BE (Hons) Chemical and Process Engineering, 1993
Working towards Energy Freedom
With a degree in engineering and a wealth of business experience, Fraser Whineray is now making his mark as Chief Executive of leading energy company Mercury. While orchestrating high-performance teams to achieve company goals is his main role, achieving New Zealand's energy freedom is his overarching aspiration.
“If we can gain energy freedom then no matter what happens overseas, we’re all good. I want our company to help set a clear path so that New Zealand becomes less vulnerable economically and better off environmentally."
Tell us about your role with Mercury?
I've been with Mercury for ten years and Chief Executive for four. As CE my main job is to help people in the company do theirs. I have to help people interpret and prioritise the organisation’s goals and then then allocate our people’s skills as well as financial capital against those priorities. Ultimately my job is to support wonderful people working in high performance teams.
Do you have any particular aspirations in your role?
My mission with Mercury is to enable New Zealand’s energy freedom. We have our own water, our own food, our own electricity – but we still have to import energy in the form of most of the fossil fuel that we consume. If we can gain energy freedom then no matter what happens overseas, we’re all good. The refrigerated food still gets delivered, the lights still work, the apps still function. I want our company to help the government set a clear path towards achieving energy freedom so New Zealand is less vulnerable economically and better off environmentally
as a result of better utilising home grown renewable energy.
You studied engineering but became a business leader. How did your career unfold?
It’s been a mixed journey. I've traversed a lot of New Zealand's primary industries and worked overseas as well. From engineering school I went to the Dairy Board, first as a technical officer and then in the consumer marketing side. As part of increasingly larger dairy co-op mergers I was given the opportunity to move into finance at Credit Suisse, which I did. From there I got my MBA at Cambridge and after that I started my general management journey.
Have your engineering skills been helpful in business?
Definitely. Not so much the content, but the broader skills of understanding how things relate to each other. Engineering teaches you to foresee unintended consequences, sometimes despite the best laid plans! The quantitative engineering skills apply as well because in business you're always weighing up where the best value for effort lies. It all layers up, even if it's not explicit.
What do you enjoy most about business leadership?
It’s amazing when you see an organisation take off beyond your expectations. I think organisations are biological in nature. Like a living thing, they need to be nurtured. That starts with the people – retaining and attracting the right talent and arranging them into high-performance teams. It’s a delicate art and when you get it right, it satisfies your people, which satisfies your customers, which satisfies your investors.
What’s been your favourite achievement, career-wise?
It has been incredibly rewarding being Chief Executive of Mercury through the consolidation of its component parts into one fresh brand, with a clear mission purpose and goal. Important to me has been seeing how this change has helped galvanise our people. In a different way, stepping into general management at Puhoi Cheese was also a pivotal moment in my career. We were a young team making wonderful products. Our head office was in a three-bedroom house and I worked in the kitchen! It was like being given the keys to mum and dad's car, and we overhauled the business while we were driving it. I really enjoyed working in a small organisation like that because everything is accentuated. The wins taste amazing – and the losses are disastrous!
In your view, what does it take to be a good business leader?
A lot of people think Chief Executive's have control. They don't. They have influence at best. The customers own the brand, the employees own the culture and the investors own the investment proposition. If you start off with that humility you realise that your job is to influence the organisation and make sure all the essential components are working well together.
Looking back to your uni days, why did you choose UC?
I liked the look of the engineering school. It was very highly rated and I had some friends going there too. I also liked that UC had a campus feel, yet you still had access to New Zealand's second-largest city right there. I'm absolutely delighted that I went to UC. It was legendary fun.
Why should someone choose it today?
I think it still has the best combination of campus atmosphere and academic rigour. It ticks all the boxes in terms of student life and accommodation. But when it comes to the crunch students need an academic qualification that’s respected by employers, and UC offers that. It's massively credible with one heck of a brand and a huge, enduring reputation.
Any sage advice for young people heading off to uni?
Pick something you think you're going to enjoy and then smash it out. Don't chop and change too much. You've got to show a bit of perseverance. There will always be things you like and things you don’t in a degree. That’s okay; there’s no silver bullet. Your degree doesn't define the rest of your career. What does matter is how well you perform, the institution you go to and the quality of what you have to offer.