Illustration: Ezra Whittaker
Illustration: Ezra Whittaker

MFATNovember 8, 2021

Apec 2021: Business leaders on where New Zealand should go next

Illustration: Ezra Whittaker
Illustration: Ezra Whittaker

This week’s Apec CEO Summit will see New Zealand business and iwi leaders hui with their counterparts from around the world. The Spinoff spoke to some of the local participants about what they hope to see from the event.

Under normal circumstances, this week would’ve seen downtown Auckland playing host to a handful of the most powerful people in the world. With the previous two instalments of the usually annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) CEO Summit either cancelled or reduced, the 2021 event was set to mark both its return from that disruption and its first visit to Aotearoa in more than two decades. Government and industry leaders from across the world would descend on the city for a week-long programme of meetings and forums, collectively laying out the post-Covid roadmap for the future of business and trade in the Asia-Pacific region.

But planning for a post-Covid future means preparing for the virus to be in some form of circulation for the foreseeable future. The local emergence of the Covid-19 delta variant and the ensuing lockdowns put paid to plans for the first in-person summit since 2018. Instead, this week those same leaders will convene for the CEO Summit hosted from Tāmaki Makaurau’s Aotea Centre via offices, theatrettes and conference rooms from East Asia to North America.

It’s the kind of technological feat that we’ve quickly come to accept as standard operating procedure, so it’s easy to forget that last time the summit visited New Zealand – when then prime minister Jenny Shipley served as host leader for the 1999 event – an online event would have been entirely unfathomable. The mere fact of Apec continuing digitally serves as a perfect example of how the business and technology landscapes have shifted over the ensuing 22 years. But CEO Summit chair Barbara Chapman points out that even prior to the delta variant’s incursion, organisers had planned for remote contributions to play a major role in proceedings.

“When we were planning initially for a hybrid summit, with some people at the Aotea Centre and some not, we decided to set our sights quite high on who we asked to participate. We knew that while some of them may not be able to come, they’d still be able to participate really meaningfully. The technology actually enabled us to really aim high.” 

The outcome of that ambition is an undeniably impressive list of delegates. Keynote speakers will include international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and former prime minister Helen Clark. Chapman points to Jerome Foster II and Richard Edelman as two speakers she’s particularly excited about. Their roads to the summit could scarcely be more different – Foster is a 19-year-old environmental activist who was offered a job in Joe Biden’s White House, while Edelman is a near-mythic figure in the field of public relations. For Chapman, that diversity of experience is the engine for what she sees as one of the key opportunities of the week’s sessions.

“Because the summit is targeted at CEOs, I would really like it if those CEOs could just pick up one powerful idea and do something really meaningful with it. If they can walk away with one thing, and if that one thing makes a difference for their business, then I think that can in turn make a real difference for New Zealand.”

For other local participants, the opportunities presented by the Apec CEO Summit are numerous and diverse. The Spinoff spoke with a handful of delegates about what they see as priorities for Aotearoa going forward, and about their hopes for the summit itself.


The first ever virtual Apec CEO Summit will take place this week, broadcast from Auckland’s Aotea Centre on November 11 and 12. To learn more about this year’s event and to register to watch the summit both live and on-demand, click here.


 

(Illustration: Ezra Whittaker)

‘We need to ensure no one gets left behind’

Microsoft New Zealand managing director Vanessa Sorenson sees the summit as a vital opportunity to take stock of what’s changed in our economic landscape – and what’s set to change further.

“The New Zealand we live in isn’t the same as it was two years ago – the pandemic has removed all the speed limits for digitisation. In the coming decade digital-native start-ups will emerge, while traditional industries will change the way they operate or launch their own digital services. Technology will allow us to address some of the fundamental challenges of our times in completely new ways – [but] at the same time, we cannot move faster than the speed of thought. We need to ensure no one gets left behind in the process.”

That need for technological uptake to be matched with accessibility – particularly as the Covid-19 pandemic makes obvious and exacerbates the existing digital divide – is an essential consideration for Sorenson and a key part of the Apec CEO Summit agenda. And while she’s clearly optimistic about what’s to come, she’s also extremely conscious of the need for both business and its regulators to keep that equity top of mind in the long run.

“Digital transformation will bring opportunities for New Zealanders, but they’ll require skills to seize those opportunities. We need to ensure high digital literacy across all our communities, including Māori and Pasifika, to help create a more equitable society in the future. A diverse talent pool can be a uniquely New Zealand asset – and result in technology being created and deployed for truly social good. When I look to the future, I am excited that we’ll be able to apply our Kiwi ingenuity in completely new ways. I am confident we’re set on a path to success, if we all do this together.”

‘How do we not lose social cohesion?’

Rangimarie Hunia is the chief executive of Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei Whai Māia, and will be taking part in a panel alongside Tabatha Bull, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, and Kristal Kinsela, founder of an Australian consultancy specialising in indigenous procurement and supplier diversity. 

For Hunia, who took on her role in 2015, the summit provides invaluable opportunities to compare notes with her fellow indigenous leaders and to demonstrate meaningful representation in business.

“I’m hoping to be inspired, I’m hoping to be invigorated and I’m just really excited to learn from and to be beside a whole lot of other indigenous people, striving for a common goal. And when Aotearoa puts forward great leaders, I think it’s really important that Māori and women are a part of that narrative. So I’m excited to see that in play.”

Hunia has spent the better part of the past three months at the forefront of Ngāti Whātua’s response to Covid-19 – dealing with lockdowns, testing and vaccination rollouts and a case count which continues to see Māori significantly overrepresented. As she reflects on the pandemic era, it’s abundantly clear that while her work has been extremely local, her key takeaways are near-universal.

“If I was to think about three words that define Auckland’s mindset at the moment, they’d be fear, frustration and fatigue. And when you know that’s what people are feeling, it starts to get you to simplify how you engage with people. I think what this current lockdown has done is clarify what’s actually important. Family is important. Relationships are important. Communication is important. Transparency is important. Caring for others is vitally important. Being in service of something that doesn’t necessarily bring you any individual benefit is important.” 

She’s grateful for the ways in which New Zealand’s central and local responses to Covid-19 have largely reinforced these points. But she also sees the summit as a crucial opportunity to ensure that New Zealand doesn’t descend down some of the more noxious paths seen internationally over the past 18 months.

“Social cohesion really has been detrimentally impacted on a global level. There’s tension everywhere, and I’d like to try to understand the source of that and the ways people are working through it. How do we avoid getting to that point? How do we not get to the point where we lose social cohesion? I don’t want Aotearoa to be in that space.”

 

(Illustration: Ezra Whittaker)

‘We can’t ignore the headwinds’

Mark Averill, CEO and senior partner at PwC New Zealand, recently addressed a LIVE With Business event on “The Business of Trust” – a major theme of the Apec CEO Summit. Averill wants the week’s sessions to shine light on the significant strengths of local business, while also finding ways to reinforce them against future disruption.

“The New Zealand business community is made up of individuals who are by nature very ‘can do’ people. The pandemic and lockdowns have created unparalleled challenges but we are also seeing that Kiwi resilience starting to emerge, with many leaders now looking beyond Covid-19 and repositioning their organisations and communities for future opportunities. Now is the time to reset and think about how we might do things differently.”

Noting the “glass half-full” attitude of many local businesspeople, he believes that despite the pandemic’s significant detrimental effects, the current and prospective business environment does offer some potential advantages. 

“There are some helpful tailwinds, including continued low interest rates and an abundance of capital around the world. Investors are looking to deploy cash and many corporates are recalibrating their strategies. Because of this, a number of New Zealand businesses have obtained serious investment. But at the same time, we can’t ignore the headwinds. Supply chains are proving to be an inhibitor of growth and are adding to global inflation pressures. We also know there is also a global talent shortage, with the demand for skilled workers outstripping supply.”

Averill remains confident that the prospects for Aotearoa are broadly positive. But he’s careful to note that reaching our national potential is undoubtedly going to take concerted effort – and the new lodestars for business may look substantially different to the old ones.

“Customers, staff and shareholders are increasingly looking to connect with the purpose of an organisation. This means that businesses will need to look beyond their traditional stakeholders and meet the growing expectations of environmental, social and governance considerations and the impact they have on their communities. Embracing digital and technological transformation will mean that businesses can connect and engage with customers and staff regardless of their location, creating value not only in productivity but also as it prevents isolation from being a disadvantage. And adapting our workplaces and workforces through upskilling, reskilling and helping our people grow will keep New Zealand competitive on the world stage.”

‘It’s about being intergenerational’

Having held the role of Ngāi Tahu CEO for nine years, Arihia Bennett has seen better than most how economic attitudes have changed over the last decade. Set to appear on a panel to discuss the idea that business can support and drive social change, Bennett points out that this notion has long been a guiding principle for the South Island iwi.

“Ngāi Tahu has been immersed in business as a force for good since its inception, because we know that the business world can bring not only an economic return, but it can also drive wellbeing. It can drive education. It can return positive environmental outcomes and social outcomes. Since the settlement with the Crown, we’ve returned over $600 million to our Ngāi Tahu communities, with about $200 million of that being focused on health and wellbeing and education initiatives. So it allows us to put our people in a position to be driving their own economies going forward.”

For now, the idea of a total global shift away from an individual-first, high-consumption economic model still seems like an extremely remote possibility. For Bennett, though, it’s already evident that organisations are realising it makes sound business sense to plan for a longer future.

“I think other businesses are catching up, because they actually have to. Business is no longer a linear transaction. You have to think about community connections, about sustainability and about the environment. And businesses are going to need to have those relationships in order to actually participate in the community and to move forward; to have those connections with families, schools, other businesses. For Ngāi Tahu, our point of difference is that we’re whakapapa-orientated, so we’re about strengthening our whakapapa to make sure that we do have a place in society going forward. Everything we’re doing is about family, and it’s about being intergenerational.”

With Ngāi Tahu having seen substantial and prolonged success as both an economic concern and a social one – Bennett points to their work supporting vaccine programmes across Te Wai Pounamu as a recent point of pride – their experience clearly supports the idea that indigenous business models can and should inform economies more broadly. For Bennett herself, the key takeaway should be simple.

“I would like to see business start to look at outcomes more holistically. For organisations not only to ask themselves what they’re trying to achieve economically, but for them also to think about the ripple effect into their communities. To actually participate, and to appreciate that ultimately it’s not just about the individual transaction that goes across the table.”

(Illustration: Ezra Whittaker)

‘Covid was a curtain-raiser for our climate challenges’

Chair of the Apec Business Advisory Council (Abac) for this year’s summit, Rachel Taulelei is a founder, CEO and advocate for the Māori economy and for sustainability in New Zealand’s primary industries. By her count, Abac has had around 60 video meetings already this year – which gives Taulelei rare direct insight into the mood not only of New Zealand’s boardrooms, but also of those across the Asia-Pacific region. And as economies seek to reinstil business and consumer confidence, one of the key changes she’s seeing is a shift towards human-centred decision making.

“If you put people at the centre of all of your conversations, then it’s probably going to be easier to get to a point of consensus as to how you look after people. Because then you can talk about how to safely and sensibly reopen borders; then you can kickstart trade and start to take us back to being that dynamic economy again.”

Out of the wreckage of Covid-19, Taulelei hopes there’s an opportunity for something of a reset to aspects of our economy which may benefit from a “newer normal”.

“We had economic disparities anyway, but those were exacerbated by Covid. So how do you try to stem that flow? With some of those underrepresented groups – like micro, small and medium enterprises, women in business or indigenous economies – how do we make sure that we’re doing double time on ensuring their inclusion in those conversations around economic participation?”

“The challenges we faced with Covid were a curtain-raiser for our climate challenges. There might be some differing views on the council about the pace at which we need to tackle issues like climate change, but there’s generally consensus around the need to address it.”

Taulelei is excited to present the council’s latest report to the Apec leaders, especially the work done around renewable energy transitions and general climate change action. With that part of the work all but done, Taulelei is looking forward to the new perspectives at the CEO Summit.

“The year has been chock-a-block full of great conversations amongst the member economies, but I think what’s really beautiful about this summit is that we’ll also get to hear some amazing speakers with really brilliant and diverse perspectives.”

The first ever virtual Apec CEO Summit will take place this week, broadcast from Auckland’s Aotea Centre on November 11 and 12. To learn more about this year’s event and to register to watch the summit both live and on-demand, click here.

This content was created in paid partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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