At home with top New Zealand company director Joan Withers
Of all the many significant achievements in her very successful business career, what does Joan Withers identify as the most important? ‘Finding the right man at 15 and then marrying him’
Words: Kate Coughlan Photos: Jane Ussher
Back in the day when everyone was sure of their place in society and had a fair idea of how their future would play out, a 17-year-old boy plucked up courage to ask a 15-year-old girl to dance. He saw her, slim and blonde, on the other side of the Papatoetoe Rugby Club Hall and, when she accepted and they danced, they discovered a lot in common. Joan was at a Catholic girls’ college, finding school relatively easy. Brian was an apprentice electrician and both were living in Puhinui Road in south Auckland. “He was at 49 Puhinui and I was at 119 and he’s never let me forget that his end of Puhinui Road, the eastern end, was more upper class than my end,” states Joan. With barely a raised eyebrow Brian remarks that he went to the dance determined to get himself a dependent wife. And look what happened.
“Boys turned my head early,” says the woman who left her convent school without fifth form maths and now chairs the boards of several of the country’s largest companies (a mid-career MBA went a long way towards topping up the missing bits of her education as did a stellar career in media). Boys might have been trying to attract her attention but her parents, hard-working immigrants from the north of England, did a fine job of keeping it focused straight ahead. “I was only allowed to go out at the weekends because of homework, so once I met Brian I thought I’d better leave school so I could see more of him.” Getting jobs was easy in those days, even for girls with only a freshly inked School Certificate and no other qualification. As Brian and Joan saw more of each other they realized they’d both met their perfect match and set their goal on marriage.
“His parents said we weren’t allowed to marry unless we had the deposit for a house.” Despite neither of them being frantically well paid (he an electrician and her now a trainee bank clerk) that first house wasn’t long in coming. (Block your ears Millennials, with 80 years of saving ahead for a first Auckland house.) Brian and Joan’s first home, an entry-level house in Papakura, cost $13,500. That was 44 years ago. They sold it four years later for $27,000. Their next house, in the Takanini suburb of Conifer Grove, was much more upmarket and cost $44,000. This pair of serial house buyers and sellers have owned many houses, normally turning them over every five years or so. Their current house is an exception and they’ve been there 10 years, which is more than surprising given Brian’s first words to the real estate agent: “This is the ugliest house I’ve ever seen.” Are their feet feeling a mite itchy again? “Well,” says Joan, “nothing is ever quite perfect.”
Animals have always been a big part of their lives and thus a big part of the where-to-live equation. Joan says she corrupted Brian early in their marriage with the love of animals. Though, as a boy, Brian’s visits to farming relations in Aka Aka near Waiuku had developed a real love for farming. It was his urge, initially, to have a rural property. But then along came horses…
“And that,” says Brian, “is the story of our marriage. Joan has a great idea and then she makes me do it.” Well, that is not exactly how the horse addiction struck this couple in mid-life – and continues to rule their lives – so let’s back up the float a moment.
Brian, by then an aircraft engineer with Air New Zealand and Joan, at that time an MBA-ed top businesswoman with a powerful career in media behind her and seats on some of the country’s biggest company boards filling her day-to-day life, and their adult son Jamie are living in a property called Kotuku near Drury. It’s a rural idyll; land, livestock and a restored grand villa that has been moved from Upland Road in Remuera to a splendid new lease of life on the rolling downs. One of Joan’s boards is the Auckland Airport company. The company sponsors equestrian events at the Puhinui Equestrian Centre – yes, the very same Puhinui Road on which they both grew up. Joan accepts an invitation from another corporate sponsor – Deloitte New Zealand – to join them watching a three-day event in their tent. Joan is mesmerized by the horses, their beauty and their grace, and impressed by the skill of the riders. She confides to one of her Deloitte hosts, Carolyn Mincham: “You know, I’ve always wanted to ride but it was out of the question in my family.” (Joan’s father had “worked hard coiling hoses in the Reid Rubber factory 60 hours a week from the time the family emigrated to New Zealand but that didn’t provide money for horses”.)
JOAN’S TOP BUSINESS ACHIEVEMENTS
✱Top Director of the Year by the feisty Shareholders Association 2014
✱Westpac-Fairfax Supreme Woman of Influence Award 2015
✱Deloitte Top 200 Chairperson of the Year 2015
✱University of Auckland Distinguished Alumni Award 2015
“I’ve just taken it up – it’s never too late to start,” Carolyn enthused to Joan. “There’s a fantastic woman in Pukekohe who is expert at teaching adults to ride.” And thus began the horse habit.
“I rang her, Samantha Winn, and she was very relaxed and said, ‘Just come and bring shoes with heels so they don’t slip through the stirrup iron.’ She kitted me out with a horse and I rode in an arena and came home feeling really good about it though I was not a natural rider, nowhere near it.”
“And next thing you know,” Brian takes up the story, “there’s a horse and then a horse float and of course a four-wheel drive to tow the float and every Saturday we are taking the horse, Bombproof Willy, to Samantha for riding lessons.”
Joan, prudent and disciplined in everything she does, had spent the time (and money) to find a safe horse. “I thought I had a good horse but, even so, I said to Brian, ‘For God’s sake don’t come up suddenly when I’m riding.’ And what did he do? He jumped up suddenly from behind a fence and Willy was spooked and tossed me off.”
Prudent Joan wanted to give up then as she nursed her badly injured shoulder but oddly enough, it was Brian who refused to let her. “Joan had never had a sport so it was good for her to stay with it. So I said, ‘If you stay riding, I’ll take it up with you.’”Joan takes over this often-told saga: “Brian says he is smarter than me and could see that this horse riding thing was a dangerous pursuit. But for the greater good he started to support me. Then he quickly got addicted and he was much better. He is more of a natural rider.”
Brian went on to have quite an amateur eventing career on a horse named Micky, which they had bought as a just-retired 14-year-old eventer. “See,” says Brian, “Joan has all the ideas but she makes me do them.” “You were incredible,” says Joan recalling the heart-stopping moments watching Brian and Micky eventing and show jumping fences at heights that made her weak with fear. “Brian has quite a competitive nature and I was scared stiff there would be an accident.” “The horse did it,” says Brian quietly, yet-again avoiding the spotlight. And they agree Micky was the best horse they’ve ever owned. “No treachery in that horse,” says Joan though Brian does point out that he had many (rider’s-own mistakes) falls from Micky.
So what is it that causes intelligent, successful adult women to become addicted to horse riding – one of the most dangerous of all leisure pastimes? “Horses are a distraction, I cannot think of anything else when I am riding but that. I cannot worry about board papers, company reports. Nothing else can be in my mind at all. “And I love the bond with the animal. The simplicity of the relationship with the animal,” says the woman who is famously directly spoken, with no time for sycophants. For Brian it really is all about his wife, for the love of Joan and a desire to help her keep a strong interest outside of business. And his fondness for all animals. “Joan had never done anything like this and it was tremendous for her.”
While Joan might have had a choice in the matter, their much-adored granddaughter Indiana-Rose did not. Aged two, Indie was dressed in teeny jodhpurs, her baby feet pushed into a pair of miniscule riding boots and a hardhat settled on her little head and fastened under the chubby folds of her chin. Then she was plonked on the back of a tiny, cute pony named Danny. He came with very good credentials for bomb-proofness and a treachery-free nature. And, of course, these days Brian knows far better than to leap up behind fences when there are horses around. “I always wanted to ride as a child, and when something becomes possible that you always wanted to do, it is very exciting and that feeling hasn’t left me. Now I want to be good enough to ride any horse – well.”
Joan and Brian ride together most weekends, and have lessons regularly, with a groom working their horses (one each plus Indie’s pony) during the week. Indie, who often stays over (and has her own pinkly decorated top-floor bedroom overlooking the stables and Danny’s paddock) rides with them and is passionate about helping Brian manage and feed the other farm animals.
“But horses are one hell of a commitment,” they say speaking the same words almost simultaneously.
A HOME FOR TWO
Brian and Joan thought they were finally set for life with their dream property (12 hectares near Clevedon, between a polo club and a vineyard) when Transpower announced, just days after they’d settled, it was putting up power pylons 300 metres from the house. They resold quickly and then found what Brian described as the ugliest house he’d ever seen. It was designed by architect John Sinclair in the late 1980s in the manner of an American shingle-style long-gable house initially developed by renowned 19th-century United States architects McKim, Mead & White. (The most famous of these houses is the William Low house with its exaggerated single gable, built on Rhode Island in the 1880s.)
It wasn’t the architecture that put Brian off but the interior – the previous owners had employed a different pastel in every room and more horrors besides. However, these serial house buyers knew how easily that could be dispatched and called back John Sinclair to make some adjustments in the kitchen for more light, a new master bedroom upstairs with a balcony to enjoy the view over beautiful Hingaia Inlet and more flow from the living area. “This is the best house we’ve lived in. It’s just seven metres wide – every room gets the winter sun right into it and therefore is very warm. It’s an amazing design.”