Sir Douglas Myers was one of a kind and he leaves New Zealand business and public policy markedly better for his having been here. The tributes that have been written in recent days rightly note the beer baron’s business successes. But other than noting that he was involved in the New Zealand Business Roundtable, few, it seems, have given him the credit he deserves in the policy arena.
Myers and other business leaders in the early 1980s came to the realization that the country needed to change course. Successive governments and generations had stifled our entrepreneurial spirt and held back our productivity and potential. Sir Douglas and Sir Ron Trotter determined that in order to get the country back on a path to prosperity, business needed to play a role in advocating for the right sets of policies. Around the time the fourth Labor Government was elected in 1984, they formed a then largely informal and small group of chief executives they named the New Zealand Business Roundtable.
In late 1985, Trotter and Myers set about creating a formal structure for the organization, turning it into a think tank to research, publish studies and propose public policies. Trotter was the first chairman and Myers his deputy. As they cast their net to hire a full-time executive director, one name that kept coming up was my father’s, Roger Kerr. At the time Roger was a senior economist in The Treasury and had been responsible, along with his colleagues, for writing Economic Management, a briefing paper for the incoming government that many consider a blueprint for the reforms that the Labor Party implemented.
When Roger passed away, also from cancer, earlier this decade, one of many tributes written about him was entitled, “Man who led NZ from wilderness.” However, history would likely be recorded very differently if it weren’t for the boldness of vision that Sir Ronald and Sir Douglas had. Previous business leaders had for decades lobbied government for protection from competition through licensing and tariffs on imports, and for favors and handouts. Indeed, businesses devoted so much time and energy to this cause that most at the time had their headquarters in Wellington.
It’s worth recalling what the country was like then. Economist and contributor to Economic Management Bryce Wilkinson described it well: “There was an abundance – of limited choice. Blanket foreign exchange controls, high tariffs, tight import quotas. No new cars for ordinary people. No weekend shopping. Queues to get mortgage finance. Too few licensed restaurants to matter. Union strikes a matter of course during school holidays. Monopolies everywhere.”
Although Roger had a bright future at The Treasury, Trotter and Myers told him that in order for New Zealand to get its policy settings right and for them to be enduring, business leaders needed to endorse the good and speak up against the bad. They also agreed with Roger that the raison d’etre of the organization needed to be to pursue policies that were in New Zealand’s best interests. Their principle, having seen the results of lobbying for business first, was that what was good for New Zealand was good for their corporations, not the other way around. Convinced that they were right and having enshrined this principle in the mission statement, Roger joined the organization in 1986.
Myers took on the role of chairman after Trotter stepped down, but his role was always more than vice-chairman or chairman. Although he was busy building Lion Nathan into a multinational, including its bold takeover of the Bond breweries in Australia, he played a very visible role stumping for the NZBR’s policy positions that came out of the organization’s research. He traveled up and down the country delivering dozens of speeches over the years to Rotary Clubs, chambers of commerce and other organizations. He brought other chief executives on board with the policies the NZBR was advocating for and bolstered the ranks of the organization to more than two dozen. He met with Cabinet Ministers, journalists and others to advocate for smaller government, freer markets and other policies that the organization believed would allow New Zealand to meet its full potential.
He and Roger spurred each other on over the years and became close friends. After Myers stepped down from the chairmanship and left Lion Nathan, he enjoyed his retirement and invited Roger on many of his adventures to places like the Galapagos or Russia. He still stayed involved in the NZBR and would send books or articles he thought my father would find interesting, and Roger would return the favor. Myers and I stayed in regular contact after Roger passed away. As others have noted, he always wore his heart on his sleeve. A few years ago, in one of our email exchanges he commented, “I think about him most days, no one to question, my life is significantly diminished.”
New Zealanders are fortunate Sir Douglas was passionate about more than business. The reforms he championed with the NZBR and the support it lent to our bold political leaders, notably Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and Ruth Richardson, made the country freer and more productive, unleashed a wave of business innovation and improved our quality of life. One other indicator of his lasting legacy is that the country’s corporations haven’t returned to their past habits of lobbying for privileges. Almost all have moved their headquarters to his old home of Auckland, the country’s business capital.
Written by Nicholas Kerr.
Nicholas Kerr lives in Seattle with his young family where by day he works at Microsoft and by night he writes his blog about policy and being a dad: www.nkerr.com.