Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Theresa Gattung and Telecom

A review published in the Press

"Theresa Gattung: Bird on a Wire: The Inside Story from a Straight Talking CEO"

Random House, Auckland, 2010, 253pp.

Reviewed by Michael Bassett

In 2005 when my wife and I were working on a biography of Roderick Deane, Theresa Gattung's predecessor as CEO at Telecom, I interviewed her. She came across as a bouncy young lady, self-confident to the point of conceit, and thoroughly enjoying life in charge of the country's largest company. Her autobiography is marginally more reflective: Gattung's remaining two years at the top were anything but enjoyable. Helen Clark's government was clinging to office by its fingernails and decided to regulate the telco industry for no other reason than a perception that Labour might gain kudos from doing so. In the process it caused Telecom's share value to collapse. Much of the mom and pop life savings in a once promising company were destroyed, for a gain that is yet to be realised.

Gattung tells us about her upbringing in Rotorua, her business degree from Waikato, and her early jobs. Her love life features too: a 20 year relationship with a figure who became fascinated with photography but remains shadowy, probably because, long after their separation, he remains a good friend. She is amazingly frank about her goals and the chutzpah she displayed in attaining them. She tells us many times she was determined to become the CEO of a major corporation before she turned 40, and how she followed up hints, or chance encounters, to get where she wanted to go. Stints at TVNZ, National Mutual, then the BNZ enabled her to learn a lot, but were otherwise unsatisfying. An appalling driver by her own account, in 1994 she "had a wee altercation with one of Wellington's hills" and was helped out by the general manager of marketing at Telecom who just happened to be passing. Discovering that her saviour was soon to return to the US, Gattung vigorously pursued appointment to the vacancy and managed to get to meet Deane. Eighteen months later she was Group General Manager - Services, reporting directly to him. Barely three years on in August 1999 she was appointed CEO of Telecom at 37 years of age. It was a stunning rise to the top by any standards, something she frequently tells us.

The times assisted of course. Jenny Shipley had become the first woman Prime Minister in 1997, and Sian Elias was Chief Justice. Clark became Prime Minister at the end of 1999, and Silvia Cartwright took over as Governor General the following year. Twenty-five years after the International Year of the Woman, they now held our top jobs. Feminism is much mentioned in the book, for good reason.

Did the Board do the cause a service by appointing Gattung at such an early age? Our youngest 20th Century Prime Minister (Mike Moore) was 41 when he got to the top of the greasy pole, and David Lange was a few days short of 42. Most CEOs of major companies are in their 40s or 50s when taking office. The suspicion that Gattung was still too young haunted me as I read this rave about herself. Don't misunderstand me. She is very able. And she clearly impressed Deane who is surely the most savvy business brain of the last quarter century. Insiders tell me she was a better manager than she appears from her book. But was Gattung sufficiently street-wise to head such a commercial tall poppy? The book reveals a person who, despite claims to read widely, seems to prefer fashion magazines, business journals and the press reports that were daily compiled for her. There isn't a literary or a classical allusion in the book.

Nor does Gattung demonstrate any feel for politics even after all this time. As I read her account through the election year of 2005 when she was faced with a new minister in David Cunliffe, who was clearly intent on becoming a giant killer, no matter the damage, I recalled feeling that something drastic was about to occur to Telecom. Yet in her autobiography Gattung's political intelligence seems to have been woefully astray. She, herself, makes it a badge of honour that she just isn't interested in politics. Fair enough. Yet, she was the CEO of a very exposed company surrounded by rival piranha fish that were lobbying furiously to feast off the body of New Zealand's telco giant. No matter that in the 1990 privatisation arrangements the buyers of Telecom had paid the people of New Zealand a high price (it stunned even the cabinet of the day) because they were purchasing a bundled company in an unregulated environment. While the Fourth Labour Government might have made a mistake in selling a bundled entity, Gattung's assertion that Clark's government ought to have paid compensation for unilaterally altering the shape of a private company can scarcely be disputed. Moms and pops who had invested their life savings deserved no less, but they received nothing from the surprise package dropped by the sly Cunliffe on Gattung in May 2006. She comes across as a slightly na‘ve CEO. Her portrayal of a devious minister is rather more convincing.

Why an autobiography from someone who is barely 48? Is Gattung irked at being out of the limelight? Sometimes she seems to be. Is she hoping for another corporate posting for herself? If so, I doubt that her self-revealing book will assist. Does she want to inspire other women to imitate her goals and go for it? She says this is her intention. But it is hard to believe that lightning will strike so early for others, and probably it would be best that it doesn't. History will probably view Theresa Gattung as a rare phenomenon, someone whose achievement in reaching the top of the commercial world so young will inspire others, but whose actual tenure was less than glorious.

A minister in the Lange and Palmer governments, Michael Bassett is an historian and political biographer.