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Lawyer moves into corporate leadership

19 May 2016

Grant Kemble is both a lawyer and a Chief Executive Officer.

He left his role as a corporate partner at Russell McVeagh in September 2015 to take up the helm at the Complectus group. The group includes Perpetual Guardian, Guardian Trust, Covenant Trustee Services and Foundation Corporate Trust.

The move came from his work as a lawyer.

"I worked with Andrew Barnes, who is the owner [of Complectus]," Mr Kemble says. "He had already bought Perpetual Trust. I was Andrew's legal advisor during the Guardian Trust acquisition, and that's how we got to know each other.

"He chatted to me when we were sitting at the Institute of Directors Conference last year. He asked me if I was interested [in a CEO role], and we went from there."

Why were you tempted to leave the legal world for a CEO role?

photo Grant Kemble

"There are two or three reasons, but a key one for me was a new challenge at a personal level. I was very keen to be able to look at issues more broadly, taking into account more than just the legal aspects – looking at it from a people angle and a financial angle, for example, and balancing things out.

"I was also keen to look at issues over a longer term than is available to you in a transactional, corporate legal practice.

"And I was quite interested in other leadership roles. I'd been chairman of Russell McVeagh in 2008 and 2009 and enjoyed that. I was also looking for an opportunity to work with a group of people and make a difference.

"Andrew's vision that he wants to achieve with a modern trustee company is an opportunity where I thought I could do that."

Has legal training has proved useful in the CEO role?

"The answer is yes. In this industry, which is a fiduciary industry based on trusts, wills, enduring powers of attorneys, agencies and the rest, a knowledge of your base products comes with being a lawyer. So it was very useful in that respect.

"Another former lawyer who is now quite senior in one of the banks said this to me quite recently that lawyers tend to underestimate their ability to contribute quite broadly to business decisions. They come across a lot and they see a lot. They are used to taking into account large volumes of information and weighing things up. That does translate to normal everyday business decisions that you must make as a CEO.

"That, and the leadership roles I was lucky enough to have at Russell McVeagh and more recently as a director of Airways Corporation, certainly did help make the transition."

How would you advise a young lawyer wanting to structure a career?

"If they really are wishing to move into the business world, then obviously a business base degree and practice is a good start.

"They need to take opportunities to learn, not just about the law but about business issues more broadly.

"If they get leadership opportunities, grab them. As a young lawyer, directorships aren't going to come along too often, but leadership in community groups or other groups is useful.

"Particularly in a market the size of New Zealand, if you see a business opportunity you'd like to jump into then take it, because opportunities don't come up that frequently.

"The most obvious opportunity is an in-house role, where you can keep your eyes open and move within an organisation. But even the good in-house roles don't come along that often.

"If they want to make the move, in-house lawyers are often in a better position than external lawyers to do so," Mr Kemble says.

"I was a bit lucky. I am aware of one other senior lawyer who was grabbed by a client and asked to do a CEO role, and that's really what happened to me.

"My wife Kate always said it would be a client. That's what happens. They get to know you."

A lot of people now and in the past have tended to see lawyers for services such as wills, powers of attorney and trusts. Is that changing?

"Trustee companies have been around for a long time. Our two companies, Guardian Trust and Perpetual Trust, have each been in existence for more than 130 years. So they have been doing it for a long time alongside lawyers as part of the landscape of who can provide these services.

"I don't believe that is changing, but what is adding to it is digitalisation. That's the world we are in now. At a conference recently I heard a quote: we often overestimate the short-term impact of technology and underestimate the long-term. And that's probably what we will see in our market.

"The online offering, or digitalisation, of enduring powers of attorney and wills and trusts is coming. We have our own digital company, which is playing a leading role in developing that market in New Zealand. It is certainly coming and it will get better and better. My read is that we are in a similar position to the banking world, where providers have online services while still maintaining their branches. Likewise, we need to keep our personal face as well as showing a digital one. That means lawyers with the personal relationship with clients will always have a strong role in our market.

"Certainly at this point online wills and online trusts will be simpler. You still need advice for anything complex. That move will, I think, be reasonably slow. Between 40% and 50% of our wills are now written digitally, through our online will sites and client portal, so it's not insignificant.

"The simple will is the easiest thing to cater for in the online market. You wouldn't be able to use the online solution, say, for a person in their 40s or 50s moving on to the second marriage. When you start introducing those relationship and family complexities, you obviously need some advice. Less than 50% of New Zealand adults have an up to date will, so there's a long way to go."

How are you finding the new role?

"I am enjoying it. Like everything, it has its challenges, but in my case they are new challenges. I'm blessed, to be honest.

"It's a market with a lot going on. We've got an owner who is excited about the market and has an ambitious vision. And I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by very experienced senior management, who are exceptional in their fields.

"So I'm really enjoying the challenge."

Mr Kemble's interests are primarily family-focused. He and his wife Kate have a daughter and three sons aged between 11 and 19. He runs and boxes for fitness and has completed a marathon and two half-marathons, and has played rugby, tennis and volleyball competitively.

Last updated on the 19th May 2016