Jim Syme was voted QBE Insurance Chairperson of the Year at last year's Deloitte/Management magazine Top 200 Awards. It was a popular choice. Syme is considered a "gentleman" in the sometimes tough and confrontational world of effective corporate governance. He sets himself and his boards high ethical standards. "Integrity is essential and non negotiable," he says.
Today Syme is chairman of Kiwi Income Property Trust, Waste Management, Abano (formerly Eldercare), Software of Excellence, deputy chairman of ASB Bank and Sovereign Assurance and a director of Metrowater. His management career, however, began in finance and merchant banking. But as general manager New Zealand operations at Marac he attended the company's board meetings and in time became an alternate board member. The experience was invaluable and he was excited by the prospect of moving up to the top level of the management food chain.
At Marac he worked with and studied under his most "admired" mentor, chairman Sir lames Fletcher. "He [Sir James] had an absolute focus on the future and the nation," he adds. "These were the years when he was moving ahead creating Tasman [pulp and paper mill] and looking at all sorts of innovative enterprises. We had knowledgeable bankers and experienced directors on the board and I found the whole experience invaluable."
The ASB Bank provided Syme with his first independent directorship. "When I joined the ASB board in 1988 I felt reasonably informed. I understood the structure of board meetings from my time at Marac and was comfortable of my knowledge of finance and banking," he says. Syme was immediately immersed in the creation of the bank's strategic plan, written to transform what was then a savings and personal loan organisation into a full service bank. Within a couple of months of joining the ASB board he was made deputy chairman and chairman of the audit committee.
At ASB he worked with another valuable mentor, the then and current chairman of ASB, Gary Judd. "Again I learned a great deal from a very competent director. And he provided me with many of the skills required to operate as an effective chairman," he says.
With his banking background Syme quickly settled in at ASB. His appointment to the board of Waste Management in 1998 was a different story. Waste Management wasn't a bank. It wasn't even a financial institution. It was a multi-disciplined organisation in the disposable collections, environmental resource and waste recovery business with many different markets and segments. "It took me a year to feel comfortable, to complete my induction and to fully understand some of the drivers of the business," he says reflectively. He was appointed chairman of Waste Management last year.
Syme is critical of organisations that do not have comprehensive induction plans. "New directors should look at all the planning and financial information, but they should spend time out in the field looking at all the various operations of the company, talking to people about the divisions and operations," he explains.
In 1994 Mainzeal group appointed him chairman of its board. He had, by then, been deputy chairman at AMI Insurance. "Because I had deputised as chairman I think I embraced the role with reasonable confidence. I think I knew what skills I needed to employ to be effective, to maintain high integrity and high ethics. I resolved to work on the strategy to build the enterprise as a successful business and to drive wealth creation. To facilitate that and make an effective contribution, directors should have rigorous and constructive debate at board meetings and with the CEO," he adds.
The tone of a board meeting is important to Syme. "It must move along nicely, drawing out directors that are not being drawn out. And it is not necessarily to confine [the meeting] to a strict timetable. If there is more to be said and done about an important item, then let it move on," he says. …