The '80S Crash: And the Era of Cowboy Managers: In His Fifth Article in a Series on 50 Years of Management, Ian F Grant Recounts the Market-Shattering Events, Business Philosophies and Leadership Pre-Occupations of the Second Half of the 1980s

Article excerpt

Business leaders had long complained about Prime Minister Robert Muldoon's Canute-like approach to economic management, but Labour's tidal wave of restructuring had them spluttering in a different way.

The concerns were mirrored in Management articles about how to survive GST "arguably the most revolutionary tax change in New Zealand's history", whether or not Fringe Benefit Tax would "sound the death knell for executive perks" and, in March 1986, Louise Callan's story was entitled: 'Twenty months of Roger Douglas: things aren't what they used to be'. She wrote: "In the 20 months since the snap election Douglas, as head of the economic troika, has been unravelling and dismantling the old economic systems. The speed with which they moved to implement those changes, to lay the cornerstones to Douglas' strategies, amazed most people." By August 1987 Management was able to report that the Fringe Benefit Tax had not dented the provision of perks: "FBT returns for the 1986/87 year indicate that even more and bigger company cars are taking to the roads."

The Government's corporatisation of the public sector meant radical philosophical and operational shifts for senior public servants. As State Services Commission (SSC) head Dr Mervyn Probine said: "The concept of administration is being replaced by that of management." This in turn meant the SSC and Treasury delegating authority so managers could manage. "We cannot make people accountable if they are not making decisions," said Probine.

By the end of 1986 NZIM's Top Management seminar was struggling with the early effects of 'Rogernomics'. NZIM president Tony Hassed posed managers with a conundrum: "What do you do with loyal, hard-working employees whose background, training, or lack of training, renders them unsuitable for continued employment in the organisation because of the effect of deregulation?" There was no easy answer then or later.

Around the world, business leadership was the focus of considerable attention during a period of hostile takeovers and leveraged buyouts which, in New Zealand, created a posse of corporate cowboys who briefly caught the imagination of the share buying public and the media. In a climate of excessive borrowing and lending, there were signs of a widening pay gap between senior executives and other employees. Then, with the surge in takeovers and redundancies, 'golden parachutes' become part of the business lexicon. "Chief executives are the most vulnerable in a takeover," Colleen Hawkes wrote in March 1988. "With many annual salaries now above $100,000, a golden handshake is likely to be in that vicinity."

Management was caught up in the excitement of takeover mania. Selwyn Parker wrote: "Though threatened management may disagree, takeovers are good for us. They push up the share price in the target company, spread wealth more widely, inject innovation into hidebound companies, force management to perform and tease more information into the marketplace." In 1986 New Zealand's takeover legislation was toothless. As only takeovers in writing were under any scrutiny, corporate raiders practised with impunity what Securities Commission chairman Colin Patterson wryly termed "takeover by word of mouth".

With In Search of Excellence, Peters and Waterman opened the 'corporate culture' floodgates, emphasising the visionary, inspirational aspects that mark the difference between the average and the excellent. In Management's October 1985 issue, Nick Marsh and Mike Beardsmore underlined the importance of 'corporate culture' as: "... a pattern of values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours which permeates any organisation and governs everything from strategy decisions to office layout." It was a lode of management thinking mined assiduously by Management writers for the rest of the decade.

New Zealanders take to new ideas, whether new technology or business theories, with enthusiasm. Michael Porter's Competitive Advantage, published in 1985, brought strategic planning back into favour with a new 'sustainable competitive advantage' twist that gave a welcome sense of direction as New Zealand political and business leaders coped with the consequences of relentless restructuring and change. …