Xenia Taliotis 9 Nov 2018 11:50am

A day in the life: Nick Paterson

Nick Paterson, chief executive of Drug Free Sport New Zealand, tells Xenia Taliotis how it feels to be making sport accountable, keeping athletes clean – and no longer the fittest person in the office

Caption: Photography by Adrian Malloch

How I changed career

It was through a combination of good opportunities and having the necessary skills to exploit them; through being open to change; and, where Drug Free Sport New Zealand (DFSNZ) is concerned, through seeing a job I wanted and preparing myself for it.

Like many accountants, I came to the profession by default. I graduated in maths from University College and got a placement with an investment bank in London, where drinking and hedonism seemed to be among the required skills. It wasn’t for me, so I wrote to several accountancy firms and got accepted by Ernst & Young.

I hit gold as a trainee: I was switched from the client I should have been working with to a team that was dealing with the collapse of Barings Bank. I was only typing in the accounts, but it showed me how exciting investigative accountancy could be. I moved into the fraud and investigation team, and I’ve worked on nothing but fraud ever since.

When I came to New Zealand in 2004, I was offered a job at PricewaterhouseCoopers, expanding its investigations and forensic services practice. I then went back to Ernst & Young to set up its Fraud Investigation and Dispute Services team, which was my last job within accountancy. After that I went to the Serious Fraud Office and would probably have stayed there had the job at DFSNZ not come up. It’s the only position I’ve actively sought. I honed my skills, filled in any gaps in my CV and connected with the right people; by the time my predecessor left, I thought I stood a chance of succeeding.

The challenges I’ve overcome

I’ve been blessed professionally so I can’t claim to have overcome any major challenges at work. Like most people, I’ve had managers who were a pain, but I’ve never found myself in a situation that pushed me to my limit. My work now requires a high degree of technical knowledge but I have a brilliant team of experts who help me every step of the way. My wife and I have separated and are now sharing the care of our three children. Balancing my work with my commitment to be a great dad is my biggest concern. I like to challenge myself physically and there’s no better place than New Zealand for doing that. I’ve done the Motu Challenge a couple of times (65km mountain bike, 17km run, 52km road cycle, 27km kayak, 8km road cycle, 3km run) and the Coast to Coast, which is similar. I don’t have the words to convey how they make me feel.

My responsibilities

My job is to keep sport free of drugs, so my responsibilities straddle every road that will get us to that point. This includes detection, investigation and prosecution, but also education, prevention and deterrence. We run programmes in schools and sports clubs that aim to ingrain in our young athletes the belief that winning under the influence of dope is a loss. We want to teach them to make good, value-based decisions, to be good sports, and good citizens.

I believe New Zealand is actually cleaner than most: the culture here is healthy, with a strong adherence to fair play, but there’s still work to be done. Much of the problem is societal: we live in a world that now expects instant results. DFSNZ’s job – and mine, too – is not just to find the cheats, but to work with other interested parties to stop the drugs coming into sport. That has to happen on a global scale. Organisations must hold each other accountable and work towards making sport drug-free. I have a responsibility to clean Kiwi athletes to ensure that their international competition is on a level playing field. It’s important.

I have 12 permanent staff, but work with 120 contractors who help with education and testing, and part of my day is spent making sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs. I spend a lot of time talking to national sports organisations to enlist their help in achieving our aims and to give DFSNZ, which is small, a louder voice, and in meetings with lawyers, law enforcement agencies and counterparts overseas at other national anti-doping organisations. Collaboration is key: the internet has made drug control really difficult because people can buy anything online.

I travel a lot. When I think back to living in the UK, I could visit clients abroad and be back in my own bed by the end of the day. In New Zealand, you board a plane and three hours later, you’re still flying above the ocean. That said, your neighbours are Australia, Fiji and the Cook Islands, so it could be worse.

Industry quirks

First, how sporty everyone is. When I was an accountant, I was among the most athletic people in the office. Now even my greatest sporting achievements pale into insignificance. Second, it took me a while to realise I hadn’t ‘met’ some of the people I was working with before – I’d just seen them on the podium at the Olympics, or on the TV. Third, accountancy is so much about using figures to make sense of the world, and to instil order where there isn’t any, but the sports world doesn’t operate in that way.

How the ACA helped my career

The training taught me how to work and learn, because there’s no short cut to passing the exams; that I must always look beyond the surface for answers; and how to report my findings. Accountancy is an incredibly diverse profession – you can go into it with any or no degree, and that gives you an advantage because you’re mixing with people from different backgrounds, who each teach you something.

The habits of an accountant

A forensic attention to detail; incredible tenacity – we refuse to believe that there isn’t an answer; and an ability to understand risk. Lots of people recognise risk, but make bad decisions because they don’t know how to calculate it, which is why they need skilled accountants. I think we’re good at learning from our mistakes. It’s not often an accountant will make the same mistake twice. And we also appreciate that failure and success are not polar opposites. Sometimes you have to fail in order to learn what not to do.