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  • Bob van de Kuilen

GLOBALISATION: Kiwi Competitiveness in the Global Economy – Burt Munro; John Wayne from Invercargill

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

Article written by Bob van de Kuilen, originally published in 2008 with NZ Management Magazine.


Number 8 wire.

The tall poppy is the first to get cut.

Punching above our weight.

Kiwi ingenuity.

Boat, bach and BMW.

She’ll be right.

Will she?

What is the relationship between our folk image of ourselves and our place in the world economy? Are these qualities a source of competitive advantage or a liability? Do they even represent what we really are? We believe we’re a small business country, yet the top thirty businesses in New Zealand control about as large a percentage of our economy as the Fortune 500 control in the US. We believe we’re a rural people despite being one of the most urbanized countries in the world.

If this were just a matter of what we say to each other on the bus and in the pub it wouldn’t matter, but there is more at stake. Our folk image of ourselves is tied to deeply held values about work/life balance and work habits. These, in turn, are tied to our ability to succeed as we become more exposed to the world economy. If we try to compete internationally on nothing more than myths about punching above our weight we should not be optimistic about the outcome. The bravest possum does poorly against the logging truck.

Two questions are intertwined here. One concerns the relationship between our work skills and values and our ability to compete internationally. The other question concerns the contradictions between our ways of working and internationally successful practices. It would be a sad victory if success came at the price of becoming just like America, Japan or Singapore. The tightrope we must walk is to match our skills and values with areas in which we can excel.

The key question is what niche Kiwi business can create in the world economy. The notion of niche entered strategic planning from biology, where it is an assumption of population ecology that every species either finds a unique niche or becomes extinct. A niche is composed of a species’ ability to exploit food supplies, water, shelter, etc. in a way that gives it an advantage over all others. If we apply this thinking to business, it leads to the realization that every successful business is unique in its ability to provide customer value and generate profit from it. In his book, The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Harvard’s Michael Porter has extended the application of strategic niche to nations in the world economy.

We are agreed that a prosperous future for New Zealand can no longer ride on wool and mutton, although they will continue to contribute. Further, it is not yet clear what will be added as they become less prominent in our economy. If we look at this situation in terms of finding a niche, the question we would ask is what Kiwis do distinctively well relative to other nations. That is, what strategic core competencies do we possess as a nation?

Presently, we tend to have two unrelated conversations about our cultural values. On the one hand, business leaders can be regularly heard to slag the “number 8 wire mentality.” Others, however, seem to believe that success in something as complex and ill-defined as the “creative economy” can be anchored by something as vague as “Kiwi ingenuity.” The historian Paul Veyne once wrote that, “[A] culture is a tissue of exceptions, whose incoherence goes unnoticed by those involved in it[1]”. Like all folk knowledge, our folk image of the good Kiwi embodies deeply held values – and contradictions. As with people, all people, our greatest strengths come from the same deep place as our greatest weaknesses. We cannot have one without the other. If we are to benefit from developing the potential strength of these qualities, we must simultaneously recognize and protect against their dark side.

An iconic image of this duality is the portrayal of Burt Munro in The World’s Fastest Indian, which one government website has called, “a refreshingly old school portrayal of classic Kiwi values[2].” Indeed. While movie-Burt corresponds with real-Burt to a high degree in terms of the facts, the movie magic through which Roger Donaldson turns movie-Burt into a good yarn also turns him into the essence of Kiwiana the way Hollywood directors like John Ford turned John Wayne into the distillation of the way Americans saw themselves. If we wanted to look at the good and the bad sides of Kiwiana, we could do worse than to examine Burt. In fact, we, the authors, have used discussion of Burt for just this purpose while doing management training.

What can one say in praise of Burt? He never gave up. He drew an average of an extra 4 miles per hour out of the same bike for almost forty years until a vehicle manufactured with a top speed of 55 m.p.h. could run at more than 200. He embodied Kiwi ingenuity and a number 8 wire mentality. He learned to cast his own pistons out of dismantlers’ auto parts; ran the bike until something blew up, then improved the part that had failed. He certainly punched above his weight, taking his bike from the bottom of the world to a world record. And significantly, as Burt’s adventures take him from Los Angeles to Bonneville across the alien American Southwest, Burt makes one friend after another by being a good bloke, not a tall poppy. All of these are both genuine achievements and qualities of which Kiwis in general can take pride.

What of the other side of the ledger? Burt was notoriously unconcerned with safety, “I build them to go, not to stop.” He was a lone wolf, not a team player. Many expats, ourselves and others, find it very Kiwi that Burt would spend all his money and then some, take several months and survive a long string of misadventures to get to Bonneville for speed trials – without having first checked the rules for registration! None of this is meant mean-spiritedly. To repeat, we all find that our greatest strengths come from the same place as our greatest weaknesses. If we are to profit from the one, we must recognize and deal with the other.

So, are our cherished Kiwi values assets or liabilities?


I Got Plenty O’ Mutton (And Mutton’s Plenty For Me?)

Whatever one thinks of the government’s recent efforts to usher us into a “knowledge economy,” one cannot deny that we are in the midst of the most important shift in Kiwi business since – well, Kiwi business. It is only a bit simplistic to say that our post-contact economic history rests on one innovation – refrigeration. Wool got us going. Wool and mutton kept us going. And, of course, those days are over. If we wish to maintain our standards of living, let alone improve them, we clearly have to answer the question of what other kinds of business will fill the breach.

There is one point all the answers put forward so far have in common. Whether we look to dairy and Fonterra, to overseas education and tourism, or to the vaguely-defined “creative industries”, all avenues forward thrust us into games that are played internationally and where success means being world-competitive. Not too far down that road, the path diverges sharply. If we can suss out what a “knowledge economy” is and we can find high-value activities in it that we do as well as or better than others worldwide, we get to work and live like the most affluent nations. If we fail to follow that path, increasingly we get to work and live like a second or third world nation.

What will Kiwis do in the world economy? That remains to be seen. Our income has slipped to below 80% of the OECD average. Our wages for skilled workers are notoriously low. We have replaced wool and mutton, not with high-value products, but with powdered milk. We do not exist in a “global” export economy as much as an Australo-American one, since these two countries account for almost 80% of our exports. And what do we export? Overwhelmingly, we export animal products, fruit and vegetables, machine components – oh, and our own most highly educated people!

Returning to the idea of national competitive advantage, what can Kiwis do distinctively well in the world? We think of Italians for style, Germans for fine engineering, Chinese for cheap manufacture, Kiwis for…well, for what? Hopefully for more than punching above our weight. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest corporation, has annual revenues about twice the size of our national income. For every Kiwi, there are 350 Chinese. How far above their weight can anyone punch?

But, that’s the beauty of it. We don’t need to conquer the world. We only need to find a niche we can successfully defend.

For instance, organic foods are only a small percentage of the world grocery market. That worldwide niche, however, is much bigger than our grocery output. The agricultural sector in the G8 countries could not survive exclusively in that niche because it is too small, but we could. In addition, organic produce sells at a premium price. If you have to pay a fortune to send a kilo of food to market abroad, it’s far more profitable to send a kilo worth forty dollars than a kilo worth five dollars. Of course, that ship has already sailed.

Back to Burt

So, what has all this to do with motorcycle racing? Because national economies excel at things which are core values in that culture. Fashion is embedded in Italian life, precision in German life. Americans get things done (regardless of whether the thing needed doing in the first place). What core cultural values do we have and how can we build on them to create a defensible niche in the global economy?

To begin with, we need to get past romance and common sense. There is something to the idea of “Kiwi ingenuity,” but are Kiwis creative across the board? No. Our greatest success and energy has come from creative individuals, especially in arts and artisanry. This is significant, but it should not be confused with institutional creativity of the sort which produced the X-Box or the iPod. A workforce with a “number 8 wire” mentality may be versatile, but it is unlikely to excel at task-specialized work. Right down the line, our strengths are our weaknesses. Neither defending them nor slagging them will get us anywhere. The challenge is to ask what they say about us and what we can do with the abilities and limitations they identify.

There is one more lesson Burt has to offer us. He is a reminder that the question facing us is not just about who we are, but who we want to be.

Like many immigrants, we, the authors, experience Kiwi culture ambivalently. It is one thing to praise work-life balance; it is quite another to find the largest mall in the country closed at seven in the evening. Both sides of this ambivalence are important. We tend to either romanticize a past we cannot retain -- the past of Wattie’s and L&P commercials -- or we go to the other extreme, slagging Kiwi business for not being world-competitive.

There is no doubt that we have to move into a less and less protected world economy, but do we wish to do anything necessary to survive there? If so, we might as well petition Los Angeles for annexation. We can’t just benchmark against the world’s most psychotic work cultures and remain what we have been. Where do balance, community and lifestyle fit into the picture? How much difference are we willing to tolerate between rich and poor? Will we continue to feel an obligation to each other and to the land?

She’ll be right only if we make her right.


[1] Veyne, P. (1987) `The Roman Empire,’ in P. Veyne (ed.), A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, Vol 1, 5 vols (general editors: P. Ariès & G. Duby), Cambridge, MA:Belknap, p.202. [2], a Department of Labour website, 21/07/07.

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