Can you tell us about your role, what you love about it and what it is teaching you about yourself?
I joined Forest Enterprises in April 2014 after acting for the company in private practice for 23 years. I was appointed the Legal Services Director. I also became a 10% shareholder in the company and a director on the Forest Enterprises board. Three years ago, I increased my stake in the company to 20%. As an external lawyer, I had developed innovative investment structures for the retail forestry investments the company promotes. I also advised the company on the regulatory regime the business operated under - the financial securities legislation, as well as specialised forestry and ETS legislation .
In my current role, my responsibilities have expanded considerably. As well as drawing on my legal experience, I am applying my 30 years’ knowledge of the forestry industry to help expand the business. When I first acted for Forest Enterprises, it was a small Wairarapa company with 6 employees and a modest number of forestry investments under its management. Today it has over $650 million of assets under management, 30 staff, and over 6,500 investors. Being a trusted advisor at all milestones of the company’s growth and now having a key role in the company’s future are the aspects of my job I find the most rewarding.
Through my role at Forest Enterprises, I have learnt that work-life balance has made me a better decision maker. I have three offices - one in Masterton, one in Wellington and one in the forests! I work 4 days a week in Wairarapa, enjoying a semi-rural lifestyle with a character house in beautiful Greytown. One day a week I work from home in Wellington. It means I’m not trapped in an office. I spend a lot of time in the forests. Although I’m still working, the simple act of nature helps me de-stress. I enjoy the exhilaration of regularly traipsing through the trees wearing a hard hat, high -vis vest, and gumboots. I talk to the silviculture guys, the logging crews and the cartage operators and observe what they’re doing. It’s fun being out in the forest, but it also improves my legal advice. Particularly around health & safety, the Resource Management Act, and drafting forestry contracts.
You have been an investor yourself in Forest Enterprises for over 25 years - what value does this add to your role as Legal Services Director?
I invested money in one of the early forestry investment structures I developed for Forest Enterprises – a partnership of qualifying companies which then transitioned to a limited partnership. That is the structure we use today. I was not only the lawyer acting for the company but also one of its investors. That gave me a great insight into the company’s core values of putting clients first, creating wealth naturally for investors, and leading in the forestry sector with best practice in health & safety and environmental management. This informs everything I do at Forest Enterprises. What do our investors look for when they place their trust in us to invest their money and manage their forestry assets? They look for competent management and sound judgement. They demand best practice in forestry operations and corporate governance. They expect the highest ethical standards and integrity.
What is the biggest challenge in your role and how are you tackling it?
The biggest challenge in my role is the discipline of ensuring my professional and ethical obligations as a lawyer are always paramount. That duty prevails over my position in Forest Enterprises as a business owner. Because I am cross-skilling, I always need to be clear what hat I’m wearing when I make management decisions. There are a number of ways I manage potential conflicts of interest to achieve good commercial results for the company while making sure our activities are within the law and uphold high business standards. As a managed investment scheme manager licensed by the Financial Markets Authority, we have a supervisor appointed to oversee our business. I consult with the supervisor regularly and that brings a level of objectivity to what I do. We also have formal compliance processes in place underpinned by strict corporate governance led by an independent chair on our board. If I anticipate my advice may be compromised by being a shareholder and director of Forest Enterprises, I do not hesitate to instruct our lawyers, Duncan Cotterill. I find taking a collaborative approach provides the necessary checks and balances.
How do you see the role of today’s in-house lawyer evolving?
I see today’s in-house lawyer becoming the standard bearer for maintaining the organisation’s ethical standards. We are demonstrating that corporate, financial and business objectives are achieved, not hindered, by enforcing those standards. In-house lawyers used to be perceived as the handbrake – now we are being valued more as an enabler. Just as the highest standards of silviculture influence and enhance the health, growth and value of forests, the in-house legal function can positively influence and enhance the organisation’s culture, productivity, and growth.