International executive Christopher Wright talks to Emily Chantiri about his extensive career and the continued growth of the Southeast Asian region.
It is fair to say that the interests of Christopher Wright GAICD are as varied as the countries in which he has worked. The New Zealand born executive’s career has crossed a number of paths including the military, foreign affairs, intelligence and mining. He has also written a spy novel. Today his role is vice president, governance and compliance at Sandvik, a high tech, global engineering company and he spends much of his time in Europe travelling between The Hague in the Netherlands and Sweden.
Wright’s career as an international executive began in 1980, when he left his country of birth for China after receiving a scholarship to study Chinese literature from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“I really enjoyed student life and the final honours year in philosophy,” he says. “My father’s preference was for me to study at Cambridge or Oxford universities; however, I ended up taking a scholarship in China, as this was the most interesting option to me.”
While stationed in China, Wright developed a deep interest in Asian culture. For the next two years, he stayed in China and became fluent in Mandarin.
After being offered a role in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Wright left China for Australia.
“I elected to go to Australia as there were more employment opportunities related to China.
“I also had an interest in the military and had previously looked into a role within New Zealand’s armed forces. The opportunity presented itself in Australia when I was appointed as a commissioned officer within RAAF intelligence.”
Wright stayed in the role for ten years. “It was the best of times and as a career option, it’s the total package.”
Wright’s time in the RAAF gave him a deep appreciation for people, the skills they bring and for the team building experience. “For a solitary individual, the battlefield is not a good place to be. You’re pushed physically and emotionally to the edges of your envelope and beyond. The military designs training around this, so that your reserves are tested.”
His time in the military also gave him the skills to work in a self-contained environment.“Just think of an expeditionary unit that leaves Australia to go to the Middle East; to survive, the unit needs to be self-sufficient without any other connections. We have our own logistics, medical and housing, along with a sense of community, due to being isolated from family and friends.”
In 1995, Wright left the RAAF for the corporate world and began working at Siemens in the defence electronics division, marketing air traffic management systems in Southeast Asia. He then transitioned to military communications, which involved travelling between countries including Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Working in the arms industry, Wright says he rubbed shoulders with some interesting characters. Some hailed from government, some from intelligence and some were just “hoods”, he says. “You’d frequently count your fingers after shaking their hand,” he jokes. “They’re a colourful mix of individuals.”
After his time at Siemens, Wright joined BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace) before his appointment at Austrade as a senior trade commissioner in China in 2006. Wright led numerous trade projects with Austrade and says that China is an amazing market in which to work, trade and do business.
In 2011, rather than returning to Australia with Austrade, Wright took a role with Swedish engineering firm, Sandvik, working on a number of projects within Asia before moving to Sandvik’s European office.
“In China there are a myriad of things happening at any one time,” he says. “Three weeks ago, I was in Shanghai, and, despite the fact that some newspapers report growth has slowed, there was a real buzz around the streets. The variety of restaurants, the innovation in stores and architecture is constantly moving. The diversity, scale and opportunities are huge. This is as true today as it was 10 years ago and as far back as when I took the scholarship almost 30 years ago.”
Southeast Asia importance
The development of China and the Southeast Asian region as a whole will continue, as will its importance to future trade, Wright says.
“When I think back to my early days in Southeast Asia, there was a kind of wonderment and there was a rush of growth through the following decades,” says Wright.
“Sure, this came to a rude halt with the crash of 1997, which meant you could no longer be somewhat lackadaisical about investment. It meant you had to be much more strategic about the path to take and which risks to mitigate, but for me the Southeast Asian journey continues. It is absolutely full of opportunity, though it is at a more mature stage than China.”
As much as he loves his time abroad there are moments when he misses the sunny skies back in Australia.
“When I am in the depths of the dark, grey wet days of a northern European winter, the beaches of Sydney beckon. My wife and I were back in Sydney in June and when we walked around, we knew we could come back and be happy to do so.”
The couple live in Amsterdam and Wright regularly commutes to Sandvik’s office in Sweden. “In the European summer, everything is alfresco with people in cafés spilling into the streets. There’s the cliché that home is where your heart is, however our heart is all over world. There is so much to enjoy in life; so many places that you can feel at home.” Wright’s current role includes directorships on a number of Sandvik’s subsidiary boards. He is overseeing a project to renew the group-wide governance framework, which includes the arrangements of more than 300 subsidiary companies in 67 countries.
“I work across several key areas. My current focus on the governance framework extends from shareholder meetings and annual general meetings, through to group policies and procedures and internal audit.”
Other areas of focus for Wright are Sandvik’s code of conduct and whistleblower reporting systems. This will involve overseeing the group’s business integrity and internal investigations along with: “group compliance and reporting to the audit committee on the areas of anti-bribery and corruption, trade compliance, competition law and data privacy.” While Wright is happy to stay where he is, he knows he will eventually return to Australia where his future plans will include finishing his next book.
“The gene that triggers my wife and I to return to Australia will kick in soon,” he says. “This will execute another change in my career. It will be time to stop pulling the executive lever and take on solely non-executive related work.”
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