Mark Powell: From the boardroom to the academe

I believe in continuous learningMark Powell, Massey University

Mark Powell is blazing a trail for CEOs in New Zealand.

After having held two CEO stints, first at Warehouse Stationery and then at the parent company The Warehouse Group, Powell has moved to another CEO role, but with a marked difference from his time in the commercial world.

Powell is the first ‘CEO in residence’ at the College of Business at Massey University.

“It is a part-time role,” explains Powell, who is based at the Albany campus of Massey University in Auckland.

He says the time spent on the job is equivalent to one day a week and, as such, comprises only a fifth of his current employment responsibilities after having left The Warehouse.

His new responsibilities include being a director at Good Guys retailer in Australia and Trinity Lands, a farming group, as well as being on the board of The Parenting Place.

The ‘CEO in residence’ role is common in the United States, within educational institutes.

There are various dimensions to the role and they all tap into his broad range of experience in business, says Powell, who started the role in February 2016.

A critical role with the job is giving lectures and presentations to students at graduate and undergraduate levels.

“As an ex-CEO, I have done talks on leadership, strategy, branding, external and internal communications in organisations, and retail supply chain.”

He says another function is as an ambassador representing the university to help build links with the business community. He also speaks at alumni events and business clubs.

“For me personally, I have been a consumer of education. I have been on the other side myself,” says Powell, who holds two bachelor and two master’s degrees. “I believe in continuous learning.”

He has an honours degree in mining engineering from the University of Wales and a bachelor of applied theology at the Carey Baptist College. For his post-graduate degrees, he completed a masters in logistics from the Cranfield School of Management and an MBA from Cardiff University.

This year, he will complete his masters in Christian Apologetics (history and philosophy of theology) from Biola College.

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Mark Powell in his office at the Albany campus of Massey University in Auckland (Photos by Divina Paredes)

Prior to moving to New Zealand, Powell had been UK logistics director at Tesco Stores and also the supply chain and home shopping director at Iceland Frozen Foods, also in the UK.

He joined The Warehouse in late 2002 as GM Logistics . He was appointed CEO to Warehouse Stationery, and in 2009, took the top post at The Warehouse Group, a role he held for five years.

He first came into contact with Massey University through the involvement of The Warehouse with the university’s Bachelor of Retail and Business Management, as well as the Sir Stephen Tindall Chair in Retail Management that is named for the founder of The Warehouse Group.

There were ongoing discussions with Pro-Vice Chancellor of the Massey Business School, Professor Ted Zorn, which evolved into the creation of the ‘CEO in residence’ role at the university.

Straightforward success

“Basically, business is simple,” he says. “What are you giving to the customer that is different from, and better than, your competition?

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You can't forget the basics. I do worry people get obsessed about technology and they forget it is about customers.Mark Powell, Massey University

“You just have to beat your competition, you do not have to be perfect. You just have to be better than your competition in your market.”

You look at what your customers want, you look at your team, [then work out] how can you help them do their job well?”

“That is what you are striving to achieve and that is what unleashes creativity,” he says. “It is the outcome of doing things well, that allows you to stay in the game.”

First, you consider an organisation’s clarity of purpose, principles and values, he says.

The key functions of leadership are to clarify the purpose of the organisation, ensure there is a clarity of principles, as well as a clarity of priorities.

Businesses also need to be conscious of the contribution they make to society, he says.

But, he points out, “You have got to create wealth before wealth can be shared.”

“I grew up in the 70s when it was a mess,” he says, of those years in the UK. “The solutions that were being touted from the Left won’t work. They discourage innovation, they don’t reward success and they don’t lead to creativity. They lead to bureaucracy, they slow things down and stop innovation.”

He says courses in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths), are important, but so are skills in critical thinking and relationship skills, or working in teams.

“Those broader courses need to be part of the training, it is not just STEM.”

“In any business, you have got to be working with a team, it is never any one person. We all know of the caricature of a genius who could solve maths problems, but could not work with anyone.”

Technology, on the other hand, just enables, he says.

He cites his experience at The Warehouse. “When I took over, we were not really online and we had to invest a lot in that area,” he says.

“We had our digital strategy, but for me, I don’t get carried away with technology. It comes back to the customer,” he says. “In retail, it is still about product and price, and customer experience.”

“You can't forget those basics. I do worry people get obsessed about technology and they forget it is about customers.”

A retailer, a business is an organism,” he says. “It has lots of different variables operating on it. You can learn from other organisations, but you have got to translate that to your context.

“There are different businesses and they do different things. No business does everything well.

“Business is fairly simple,” he concludes. “Why are we here? What are our priorities? What are we trying to achieve? Where do we invest time, money and people? What is the risk profile?

“Then we make decisions based on these [criteria].”

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