Alison Barrass

Zespri Director
Tell us about your background.

I was born in England and  raised in Japan where my father worked as an expat.  When I was 17 I travelled to New Zealand and spent a year milking cows and tramping in the Ureweras.  I absolutely loved it, so I moved back to New Zealand from the UK after I’d completed my degree. My career started in FMCG as a sales rep, based in the Bay of Plenty, and I worked my way through sales, marketing and eventually into CEO roles prior to moving into governance.

What do you do now?

I now work in corporate governance as a company director – I don’t work full-time and a lot of my work can be done from home, which gives me much more flexibility to be at home and spend time with my kids, Isobel (12) and Cameron (14).

How did you get that role? What was the pathway to that?

Getting into governance has been a long-term project for me. Women are still significantly under represented at board level and at C-Suite level (like CEO, CFO) and access to these roles can be tough. I was very focused on my career early on in my life and worked hard to progress to CEO of Goodman Fielder NZ (a business with turnover of $1 billion ) and Griffins Foods (with $480 million in turnover ). These roles really set me up for a career in governance where I can add value around the board table. However as a result of my focus on my career, I left having a family until I was in my 40s which has had both its pros and cons!

What’s the best thing about your role?

I love the learning that I get from working with some amazing people around the board table. I think it’s a privilege to sit across very different businesses and gain a unique insight into multiple ways of working across New Zealand. I do also love the flexibility – something I really didn’t have much of as a CEO!

Do you travel much for the role?

Pre-Covid-19 I travelled often with the different companies I work with. I still travel regularly to Hawkes Bay and Wellington for board meetings, under the current Alert Level safety restrictions. The larger companies I work with, like Spark and Zespri, would tend to have 1-2 offshore trips a year to visit markets and I would normally travel to Australia every month for my GWA board.  As someone who has travelled internationally all my life and has family all over the world, this is an aspect of my work that I really enjoy.

If you have children how do/did you balance your job and family? What are/were the biggest issues? How did you deal with them?

I can certainly say it’s easier to balance home and work life as a director, than it was as a CEO! When I was working full-time as a CEO it would be fair to say that I had very little balance in my life, but I did have a husband who was happy to pick up the lion’s share of the day-to-day parenting.  One thing I made sure to whenever I got home at night was to turn my phone off, and on the weekends I would very rarely work.  That took a bit of training for my boss who thought I should be available 24/7, but we got there in the end! The biggest challenge I have at the moment is that my calendar is locked down about a year in advance, which means if something comes up (sports games, awards, or illness) at the last minute I have no flexibility to shuffle things around.  This means my family has to be super organized and thankfully my husband has more flexibility in his work so he tends to pick up any last-minute responsibilities.

Was being a woman a hindrance or a help in getting this role?

In some ways being a woman has been helpful at a governance level as many boards are looking to improve gender representation.  Being an ex-CEO has also really helped as there are not too many women with CEO careers so the competition is not as rich as it should be.  Having said that, there is undoubtedly still a ‘boys club’ operating within governance that can make it difficult to get considered for certain roles, and then to be supported in the roles that you do take.  It’s one of the things that I assess carefully when I join a board – it’s not enough just to want to work with the business; it’s also critical that the business culture promotes good, equitable work practices and that as a woman around the board table I’ll be respected and listened to.

Do you have any qualifications?

I went to school and university in England, getting a BSc in Political Science. I did go back to University when I came to New Zealand and got a Post Graduate Diploma in Marketing which really set me on the path to my earlier career in FMCG and Sales and Marketing.

Did you require any specific education or training for this role?

My degree was really important for getting early opportunities in my career. With regard to governance, suitability is really based on your career experience so being a CEO put me in a position to be a strong candidate for board roles. I also completed the Institute of Directors residential course on governance which isn’t mandatory but is really recommended if you are looking at a career in this area.

If you had your time again would you do anything different?

I don’t really do regrets and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunities that I have.  That being said, I sometimes think it would have been fun to have tried to set up my own business when I was in my 30s. In reality, I was probably too attached to the security of getting a regular paycheck to take the risk, but if I had my time again I might give that a go.

Do you have any advice/tips for other women wanting a role like yours?

For women wanting to get into governance it’s important to consider what your pathway will be well in advance of applying for board roles.  There are some fairly common routes such as CEO, CFO or law but boards are also increasingly looking to add specialist expertise and diversity to the table.  Understanding the landscape and what boards want is critical to making sure that you build the skills required to open up opportunities.

As a woman involved in horticulture is there anything that you would like to see change that would make your life/role better?

There is no doubt that horticulture is still a very traditional sector.  Leadership positions are overwhelmingly held by men and despite the significant support that women provide in this sector, they often don’t have equitable influence either in leadership or in financial decision making. I would like to see businesses in this sector take a stronger position on driving gender diversity at a senior level with targets of at least 40 percent representation of women across leadership roles.

Are you on any Boards? If so which ones

I am on six boards – Zespri, Rockit Apples, Spark, Babich Wines, Tom & Luke and GWA (parent company for Methven showers and taps).

Have you received any awards? Can you tell us a little about them

I won the NZ Marketing Award in 2000 and 2002 and was a finalist in 1999.  I won these during my time as Marketing Director at Goodman Fielder for new products launched to marketing, including the launch of the Freya’s bread brand which is still sold today.