(Photo courtesy of Stuff)
Talking with Sinead Boucher, CEO of Stuff in New Zealand, it doesn’t take long to sense her calmness and optimism. Both would serve her well when facing the eye of the storm that was already brewing before the pandemic hit in 2020: Lengthy attempts by NZME, owner of the New Zealand Herald, to buy Stuff from Nine (Australia) officially fell through. This followed years of speculation about Stuff’s future as Nine sought a buyer.
Sensing the moment, Boucher stepped up to offer Nine a management buyout. Nine accepted the New Zealand one-dollar offer and Boucher found herself in the role of not only CEO but also owner of Stuff Ltd., and, admittedly, facing a steep mountain to climb. “Like all of you, I have been looking forward to the day the protracted uncertainty around our ownership would come to a conclusion so we could focus on building for the future,” she emailed to her staff after the sale.
Leading up to the sale, Nine had asked Stuff to divest successful parts of its diversifying business, particularly an ISP and energy property. “That was gutting and literally put us back to square one by the time Covid arrived. … Despite the fact that the business was profitable and growing and at a time when journalism was needed more than ever,” she said during the Asian Media Leaders Summit in late May. “They really wanted to focus on their core business outside of New Zealand and wanted to close us down or sell us. I really couldn’t bear that.”
Within two weeks of the management buyout offer, it was a done deal. “It allowed us to bring the business for the first time to New Zealand ownership, to reset the business and make us the masters of our own destiny.”
We caught up with Boucher just before World News Media Congress 2022 in Zaragoza, Spain, to ask her about how she navigated that turbulent time and how the company is progressing since we heard her speak at AMLS in May.
Looking back on the time of going through the management buyout in 2020, and the uncertainty leading up to that, what did you learn most about yourself as a leader and the core team around you?
I have learnt so much about myself, about my team and what we are capable of since then. For most of my career, I imagined myself as a journalist and editor, very happy and proud to be so, but never the leader of the whole business, let alone the owner. I have learned that the skills of a journalist – asking questions, assessing and analysing information, weighing credibility and significance – are excellent foundations for stepping into wider leadership roles.
The arrival of Covid, and all the huge uncertainty of those very early days, provided a unique opportunity for me to acquire the New Zealand business from our Australian owners. A lot of us tend to frame our thoughts around “why me”, but there is a lot of power in changing that to “why not me”! That can help you step forward to embrace something that might seem risky, but also has the potential to be a huge, game-changing opportunity. The value of having excellent people around you to help guide you and also support and encourage you as a leader can’t be underestimated. While my role is as the leader, I also need support and advice and this often comes from within my trusted leadership team as well as external board and advisors.
Has there been a major reorganisation in the management structure, and how would you characterise critical decision-making today vs. pre-buyout?
After the buyout, we paused to ask ourselves, who do we want to be now? What kind of company do we want to be and what do we want to achieve, for ourselves and for New Zealand? That led to a clear mission statement around having a positive impact on the lives of New Zealanders, which influences everything from our product development to our content. To do that, we have to be commercially successful and strong, but a focus on building public trust, having a positive impact on people and the planet, also gives us a clear, differentiated proposition to take to customers.
We have changed our management structure and brought in new senior leaders (and in some cases whole new teams) to reflect our new strategic focus.
We have four key areas of strategic focus – the areas we need to be excellent at in order to grow. They are customer, data, enterprise and “Pou Tiaki,” which is about building and nurturing a strong partnership with Maori (New Zealand’s indigenous people).
We introduced a new high-performance strategic framework across the whole organisation, which aims to very clearly lay out the strategy and connect that down to each person’s role through the help of a cohesive programme and some tools. For example, each person in the organisation has a game plan that directly ladders up to our strategy and can help them see what they need to do in three-month chunks to contribute towards our desired 12-month outcomes.
You mentioned in November that May of 2022 would be a milestone of your new strategy, one year after revamping much of your product, technology and business… What are some of the metrics of development and success you are measuring?
We spent the first year post-buyout going through a lot of the nuts and bolts of separating from our parent company – i.e. new payroll and finance systems. Last year was about focussing on our customer, putting in a very modern new layer of tech to allow us to enhance our knowledge of New Zealanders and developing our new products and commercial initiatives. We are all about measuring to help us stay on track towards our goals. We have metrics to measure our progress towards the outcomes we want to have in 12 months, i.e. are we building the right data strategy and products to ultimately be able to say we know New Zealanders better than anyone, and to deploy that knowledge in our content and commercial plans. We measure a lot of things – customer engagement and satisfaction, employee NPS (net promoter score) but also growth in public trust and reduction in our carbon footprint.
You gave some great examples of how Stuff is “walking the walk” in helping its community, not just with quality information but also by activating communities. When you do such a project as the one you mentioned about Christchurch and planting 10,000 trees through crowd-managing, what part of the organisation is involved… or to what extent does something like that touch different parts of the organisation in practice?
The thing I love about helping our communities activate around issues that are important to them is that all parts of the organisation are involved.
Often we start with content that informs and inspires but draws on everyone in the business to get out and make things happen. Our events team can help organise, our commercial team draws in like-minded customers, our product teams help design what we do. Our People and Culture team are also the business owners of our B-Corp status and sustainability aims, which involve all of us across the business.
What can you tell us about your expected business outcome for 2022 and prospects for the next 12 months?
New Zealand, like many other countries, is entering a period of high inflation, potential recession and still seeing the knock-on effects of the pandemic in our supply chain which we see adding up to a challenging time. But we are confident that the hard work we have put in place to build our foundations, get the business into a lean and agile state, and develop strong customer plans and products will help us navigate that.