From vacuumer to America’s Cup boss
True story: Tina Symmans was the woman at the end of the vacuum cleaner in Emirates Team New Zealand’s base in Bermuda last year. And now she’s in charge of running the 2021 America’s Cup in Auckland.
Sitting in CEO Grant Dalton’s office at the old Team NZ headquarters, Symmans stresses that she volunteered to take charge of the hoovering in the last Cup campaign.
She had, of course, another role in the team, as a director on the Team NZ board. But she told the team that the only way she was going to Bermuda, to witness her first America’s Cup regatta, was if she could “actually do stuff”.
“When you feel you’re part of a team like this one, you really want to be involved. You don’t want to sit around drinking bloody champagne and saying ‘Oh isn’t this lovely?’” Symmans, 60, says.
“I’m quite practical, and I can’t sit still; I’ve got to be doing something.
“So I did a whole heap of things, including taking over the vacuuming.” While she did a good job by all accounts, even in the sweltering 38 degree heat inside Team NZ’s tent city, she was replaced when a friend - who’s a Queen’s Counsel - commandeered the machine.
When Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard arrived in Bermuda, “he insisted on doing the vacuuming,” Symmans laughs.
She won’t have time to do the cleaning up at this America’s Cup. She’s now chair of the new company, America’s Cup Event (ACE), set up to run virtually everything in the regatta, bar Team NZ’s defence.
She admits she doesn’t know how to sail (although she wants to learn at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron this summer). And she hadn’t been involved in yachting before joining the Team NZ board “in that ghastly period post-San Francisco” in 2014.
When the team looked to mount a fresh challenge for the 2017 Cup, Symmans was brought on to the new board for her negotiating skills. “Primarily, I was needed to persuade the government to put some money into the team,” she says. She has a background in strategic communications and corporate and government relations, and has worked for some of New Zealand’s biggest companies.
“Well, we all know how that turned out.”
When Team NZ failed to draw any funding out of the government, and were just hours away from shutting the syndicate down, Symmans “stuck it out, and did what I could,” to keep the team alive.
It took a few years for Symmans and Grant Dalton to see eye-to-eye. She holds her own in a fierce debate – and she and Dalton have had some doozies over the past few years.
“We battled a bit at boardroom level," say Dalton. "But we get on like a house on fire now. She’s a good stick.”
Symmans commutes to Auckland weekly from her home in Hawke's Bay - a two-bedroom cottage that she renovated herself. She spends her weekends either in the garden – “as soon as I get home, I bury my hands in compost” - or white-baiting on the Tukituki River.
“I haven’t even had time to put my net in this year,” she laments. “I might get a chance this weekend. But I know they’ll still be there after the America’s Cup; then I’ll probably just go white-baiting for the whole season.”
The hard yakka of Cup negotiations
Although Symmans has just been named head of ACE, she’s more or less been in the role of sorting out the Auckland infrastructure for the next Cup ever since Team NZ returned victorious from Bermuda in July last year.
“When we got back it was a case of ‘Holy hell, not only do we have to defend it, but we have to put on an event’,” she says.
So she stepped into the breach, helping to negotiate with the government and Auckland Council on a venue for the 2021 Cup. It was intense, she says, but it’s “worked out really well”.
“We had a time issue, and the government and council had a cost issue - and fair enough too. It was just a matter of working it through,” she says. “If you get people together with a shared goal and you just chip away at it, you can always – well, most of the time - get to an agreement.”
Resource consent for the construction of the team bases came through earlier this month, ahead of time, and as of last Thursday, Team NZ are now ensconced in their new home in the Viaduct Events Centre.
She continues to be the interface with government and council as construction of the Cup infrastructure begins.
“There are multiple agencies involved with the event - from security, transport, customs, MBIE, ATEED, Panuku, RFA - each with their role to play in terms of leverage and legacy, and maximising the value for taxpayers and ratepayers,” she says.
“And then there are three of us.” She refers to herself, Tom Mayo and Grant Calder; the latter duo from the Auckland-based events business Mayo and Calder, engaged as the event directors for the Cup.
“By the end of the year, the first work will have started on the infrastructure, and our processes and governance will be in place. Then hopefully we can start thinking about the exciting, creative stuff - like when do I start planning the opening ceremony? What musicians are going to play?” Symmans says.
“I’m looking forward to that because so far it’s been really hard yakka. Sometimes I say, ‘Can I just go back to vacuuming?’”
Symmans feels she owes it to the New Zealand public to put on a spectacular sailing regatta and waterfront extravaganza.
“When we came home, we got such an extraordinary reception from the whole of New Zealand. Now we want to give them an amazing show,” she says. “We want classic real Kiwi fun and entertainment, and the thrill of the racing, all in one place.
“One of the things Grant [Dalton] was really determined to have – and we will deliver – is free-to-air coverage of the racing, and free entry to the event - in Bermuda it cost a fortune to get in. So it’s really inclusive, and there’s something for everyone.
“We'll be doing it in our classic Kiwi way. Not quite barbeques, but sort of.”
No shrinking violet
Symmans never imagined that in her late 50s, she’d end up as a member of an elite sports team. “I played tennis when I was 18,” she says of her previous sporting experience.
“Emirates Team New Zealand was a team that I’d always admired. It’s an enormous privilege to work with a team of people who are not just the best in their field, but are driven towards the same goal. They’re a bunch of the finest human beings.”
Although she’d held some impressive senior management roles in her career, Symmans says she’s never been interested in climbing the corporate ladder.
“I’ve worked in corporates for projects – whether it’s getting a company privatised like Contact Energy, the demerger to form Telecom and Chorus, or negotiating the ultrafast broadband deal,” she says.
“Corporates have layers and layers of management and it can turn into a bureaucratic nightmare. And I’ve never fitted into that; I’ve always been one of those people who busts it down and breaks through.
“This environment suits my skill-set and my temperament. I’m about solving problems… I love insurmountable challenges. If you tell me you can’t do something, I will absolutely bust my gut to make sure you can.”
Symmans says she’s had a “varied kind of life” and has never had a plan. She left Wellington Girls College midway through her final year to work for an advertising agency, and after her husband, Mike, died when she was 28, she entered public relations, eventually launching her own. She was communications director for the National Party’s 2002 election campaign.
She also took five years out of the corporate world to become an environmental activist, successfully fighting to save Ocean Beach in Hawkes Bay. “Again, same skill-set: You’re up against the wall, you’ve got no money, you’ve got a massive goal, you have massive politics involved, and the opposition has a huge amount of money.”
Sounds a lot like Team NZ and the America’s Cup.
She enjoys engaging in regular robust discussions with Dalton. “I’m no shrinking violet. Dalts is unbelievably driven, and tough as. But I’m up for the debate,” she says.
Infamous for his gruff exterior and not suffering fools, Dalton says it took Symmans a little while to understand the complex and unique machinations of the America’s Cup.
“It’s corporate, but it’s not really,” he explains. “There's that difference, you know, in the way I see things, and the way a normal corporate would. But Tina’s adapted to the game really well.
“She understands it’s rough and tumble, and to stay really light on your feet. And a corporate strategy that you may have written in a normal environment, would change 14 times in a week here.
“I have a lot of respect for her, I trust her judgment a lot. I’m happy to concede when she’s right, but I won’t when I think she’s wrong.”
Symmans, who has one adult daughter, must have known she was a true member of the Team NZ family when she spent her 60th birthday at a board meeting at the base, and the team organised a cake with a yacht on it.
She’s had to step down from the board of Team NZ to take up her new role, but remains an independent director of Forsyth Barr, chair of private company Williams Warn, and a member of the Takeovers Panel.
A diversity of thinking
When asked to list her strengths, she says a think-on-your-feet strategy, negotiation, the ability to build strong relationships “even in times of adversity”; political connections and an awareness of how politics works (her father Gerry was a press gallery journalist and press secretary to Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon).
“And when the going is tough, I do tend to make things a bit fun. I have a good sense of humour which I display frequently,” she says.
“Those are my skills. Apart from vacuuming.”
Symmans reckons it doesn’t matter “one diddly squat” that she’s a woman overseeing a sporting event clearly dominated by men.
“What matters in this job is having the right skill-set, and being part of the team. More importantly, a diversity of thinking - which may come from being a woman, or come from my experience. But I do think women tend to bring a diversity of thinking to the table. That’s far more important than gender.”
She knows her late mother, Jo, would have been proud to know her daughter was at the helm. She was, Symmans says, a huge fan of the America’s Cup, and died aged 80 before the team won back the Auld Mug in Bermuda.
“Her last words to me were ‘Make sure you win the America’s Cup’. That’s so cool.” Symmans is determined to honour her mother’s wishes again in 2021. Or at least put on an unforgettable show.
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