Sir John Key

Former Prime Minister of New Zealand
Business and Law / Accounting, Finance and Information, 1983

Sir John Key

Inspired To Make A Difference.

With a degree in accounting and a passion for being at the leading edge of business, John Key carved out a successful career in investment banking before deciding to pursue his childhood dream of becoming Prime Minister. “I went into politics because I genuinely believed that I could make a difference. Whatever political party people represent, they all go to Parliament because they want to make a difference.”

What did you study at UC?

I did a BCom in accounting back in 1982. I’d always been interested in business, and the idea of being on a board fascinated me. I looked through annual reports and noticed that lots of people who were on boards were accountants, so I decided I should do that!

Were you supported in your decision to go to uni?

My mother was immensely focused on me getting a university degree. She was an Austrian-Jewish refugee who escaped to the UK in 1938. She was quite well educated for her time and knew the power and importance of a good education. I went to UC because of the value it would have for my future career.

What did you do when you graduated?

I got a job in the audit department of a local accounting firm. The funny thing was, I was much more interested in business than accounting. About a year later I was invited to join Lane Walker Rudkin as a project manager. That was much more what I wanted to do – be at the cutting edge of business. When the government at the time floated the dollar I was inspired to go in to investment banking and the rest is history!

How and why did you go into politics?

I’d always been fascinated by politics. One of my first memories of wanting to become Prime Minister was around age 10. Eventually I decided to retire from investment banking and go into politics. It was a big call because I was in a senior role, but I genuinely believed that I could make a difference. Whatever political party people represent, they all go to Parliament because they want to make a difference. In my heart of hearts I believed that I could make it, and it turned out I was right!

How was being Prime Minister different to what you imagined as a 10-year-old?

It was harder in a lot of ways. It's a marathon. You get up at five in the morning and go to bed at midnight. In the modern world of social media it's pervasive and even at times intrusive. I was a very economically focused person and one way I changed as Prime Minister was realising that not everything is about dollars and cents. I had to become knowledgeable in things like social policy and foreign affairs. As Prime Minister you have to know a lot about an enormous number of topics.

What was your proudest achievement as Prime Minister?

The way we supported Christchurch. It would have been so easy to blink at a time where the city needed our support. We made decisions like paying 50,000 people their wages for eight weeks. That was against all the official advice but if we hadn't, a huge number of small businesses would have failed. I think the country takes reassurance from that kind of leadership in a crisis.

What have you been up to since stepping down?

Life is different! I’m still busy but it's more manageable. I was 55 when I stepped down which I thought was a little too young to do absolutely nothing! I’ve basically gone back to the commercial side. Currently I’m Chair of ANZ and have a suite of other commercial and advisory roles. I also do speaking engagements. And I play lots of golf!

Have the skills you gained at UC come into play in your professional life?

They’ve been very important. Accounting is a very precise discipline. It taught me a way of thinking that helped me understand things later in life. As Prime Minister a huge amount of time was spent with the Minister of Finance and in Treasury so being comfortable in that kind of environment was really important. Now as Chair of ANZ, we need someone on the board with an accounting degree and I'm the one who fulfills that. So even today it's incredibly useful.

What’s unique about what UC offers its students?

Firstly, Christchurch is just a lovely place to live. You have everything from the mountains to the sea all very accessible and it’s far more affordable than a lot of other cities. Secondly, UC has an incredibly successful academic record and a lot of high-quality teaching staff. Students today need to have a degree that’s well-recognised internationally because it's highly likely they’ll spend time overseas. UC is very well respected internationally, it certainly was for me.

Did your time at uni shape you in any way as a person?

It was a relatively short amount of time, but it was one of the happiest times I've had. You've reached an age where you’re a young adult. You can pick and choose your friends and the things you want to do. I've said to my kids, “Enjoy your time at university because soon enough you have all the responsibilities of real life.”

Any words of wisdom for young people today?

First of all, absolutely get a tertiary qualification. Ideally doing something you like, but remembering that your time at university shows you know how to learn. A lot of people end up with careers that aren’t directly correlated with their degree. Secondly, finish your degree. Because if you get the loan but not the degree, you've got the liability but not the asset! Thirdly, take a moment to enjoy the freedom of it. Do lots of things. I remember one day it snowed and my wife and I, who were students at the time, packed a picnic and went out to Darfield where we drank soup and made snowmen. You can't do that when you’re working!