Mark Wilson’s career has taken him from small city New Zealand to the top of a 300-year-old insurance giant in Europe’s finance capital.
It’s 18,000 kilometres from Rotorua to London, via Waikato University, where his company, Aviva, manages about NZ$800 billion in funds, but the leap from here to there is pretty small, really.
“You know what? When you are from a place like Rotorua and Hamilton it gives you a different skill set,” Wilson said.
“When you are from Rotorua, you are brought up in cultural diversity and so I’ve worked in China and Hong Kong for 14-years and then the UK and here and everything you can translate, and that’s what it gives you.
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Wilson, an avid fisherman and rugby fan, has made a specialty of bringing distressed businesses back from the brink. When he sees a crisis, he runs towards it.
“I built my career doing the jobs everyone else runs away from because that’s the most fun,” he said.
Three things have impacted him most, he said.
“University, school and whanau (family). They shape your whole values-set.”
That’s held him in good stead since he left our shores 20-years ago to work in the Asian financial markets.
He is credited for keeping insurance company AIA afloat during the global financial crisis when, in 2008, its parent company AIG collapsed and had to be bailed out to the tune of US$180 billion – more than New Zealand’s GDP at the time.
When AIA was tanking, investors were baying at the door, he said.
“You wake up every morning and outside every office we had for three or four or five blocks, around Asia, of people wanting to pull their money out. What do you do?”
It was unprecedented. No textbooks existed on how to manage the GFC, no blueprint to fall back on.
He worked for weeks on end without going home at night and for more than eight months he didn’t take a day off. AIA was saved.
“In the end, it relies on a team of people around you who are agile in thinking and can cope with stress,” he said.
“AIA at the time had about 300,000 staffing agents and was so integral to all the economies in Asia.
“If you are doing something like that, if you screw it up, you are impacting a lot of people.”
In 2012, Wilson was appointed as group chief executive officer of Aviva. In 2016 he earned £4.3m (NZ$7.6), down from the previous year’s salary of £5.7m (NZ$10m).
Established in 1696, the company has a rich 300-year heritage, operates in 16 global markets and fortunately, for Wilson’s love of rugby, is the sponsor of the Aviva English Premiership rugby competition.
When Wilson came onboard, Aviva had no capital. Last year, it posted a £3 billion profit, compared to £2.7 billion the previous year.
Wilson believes businesses must have a social purpose and “New Zealand has a way to go” in terms of how businesses impact on peoples’ lives, sustainability of economies, climate, eradicating poverty, and sustainability of food supply.
He has already implemented the living wage at Aviva and since then profits have soared.
“Have a look at Maori culture. It’s into sustainability of land, and business should be the same.
“If you’ve got the privilege of running a company like Aviva, like I have, you’ve got to be doing some good.”
On Friday, Wilson was back at the University of Waikato in Hamilton where he studied economics, to receive a distinguished alumni award.
It was the first time since 1990 he’d been on campus but “university doesn’t leave you”, he said.
And he weighed into the proposed medical school debate.
“In New Zealand, you’ve got one medical school per 2.5 million to 2.6 million people. In the UK and the US it’s 1.6m people and we’ve got one of the finest medical institutions right on our doorstep in Waikato Hospital. It’s a total no-brainer and it’s time the government got real and accepted the proposal and put it in.”
Two days before Wilson received his alumni award, he went back to his old schoolyard, Rotorua Boys’ High School and spoke to the student body.
“When I was sitting where they were, in 1984, I was thinking what am I going to do? I thought how can a boy from Rotorua compete with a boy from Auckland?
“And then when you do it, you realise being from Rotorua is an advantage, not a weakness.”