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Interview with Roger Partridge - Senior Commercial litigation Partner at Bell Gully and Chairman of The New Zealand Initiative

27 October 2015

You are currently the Chairman of The New Zealand Initiative (TNZI), a CEO-member think tank which arose from the merger of the New Zealand Business Roundtable and the New Zealand Institute. What are some of the short and long term objectives of TNZI and what attracted you to the organisation in the first place?

The objectives of the New Zealand Initiative are to research and develop public policy recommendations to improve the prosperity of all New Zealanders.  Our members are mostly CEOs and directors representing most of New Zealand's largest companies. But when they come together at the New Zealand Initiative, it is not to advance the interests of the businesses they represent, but the interests of all New Zealanders.  Our vision is of a competitive, open and dynamic economy and a prosperous, free and cohesive society - and one where the least well off have the best opportunity to prosper.  

The organisation arose from the merger of two predecessor organisations - the New Zealand Business Roundtable, of which I was the chair, and the New Zealand Institute, which Air New Zealand Chairman, Tony Carter, chaired.  Tony and I led the merger negotiation in 2011.  We sought to bring together the best of both organisations to form a new, non-politically aligned think tank, with the resources to undertake empirical research on the big public policy issues facing New Zealand - issues like housing affordability, educational underachievement, productivity growth and poverty.  As New Zealanders, we all have an interest in getting the policy settings right to improve the outcomes for all New Zealanders.  And as business leaders, our members know that what is good for New Zealand, is also good for business.

I became the firm's representative on the Business Roundtable when I became the firm's chairman in 2007.  I had always supported the objectives of the Roundtable in trying to create a more prosperous New Zealand, so felt it an honour to become a member.  With the firm's encouragement, I stepped into the Chairman role three years later when then Business Roundtable Chairman, Rob McLeod from EY, left for Sydney to become EY's Australasian Managing Partner.  Previous chairs have included Sir Ralph Norris and Sir Douglas Myers, which meant there were big shoes to fill. It proved to be a doubly challenging time for the organisation - and our members - with the onset of the GFC the following year coinciding with Roundtable Executive Director Roger Kerr's diagnosis with a serious illness.  These two factors became an important part of the impetus for the merger.

Three and a half years on from the formation of the new think tank, the Initiative has emerged as a well-respected, credible, and influential voice in the development of public policy initiatives, with strong connections across the political spectrum.

What are the prerequisites for TNZI membership and how many members are there currently?

Our members are mainly CEO representatives of New Zealand's largest companies.  We also have a range of not-for-profit and alumni members.  Members have to be willing to put their own business interests behind them and focus on developing social and economic policy objectives that will lead to a more prosperous New Zealand.  Corporate members must also be willing to meet the reasonable chunky membership fee.  In addition to current CEOs, our members also include former CEO "alumnus" members.  This means we have a formidable collection of many of the country's most talented current and former business leaders round the table.  Currently we have 37 full fee-paying members, including ANZ Bank, ASB Bank, Air New Zealand, Chorus, Contact Energy, Deloitte, Deutsche Craigs, EY, First NZ Capital, Fletcher Building, Fonterra, Foodstuffs, Forsyth Barr, Freightways, Google, Heartland Bank, KiwiBank, Microsoft, PwC, SkyCity, Todd Corporation, Vero, Vodafone and Westpac.

You were the Chairman of Bell Gully from 2007 to 2014, what were some of the highlights during your tenure?

Seeing 16 new, talented partners come through to partnership during this period - including 5 women partners, or nearly a third.  Supporting the development of the firm's first Woman at Bell Gully Initiative.

You were the Chairman of Bell Gully during the GFC yet you managed to expand the firm. In retrospect, what were the biggest challenges during that time and what was your approach to overcoming them?

The biggest challenge in the GFC was that we saw transactional work slowdown - especially M&A work and private equity work in particular.  As the firm with the biggest M&A practice, this meant we were particularly vulnerable.  We reacted to this by identifying areas where our practice was not strong, and really investing in those areas.  A good example is in the public sector.  Heading into the GFC, we probably had one of the smallest public sector practices of any of the large firms.  By really investing and focusing on this area, we were able to significantly expand our practice, securing the role to act for Crown Fibre Holdings, the entity through which the Crown gave effect to its high speed broadband initiative, and then going on to assist the Crown develop a public private partnership framework for PPPs, and acting for the Crown on each of its first five PPP projects.  

We also played a similar role for the Crown in assisting to develop the Mixed Ownership Model, and then acted on the first and the largest MOM IPOs. We also looked to build out our practice in a range of other areas where we felt there was potential for us to increase our footprint, including Resource Management, Construction, Oil and Gas and ICT.  

A third key practice development focus was relationships with offshore law firms, an historic strength for the firm, but an area where rapid globalisation post GFC meant there was a need for added investment, particularly in Asia. This meant we have needed to have a substantial investment in maintaining and strengthening our relationships with key offshore referrers, in Australia, the UK, the US and Asia - particularly Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Tokyo.

Of almost equal significance was the demand from clients "to do more with less", as clients saw their legal budgets shrink.  We responded to this in three ways.  First, by successive reviews of the cost structure of our own business, which saw us achieve very significant efficiencies and allowed us to provide a more competitive offering to clients.  Secondly, we looked for ways where we could significantly add value to clients - through initiatives like our Bell Gully InHouse client training programme, and the Bell Gully General Counsel Forum we developed in conjunction with CLANZ.  Third, we developed a range of initiatives to enable us to "work smarter" often with the aid of technology, and we invested very heavily in our business support systems and business support team throughout the GFC.

Bell Gully won the prestigious IFLR New Zealand Law Firm of the Year award five times during your Chairmanship. In your view, what were some of the characteristics that made Bell Gully stand out amongst a competitive pool of law firms?

One of the privileges of being chairman of the firm is that I had the chance to undertake regular client relationship reviews with the firm's largest clients, and to assist with building relationships with key decision-makers at potential clients.  They commented consistently on two things.  Many refer to there being a distinctive "Bell Gully way" of working - which is personal, no non-sense, "can do" and relationship-driven.  Our clients tell us they like working with us, and potential clients who might be on the "other side" of a matter, seem to hold us in similar high regard.  Secondly, clients comment on the quality of our people - at all levels within the firm, and lawyers and non-lawyers alike.  I think it's those two things that stand us apart.

Given your leadership at Bell Gully and your current position as Chairman of TNZI, some might suggest that you have a great set of skills to give politics a go. Do you have any political aspirations at this stage?

I don't have any political aspirations.  That's not to say I haven't given it some thought.  However, I think I have found an ideal vehicle for me to engage with the political process through my involvement in the New Zealand Initiative.  And when I retire from the firm at the end of the year, I am looking forward to having more flexibility practising at the bar to play a more hands on role with the team at the New Zealand Initiative.  

What advice can you offer young law graduates embarking on their legal careers?

Do your best on every job - big or small.  It's a competitive world, and one where clients, internal and external, have choice. Give them reason to choose you. Second, relationships matter. Clients will use lawyers they like dealing with. Make each of them feel like they are your most important client. Third, it's not only about getting the answer right - it's also about getting it in on time, in an easily understandable form, and with a focus on what the client wants to achieve.  Above all else, have fun!

Glenda Macdonald (NZLS General Manager Representative & Auckland Branch Manager) interviewed Roger Partridge for this interview.

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Last updated on the 3rd March 2017