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There’s been a changing of the guard at Kea: a new board, new chairman and a bolder plan to connect more expat Kiwis than ever before. Sir Stephen Tindall’s original big idea is set to get even bigger.
On September 20th, 2012, something rather significant took place on the 9th floor of the Ernst & Young building in Auckland’s downtown Britomart. A group of elite Kiwi business people, some of whom had flown great distances to be there, gathered to welcome the new Kea board members and farewell the retiring members, including the organisation’s co-founders, chairman Sir Stephen Tindall and Professor David Teece.
Anyone involved in exporting needs no reminding of the work that Kea does to link up and motivate expat Kiwis and ‘friends of New Zealand’ to increase their contribution to New Zealand and assist this country’s export drive. It’s not so much an organisation, more a giant network, that’s fuelled by the passion all expats have for their homeland.
There was a palpable sense of occasion in that room as Sir Stephen handed over the mantle of responsibility to incoming New-York based chairman Phil Veal – reminding us that Kea was one of just a few positive outcomes from The Knowledge Wave conference held 11 years ago. He admitted that it had been a difficult journey at times, but expressed his confidence in the “young team” now carrying the torch.
It was a memorable speech, and had been preceded by a fitting tribute to
Sir Stephen by Phil Veal and Kea’s global chief executive Dr Sue Watson.
In her talk, Watson outlined an ambitious game plan for the year ahead, which was well received by those gathered. I decided it warranted a follow up visit to Kea’s central city office a couple of weeks later for further explanation and to get the message out far and wide.
The first thing I noticed when stepping into the Kea boardroom for my chat with Watson is the sea of Post-it notes plastered around the walls. It was a design process to develop their 1,000-strong leaders network, she explains. “We captured feedback from potential members of that network all around the world;
and from Kiwis here wanting to use
the network.”
“We had a strategic plan already,
but with this feedback we could go to the next level and build on the basis of user insight, not just what we think is a good idea.”
The Kea board is very much a ‘roll your sleeves up’ working variety, explains Watson, with every member expected to front up on the ‘three Cs’ – connections, capital or capability – to help Kea succeed. Certain board members will also be called upon to assist with the process of facilitating investment back into New Zealand by ex-pats. Kea research in 2011 revealed that some 15 percent of the 15,000 expats surveyed are interested in investing here. Kea is looking at the role it can play in leveraging that opportunity for New Zealand.
“Every board member helps in the best way they can,” says Watson. “For example, Nicky Bell (Saatchi & Saatchi CEO) has great insight into brand establishment, how we tell the Kea story and how we communicate our value proposition to private-sector stakeholders, sponsors and partners.”

Making a difference
Sue Watson is 18 months into her job as global CEO, and describes it as her third career.
Her first career was as an educator and academic. She was an educational sociologist, and it was during her time at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania that she witnessed the intersection between education and business. Back in New Zealand she saw the opportunity to export educational expertise to the US school market and teamed up with Neale Pitches, ex-CEO of Learning Media (a crown entity turned highly successful private enterprise and exporter of educational products) to form South Pacific Press.
That was career number two, highly entrepreneurial – an educational publishing company exporting worldwide and specialising in printed and digital literacy resources under the brand name CSI. After ten years it’s still going strong and is another great New Zealand ‘weightless export’ story.
That business taught Watson a lesson in relation to the strong Kiwi dollar against the US. “One of the answers we demonstrated was that you don’t compete on price. In the particular industry we were involved in you compete on excellence – be the best in market – and on results. Deliver a product that’s highly valued and buyers will invest in it.”
Four years ago she sold out to Pitches, took a sabbatical, did some consulting work, and then – itching to be fully engaged again – stumbled across the Kea job while job-hunting online one day and successfully applied. “So this is my third not-for-profit career. Kea’s a great opportunity to use my business skills and acumen. And I love being in such a purposeful organisation – doing something that makes a significant contribution to the country.”
It’s the enormous opportunity represented by New Zealand’s expat community that gets Watson out of bed in the morning. “There are a million expats living offshore and we export some of our brightest and best people. That represents a threat to New Zealand, but also an opportunity. At a meta-level, all of us at Kea are hugely motivated by that fact.
“What we all love is that this is a mission-based organisation. It’s about a higher purpose. We’re not here to make money or sell stuff; it may sound corny, but we’re here to make a significant difference; an impact for New Zealand.”
That Kea has already made an impact through its 32,000 members is beyond question – but now Watson and her team want to make that step change to the next level. “It’s like a successful little business, bubbling along. We could continue like that, or really amp it up. We know it works; we have many stories of where Kea has added value – let’s amplify that by many thousands – that’s what we’ve all agreed on.” And by ‘all’, she’s referring to a whole new team. “Only one person has been here longer than me.”
Kea now has a commercial director, Tim Huston, an expert in commercialising digital properties, whose role is to help build the organisation’s revenue streams.
“Fifty percent of our revenue has to come from the market and that keeps us honest – if we’re not delivering value, then we won’t survive and nor should we,” says Watson.
Kea doesn’t charge a membership fee – it wants to build scale. “We’re building a community of a million, and it will always be a free community.” But of course a database of even 100,000 offers monetising opportunities, and there are companies that already pay to market products and services to the Kea network through its various platforms.
It also goes without saying that social media sites Twitter, LinkedIn and particularly Facebook, are now instrumental in building and strengthening the Kea cause, and have become an increasing area of focus in recent years. Facebook users utilise the site to generate interest in all things Kiwi and make valuable connections.

Addressing a real need
I ask Watson why she thinks Kea’s big hairy goal of making New Zealand the world’s most globally connected country will succeed? “Because it addresses a burning need,” she replies. “Ex-pats and friends of New Zealand really do want to connect with this country and with each other. And Kiwis here want to connect with ex-pats overseas.
“Also, we’re going to where the ex-pats are – we’re not trying to drag them to us.” Technologies like Facebook have a crucial role to play here, she adds. “2.4 million Kiwis are already on Facebook – so let’s go where they are.”
Kea is currently running a global Facebook advertising campaign, she says, to catch the eyeballs of offshore Kiwis and invite them to be part of the global community for New Zealand.
“The numbers on our Facebook page have been growing by more than a thousand a week.”
Watson loves tracking the interactions on the Facebook site – it gets personal, it’s highly social. “There are a lot of homesick Kiwis out there.” And to be a Kea member, it’s just a case of ‘following us’ on Facebook, joining Kea’s Twitter and LinkedIn communities, or signing up on the Kea website and subscribing to the global newsletters, she says. “Whatever channel works for you, works for us. One click and you’re in.”
Of course, being an official, approved ‘private’ member of Kea (as opposed to ‘public’) has its advantages, she adds, allowing you to search the database for key connections. Watson refers to these people as ‘influencers’, high-value people through their business connections – and they are often linked up through a relationship manager in New Zealand. A relationship manager may call up a suitable overseas member with a view to connect a firm in New Zealand, the enquiry may have come via an intermediary. “It’s about the member’s ability to influence on behalf of New Zealand, with their own community of influence.”

Stand-out connections
Connecting the right people for positive outcomes has always been Kea’s mantra. In the whole commercialisation or internationalisation pipeline it’s about providing the initial contact and advice, then stepping back, Watson says. “The whole idea is to accelerate the speed to market and help prevent cash being burnt going in the wrong direction.
Some key connections she recalls (many are on the website) include Wishbone Design (an offshore Kiwi gave the company valuable advice on their retail/online strategies), Icebreaker (assisted its US/Canada retail launch), Velocity Made Good (secured a large US ‘primary supplier’ deal thanks to a Kea member), and CricHQ (used the Kea network to find contacts to enter the Australian market).
Watson is under no illusion that it’s currently tough out there for exporters – made especially so by the stubbornly high exchange rate. Her advice? “If they’re going to cope with the high dollar, then they must get higher up the value chain.” Retaining ‘ideation’ and R&D on these shores is vital she believes, and encouraging businesses into areas where the exchange rate is less significant is one area Kea is tasked with. She also sees an inspirational role for Kea – spreading stories of courage and success by Kiwis both here and overseas.
It’s those success stories that really fire up Watson and her team. “We love hearing about expats we know who’re succeeding in world markets. “A real stand-out for me recently was Victoria Ransom selling Wildfire to Google. It’s even more remarkable because she is such a great supporter of Kea and always sharing her expertise. It was so exciting for us.”
Watson gets a kick out of matchmaking too. “For example, a company was looking for a Kiwi expat with expertise in the building industry in southern Africa. We worked our networks and matched the parties up within 24 hours. Awesome – that’s tangible; that’s Kea delivering on its promise.”
Some matches happen almost overnight – other matches take months, even years to produce tangible results. Watson admits to being impatient and outcomes driven. She’s had to learn that things never happen as fast as she would like.
Meanwhile she often gets singled out as the go-to person for making business connections. It’s because of her profile, her role and her reputation for advocacy. She is genuinely interested and passionate about the fortunes of Kiwi businesses, describing herself as “a champion for the country and its businesses.”
Watson tells me she’s heading to San Francisco, New York and Boston in a few weeks. You can guarantee she’ll be sharing many great New Zealand business stories with Kea ‘influencers’ while she’s there. You can also guarantee there’ll be many willing listeners, and down the track, some great outcomes for the homeland.

Who funds Kea?
Traditionally Sir Stephen Tindall and the Tindall Foundation have made ‘as needed’ funding contributions to keep Kea New Zealand functioning. Today it is 50 percent funded by four central government agencies – with the balance made up by several revenue streams: local government, private sponsorships/partnerships, events (for example, World Class New Zealand and Inspire), advertising and commissions (for example, a jobs or talents board for Kiwi ex-pats
run in partnership with Haines Attract).
“To ensure Kea’s sustainability our financial strategy is to encourage diversified revenue streams,” says Dr Sue Watson. “Our goal is to become even less dependent on government funding – although I think it’s important that the taxpayer is a shareholder in this national economic development asset that we’re building.”

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