Victoria Crone announces mayoral bid – Idealog conducts her exit-from-Xero interview

We talk to the Xero managing director about her decision to run for Auckland mayor, after only 20 months in the job. Then we ask her boss, Rod Drury, what he thinks about the whole thing.

Victoria Crone made the announcement yesterday afternoon at a Mindlab event in Auckland.

As Crone wraps up her 20-month-stint at Xero, Idealog spoke to her about her time with the accounting giant, what skills she brings to the Auckland mayoral race, and what the immediate future looks like.

Idealog: The rumours have been swirling for a few months now, and you’ve finally made the announcement that you’re planning to run for mayor of Auckland in 2016. How long has this been rolling around in your mind?

Victoria Crone: I’ve been thinking about it in earnest for the past four to six weeks, but it was first floated by me around February this year. That was when some people said ‘Oh, you really need to think about doing this’. I did a few panels around Auckland and they said ‘Yes, you should think about running for mayor’. It just kept coming up so I thought, okay yes, I should look at this. 

I've run billion dollar revenue streams for a long time, I’ve worked in companies with major capital programmes – the fast fibre roll-out is a multi-billion dollar programme – and I’ve worked in companies where, absolutely, it is totally focused on ‘we must get more efficient and how do we do that in every aspect of our business?’

So what do you think your main skills are? What do you bring to the table?

My main skills are in the leadership and governance space. It’s the ability to have a vision and govern against that vision, to execute against that and to create culture against that.

And it's very much around leading with purpose. When you lead with purpose, it becomes about more than you as an individual. There’s real power in that.

The next one is just around my financial acumen. I've run billion-dollar revenue streams for a long time, I’ve worked in companies with major capital programmes – the fast fibre roll-out is a multi-billion dollar programme – and I’ve worked in companies where, absolutely, it is totally focused on ‘we must get more efficient and how do we do that in every aspect of our business?’

And I'm just a very pragmatic leader. Pragmatism is a big part of what I am and what I do. 

What criticisms do you think you'll face coming into this race?

I’m expecting to get everything chucked at me. I followed the last election very closely and it gets pretty heated at times – and pretty nasty – so I expect every aspect of my business career and my personal life to be turned over and criticised because that seems to be how politicians play the game, so I'm as prepared as I can be for that.

But I’m a pretty strong, resilient person, so I just take things as they come. Life is full of good things – and not so good things – and everyone has their flaws, so I'm ready if that's the way that my opponents want to take it.

Do you think it's likely to go down like that? 

I don't know. People I’ve talked to have said that that’s what’s most likely to happen. But as you become more senior in leadership, you absolutely have to stand up and be strong and always be checking on your values and ethics, so it really doesn't concern me too much. 

Have you enjoyed your time at Xero?

Oh yes, I've loved my time at Xero. It’s such a fast thinking, creative, collaborative company. It’s bold, it’s happy to take on the status quo and happy to mix it up, and I really love the partnering aspect of the company. I think it’s a great example of a new-world company where collaboration and partnering to create win/win partnerships for everybody is a good thing.

In terms of innovation in New Zealand, there are a lot of companies in the Xero ecosystem that we really encouraged and inspired into global innovation and I think that’s awesome. I also love that it’s a fantastic means of creating ‘global meets local’. You’ve got the big entities like Apple and Google and Microsoft and Shopify and Mindbody etc, but then you’ve also got the local stuff too. We’re partnering in Business Connect with Meridian, New Zealand Energy and Warehouse Stationery. I love that mix of being able to bring the best of global to New Zealand but also the best of local. 

You were at Xero for about 20 months. Was it a concern for you that you hadn't been in the role that long?

I definitely thought about that. I don’t know if it was a concern, it just is what it is. As I said, the train comes along and you either jump on it or you don't, and this train doesn’t come around for another three years. 

And three years is forever... 

Well it is in Xero-land. A lot happens in three years. 

So as you leave Xero, what position is it in? 

Xero's in a great position: over 600,000 customers, chasing down $200m in revenue this year, so very strong growth rates moving forward. We’ve got a very strong position in the New Zealand market. I also look after new markets – which is about 180-ish countries outside the big four – and we're very well positioned for growth in a range of those countries.

It’s got a lot of cash in the bank, it’s got a lot of runway and it’s continually assessing its leadership skills and what it needs, so the opportunity – with me going – is for them to have another look at that. When a company is moving as fast as Xero is, it's good to do that every couple of years. 

Given that Xero isn’t making money yet, should Aucklanders be concerned about their rates going up if you get elected? 

I've been in a range of companies – the big corporates who make ‘too much money’ and Xero that ‘doesn’t make enough’, so I think you actually have to put that aside. I understand the full spectrum of what’s required.

There are clearly some issues [in the council] around efficiency. There are [those] perceptions that just keep coming up over and over again, so I think having those skills in driving those efficiencies [could be] very helpful to the council.

But equally, Auckland is about to go through major growth; preparing yourself for hyper-growth is quite a different skill to driving efficiencies, and I think I bring both of those sectors to Auckland. 

Looking at your CV there's a lot of sales and marketing. Do think that applies well to the mayoralty?

What that gives me is I’ve worked with people in every market possible. Big enterprise, small business and consumers. I think that gives me a really good understanding about how Aucklanders tick and [proves] my ability to get in and talk to them and sit alongside them and really understand their issues. I think there’s definitely a perception around sales and marketing, but I think I’ve kicked those perceptions well and truly as a leader and with my governance experience.

So what’s the next month going to look like for you?

It’s going to be very busy. Obviously I've got a lot of stuff to do with Xero and I went through the same thing when I left Chorus, so I'm really committed to leaving it in good shape and not checking out early. That's really important to me.

Then I’ve got a lot to do around the mayoralty, just getting everything organised that I need to in terms of campaign structure, funding and then also spending a lot of time online and in person with Aucklanders. 

Finally, how did Rod Drury take the news? Was he surprised?

Initially he was ‘Oh! Okay!’, but he's been very supportive – very supportive – of me ‘chasing that train’, if we’re going to use that analogy. It is a substantial decision, and he’s given me some time to work through that. 

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Image: Xero CEO Rod Drury, Photo by Alistair Guthrie

We also spoke briefly to Xero CEO Rod Drury about Crone’s departure. He had this to say: 

Idealog: So Victoria has announced that she’s going run for Auckland mayor in 2016. Are you disappointed she’s leaving?

Rod Drury: When she said she was going, obviously it was a bit of a surprise, but once she said it and we got over it, you can only be supportive. It's great to see people at the peak of their business career going into public office and it feels like it’s a higher purpose, and so it’s just one of the things you have to deal with. She’s been fantastic for us and a great leader in the business, so yes, we were sad to hear it but that quickly turned to excitement and pride as we saw what she wanted to go and do. And the exciting thing is that it looks like she’s got a real chance. 

People in business understand that it’s not just one person that makes it happen, it's building a cohesive team and dealing with the compromises of a whole lot of different stakeholders – that's what you do in business.

Do you think those tech and marketing skills that she has are transferrable skills to the mayoralty?

Oh yeah, absolutely, but the big thing for anyone in this sort of business is working with stakeholders; it’s building a team. I think people in business understand that it’s not just one person that makes it happen, it's building a cohesive team and dealing with the compromises of a whole lot of different stakeholders – that's what you do in business.

Her infrastructure experience is huge and she's also had a lot of high-growth international business experience. She’s done a lot of great work for us driving our new markets around Asia, South Africa, a bit of Europe, and she's spent a lot of time with us in San Francisco, so she really understands where Auckland and New Zealand sit on a world stage and what the big opportunities are. So really she’s quite uniquely balanced. And who do you want to run the city? A business person or a career politician? 

From your perspective, what has she achieved with Xero? 

Well she's grown us to over a $40m business in New Zealand. She joined us and took us from a scrappy start-up to a real professional leader. She’s built a great team below her so the business really won’t skip a beat because she’s put her key leadership people in place and they’re operating really, really well. She’s been a huge contributor and she’s been a great conscience for the business as well. We bounce between 36%-38% female [staff], which is really strong. We’re really working hard to get women into tech careers and she's been a big part of that. She’s just a great leader. 

Are you looking at replacements yet? 

Yeah, we always run scenarios and it’s a very high profile and exciting role so we’ve never been short of candidates. Once we realised there was a chance [that she would run] we sprung all those processes into place and now we know what she’s doing we can bring that to a conclusion so, yeah, we'll be able to announce a replacement in the new year. 

Would you vote for her? 

Yeah, I think so. In most elections its about voting for the least worst candidate and now there’s actually someone who’s really exciting, who actually stands for something, and who's at the peak of their career and doing it for the right reasons. So all the feedback I've had is that people are incredibly excited. This is someone they can actively vote for. 

She hasn’t been with Xero for long, 20 months…

Yeah, but that’s dog years in technology. And you can’t pick the mayoral cycles. These opportunities only come up every so often and I think that was the hard thing [for her]. She does feel bad about leaving but this is one of those higher purpose-type things, so we’re very supportive. 

What’s been her major contribution?

You need someone with a clear vision who’s a great leader who brings people on board and deals with lots of conflicting views and I think those are some of the skills you pick up as a business leader. And having done big infrastructure – very big infrastructure – for the National Telecommunications Network and then having done a high-growth international start-up and having that international experience, and only being 42 and being a mum and all of that experience, I think she’s a very strong candidate and really quite an exciting one.