’s respect for what David had achieved and the principles he stood on, not doing the Cavaliers tour and all that, that had a lot to do with being able to successfully purchase it.

McEwen also dealt with Kirk in another life, as a rugby columnist for the newly merged Sunday Star-Times. “His columns were great. Everybody knew he was intelligent but he gave a depth of player perspective as well. He’s got a brain the size of a small planet, I can’t get too cerebral with him.”

And just for the record, much as he would have liked to believe otherwise Kirk did not think the 2019 All Black team had a chance of winning the Rugby World Cup. There had been too many position changes, surprise defeats such as the two losses to Ireland, and key players out with injury.

“You didn’t go into that cup thinking, ‘this is a dominating team that knows how to win tough games under pressure’, because we hadn’t seen that from them. Somehow they weren’t mentally tough enough,” says Kirk.

“I like to think other great All Black teams would have been able to respond.”



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