Waikato business and community stalwart Ken Williamson (KStJ QSM JP), has been named Distinguished Fellow of the Institute of Directors (IoD) – the Institute’s highest accolade.
The award recognises close to 40 years of governance and business leadership of corporate and not-for-profit entities in the Waikato, and nationally.
A state house boy from Auckland, Ken harks back to a time in New Zealand when things felt more egalitarian and the divide between rich and poor didn’t seem as expansive as it is today.
“In our street, everyone was much the same with mixture of state and non-state houses and that’s largely gone now. We’ve got extremes of poverty, which is a real concern.”
It’s seeing the changes in the lives of vulnerable children that fuels Ken’s work in the not-for-profit sector.
Working on the McKenzie Centre Trust, which provides early childhood intervention and support for children aged from birth to school age who have a developmental delay or disability, is dear to his heart.
“When you look at those children, and you realise how blessed you are in your own life with your own daughter, and some children and their parents face enormous struggles.”
Te Whakaruruhau Waikato Women’s Refuge’s safe housing complex, which provides wraparound support for women and children, was spearheaded by Ken.
“I believe that we are our brothers and sisters’ keepers, and more importantly we are the keepers of their children.”
Owning an insurance brokerage is a long way from his state house beginnings but Ken has always let his modest early years inform how he operates in business and in his community roles.
“I’m on a few commercial boards and I found governing businesses and how to make a profit, always challenging, but comparatively easy compared to the not-for-profit sector. And the reason is you can make arbitrary, quick decisions as a board of directors. It’s your money to play around with, you can bring in more marketing, gain more customers, cut expenses here. But in a not-for-profit sector, often you’re dependent upon central funding, there is greater accountability. You can’t get more money by simply getting more customers. In fact, the reverse is true, by more beneficiaries, you usually have to make it stretch further.”
One thing that Ken is good at is making a profit, but it’s shared with a huge responsibility for giving back to his community. When Law Mooney Williamson Insurance Brokers, which he formed in 1986 with colleagues Don Law and Terry Mooney, was later sold to Crombie Lockwood for what he describes as a ‘big dollop of money’, Ken and wife Julie gave half of it away.
“Julie said ‘we don’t need all this money’. No, we don’t. What should we do? She said, ‘well, why don’t we help people that we can,’ and we did.”
Ken works for Crombie Lockwood now as an executive broker and can’t see himself retiring anytime soon.
“My motive here in this job is to make a profit for Crombie Lockwood. That’s what business is all about making a profit. If you can’t make a profit, then the business doesn’t survive. But when you’re doing stuff in the community and the not-for-profit sector, it’s the outcomes and the changes in people’s lives that is uplifting. If you sell more movie tickets or more cars, that’s great, right? But when you help people that are often disadvantaged, making their lives better, then that is a very uplifting feeling.”
His experiences as a volunteer St John ambulance officer in the 70s played a major part in Ken’s desire to help others. Alongside the drama and adrenaline pumping incidents they attended, Ken says it was the simple act of taking someone home from hospital, perhaps buying some milk and bread (out of his own pocket), settling them at home and checking in with neighbours, is where he felt he made the biggest difference.
“There’s a sense of I’ve done something really worthwhile today. That’s tangible, measurable, and makes for transformational changes in people’s lives.”
An unlikely insurance broker, Ken fell into work with NZI in 1977, it came with an Austin 1300 as a company car and the promise of a gold watch when he retired.
He laughs about this career break because numbers were not his thing when he was at school.
“I love writing and at school I got 28% in UE maths, 31% in physics and 100% in English and history, and close to 100% in geography. But here I am all day playing with figures.”
When NZI merged with South British, Ken was witness to what he describes as, Ron Brierly’s rape and pillage one of the biggest earners of overseas funds for New Zealand at that time.
He later spent time as a director for a British brokerage but hated working for an international company, he bought out the company with Don Law and formed Law Williamson, and later merged with Terry Mooney to form Law Mooney Williamson.
Recognising the need for directorship and governance roles to reflect New Zealand society, Ken has long advocated for diversity on boards, and is often involved in governance appointment and review panels.
“What we’ve missed out on, in our country and throughout the world, is the enormous gift that women would have put into business over the last 40, 50, 100 years, which is now beginning to happen. Some of our best corporations and businesses have now got women in governance.”
The IoD award is testament to the immeasurable difference Ken has made to the levels of governance in the region through his expertise and giving of his time for others.
His many governance leadership roles include, the Priory Chapter Board of the Order of St John, Waikato Diocesan and Southwell Schools, Kudos Science Trust, McKenzie Centre Trust, Momentum Waikato Foundation, Waikato Regional Property Trust (tasked with building and governing the new Regional Theatre), Sky City Trust Hamilton and with a number of successful Waikato businesses.
Former governance leadership roles include Hamilton Girls High School, Waikato/Bay of Plenty ‘Magic’ Netball franchise, University of Waikato Foundation, Sunningdale RSA Veterans Retirement Home Trust, Multiple Sclerosis Waikato Trust, Te Whakaruruhau Waikato Women’s Refuge, Central Region of the Order of St John chair, Scottwood Charitable Trust chair, and then as a governor of both the Perry and Lion Foundations following their merger with Scottwood.