Forum: Tait’s legacy is one of achievement — for Kiwis

He steered his company through turbulent waters

Back in the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about how to develop entrepreneurship and innovation. How to move from a “cradle-to-the-grave” culture to a more modern, dynamic business environment, in which dependency would not only be discouraged but be well nigh impossible.

One who epitomised entrepreneurship, years before this somewhat navel-gazing debate, was Sir Angus Tait, who died last week, aged 88.

Tait was an entrepreneur in every sense, although many of his generation prefer the simple term “businessman”. He tried, he failed, and he tried again — putting his house on the line to do so. He then succeeded — spectacularly. And he did so without buying in to the unlimited free market credo being put about by so many others, many of whom became rich without ever building a business or doing anything of long-term benefit for New Zealand.

In retrospect, it is very easy to see his point. Much of what was done during New Zealand’s radical, somewhat panic-driven, and extraordinarily swift economic transformation could have been done better. The privatisation of Telecom springs to mind, but it is just one example.

Sir Angus refused all offers for his company, which, at the time of his death, employed 850 people. He put his own shares in trust, to ensure the company stayed in New Zealand, owned by New Zealanders and employing New Zealanders.

While he was looking after New Zealand’s interests, our leaders, from both parties, were experimenting with our futures. In the thrall of a theory, they privatised everything in sight, and many of these former public assets are no longer owned by New Zealanders. The recent sale of the Yellow Pages to a Canadian teachers’ fund has its origins way back then.

It’s not that the pollies were wrong — business is good. They just weren’t pragmatic enough about protecting New Zealand’s interests. That would have gone against the theory that government should have no role in the market — and the market they were talking about was global. No other country opened itself up, unprotected, to the world the way New Zealand did.

Thank you very much.

In Australia, which was undergoing a very similar transformation at roughly the same time, much of what happened here would never have come to pass. The Australians embraced the new economic way without ever losing sight of their national strategic interest.

Sir Angus and a few other very successful businessmen were voices in the wilderness back then, especially with regard to incentives. Almost to a one, they were people who made stuff. Almost to a one, their critics didn’t.

People who made stuff were in the front-line of change and many didn’t make it. Tait called these the “holocaust years”. Manufacturers are still suffering with a dollar that can swing from anywhere between US60¢ and US80¢ within a few months.

Through all of this change, Tait Electronics not only survived, but thrived — through innovation. With a more subtle approach from our leaders, there could well be more companies like it now.

That Sir Angus managed to steer his company, and his employees, through such a turbulent and unfriendly business environment is a tribute to him and his team. That he did this to last — and for the benefit of us all — puts him in a different league altogether.

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