Magazine article New Zealand Management

Face to Face: Mushroom Magic; Meadow Mushrooms' Philip Burdon on Management, Politics and Best Practice

Magazine article New Zealand Management

Face to Face: Mushroom Magic; Meadow Mushrooms' Philip Burdon on Management, Politics and Best Practice

Article excerpt

Byline: Reg Birchfield

Philip Ralph Burdon can, at a healthy-looking 72, boast a full and extraordinarily successful business and public service life. He has accumulated, according to last year's National Business Review rich list, a personal fortune of $70 million, give or take.

He is, along with his long time business partner Roger Giles, the co-founder and now chairman of Christchurch-based Meadow Mushrooms. The company is, says Burdon, the most sophisticated mushroom farm in the world and with an annual turnover of around $50 million it is one of New Zealand's largest single agri-businesses.

Meadow's mushroom business is growing rapidly. It opened a new $45 million plant expansion on the outskirts of Christchurch in March. The buildings cover almost three rugby pitches from which the company now harvests 160 tonnes of mushrooms a week and employs 500 Cantabrians to do so. It is an environmentally and commercially sustainable business that seems to fit the '100% pure' New Zealand enterprise profile.

Burdon is, at heart, an entrepreneur. He has, however, successfully made the transition to professional manager and then on to hands-off director. Along the way he completed a successful secondary career with 15 years in politics.

Burdon and Giles, an Englishman, established their first mushroom business -- Mattamore Mushrooms -- in the caves of the Cyprus countryside in 1968. Christchurch-born Burdon convinced his partner they should also set up shop in New Zealand. They did, and Meadow Mushrooms was officially launched in January 1971.

It was a good decision. In July 1974 the Turkish Army invaded Cyprus and the tiny Mediterranean island was torn apart by a savage civil war. Its Greek and Turkish communities were irreparably divided and Mattamore became collateral damage. It was a traumatic commercial and human experience that Burdon would not forget.

Burdon may be wealthy and come from well-heeled English stock, but he is very much the political liberal. He served as a National Party politician through the 1980s and much of the 1990s. As Minister of Trade in the Bolger government of the early 1990s he was deeply involved in negotiating General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) reforms that ushered in a dramatic expansion of New Zealand's international trade.

His trip into politics was prompted by his infuriation with the conservative politics of National Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. He considered Muldoon's infamous 1970 payroll tax the "stupidest thing" a private enterprise government could do. Rather than insults from the sideline however, Burdon joined the party and battled "unthinking" policies from inside.

In addition to his chairmanship of Meadow, Burdon also chairs the Asia-New Zealand Foundation, a non-partisan and non-profit organisation "dedicated to building New Zealanders' understanding and knowledge of Asia" and is, among a number of other directorships, deputy chair of Singapore-based GuocoLeisure, formerly BIL International.

He is still a party supporter but once again finds himself questioning the wisdom of National Government policies and practices. He heads a Christchurch earthquake recovery ginger group -- The Future Canterbury Network -- established to "prevent the city's recovery from becoming mired in the bureaucracy" that characterised the post-September quake response. And he's enlisted the support of an impressive gallery of Christchurch commercial and community leaders.

What drives this enthusiastic and rather tireless business and community leader? And how has he managed his exit from the management of Meadow Mushrooms and strategised its commercial longevity?

Burdon's commercial success is, he says, based on his ability to delegate and choose the right people (to work with). "Most entrepreneurs compromise their businesses as they move from innovation to consolidation, then stagnation. …

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