by Divina Paredes

Alasdair Thompson: Learning from the past and moving on

Apr 16, 20147 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Management

Nearly three years ago, Alasdair Thompson experienced a very public firing as chief executive of the Employers and Manufacturers Association.

The news of the sacking (he had offered to resign 11 days earlier) – spurred by the furore from his comments on gender-based pay gap on radio and TV – was played across local, international and social media.

He has since then reflected on his personal life and career, which came out in his book Life Changing: Learning from the past; fixing the future in October 2013.

“The reality is my demise in 2011 and the grief that we felt as a family was the best thing that could have happened to me,” says Thompson, who now has a consultancy providing advice to businesses and employment relations.

Thompson joined EMA in 1999, New Zealand’s largest business membership organisation.

At the time, Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) needed to respond to the changes a decade ago before he joined the organisation, such as the introduction of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991. This meant people did not have to belong to a union and could enter into an employment contract between them and the employer.

“It was a major change for the employers, but nothing had been done in the organisation to recognise that change had happened eight years earlier,” he says.

Massive reforms across state and the private sector in the 1980s, meanwhile, hit the manufacturers really hard, he says. Up until then they had protection with tariffs and import.

“All of a sudden, that was whipped away from them,” he states. “Despite these two changes 12 years before I joined, nothing had changed at EMA, and the organisation by then was becoming largely irrelevant.”

Thompson says before he joined, the board had established a clear and simple strategic plan for the “reinvention” of the EMA.

“It was an old organisation that had not reformed very much over its lifetime and especially in the last decade or so when its cheese had been moved,” he says, making a reference to the book Who Moved my Cheese?. “It had to find where its cheese is.”

Thompson says he got three job offers that week, and chose EMA which offered the lowest pay and the toughest gig. “But it was the one that interested me more because it was right in my area of interest – good public policy,” he says.

One of the things that helped a lot in my own decision is the change management process that you do in business, I applied to myself as an individual. Alasdair Thompson

“I have always supported business,” he states. “Business to me was the coming together of people and capital. Capital buys information technology systems, it buys plants. When you get the right mix, and most efficient use of that labour and capital, you do well.

“The most important side of the business is finding out how to maximise your sales, you have got to have your product right.”

But when he joined EMA, the product it offered was “aged, out of date”.

EMA did not have a monthly magazine and a newsletter, and faxed a packet of communications (‘two inches’) thick to their members every month, he says.

“We had to stop the bleeding, and this meant immediate cuts. No big cuts, just low hanging fruit,” he says. “Where can we make savings without hurting our business?”

He identified leases on buildings that EMA did not really need, and chose a contracting service model for its employment relations consultancy and legal services. All employment relations consultants were given opportunity to become self-employed contractors at EMA.

The newly contracted employment relations staff were passionate about their work, they worked more hours and billed more. As he wrote in his book, another advantage was EMA’s labour cost became a variable and EMA “seamlessly retained” its relationship with the members.

“We set about clearly defining what a member received at the different categories,” he says. “Some got more services and paid more. Before, everybody got the same [services] and they did not get very much.

“In addition, we defined what were the services specific to each and every business that bought it.”

The cost reduction was substantial and customer service improved, he says.

In 2000, a year after joining EMA, Thompson won the CEO IT Vision category for “introducing IT and new services to revive the organisation” at the Computerworld Excellence Awards. The award was for his implementation of a CRM system (from Pivotal) that was aimed at creating a service organisation for the 21st century.

Before EMA, Thompson held a succession of roles that included mayor of the Thames-Coromandel District, and director of Health Waikato and Power New Zealand.

He says he was given the opportunity to rebuild the 120-plus-year-old organisation to become a modern, highly relevant organisation promoting the business. “That was what we did,” he wrote in his book. “Clean out and rebuild a new organisation with a new well-defined vision, mission and goals, which led to new relevant products and services with a lot of new people along those who were retained. It was quite straightforward but not without a lot of pain.”

Thompson says he left EMA in “good shape”.

Citing data from publicly filed annual reports, he says income from subscription, sales and members’ funds rose from $7.596 million to $16.719 million. During his term, staff training courses rose from 150 per year to 650. When he left, the organisation had no debt, owned all its assets and had reserves of nearly $20 million.

“An organisation is much greater than one person,” he wrote. “It is all of its people, stakeholders, owners and customers coming together successfully that bring success and if the CEO has led the way to that, then he or she is in fact dispensable.”

“My ending at EMA was sudden; it was also brutal, but ultimately beneficial,” he states.

“I recognised I needed to change my life,” he says. “I needed to put myself through the same process in doing changes: What is my mission? What do I want to be? What are my objectives? What am I going to do to get where I want to be?”

“Isn’t if funny, as business people, we do it all for our business, but do we actually do it for ourselves in our lives?”

He says he had done this in his early 20s, and it was amazing how he followed most of it. But as he got older and his “mental issues re-emerged”, there were some things that got neglected.

“While it was under control for the most part, the ‘black dog’ of depression and anxiety was reasserting itself,” he says. He realised he needed to get physically fit again and get his medication sorted.

“My life now? It is excellent,” he states. “One of the things that helped a lot in my own decision is the change management process that you do in business, I applied to myself as an individual.

“I have gone back to small business,” he says. He and his wife Joan have owned a number of retail and service sector businesses over the years, and along the way undertook small scale property development building commercial premises and luxury accommodation for tourists.

Thompson says he now walks two to three hours a day. He chairs a trust that supports a Pakistani Christian Satellite station, and is a trustee of Silver Fern Racing. It is a small West Auckland trust that helps youth offenders who are referred by the court to get vocational training. He attends a Christian service regularly.

“Now I am just a different person,” he says. “I have come out stronger.”

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