This year Business Mentors New Zealand (BMNZ) celebrates its 25 year anniversary of providing support and advice to small medium businesses across the country.

“It’s a culture of assistance,” says Dr Grahame Craig, Chairman of Board of Trustees, BMNZ, explaining that it’s a Kiwi characteristic that goes back to our country roots and smaller communities. “Farmers helped farmers. People helped each other to get support, to overcome isolation, to find solutions.”

Fast forward to the mid to late 1980’s and the New Zealand landscape had changed dramatically. The vast majority of New Zealanders - 2.5 million – lived in the North Island, with nearly a quarter in Auckland. Economic reforms had freed up the market and removed many barriers to foreign investment. Kiwis from diverse backgrounds were taking up the opportunity to be in business.

In Hamilton, Dr Grahame Craig was then co-founder of Woolrest New Zealand with Bill Hall, which within four years from its inception, had reached a $45 million turnover, employed over 100 people and was exporting to five different countries around the world. Both founders had created considerable wealth and they wanted to give back.

In 1988-89, Bill Hall travelled and lived in the UK where he learned about various approaches to mentoring and was so enthused that he encouraged Grahame ‘to get on and start making this thing a reality.’

“Bill Hall had a strong sense of social responsibility,” explains Grahame. “He was keen to develop a way of supporting businesses – particularly new or struggling businesses – to make progress and shorten their learning curve.”

The pair set up a model for mentoring and with friend and colleague, Graeme Dingle began a year of testing the concept of mentoring by running business clinics in Turangi. Happy that they had refined their model for mentoring, they then began seeking out corporate funding.

“We drew up a hit list and went on a whistle-stop tour around many boardrooms,” says Grahame. “We were selling (the concept) to corporate executives. But we found out that we were talking to large institutions who were not attuned to small-medium business. Theirs was a ‘Think Big’ mentality and it was a lukewarm reception.”

There was also a problem with the word ‘mentoring’ which was not part of the jargon of the day. 

Grahame and Bill had also listed Fletcher Challenge and at that time Sir James Fletcher was overseeing the Fletcher Trust. “We didn’t even finish the presentation,” smiles Grahame. “He was so enthusiastic and we walked out of there with a ready to run secretariat in Fletcher House, a seconded CEO, and the breakthrough we so desperately needed.”

Sir James Fletcher became a champion of the cause. He opened other doors with corporates to the point where BMNZ was completely corporate funded for the first ten years.

He also formed a close working relationship with the Chamber of Commerce. “We were inspired by Sir James’ enthusiasm for the objectivity and the success of what had been seen of mentoring in the UK and so we created an office here for business mentors when it originally started,” explains Auckland Chamber CEO, Michael Barnett.

“We’ve had spectacular successes changing people’s lives. Some have been rescues – where we’ve been instrumental in stopping a business from being ruined or going under,” says Grahame. “We’ve also helped bring owners through to success or we’ve enabled them to exit with minimum pain. With some businesses they’ve turned business around over five years and the results represent millions of dollars.”

“I’ve never ceased to be amazed at the pleasure that comes from doing something voluntary. I’ve met over 1000 mentors and that’s what drives them. Helping is a huge kiwi characteristic.”

“You get all kinds of business owners and operators and a lot of them have had to learn about business from experience. We’ve found that the vast majority don’t have an educational grounding in traditional business principles. So the scope to help businesses lift their game is huge. It’s not rocket science but it does require setting goals, having systems in place and making sure the business grows from sound building blocks.”

“In New Zealand we are able to make the most of great talent instead of it being wasted. Many of our senior mentors or’ silver talent’ have been successful, they know what works and what doesn’t. They can listen, help challenge in a constructive way, make suggestions and let you apply what they offer from their experience to what you want to do,” says Michael.

“Over the years we’ve seen a network of younger, successful business people becoming mentors too, assisting from the point of view of their current experience in business. They have a sense of social responsibility and want to contribute to the success of the business community, knowing that success builds vibrant communities.”

BMNZ has introduced a new language, a new way for experience to be shared and a new platform for assisting businesses toward success.

There’s another factor too, which is an opportunity for business that still hasn’t been fully exploited. It’s easier to articulate by comparison with a favourite Kiwi pastime – sport. In recent years, world class sports teams have been more and more willing to speak openly about how athletes are doing personal growth coaching, self-management and attention to personal as well as professional performance.

“But this hasn’t translated across to small-medium business owners as much as is needed – even though they follow sports teams,” says Grahame. “People can be very critical of our sporting heroes and their performance, but don’t apply it to themselves. They see it as a different world from their business one.”

With 25 years now behind them, Business Mentors New Zealand is definitely looking to do some new, innovative things in the future including solutions to making mentoring available to more people. “A major problem is that we’re not scalable given we’re a voluntary service. Our costs grow too and although we have over 1800 mentors, we are limited with the time they can give,” notes Grahame.

“But the future is promising with online support options; perhaps running more group based mentoring sessions; and looking at ways that we too can bridge the gap between sport and success in business. It would be great to do something in that space. Business is a team game. That it’s not on a field is irrelevant. The principles are the same.”

“There is so much ahead of us. Bill Hall had the vision but died early while in the UK after our public launch. But his expertise and way of doing business has been kept alive, adds Grahame.”

‘The successes have been that for every business that has either made a decision to stay in business or to exit, they have done so on an informed basis. The other successes are those mentors that started with BMNZ and continued, knowing that they can and do make a difference. I think my biggest win is the fact that so many commentators – media, business, family – are accepting that having a mentor is a valid and successful way of challenging what’s being done in your business and of seeking constructive outcomes. It makes good sense to have a mentor,” sums Michael.

Sir James Fletcher kept the torch alight. Business mentoring was his favourite project until he died at 91 years old. Both Bill and Sir James had two qualities in common – they had both amazing business acumen and humility. A common touch.

“That culture of assistance has stayed with us to today. And I hope we never lose it,” concludes Dr Grahame Craig.