Philip Cullen describes himself as an old-school accountant, a practical person who prefers to deal with the facts at hand. Those with budgetary agendas would likely agree with his reflection that he has no issue playing the role of devil’s advocate.

As Philip’s last day at Otago Polytechnic looms on Friday, 16 December, he can reflect on almost two decades of financial stewardship and innovation with no small measure of pride.

“It's hard to summarize 19 years in a couple of lines. I am proud of what Otago Polytechnic as a whole has achieved compared to the rest of the sector.

“I've enjoyed my time here. I’ve always said you have to have fun in your job.

“I've been here a long time. And I've always said you shouldn't be in an organisation more than seven years, that you've done your bit in that time and you can't add too much.

“However, against that, someone that really has experience and knowledge of an organization can connect with others, as well dot the I's and cross the T's much better.”

Philip started as Chief Financial Officer at Otago Polytechnic in mid-2003, about four months before Phil Ker was appointed Chief Executive. At the time, the organisation was technically insolvent. A major building project had gone awry; and it was still reeling from an OP Council-enforced Business Recovery Programme instigated the previous year.

“Getting out of the financial mess of 2002 was interesting,” Philip says.

Under strong financial stewardship, Otago Polytechnic has transformed its performance since those days. Fast forward to 2018: Otago Polytechnic gained the Baldrige-affiliated Performance Excellence Study Award (PESA), a prestigious organisational excellence award of world-class standard – and the first to be awarded to an institution in New Zealand.

“We've done pretty well, really,” Philip says.

“You've got to balance the books. And if you want to spend money, try not to borrow. A lot of accountants are practical people. We deal with reality.

“So, when someone presents an idea to you, perhaps in an effort to get budget allocated, you've got to challenge and play devil's advocate. Yes, it might be a good idea. But if it's only half-implemented, it's likely to fail.”

As a long-serving executive, Philip has led, advised and mentored a range of staff over the years.

“Leadership is about having respect, but not about being liked necessarily,” he says.

“Being a leader also means you have to recognize that each individual has got their own life. And often it's not what's happening at work that creates challenges. One thing I learned really early on here was never assume anything about anyone.”

With retirement comes a change of base for Philip. He and his wife are relocating to Tarras, where they have a property complete with five acres of new landscaping. Still, he assures his OP friends that he’ll visit Dunedin occasionally.

Known for his love of food, wine and gardening, Philip says his retirement plans won’t alter those tastes dramatically.

There will likely be some foreign fare on the menu at some point, too, given his wife Judith is well known for her cooking and travel passions.

“Jude takes tours overseas. She's got three planned next year. Now I'll be able to join her,” Philip says, adding Turkey, France and Australia are on the initial itinerary.

And with two children in Auckland and another in Melbourne (four grandkids in total), the frequent flyer points are likely to accrue.

“We also intend doing some small road trips. We might just decide to head to the West Coast for a few days – just because we can.”

Published on 13 Dec 2022

Orderdate: 13 Dec 2022
Expiry: 13 Dec 2024