After 13 years in various positions within the Warehouse Group, the final 5 years being Group Chief Executive, Mark Powell stepped down in February 2016 to focus his time and energy in other areas. In issue five of the magazine, Dave Firth caught up with Mark to see how stepping down from leading one of NZ’s most important companies has changed his view on life, faith and business.
Going from being a coal miner in Wales to being the CEO of one of New Zealand’s largest retail companies is a bit of a cool story. Did you ever think life would go the way it has done?
I would never have imagined how my life has turned out; in all ways – family-wise, work-wise, faith-wise and location-wise. Growing up I never imagined leaving South Wales. I was the youngest of five in a working-class environment. My parents divorced when I was about 8 and there was no Christian influence. I thought I would work locally, in the steelworks or as it turned out in the coal industry.I would never have imagined being married to Maria for the last 28 years, having two wonderful daughters, a strong faith in Jesus Christ at the centre of my life and living in New Zealand – never mind being CEO of a public company! The turning point was leaving Wales in 1986 after the coal industry quickly collapsed after the 1984/85 national strike and essentially starting again, then meeting Maria…
Being able to understand ‘blue collar’ workers can be a challenge for CEOs. How have your past experiences helped you get the most out of the people you work with?
Most definitely! The good thing about mining is that you have to do all the jobs to get your mine manager’s certificate. You literally had to work a year on the coal face! Genuinely caring for front line workers is critical for any business, they are the people who do the real work, and in retail, even more so as they are the people who meet real customers!
You came to faith later on in life through an Alpha course (I’m a big fan of Alpha!). Who invited you to do the course and what impact did it have on your life?
My wife Maria had a strong faith when she was young, but like many people, had drifted away when she went to university. But she never lost her faith and when our daughters were about 5 and 6, she started to go to church with them. I was ok with that, as long as she didn’t go all weird! It also gave me Sunday morning to go to the gym. But, when we emigrated to New Zealand in late 2002, I agreed to go to the local church, Whangaparaoa Baptist, with my wife and daughters, who by then were 9 and 10. I’d never been an atheist. I always thought there was ‘someone’ there, but I knew nothing about Christianity really. In early 2003 the church ran an Alpha course and Maria persuaded me to do it with her. I didn’t have a radical ‘conversion moment’ on the course, but a journey started and at some point in that journey I knew this was true, both in my head and in my heart!
Being a Christian in a competitive marketplace must have its fair share of challenges. What has been the hardest thing you have had to deal with?
Hmmm, I’m not sure that it has any more challenges than for a non-Christian. Certainly it means that you have to wrestle with ethical dilemmas in the knowledge that there is an ultimately objective right and wrong approach and with a desire to honour God in doing that. But also, you can do that in the knowledge that business success and failure are not what’s really important, doing the right thing before God is more important This is very liberating, since ultimately if you’ve wrestled well and honestly, you can rest in God’s grace.
In the midst of your Warehouse career you managed to train as a Pastor and got yourself a Masters in Apologetics. How did your employers feel about this and how did it influence you?
I’m not sure how my employer’s felt really. When I did the Theology degree and pastoral training at Carey, I stepped down as a full time executive and did a one day a week advisory role. They must have felt okay because they coaxed me to come back as CEO of Warehouse Stationery in early 2009 and they were even comfortable with me staying one day a week as an Associate Pastor at Whangaparaoa Baptist while I did that. Then after that I continued to do the Masters in Apologetics (slowly over eight years!) but in terms of myself, the influence has been huge. As a leader It made me far more purpose and people focused, giving a far greater significance to what I was doing.
During your time as CEO of the Warehouse Group you oversaw a $100m refurbishment in the ‘red sheds’ as well as several high-profile acquisitions including Noel Leeming and Torpedo7. For the average ‘Christian in business’ these things might seem a bit daunting. How do you keep calm and focused in the midst of such major decisions?
Ultimately in business you need to have a clarity of purpose, principles and priorities, and to make decisions within the context of that. You try and make those decisions on a well-informed basis, but also ultimately recognising there is risk, and that in hindsight some of those decisions may not be successful. If your identity is wrapped up in being seen as successful by the world, or in maintaining status and position, then you may be focused on yourself rather than doing the right thing. Calmness comes from being comfortable that you have balanced speed and deliberation to come to a well-informed decision. In retail in particular speed is competitive advantage and perfectionism and fear of failure leads to procrastination. No decision can be the worst decision. When I took over at The Warehouse, we were way behind in online retail with barely $10 million in sales so we had to move quickly Five years later we had New Zealand’s largest online retail business with over $170million in sales! With that speed you accept it’s not perfect but ultimately, calmness and focus comes down to where you place your value and identity – in the eyes of the world or in Jesus Christ!
You will have done lots of speeches, interviews and presentations over the years and you’ve been teaching the Bible for some time now. How does talking about your faith compare with being the CEO of the Warehouse?
In many ways they are similar, both are about Purpose, Principles and Priorities, but ultimately faith is far more important. It’s about the real meaning of life and our eternal destiny!
What was the highlight of your time working for the Warehouse? (surely it wasn’t the red uniform!)
I wore the company shirts of The Warehouse, Warehouse Stationery, Noel Leeming and Torpedo7 with pride and to identify with our front-line teams – it also made it easy deciding what to wear in the morning (I had to buy some new clothes when I finished!). It’s hard to pick one highlight but the highlights would definitely include introducing The Career Retail Wage for our front-line teams, which significantly increased their pay, growing the online business, buying Noel Leeming and seeing the growth in the executive team. Two women from that team have now gone on to be CEO’s of other businesses, which is great to see.
Being a “workaholic” might seem to be a prerequisite for a CEO with all the pressures and responsibility that come with the job. What part did your home/family life play in your role and how did you set boundaries?
Having a ‘personal’ clarity of purpose, principles and priorities guides this. Time management in line with those is critical. Rhythms of busyness and rest allow space to balance work, for home and family.
So, what have you been doing since you stepped down from your role as CEO of the Warehouse Group?
Since I stepped down I’ve prioritised my working time into three areas where I believe I can best use my gifts to help others flourish; these are business/commercial boards, Christian not-for-profit boards and personal speaking/teaching. My time is pretty much evenly balanced between all three. In the business/commercial area I’m on the board of ASX listed JB Hi-Fi and NZX listed Kiwi Property Group, plus being on the board of Trinity Lands, a farming group owned by three Christian charities, and on the advisory board of Stihl Shop. In the Christian not-for-profit area, I’m Chair of The Venn Foundation, and a board member of The Parenting Place and Carey Theological College. In the personal speaking and teaching area, I am part of the preaching team at Whangaparaoa Baptist, speak regularly at other churches, organisations and events, usually on Leadership or Apologetics, and I teach Apologetics at Carey as part of the Applied Theology degree there. So, all in all, I’m still reasonably busy, but not too busy!
What is it about apologetics that really caught your attention?
When I came to faith the key question for me was “is this true?” I didn’t want to just follow a helpful delusion! So, for me, it is important to know not just what we believe, but why we believe it as well. What are the reasons to believe that Christianity is the best explanation of reality that Christianity is true?This is where apologetics come in – a contemporary apologetics of the heart and the head – which takes the evidence of not just science, reason, logic and history, but also human experience, direct apprehension and basic intuitions, to assess what is true about the big questions of life, such as; Where do we come from?, What is he purpose of life?, What is a good life?, What happens when you die?, Does God exist? and Who is Jesus?
With so much going on how do you prioritise the big things? Do you have any routines that help you stay grounded and encourage wise decision making?
Priorities flow from having personal clarity of the general purpose and principles of life, applied to my own particular context, my gifting and experiences. This is how I arrived at the three priority areas mentioned earlier. To these three areas I’d add time with family and time with God, giving five priority areas. In terms of decision making, having these five clear priorities, allows me to say no to things that don’t align. Then it allows me to prioritise my time. I am a planner. I like a rhythm. A rhythm to the year, with holidays booked well in advance, a rhythm to the month, week and day that allows sufficient sleep, gym time and time in Scripture and prayer in addition to all the ‘doing’. I believe good planning of time actually gives you more flexibility and freedom.
You’re a proud Welshman so we’re assuming you sing like an angel and love rugby. Is that a fair stereotype?
Yes, I love rugby, I should have said as well that that good time management allows time to watch rugby! I did sing with the Auckland Welsh Choir for a few years. I can’t really sing but the choir was big enough for me to hide!
People say Wales is a lot like New Zealand – but with more sheep! What do you miss the most about Cymru (The Welsh word for ‘Wales’ literally means ‘friends’ or ‘companions’)?
Hmmm – I’m not sure. I love New Zealand and I left Wales over 30 years ago. It’s still part of who I am, and I enjoy catching up with old friends when I visit, but I don’t really miss it. Probably being able to go to some of the ‘blood and thunder’ local derby rugby matches at grass roots level would be one thing I miss. Although I don’t miss playing in them. In those days boots and fists came flying from everywhere and there were no TMO’s if the ref missed it! My nose still reminds me of a local derby where I got caught from behind with a good ‘un, but I did get him back later (oops, is that Christian?)
You seem to have an incredible capacity when it comes to work and ministry. What would you say to people that struggle to keep the balance in these two areas of life?
It’s simple. Prioritise!
Authentic Magazine is committed to encouraging men in New Zealand to live the Authentic Christian Life (ie. allow Christ to live His life IN us). How would you encourage NZ blokes to do this?
I’m not sure I’m the best person to offer advice here, but what immediately comes to mind is that the authentic Christian life starts with having your identity in Christ, His Grace and in knowing and trusting in God’s character and His ultimate plan. This brings a Godly perspective, rather than a human perspective, and leads to real freedom. Freedom from worrying about worldly praise, success, status, money, possessions and what the future holds.
How important, would you say it is for Christian men to have other men around them to encourage them in their faith and life?
I think it’s important to have confidants that you can discuss issues with. People who will speak honestly into your life. In my case, in reality, that person has mostly been a woman – my wife – but I think having men around is also really important. I’m involved with men in a few different contexts, who encourage me in faith and life.
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By Dave Firth
About the author
Dave Firth is CEO of Authentic Christian Trust.
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