Fran O’Sullivan: SkyCity Entertainment looks to luck of the Irish for rocky road ahead

SkyCity Entertainment chief executive Michael Ahearne has a great passion for the business. He will tell you so himself with a lilting voice which does not quite disguise his Irish origins even after some 20 years outside of Ireland in the global gaming and entertainment industry.

“I would say I am an authentic person. I’m certainly people-focused. I really enjoy working with a large team like we have here at SkyCity,” he told the Herald during an interview at thecompany’s boardroom. “I do like this industry and business. It’s a very customer-focused industry …I really have a real energy and passion for[the] entertainment sector.”

Ahearne is going to need all of that passion to lead SkyCity through what remain uncertain times. The International Convention Centre fire and the impact of Covid-19 took a huge financial and human toll on the business with many loyal staff laid off.

“These are unprecedented times in terms of a challenging operating environment,” says Ahearne. “I would say we are operating cautiously but we’re optimistic about the long-term focus of our industry.

“We have changed the operating model of our business — we’re a domestically focused business.

“But we’ve got a team that knows how to operate …We will be post-Covid at some point and there will be lots of opportunities… with that.”

Ahearne’s sudden ascent to the top role at SkyCity yesterday, after three years as chief operating officer, initially perplexed investors.

Graeme Stephens’ retirement as chief executive was not foreshadowed at SkyCity’s October annual meeting. The timing was not formally put on the board’s agenda until a fortnight ago when negotiations on the management changeout began in earnest.

SkyCity chair Rob Campbell says Stephens had long tipped his retirement. Ahearne and chief financial officer Rob Hamilton had already been assessed by executive consultants Seqel as part of the board’s internal succession plan. After further work the board decided to offer the job to Ahearne. All this was brought to a head over the past fortnight, with Stephens now being paid out the retirement entitlements under his contract.

Like Stephens, Ahearne also has an open-ended contract. His remuneration package is less than that of his predecessor, whose pay had tumbled 38 per cent from $3.9 million to $2.4m, following challenging times.

Campbell recently called for a business “revolution” which no longer looks to narrow “shareholder interests” or pays “excessive” senior executive salaries and bonuses.

He says the total cost to the business of the chief executive package is lower from Ahearne’s appointment, as had been the case when Stephens earlier succeeded Nigel Morrison.

“I’m very happy with the package,”says Ahearne.

He pays tribute to Stephens, who he describes as a “great supporter and mentor”.

“Graeme brought me into the business. I’ve worked incredibly closely with him over the past number of years.”

Ahearne’s own focus includes major initiatives underway in Auckland and Adelaide and big aspirations down the track to establish online gaming here.

An executive search is underway to replace Hamilton.Ahearne also has to replace himself as COO and Liza McNally, who is returning to Adelaide, as chief marketing officer.
He will look internally first — “we have great talent.”

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