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From baggage handler to award-winning chief executive

24 January 2019 - By Jock Anderson

As a trumpeter in an oompah band teenager Jon Calder got paid a bit of cash and as much free beer as he could drink.

“I got roped into it by a music teacher while still at school. So at 16 I was playing on Saturday nights in a variety of local drinking establishments,” says Jon, who is now chief executive of Hamilton-based law firm Tompkins Wake and was named CEO of the Year at the 2018 Westpac Waikato Business Awards.

“I played the trumpet, for 10 years, and my claim to fame is I used to play in a very well-known Hamilton oompah band.

Jon Calder 
BornTe Aroha.
Age44.
WorkplaceChief Executive of Tompkins Wake, Hamilton.

“We used to get paid in cash and all the beer we could drink free. It was good times. There were two of us young guys and the other one got a permanent gig.

“I also played a bit of bass guitar and the drums but haven’t played drums for some years.”

Jon joined Tompkins Wake, which has offices in Auckland and Rotorua, at the firm’s Hamilton head office in January 2016.

Photo of Jon Calder

Before that he was chief executive of the New Zealand National Fieldays Society and Mystery Creek events centre. Twenty years ago he was a baggage loader at Hamilton airport, having dropped out of university twice.

“My formative years lacked focus and direction. I worked with a great group of guys at the airport and one night, having a beer after shift, one of the senior engineers asked me what I was going to do with my life, because I seemed like I was reasonably intelligent…”

“That motivated me to apply for a job as an Operation Controller with Air New Zealand…”

“I cut my teeth in management roles at Air New Zealand and was with them for 12 years.”

Air New Zealand put Jon through his MBA. After leaving Air New Zealand in 2009 he studied at Stanford in 2015 and Harvard in 2018, all of which whetted his appetite for continued leadership.

“I was involved in some big projects - large components of change management. I enjoyed the combination of being involved in designing and executing strategy and driving change through people.”

During his four years as CEO of the National Fieldays more than $8 million of improvements were done on the site. “I drove quite a bit of change into the organisation over those four years. I was having a lot of fun and it was a great role but it was time to step out and do something that had more of a commercial edge to it.”

“I always had on my radar to lead a professional services firm. I had in the back of my mind it would be an interesting role to be an external CEO in a law firm.

“When I was approached for the Tompkins Wake role it fitted with what I wanted to do and the partners were the tyoe of people I wanted to work with, and here we are.”

What is it like being a non-lawyer working with lawyers?

“I enjoy working with lawyers. I get asked this a lot.

“I am working with really intelligent people which makes my role easier for a start. The culture we have at Tompkins Wake, led by the partnership, is built on the premise than the CEO leads the firm so they can get on and be great lawyers and do great work for their clients. The Tompkins Wake partners really ‘walk to talk’ on this, it’s what they say but it is also what they buy into and believe.

“I have an incredible amount of autonomy, with a reporting line through to the board, comprising seven partners, and on a more immediate basis to the chair of the board.

“They hold me accountable for the usual things a CEO does but I have the autonomy to run the firm within the strategic framework we have set and agreed and it works well.”

The water skier

Jon’s father founded the Hamilton travel agency Calder and Lawson Travel, which at one point was the largest independent travel agency in New Zealand, and which later became part of House of Travel Group.

He is married to Karina and they have two children, Olivia (13) and Jack (11). His sister Sarah lives in Singapore with her husband and children.

“Most of my spare time is with the kids. I enjoy mountain biking, play a little bit of golf badly and we spend a lot of time socialising with friends.

“I used to be a reasonably good water skier and raced for a number of years, including in the 85km Bridge to Bridge Classic on the Waikato River, when the best I did was third – at between 85 and 90 miles an hour.

“We are in the process of acquiring a boat.

“I used to play rugby and am an avid rugby supporter. I’m president of the junior rugby club in Hamilton where Jack plays and spend a lot of time there through winter.

“I am a massively passionate Chiefs supporter, we are season ticket holders and I have a framed signed Chiefs jersey in my office.”

As well as his own background in the oompah band, there’s a music trait in the family.

“Karina’s wider family are very musical and we have jam sessions with them from time to time, with the kids producing some great music…”

“Through the kids I listen to a lot of modern music but I enjoy retro – such as Led Zeppelin – and anything from the 80s and 90s is fair game for me.”

Books, Netflix and schnauzers  

“I read a lot and most of it has a work focus and I have a reasonable library of books. I’m working my way through Kim Scott’s Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity.

“I don’t do fiction. Everything I read tends to be more about business. The last book I enjoyed reading was Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike - Phil Knight. That is a fascinating story of Nike from the outset.

“I watch a bit of television and tend to binge watch on Netflix. We are watching all the Game of Thrones series before the next season starts this year. And I like The Good Doctor on Lightbox.

“We have two miniature schnauzers - Alan and Steve – who are about eight years old and I drive a 2017 V6 diesel Land Rover Discovery.”

Working for Air New Zealand, and his Dad being a travel agent, Jon has seen a lot of the world, including the United States, Europe, Russia, China and Japan. He was in the US in October and was in Shanghai in November.

“Probably the only places I have not been to are Africa and South America. Anywhere new is always fun, but Fiji is a place we love.

“We have a family home there on an island off the northern coast from Rakiraki, one of the few places with freehold land. Dad bought land in the 1980s and built a holiday home with two other families in 2009. We are very lucky to have a beautiful spot on a 700 acre island, with maybe only 20 other homes.

“We love the South Island. Two years ago we did a road trip through the South Island on a family holiday during summer, taking in Timaru, Queenstown, the Maniototo and Oamaru - and have also been skiing in Queenstown and Wanaka.

“I would have Barack Obama, Graham Henry and Mother Theresa round for dinner. My signature dish is a medium-rare eye fillet steak but I also do a pretty mean risotto.

“I love cooking and love cooking for my wife. There’s nothing I enjoy more than letting her sit down with a glass of wine and cooking her dinner. I’ve got a reasonable wine collection so I think a Marlborough sauvignon blanc, a Hawke’s Bay red, Central Otago pinot noir and an Australian shiraz would go down well.

“We enjoy our wine and I also enjoy single malt whiskies, so have a collection of those too. I’m also exploring the joys of various boutique gins New Zealand is starting to produce. There’s some lovely stuff - one is The Source from Cardrona Distillery in Wanaka.”

Grounding the fleet

“There are a few notable moments in my career. In 2007, while at Air New Zealand, I was in regional airlines looking after the 19-seat regional fleet.

“We had an aircraft land wheels up in Blenheim due to a crack in the landing gear.

“About six weeks later I was acting general manager, at 33, of regional airline Eagle Air, and had to ground the entire fleet of 19 aircraft while further checks and inspections were carried out. At that point we were operating in excess of 200 flights a day – moving more than 300 passenger daily, so that was a significant moment in time. Decisions like that weigh heavily, but safety is always paramount and non-negotiable…”

“During my five years at NZ Bus we sadly had a number of pedestrian fatalities and being general manager I fronted up to families, which was pretty hard going.

“I think I dealt with six fatalities in 18 months. You have to manage the interests of families, drivers and keep the business running at the same time. It takes a personal toll on you and the wider leadership team. You learnt o support each other and to accept support.”

“If I wasn’t a CEO I would be either a winemaker or distilling spirits. Combining a hobby with a career, which could be dangerous.”

Over a long career in journalism Jock Anderson has spent many hours in courtrooms and talking to members of the legal profession. He can be contacted at jockanderson123@gmail.com

Last updated on the 24th January 2019