Ballet makes the impossible look easy. The physical agility required in this field requires enormous strength and dedication. Christine Kearney started ballet when she was just three years old and danced well into her 20s, teaching in London and dancing in France. To subsidise her income, as all artists must, she was involved in hospitality, working as a chef for a Royal Warrant holding catering company in service to the royal family. This saw her working at some of London’s most prestigious events like Kate Moss’s wedding, events at Buckingham Palace (yes, she’s met the queen), and finally settling at the Ritz Hotel in London, a living cultural institution in its own right.
At the Ritz she worked her way up through hotel operations and marketing and communications. Upon returning home to New Zealand, she continued to work alongside some of the best luxury brands within the hotel industry. After 10 years as a hotelier, Kearney was looking for a new challenge to enrich her professional experience and diversify her skill set.
Webb’s is New Zealand’s longest running multi-departmental auction house, a liquid museum of sorts, forever in flux, exchanging various items of cultural significance with an ever evolving clientèle. This is Kearney’s stage now, which her background has prepared her for so perfectly, as operations and marketing director of the cultural theatre that is one of Aotearoa’s most iconic auction houses – Webb’s. During her two-year tenure, auction numbers have nearly tripled, her staff has grown nearly fourfold. Testament in itself to Kearney’s agility, dedication and mastery within the high-tier cultural sphere.
We sat down with Christine to find out what has made her the inspirational woman she is today, and gain some insights into what working for a cultural institution such as Webb’s is like.
What role did you start off in, and how has your career progressed?
I joined Webb’s in the same capacity as my current position, operations and marketing director, however the scope of this role has evolved significantly as the business has grown so quickly. Over the last two years our auction schedule has increased from around 25 auctions a year to 70. With this incredible growth has come the opportunity to increase our workforce, adding highly skilled and passionate individuals to our team across all disciplines. When I began at Webb’s two years ago, we had a team of eight full-time colleagues, we are now 30 strong. It has been exciting to be a part of this exceptional growth over the last two years as we constantly look to innovate and develop new strategies to engage new clients and grow our market share. A further highlight has been the diversification of our offering into the primary market with the acquisition of a contemporary gallery, Visions, which offers a full-time program of exhibitions by leading New Zealand and international artists.
Roughly how many auctions does Webb’s host per month?
We have a very busy auction schedule at Webb’s. The calendar includes a variety of online sales across all our disciplines, featuring lower priced items that look to engage a new generation of novice collectors or entice those wanting to extend an already established portfolio. In addition to our online sales, we run an exciting calendar of live auctions including significant single owner collections, classic and collectors’ car auctions and our highly anticipated quarterly live auctions which include fine jewels and watches, decorative arts, fine and rare wines, Asian art and our high value art sales. On an annual basis we deliver up to 70 auctions, sometimes more, so around five to seven auctions per month on average.
What drew you to work for an auction house?
Before coming to Webb’s, I had spent over 10 years working at a senior level in the luxury hotels industry, representing and working alongside some of the best luxury brands in both New Zealand and abroad. After climbing the corporate hotel ladder, I felt I needed a new challenge that would give me the freedom and opportunity to grow in different directions. I am very fortunate to have had some exceptional mentors throughout my career, all of which have also encouraged me to gain experience across multiple industries allowing a richer professional experience, a more diverse skillset than average and the opportunity at a senior level to transfer knowledge, principles and practices from different industries to create unique and elevated experiences for clients that truly set you apart from your competitors.
Where did you grow up and how do you think it influenced your career direction?
I was very fortunate to grow up with a loving and supportive family. My mum, as a single parent, moved myself and two siblings to New Zealand when I was 10 years old from South Africa. We grew up in Sandspit, a small community which is still one of my favourite places in New Zealand. I was heavily influenced by my mother’s determination and strength, despite the adversity she faced, which shaped my attitude towards hard work, persistence and resilience. As soon as I was able, I got my first job, rolling ice creams at the local dairy at the age of 13 and have been career-focused ever since.
As a young woman working at a senior level, there have been times in previous roles where I have had to work harder to achieve milestones than my male counterparts and having this foundation of resilience has assisted me in pushing forward despite the challenges.
I am a strong believer that it does not matter what industry or position you choose, if you work hard, are committed, passionate and focused, you will be successful.”
Operations and marketing director for Webb’s sounds like an all-consuming role. What does a typical day look like?
I arrive at work around 8am each morning. The office tends to get busy from around 9am so this gives me an hour to work through emails and focused tasks. When my team arrive, we touch base and discuss what marketing and design tasks we are focusing on, always with a coffee in hand. We are often working on creative content creation plans, video content or catalogue production. We have seen exceptional growth across our social channels and this success acts as constant motivation for the team to keep going. We have also developed some amazing relationships and collaborations this year with the likes of WORLD Fashion and Pernod Ricard; this is my favourite part of my marketing role, collaborating with other likeminded brands to create amazing and memorable content and experiences for clients.
I also direct the day to day running of the operational function of the business. This includes a variety of tasks that keep me on my toes. My days often include various meetings and planning sessions with our managing director, Paul Evans, and the senior team, around our auction schedule, event planning and execution, and financials and forecasts as well as directing other areas like HR, recruitment and team building, project management and all other administrative and organisational processes for the company.
One thing I love about Webb’s is that no day and no auction are the same. We work in such a fast-passed environment which involves a lot of multi-tasking and focus across various areas of the business, but this ever-changing environment keeps things interesting and exciting.”
Webb’s has a regular roster of auctions, each requiring an enormous amount of work and research. What is one of the main drivers that keeps you motivated in such a fast-paced environment?
Simply, my team. I am so fortunate to work with an incredible team of highly skilled, knowledgeable and passionate individuals who all have something different to offer. We are a diverse group of different ages and genders which has created a great balance and working environment. We have built quite a close-knit group over the past two years, bonding over times of challenge. We all support each other in our one common goal: to be the best auction house in New Zealand. There are often pressure points with such a busy schedule, however we always work as a team to get the job done. In a small business like ours, no job is beneath you and I love getting stuck in to help the team no matter the job.
Over the years you must have experienced some pretty special moments. What is one that has stood out?
Moving into our very own premises on Normanby Rd in Mount Eden was a very special moment for the team. Our gallery is a purpose-built 800-square-metre converted warehouse space, now state of the art gallery and exhibition space, fit to house and showcase items from across our multi-faceted departments. Designed by interior architect Rufus Knight of Knight Associates, our Mount Eden Gallery and Webb’s Wine Room has given Webb’s a brand-new home and space for clients to enjoy for years to come.
What has been a career high?
I was recently awarded Outstanding Young Executive of the Year, as part of the New Zealand Hotel Industry Awards. This award is in honour of a young executive who has made an exceptional contribution to their employer and engaged with the wider industry in a significant capacity above and beyond their scope. As a young woman working in a competitive industry, it was an amazing feeling to be recognised, giving me the confidence, motivation and courage to continue driving forward for those things I want to achieve in my career.
What has been one of the hardest career lessons you have learnt to date?
As I have grown in my career and developed into senior leadership roles, I have learnt that being a hard worker and delivering results is much more important than being popular. I take my obligation and responsibility to our investors very seriously and being a great leader means having to sometimes make hard decisions for the greater good of the business.
Do you have any advice for our readers about auctions?
Buying at auction has so many benefits. Not only is it a more sustainable and conscious way to shop, but it offers the opportunity for each buyer to inherit an item of provenance, becoming the new custodian of each unique piece they purchase, each with their own story and history. This connection to each piece makes the entire buying experience that much more rewarding. Buying at auction also offers an alternative investment opportunity with the right items bought at auction often appreciating in value and gaining further interest and demand as the years go on.
What is a famous quote that resonates with you and why?
‘He who does not surpass his master fails his master’ — Leonardo da Vinci
This has always resonated with me, reminding me that there is always so much to learn not only from those you look up to, but those around you and below you also. I learn as much from my junior team about how to be a better manager and leader as a I do from my most respected mentors. This is a reminder to continuously look for ways to evolve our practices in anything and everything we do.
A more personal quote which has become my daily mantra was passed on to me by the head concierge and longest serving staff member at The Ritz London, Michael DeCoza. On my final day with the company, he said to me, “Christine, no matter what you do, remember to always be Ritz.” This constantly reminds me that excellence is a mindset and to never accept mediocrity.
For more information on Webbs auction house and to view available items, visit webbs.co.nz