05 January 2016

Matt Philp

Engineering Insight: Global Direction

  • Maury Leyland

How do you lead New Zealand’s biggest export earner, a company that produces about 35 per cent of the world’s dairy products? It’s not a job for the fainthearted – especially when international trouble is brewing.

It was the proverbial baptism by fire. With 45 minutes of last-minute media training under her belt, Maury Leyland faced her first global media conference – and it wasn’t going to be a gentle one. Fonterra’s Group Director of Strategy had been on extended leave looking after a sick son when the 2013 botulism scare blew up, but returned quickly to lead the in-house operational review. A month after the announcement of a worldwide recall of products made from Fonterra milk powder, including infant formula sold on the Chinese market, Maury took a seat beside CEO Theo Spierings and explained what her review had discovered.

Notwithstanding the justified criticism of the dairy giant’s initial response, this was a case study in crisis management; a calm, precise and logical elucidation of what had gone wrong and why, and what would be done to prevent it happening again. It was very much an engineer’s analysis, communicated with clarity and frankness.

An evolving leadership style

Maury, who has an honours degree in Engineering Science from The University of Auckland and is a Fellow of IPENZ, says her leadership style has evolved over the years. “I started out pretty raw, but with good problem solving skills, which definitely come from my engineering background. Over time, as I’ve moved into more and more leadership roles, I’ve layered that perceptiveness and applied it to people and communication. I seem to be able to communicate a clear message that people can understand, to paint a picture.”

"I’ve layered that perceptiveness and applied it to people and communication. I seem to be able to communicate a clear message that people can understand, to paint a picture.”

Crises like the 2013 contamination scare have honed those traits. “That’s when you have to pull everything together, during times of quite high pressure,” she remarks.

Maury’s experienced several high pressure situations, not least as a member of Team New Zealand’s 1995 San Diego campaign to win the America’s Cup. A keen sailor since childhood, she had barely finished her final exams at Auckland when she was offered a part-time role as a member of the design team, working under the legendary Dr Tom Schnackenberg. The job evolved into a permanent one, involving keel design, project management of a twisted flow wind tunnel and performance analysis of the two-boat testing programme. Eventually, she joined the sailing programme as a backup crew member, becoming the first woman to sail for New Zealand during an America’s Cup campaign.

Tom Schackenberg was a key mentor. “Tom allowed me enormous freedom to really apply myself in a lot of different areas at Team New Zealand. The value of versatility was something I learned there. We had a small team but we were all able to back each other, and to take on each other’s roles.”

Being part of a high performance sports team also gave her an insight into contrasting leadership styles. She learnt from all three of the team’s key leaders, Tom, Sir Peter Blake and Sir Russell Coutts.

“The role Sir Peter took was very valuable. He was very clear on his role in terms of his interaction with sponsors and the media, the public and stakeholders, and provided a huge amount of shelter for the rest of the team, a safe environment for the designers, the boat builders and the sailors to get on with their job. Sir Russell was very focused and took a very strong leadership role in terms of making the boat go fast. He was instrumental in design and build decisions and really pulled the team together. Tom is calm, wise and insightful, someone with a strategic view of sailing and life who can step back and see the bigger picture.

“I still call back on those lessons today around the role of leadership, the discipline involved in a high-performing team in terms of clarity of roles, and also the need to take things in good humour. High performing teams all seem to be able to see most things as funny.”

Developing experience

After San Diego, a career in yacht design looked likely. But on returning to Auckland, Maury felt restless, eager to try something new. Within a year she’d joined the Boston Consulting Group as a strategy consultant and during the next eight years worked on a variety of projects here and overseas, including for the New Zealand Dairy Board, Fletcher’s and other large Australasian companies.

“I can think of three people there who from different angles helped me to develop my professional presence. That involved improving my presence in a room, as opposed to being the quiet, badly dressed engineer. They also supported me to carry on my career while having children.”

She joined Fonterra in 2004, three years after the dairy co-operative was founded, initially as Associate Director – Strategy and Growth and then General Manager – Logistics. At the time, she described it as New Zealand’s “most interesting company”, due to its size and ownership structure and its sense of potential in a growing world market for dairy products.

Even as she was getting her feet under the executive table at Fonterra, Maury was adding to her governance experience as a Non-Executive Independent Director of Spark New Zealand, helping that organisation through a major repositioning. She has also served as a Director of Transpower and was on the Advisory Board for the Department of Engineering at The University of Auckland.

Maury’s first major general management role involved managing Fonterra’s warehousing and transport operations, a massive task given the scale of the company. “I had 550 staff and the Global Financial Crisis had hit. Suddenly I was learning a whole lot of skills at once. It was a very formative time.”

During the next decade she worked in various roles at the company, and was integral to Fonterra’s “strategy refresh”, which included optimising production volume at home while creating new overseas supply sources, and making a strong push into emerging markets such as China and Latin America. That growing leadership experience was to prove vital when Maury was called on to help pilot Fonterra’s response to the 2013 crisis.

Cool in a crisis

It’s helpful to remember the level of alarm caused by those first reports of contaminated whey. Several batches totalling 38 tonnes produced at a Fonterra site in the Waikato were found to contain the bacteria clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism. The whey had been sold to third party manufacturers and used in a variety of consumer products, including sports drinks and infant formula. Eventually it was discovered that the bacteria was harmless, but at the time of the recall there was an understandable fear that consumer health could be at risk. China briefly blocked the importing of all milk powder products from New Zealand, and the sale of Fonterra products was temporarily frozen in Russia.

It was a highly charged situation, in other words, with real commercial risk for Fonterra and potentially significant economic and political ramifications for New Zealand.

Maury says: “I had had some crisis experience before then and it gave me the ability to pull a strong cross-functional team together, to get people working under pressure, and to get the right piece of work under way to do the operational review. From my perspective, the crisis gave me some enormous learnings in terms of fronting the media. It really developed my ability to be very calm on the spot and very comfortable generally with any question from anybody.”

Within the organisation, meanwhile, Maury had to help shore up morale. “Internally it was a very difficult time for the company,” she continues. “All of our people, the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with this terrible situation that faced us, really had their confidence knocked. My role was to be open and honest, and that was appreciated. I took a lot of heat for Fonterra, defended Fonterra and I think it was seen that I represented it fairly but openly.”

Significantly, when staff morale was measured months later it was at higher levels than in the calm preceding the crisis. “The part of our business that had the most positive change was Operations, which was the part most affected by the recall – so our efforts to accept honestly what had happened and to make changes did have an impact.”

The team working on the operational review took a very structured and disciplined approach, she says. “I’m always very keen to have a pragmatic and sensible take on what is needed, with clear milestones and a calm way of working through. The engineering background is part of that, I think. Although I can certainly write a decent PowerPoint slide, I’m very pragmatic about getting things to a point where people cannot just see a lofty vision far ahead, but the components of what needs to be done to reach that goal.”

Pointing the way forward

It’s a quality that makes her a useful foil to her boss Theo Spierings. “Theo understands the dairy industry exceptionally well. He also moves very fast. I can certainly keep up with his speed of thinking, but I’m also able to translate that into things that people can act on,” Maury says.

It’s one of the keys to leadership, she believes. “As a leader, I think you have to have that ability to point the way forward, to explain the direction. It’s crucial but it’s not that common. I think you also need authenticity, to know what your strengths and weaknesses are, and to have some vulnerability: people are more willing to follow someone they can see deals with the same issues as everyone else – and you need resilience.”

“I think you also need authenticity, to know what your strengths and weaknesses are, and to have some vulnerability.”

If the last few years have taught her anything, it’s the value of that last quality. “The dairy industry has a lot of ups and downs, and because Fonterra is a company of such national interest it can become very personal. So you certainly need to be able to take the downs with the ups.”

That quality has certainly been tested during the last year, as Fonterra has grappled with dramatically lower global milk prices, putting huge pressure on the co-operative and its 10,500 farmer owners. “The global dairy scene is increasingly volatile and we have to be in the best shape possible and able to consistently deliver strong returns to our farmers.”

Maury is closely involved in the work being led by management to drive performance, which involves examining the entire business, from supply chain to procurement and operations. It’s been a challenging experience, even sometimes confronting, but the gains are now becoming apparent.

“A big part of what we need to do is unleash more of what our great people have to offer,” she says. “I’m very excited and confident about where we’re heading.”