New Zealand’s Next Prime Minister Brings M&A Skills to Politics

Christopher Luxon, the former businessman set to become New Zealand’s 42nd prime minister, may have achieved his biggest turnaround yet.

(Bloomberg) — Christopher Luxon, the former businessman set to become New Zealand’s 42nd prime minister, may have achieved his biggest turnaround yet.

The one-time Unilever Plc high flyer and Air New Zealand chief executive led his center-right National Party to 39% of the vote in Saturday’s election, up from 25.6% at the previous poll three years ago. 

He must now enter coalition talks, probably with two smaller parties, to form a new government, and says his business acumen will again be a strength. 

“I’ve done a lot of mergers and acquisitions and I’ve done a lot of negotiations,” Luxon told reporters Sunday in Auckland. “Getting the chemistry and getting the relationship right is the platform and the foundation for actually then being able to work your way through the transactional issues.”

National and its ally, the libertarian ACT Party, between them hold 61 seats in the 121-seat parliament — the barest of majorities which could be lost when overseas and special votes are counted in coming weeks. Luxon may therefore need the support of the nationalist New Zealand First Party, which holds eight seats. 

Luxon, 53, is a political novice, having served just one term in parliament. He became National’s fourth leader in little more than 18 months when he took over in November 2021 following a string of scandals and party in-fighting. 

Immediately before his selection, the party had 28% support in opinion polls compared to 41% for the ruling Labour Party, then led by the charismatic Jacinda Ardern.

“We were in a position where we did need a big reset of the party, and I’ve done a lot of turnaround jobs in my past life,” Luxon told Bloomberg before the election campaign. “And a lot of the lessons of how you lead through those periods are very transferable into this political environment.”

Relentless Attacks

While National has improved from where it was three years ago, Labour slumped to 27% of the vote from 50% in 2017. 

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who replaced Ardern in January, was on the backfoot as a cost-of-living crisis and high interest rates cooled economic growth, while ill-discipline among Labour ministers tarnished its claim to have the stronger team. 

National offered income tax cuts and was relentless in its attacks on what it said was the Labour government’s poor track record on spending and policy delivery.

Still, Luxon struggled at times to connect with the public during the campaign and rated poorly in polls on trustworthiness. He never scored higher than 26% for preferred prime minister.

“Data indicates that Chris Luxon is probably one of the most not-liked prime ministers that we’ve had,” said Lara Greaves, a political scientist at Victoria University of Wellington. “I imagine he’ll get a bit of a honeymoon bump but he definitely does face some challenges around things like likability and trust.”

Luxon never publicly fretted about his preference ranking, noting that rival Hipkins, a five-term politician, didn’t fare much better.

He said his outside business experience makes him best-placed to lead an economic recovery.

“Coming from outside, you have a perspective that’s different than if you’ve spent 20 years as a career politician,” he said in the Bloomberg interview. “I’m more in touch — as I used to be in my old life — with what you could call my customers. I feel like I’m really in touch with what’s going on with the voters across the country and where their heads are at.”

From McDonald’s to Unilever

Luxon, who grew up in the South Island city of Christchurch, was the first in his family to attend university.

He worked part-time at a local McDonald’s fast food outlet in his final years of high school, and as a porter at a tourist hotel to help finance his university studies.

He joined Unilever’s management training program in the final year of a commerce degree, starting an 18-year career with the global consumer goods giant that took him around the world. Luxon climbed the ranks to become a vice president at the company’s North American unit, then chief executive of the Canadian operation. 

He returned to New Zealand in 2011 after being shoulder tapped by Air New Zealand. 

Luxon said at the time his motivation for returning was family and not political ambition. He has two children with Amanda, his wife of 29 years.

Under his leadership, Air New Zealand cut costs, fired workers and abandoned unprofitable routes to reverse an earnings slump. His turnaround strategy succeeded and the airline returned to record profits and expanded its fleet with fuel-efficient aircraft.

Luxon stepped down in late 2019 — just months before the pandemic decimated the airline industry — and quickly secured the National nomination for the safe Auckland seat of Botany. He retained that seat yesterday with an increased majority.

Since entering politics, Luxon’s Christian faith has been a topic for commentators. He is pro-life but has said as prime minister he would not change New Zealanders’ rights to abortion. 

Luxon said his government will get the country back on track and help it rediscover its ambition and aspiration. 

“I want to make sure that we are focused on delivering outcomes for New Zealanders,” he said on Sunday. “I’m a person who likes to bring teams together and make sure that I get the best out of that team.”

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