Judith Collins isn’t the only unpopular leader to lose her job in the past week: KiwiRail chief executive Greg Miller resigned under a cloud the day before Collins was pushed. Nikki Mandow finds some odd parallels, and a Christopher Luxon connection.

Opinion: Judith Collins hogged the ‘how the mighty are fallen’ limelight last week. Top marks in the ‘disastrous internal culture’ and ‘how not to lead an organisation’ contests.

By contrast, the ‘effective immediately’ resignation of KiwiRail chief executive Greg Miller the previous day went largely unnoticed outside the business press. 

Still, depending on your view of the relative importance of the country’s largest opposition party versus the viability of our only national rail and ferry operator, Miller’s ousting may be as important, if not more so than Collins’. 

By all accounts, Collins’ divisive leadership style made a no-confidence vote against her almost inevitable. 

As Newsroom editor Tim Murphy put it in July, in a commentary piece marking the first anniversary of Collins’ becoming leader, Collins’ way of tackling the continuing unpopularity of her party – getting rid of the people under her – spelled disaster. “Collins’ answer of late, with two ugly purges of MPs considered uncompliant, is akin to that old cartoon of the Roman slave ship, with a soldier wielding a whip yelling to the crew: ‘Floggings will continue until morale improves’,” Murphy wrote.

“The strategy might well be that of a leader who prizes unity and focus above all, or it could be that of a leader seeking pre-venge – doing it to them before they can do it to her. She can’t purge them all, and at some point, something has to give.”

What gave was National’s popularity – and Collins’ job.

Her former press secretary Janet Wilson remembered how she demanded loyalty, but didn’t give it; meanwhile she’s been called “combustible” and “polarising”. She has said if you can’t be loved, it is best to be feared – and that could apply not just to political opposition, but opposition within her own ranks. Her moniker “crusher Collins” might apply not just to the fate of speeding vehicles, but how she could treat people she didn’t like.

Judith Collins had 20 months in the top job; Greg Miller lasted 30 as KiwiRail CEO, plus a few months as chair before that. 

Greg Miller’s leadership of KiwiRail sparked a workplace culture review. Photo: KiwiRail

His sudden resignation came part-way through a KiwiRail board-ordered workplace culture review, including exit interviews with a number of senior managers who have quit the company since Miller took over, including six of the 10 most senior executives. 

Accusations from insiders and in the media of arrogance, bullying behaviour, a dismissive management style and payouts to some who left the company after finding it hard to work with Miller, have been denied by the company.

“My feeling at Miller’s resignation: relief,” says one former staffer. “His destruction of the company’s culture was profound.” 

KiwiRail is a state-owned enterprise; all its shares are held by Government ministers. And Miller was a political appointment. Not because his mum was the press secretary of former Prime Minister Rob Muldoon and his dad was Jim Bolger’s press secretary – in fact that probably counted against him with Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led coalition Government

Instead, Miller getting the job was pushed by New Zealand First’s Winston Peters and Shane Jones (part of that 2017 coalition government) who wanted a friendly ear, and someone with NZ First sympathies at the head of KiwiRail.

Rail was, after all, an important part of their strategy to push investment in the party’s Northland electoral heartland ahead of the 2020 election.

Miller, then managing director of freight company Toll New Zealand, was seen as the Peters-Jones choice and was appointed chair in 2018. Treasury in particular wasn’t happy with the appointment, one insider told Newsroom, and former chief executive Peter Reidy resigned from the chief executive role before Miller started.

Former KiwiRail chief executive Peter Reidy favoured a more inclusive management style. Photo: BLH&S Forum

Reidy’s move to Fletcher construction left the chief executive’s job vacant, and Miller moved across in May 2019, after the company said an international search had failed to find another candidate.

With a new pro-rail Labour Government in place, “Greg Miller emerged as the commercially wily, politically astute individual to take the reins,” BusinessDesk editor Pattrick Smellie said at the time.

But it was also a polarising appointment. “His supporters are deeply loyal, his detractors deeply critical.”

And so it has turned out. Money has poured into rail over the past couple of years – including more than $200 million for Northland rail announced by Peters and Jones in late 2019 and early 2020, plus a commitment to build a rail spur to Marsden Point and Northport at a potential cost of more than $800 million.

It’s impossible to tell if the money would have been forthcoming anyway. 

But the loss of so many staff, the culture review, Miller’s hurried resignation, and the testimony of insiders suggests that – as with the National Party – the damage to the culture of KiwiRail has been profound.

And not just at the top. 

This video on the website of the CEO-member Business Leaders Health & Safety Forum is telling. 

Made in 2018 and featuring Peter Reidy, it talks about a then new and dramatic move in KiwiRail’s leadership strategy towards what is known as ‘‘high engagement, high performance’ or HPHE.

“HPHE is built on the idea that you motivate people by empowering them to make improvements to their workplace,” Reidy says in the video. “These improvements will ultimately drive up the organisation’s performance. 

“I view HPHE as a leadership approach. It’s about recognising that leaders don’t have all the answers so shouldn’t be afraid of letting go and letting workers come up with the solutions. It’s also about leading in a way that builds trust and shows you care about people.”

Ebitda per employee, a measure of financial performance, had risen 33 percent since 2016, Reidy said, injuries had fallen 45 percent, and the time taken to negotiate the collective agreement went from four weeks in 2016 to four hours.”

Union leader Wayne Butson supported the former KiwiRail CEO’s more inclusive management style

Most interesting of all, Wayne Butson, general secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union is featured in the video as being supportive of the new management approach.

Not any more.

A week ago, announcing a two-day strike for December – the first full national stoppage of passenger, freight rail and ferry services since 1994 – Butson talked about Miller by name in terms of his contributiion to the breakdown in relations between staff and bosses. 

“The rare depth of feeling within the highly unionised workforce reflected current poor relations between union members and KiwiRail management, led by chief executive Greg Miller,” Butson told BusinessDesk two days before Miller’s resignation.

It’s the union’s version of a vote of no confidence.

What now for KiwiRail? 

Things move slower in the corporate world than in politics and are considerably more secretive – as Newsroom found out when it tried to get people to comment.

Still, people we spoke to favoured current acting chief executive and former chief operating officer Todd Moyle to take over from Miller; the problem being that by the time Miller’s resignation was announced, Moyle had already joined the exodus from KiwiRail and accepted a job as chief operating officer with Ngāi Tahu.

A KiwiRail spokesperson told Newsroom that while Moyle “is passionate about the [rail] business, he is committed to the role he has accepted at Ngai Tahu Holdings, beginning in the New Year. 

“Until he starts that role, he is focused on leading KiwiRail … The board has begun the first steps to search for a new chief executive.”

Ironically, Moyle was also acting chief executive for six months in 2018-19 before Miller was appointed, but he wasn’t given the top job – a decision the board will now regret.

A window into the world of Christopher Luxon

And that promised link between the sorry tales of Judith Collins and Greg Miller, and rising political star Christopher Luxon – the former Air New Zealand chief executive and likely frontrunner in the leadership contest for the National Party? 

Well it was Luxon who first introduced former KiwiRail chief executive Peter Reidy to the high engagement, high performance management model. 

“He’d been using it for a couple of years at Air New Zealand and was getting great results in terms of engaging frontline workers and their union to improve productivity,” Reidy said at the time.

And that could mean a very different management approach at the head of the National Party too.

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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