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Rob Cameron – a personal obituary

by Pattrick Smellie
The last time I heard from Rob Cameron was out of the blue, just before Christmas.

I was hard up against a deadline, but Rob’s familiar bark commanded a good half hour, after which I was left in no doubt that he thought Xero’s decision to de-list from the New Zealand stock exchange in favour of the ASX was absolutely the right thing to do and that parochial nay-sayers should get back in their box.

A passionate believer in the potential of New Zealanders to make a difference on the world stage, Rob may have lamented Xero’s move, as a Kiwi. He certainly had a few choice words for the “pricks” at the international rating agencies who make the arcane rules governing the indices global investors use to allocate their funds. Because of those rules, Xero wouldn’t get a look-in with international funds manager unless it went to the ASX. But Xero couldn’t change that.

Anyway, Rob was a patriot, not a nationalist. New Zealand companies growing up and going out into the world didn’t bother him.

What did bother him was that all too few ever succeeded in doing so. Xero was an outlier. Founder Rod Drury made clear at the event marking Xero’s 10th anniversary of listing last year – a listing that Cameron Partners helped make happen – that Rob Cameron’s shrewd advice and courage to back a big idea were part of the reason for Xero’s improbable creation of a global IT challenger from the Wellington waterfront.

Rob had no doubt that New Zealanders were just as smart and determined as anyone else and should be able to do the same thing as Xero over and over again, if only the country’s thin capital markets worked better.

To that end, he’d given a huge slab of his time to the Capital Markets Development Task Force, which he chaired after appointment by then Commerce Minister Lianne Dalziel before the change of government in 2008.

He was to work closely with Dalziel again as the mayor of Christchurch, grappling with funding not only the city’s quake recovery, but its renaissance if the formula could just be got right. He knew the politics of the city selling any assets would be unpopular, but being the economic rationalist he was, Rob could see all the things Christchurch could do if it took a more creative approach to its asset base.

As chair of the CMDT, an unpaid gig that consumed him for more than two years, he poured his combination of principled and practical cleverness into threading a path between the need for new law to improve New Zealanders’ trust in capital markets, while simultaneously lowering the costs and regulatory burdens that discourage small and medium-sized firms from seeking public funds.

He was partially successful, although the NXT second board never took off.

Over the years, Rob was at the heart of so many of the great dramas of New Zealand corporate and political life.

A Treasury official in 1984, he was one of a group who experienced the appointment of Sir Roger Douglas as Finance Minister as a source of liberation after years of impotently battling the Canute-ish economic interventions of Sir Robert Muldoon.

Although he left the Treasury just before the 1984 election, he had been a prime mover in the thinking that created the state-owned enterprises model. For that, Rob would to some still be seen as an agent of destruction. At that time, the state-owned railways, postal, electricity, telecommunications and coal-mining operations were over-staffed, over-capitalised, politically rather than commercially governed, and a drag on the wider economy because of their low productivity. To get a phone connected within a week back then, you had to know someone in the office of the Cabinet Minister improbably known as the Postmaster-General.

Rob saw the hurt, but believed New Zealand would only go backwards if the deep inefficiencies that had become embedded in the economy by the early 1980s weren’t tackled.

Moving from the Treasury to broking firm Jardens and then to merchant bankers Fay Richwhite, Rob Cameron was deeply involved in the privatisation and listing of Telecom, now Spark, and such high stakes exercises as the 2001 recapitalisation of Air New Zealand.

At his own firm, Cameron Partners, established in 1995, his formidable capacity to marshall not only an argument but also an army of willing helpers saw him at the heart of the creation of the Fonterra Shareholders’ Fund. Rob would have preferred a more orthodox listing than the farmer-controlled FSF units, but he was pragmatic about the political impossibility of that. Far more important was giving non-farmer investors some exposure to the country’s single largest industry.

The same desire to give New Zealanders better investment options, to bring commercial discipline to government-owned businesses, and to overcome political objections saw him become one of the principal architects of the so-called MOM (mixed-ownership model) partial privatisations of Mercury, Genesis and Meridian Energy earlier this decade. He served on the last government’s Tax Working Group.

Rob met his cancer diagnosis in 2010 with customary vigour, researching treatments and approaches like another due diligence exercise and throwing himself into experimental regimens. He was delighted to discover that he could justify a glass of good red wine under one of those approaches to treatment. He bounced back again and again and was a source of strength and advice to others with cancer.

That process also allowed him to marry his deep commercial experience with a big-hearted willingness to give both time and money to philanthropic activity.

For many years, he served on the board of the New Zealand chapter of the Special Olympics and, as a compassionate libertarian with a deep belief in the rule of law, supported human rights organisation Amnesty International. He was the sort of person who was always being shoulder-tapped for both advice and contributions to major fundraising efforts.

“I’ll have to talk to Maureen about that,” he’d say in response to such approaches, referring to his lifelong wife and partner.

In 2015, he brought his commercial skills to a philanthropic capital-raising for the Gillies McIndoe Research Institute to advance globally novel cancer and birthmark research of Wellington-based Dr Swee Tan.

To all of these activities, including during low points in his illness, Rob brought a combination of enthusiasm, integrity, high intellect and generous commitment.

He was a very rare and special breed of New Zealander, whose influence is widespread in the more resilient, competitive and outward-looking country that New Zealand has become. He died in Wellington yesterday, aged 67.

(BusinessDesk)