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Quin takes Callaghan beyond 'start-up', leaving others to chase All Black-sized ambitions

Thursday 28th July 2016

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Next week Mary Quin will drop her dog off at the boarding kennels before hopping on a plane bound for her nephew’s wedding in Poland.

Her face is much more relaxed and animated talking about her planned road trip across Eastern Europe with one of her brothers, Frank Quin,  than it is when discussing her departure as chief executive of Callaghan Innovation, the government body charged with helping New Zealand companies grow bigger, faster through research and development and innovation.

Quin leaves Callaghan this Friday after resigning three weeks ago in an unsignalled move.

When appointed inaugural CEO three years ago, Quin, who returned to New Zealand for the role after 37 years overseas, said it was a dream job that would use all her experience and skills.

In her first interview since resigning, she says Callaghan is now well established and the board has completed a strategic review to set future direction. The timing is right for her to leave to pursue other interests, chief among them travel.

Quin will remain in Wellington and isn't seeking another corporate role, although she won't rule it out, but would prefer a couple more directorships along with the board position she took in May with Westpac NZ.

She hadn’t considered resigning Callaghan when joining Westpac, which was a good fit after two years earlier on ASB Bank's board.

Informed sources, who spoke only on condition they weren't identified, say her own board deemed her a capable manager rather than the visionary leader it wanted to drive Callaghan’s new strategy. The resignation was announced by deputy chair Robin Hapi rather than chair Sue Suckling who was overseas at the time and his media comments about having reached a confidential agreement with Quin and that she left with the company’s best wishes rather than regret, fanned speculation about the departure.

Suckling later said the board had been talking with Quin “for some time about the future of the organisation” which culminated in her resigning. “Mary did a good job in setting up the organisation and is now going to do other things.”

Quin herself declined to comment on the speculation.

Both Suckling and Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce, who oversees Callaghan, are said to have interventionist management styles. Joyce previously described Quin as “nuggety and feisty” and she admits to being “feisty”.

While avoiding direct comment on any tensions with the board, Quin says she’d had autonomy to bring the organisation to the level it’s now at. “This gives the board the opportunity to bring in leadership that will take it to a whole other level and that will be exciting to watch.”

Judging Quin’s performance along with that of Callaghan over the past three years isn't easy. It handed out $138 million in grants last year and is expected to have total annual revenue in the 2016/2017 financial year of almost $300 million.

The mission of growing companies through technology and innovation takes many years to achieve, she says.

Suckling adds Callaghan is one of a number of players in the eco-system with the same mission and more work will be done in future on teasing out the impact it's having.

Statistics New Zealand figures show there are around 50,000 manufacturing and digital service companies, of which only about 5,000 employ more than five people.

“New Zealand’s challenge is that it is a country of SMEs but not small to medium enterprises, small to micro enterprises,” Quin says. “The... whole purpose of the creation of Callaghan Innovation is how to help more of those companies grow bigger, faster and to be ambitious.”

While observers may not have been able to see what was going on inside Callaghan, like ducks on a pond, there was some furious paddling going on beneath the surface that Quin says was necessary rather than glamorous. Things like investing in new IT systems.

“What I’m proud of is the collective impact from what we started with. I often say to people in the organisation we’re always pushing ourselves on how to be better and get to the next level of performance  and always forget how far we’ve come.”

One change in the strategy refresh will be to focus more on particular industry sectors that have potential to become market leaders in a huge global market and where there are exciting New Zealand companies and entrepreneurs already active: medical devices, unmanned aerial vehicles, value-add food and beverage products, agri-tech, and some parts of the energy sector.

There will also be more investment in Callaghan’s science and technical capability and its relationships with other research and development providers. Early on, Quin shifted the focus of the research team she inherited from the former Industrial Research Ltd away from fundamental blue-sky research and competing for contestable science funding.

“Our focus is on small R and big D. That’s where businesses need our help,” she says.

How well that science capability is working within an agency seen from the outside as largely charged with research and development funding remains an open question in the science community.

Quin says it’s still at the start of that journey. “It takes time to take the talent we have in the organisation and make sure those individuals are excited about and involved in that kind of work and then by engaging with companies to see what are the areas of research or technical expertise they need that we don’t have. That’s not just a multi-year but a multi-decade project.”

Suckling agrees with outside criticism that the organisation’s R&D side hasn’t yet been well-integrated with the rest of its operations. “That’s another area for future work”.

Callaghan is still progressing the business case required for Treasury and government approval to develop IRL’s Gracefield campus into an Innovation Precinct. Callaghan had $54.9 million in capital at the end of June, much of which is likely to be drawn down for upgrading and expanding the run-down facilities. That’s likely to be augmented by some form of public/private partnership, Quin said.  Around two dozen companies are already co-located with Callaghan’s R&D staff on the Lower Hutt campus, which also houses Victoria University’s Ferrier and Robinson Institutes.

After talking to kiwi businesses and staff internally, Callaghan's strategic refresh focuses on becoming more customer responsive and co-creation in R&D. Quin says there's been progress on the overall mission of business growth and R&D spend although it’s a job that’s “never done”.

“It really is a team sport at national level. We’re not comparable to the All Blacks yet but the fact that we can be that good at rugby tells us we can be that good at anything we set our minds to.”

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