Alumni profiles: Dame Therese Walsh

Dame Therese Walsh has led some of the biggest sporting events New Zealand has ever hosted, but still doesn’t consider herself a sporty person.

Dame Therese Walsh, VBS alumna
From an accountancy degree to sports administration was not a career direction Dame Therese Walsh anticipated.

Even though Victoria Business School alumna Therese Walsh has led some of the biggest sporting events New Zealand has ever hosted—and was even made a Dame for those achievements—she still doesn't consider herself a sporty person.

After graduating with an accounting degree from Victoria, a career in sports administration was not a direction Dame Therese imagined she would take. But she has gone on to manage two high profile events—the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the 2015 Cricket World Cup—that put New Zealand in the international spotlight.

"I've been involved in sport for about 13 years now," she says. "It's funny though because I'm not very sporty myself! I played lots of sport but was never any good, and I wasn't much of a sports fanatic either.

"I was working as an auditor at (accounting firm) KPMG, and the company won a contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union. The Chief Financial Officer of the NZRU left during that time, so they asked me to fill in while they found a replacement, and I didn't leave!"

During that time she became part of a team—led by ex-All Black Jock Hobbs and then-NZRU boss Chris Moller—putting together a bid to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The process was painstaking, say Dame Therese.

"We had to compile screeds of documentation and answer a whole lot of questions about a range of things. It culminated in several volumes, like books—it was massive.

"On top of that were the financial commitments we had to make, so we worked closely with the Government so that we were able to guarantee that it would all happen and deliver on the promises we were making."

They were successful, so Dame Therese, who by then was "emotionally attached", officially resigned from the NZRU to join Rugby New Zealand 2011 Limited—the company established to deliver the event—as the Chief Operating Officer.

"It was really satisfying to win the hosting rights, and then to lead the event itself, which as we all know was hugely successful not just for the All Blacks but for New Zealand as a whole. It couldn't have gone better and was definitely a career highlight."

Off the back of that triumph, Dame Therese was asked to head the organisation delivering last year's Cricket World Cup, which New Zealand jointly hosted with Australia.

"It's fair to say I hadn't had a lot to do with cricket up to that point, but being so involved in the event has certainly developed my love of it.

"Sport has become such a big part of my life that it's hard to separate myself from it. When I go to a match I'm not watching the sport—I'm too aware of other things that are going on because I’m constantly in work mode.

"I still can't shake the feeling that I'm responsible for whatever is going on, even when I'm not—that makes it quite hard to actually relax and enjoy it!"

Life as a professional director

These days Dame Therese is a professional director—in addition to her role on the Victoria University Council, she also serves on the boards of NZX, Air New Zealand and ASB, and is the Deputy Chair of Television New Zealand. She sits on the Government's Major Events Investment Panel, is the chair of the International Development Advisory and Selection Panel for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and is a member of the Government’s Strategic Risk and Resilience Panel.

Juggling a full workload with a busy family life, she says her downtime is fairly low-key.

"When you've got kids and a busy professional life—and have to travel for work as much as I do—there's not a lot of time for much else. I enjoy socialising and anything food-related—I love cooking and eating, and do a bit of cake decorating when I get the chance."

Dame Therese's inspirational impact beyond her official roles was recognised in 2013 when she was awarded Westpac's Women of Influence Supreme Award. She was awarded a Sir Peter Blake Trust Leadership Award in 2014, and in 2015 received the country’s top honour, being made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to sports administration.

Since joining the University Council earlier this year, she has enjoyed working in the tertiary education sector and believes Victoria has a lot to offer.

"We're in a capital city, so we’re quite special in that regard. I’m interested in thinking about how we play to our strengths and really build upon those areas where we have a lot of additionality. I'm also interested in how to keep growing student numbers, and how to service markets that aren't physically on campus by using the internet," she says.

"It's extraordinary to work in an environment where there are so many talented people—the staff are so qualified and experienced in their areas. It's very humbling to work with people of that calibre."