CEO, Rangatira Ltd
Civil Engineering, 1991
Building Great Kiwi Businesses.
He’s met Muhammad Ali, had breakfast with Madonna and sold hurricane-damaged surfboards in Miami. Clearly, Phil Veal’s journey from engineering degree to multi-national CEO has been anything but linear. From ‘builder of things’ to ‘builder of businesses’, it was Phil’s broad skill base, questioning nature and relentless perseverance that saw his path unfold in unexpected yet incredible ways. “If you have curiosity, hustle and a good set of skills in your toolbox, the path will open up – and it will be as squiggly as all hell!”
Tell us about what you do!
At heart, I’m an investor. I did my undergrad at UC in civil engineering, so I trained as a builder of things. But for the last 20 years I've been a builder of businesses. Up until recently I was CEO of Rangatira and now I’m working on a few new ideas. Essentially, what I'm about is building great New Zealand businesses.
How did that transition from engineering to business happen?
When I graduated in 1992 there weren't a lot of jobs in New Zealand, so I headed overseas. I started my first business in Miami selling hurricane-damaged surfboards that I’d refurbished. On the weekends I worked for a catering company. I even catered a couple of dinners for Madonna! Eventually I went to London where I worked as an engineer on tunnels and bridges. Later I moved into management consulting, working in the investment banking sector, and after moving back to the US in the early 2000's I launched a new management consultancy. With my partners we built it up to around 300 people working all around the world, before selling it.
Sounds impressive! What else keeps you busy?
I'm Chair of the board for Kea, the Kiwi Expat Association. Our mission is to build a “Borderless Nation” of New Zealanders around the world. I’m passionate about New Zealand because we’re a bit like the last bus stop on the planet. To compete in the world it's not enough for us just to be exporters, we need to be sophisticated investors on a global scale.
What personal characteristics are key to what you do?
There are two key things, which are also the qualities I look for when hiring people. The first is curiosity. An engineering degree is great for that because it's all about finding out how things work. The other thing is hustle. Having persistence and perseverance, and relentlessly continuing towards your goal. You have to be able to keep going.
You’re at the top of the ladder, so to speak. What would you say to someone at the start?
Firstly, success is a matter of perspective. CEO isn't the right role for everyone. You've got to understand who you are and work to your strengths. I think that if you want to run a complex organisation, you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. That's a wonderful characteristic of our education in New Zealand – it's very broad and you've got to learn a bit of everything.
It sounds like you take a very pragmatic view.
When I was overseas, people couldn’t believe that in order to get my engineering degree I had to do a coding course, get my first-aid certificate, learn how to weld and be able to touch type at 60 words a minute. But you couldn’t graduate without ticking off those things! The breadth of skill you get in a UC engineering degree is amazing. For me, it meant I could be hands-on when I needed to be and more creative in my problem solving.
What else did you value about your time at UC?
Christchurch was an idyllic place to study. It’s a wonderful location because you've got scope to get off campus – you can go skiing or sailing, whatever you want to do. Beyond that, the education at UC isn’t just academic and I think that's hugely important. If you want to graduate students who are going to change the world, you can't just talk at them in the classroom. You have to engage them, give them practical skills and make them part of a community.
Do you still keep up a connection with UC?
I helped set up the UC Foundation in the United States. Off the back of the quake we raised about a million dollars for earthquake relief. University is such a critical time in anyone's development and it's only years after you’re out that you realise just how influential it is. I think it’s good to retain a connection and find a way to give back.
Looking back, what’s been the most surprising thing about your career?
It's not a linear path. I left uni thinking, “That’s it. I’m educated. I’m going to be a civil engineer for the next 40 years.” But I’ve been a cab driver, a blockie on a building site, I’ve owned a windsurfing business, met Muhammad Ali, and Madonna’s bought me breakfast! I had no idea any of these things were going to happen. But if you have curiosity, hustle and a good set of skills in your toolbox, the path will open up – and it will be as squiggly as all hell!