The Weldon Factor

Prime Minister John Key’s first non-party appointment reveals more about his governing style and offers free-thinking NZX boss Mark Weldon a chance to move off the business pages and into politics

It seemed like John Key was hardly off the tarmac upon his return from Hawaii before he was announcing a Summit on Employment, bringing together business leaders, unions and bankers to figure out “how to retain and grow jobs”. It’s the move of a man who wants to signal action after a long holiday period, zeroing in on an issue that could hardly be more critical to ordinary New Zealanders, and so to National’s political future.

So who would Key ask to front his government’s first, crucial set piece? The demands of political theatre and the need for concrete action after the summit meant the choice of chair was a critical one. By turning to New Zealand Stock Exchange boss Mark Weldon, Key has shown us a hint of how his administration will work and, potentially, begun a new phase in Weldon’s career.

Key has reached outside of government circles to business, not surprising given his own background and National's business-friendly approach. In Weldon, he has appointed someone who has many things in common with himself - Weldon is in his 40s, is ambitious, has worked at a high level overseas, and has built a career in the financial markets.

For Weldon, the appointment represents a chance to move off the business pages and into the wider public eye. He began heading in this direction last year when he joined up with David Skilling and the New Zealand Institute to release the Economy on the Edge report, which called for swift and bipartisan actions to help the country through the global financial meltdown.

Looking further out, there have long been rumours that he would enter politics and this appointment could perhaps be a tester for him – does he like the public sphere and does it feel it is a good vehicle for him and his goals? Or is the pace too slow and removed for someone used to the coalface of a public company and the rigid rules of the Stock Exchange? Weldon is into his second five-year term leading NZX and his relentless thirst for challenge means he is likely to be ready for something new when this contract ends.

It’s not surprising that he is making the move after the demise of Helen Clark's Labour-led government, which was viewed as less-than business friendly. What’s more, Weldon has a history with Key – and is on record saying that a key role for the Exchange is to advise politicians, if required. He is also a fan of our new PM, having invited him to speak to NZX staff soon after he became leader of the Opposition.

So what does Weldon bring to this task? If the Prime Minister did a sort-of SWOT (Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats) analysis on Weldon to help make the appointment decision, here's what the result might look like:

Weldon has the drive and strategic approach to make a valuable contribution to the summit. He has long espoused wider visions for New Zealand than simply his stock exchange duties. He thinks outside the square and will leave no stone unturned in the search for the best solution. He is never afraid to have big ideas and has the connections to pull in some heavyweight players. His global experience and worldview will be important as the world’s economies continue to contract. And most importantly, Weldon  is committed to the future of this country – he left a good career in New York to come home and take up the job at NZX.

Being a McKinsey alumni means he's among the best at strategic thinking and planning and has gathered considerable experience across a range of businesses and organisations as a consultant.

He works immensely hard and never settles for a partial result. You don't become an Olympic swimmer (Barcelona 1982) with anything less than 100 percent effort. He runs a tight ship and expects total commitment from those around him. So woe betide any job summit members who think they can have a free ride.

There are also likely to be some challenges: Weldon may find the public scrutiny exasperating – not everyone is as bright as he is and it may be frustrating for him to have to try to take people along on the ride. He’s not used to having to explain himself or think about public perceptions. As a chief executive he has the final say; chairing a committee will put him in a different position, one where he has to hold a group together and lead it towards the best outcome. He is outspoken and this can lead to clashes with similarly strong-willed individuals. Still, if everyone is there because they have the same goal this should be largely mitigated. He will have many good ideas himself – he is a thorough and careful thinker - but will need to take care to listen to others. He will have to resist the urge to assume that his own solution is automatically the best (although chances are high that it very well may be).

It would be unhelpful to pre-judge the summit outcome at this early stage, but a re-read of the Weldon/Skilling discussion documents from last year suggest that Key will get much more than “talk-fest”, just as he has requested. Weldon is not afraid of bold, politically-demanding ideas. Come the summit on February 27, Key may have some new respect for the old saying: ‘be careful what you wish for’.

Ellen Read is the editor of NZ Management magazine. As a New Zealand Herald reporter, she spent several years covering the stock exchange round. She also spent a year working for NZX as media relations manager.