by Nigel Vernon

Scholars and Gentlemen - Peter England

CEO and 2010 Altiora Peto Medal winner

Old Boy and Altiora Peto Medal winner Peter England sadly passed away recently in Chicago at the age of 77.

Peter England's Citation upon being awarded the Altiora Peto Medal in 2010

This year’s winner of the Altiora Peto Medal, Peter England was brought up in Amberley, North Canterbury and attended Amberley Primary School. Peter’s parents ran the local store and while he helped serve customers in those early years, he hated it and was, by his own admission, far from ‘customer focused’; things were to change in later years! If he had his way in those early years, every moment would have been spent working on a friend's farm in Waipara.

Peter came to Christchurch Boys’ High School in 1958 – third generation following on from his father and grandfather. This decision however was not a straightforward one with his parents having to make significant financial sacrifices for him to be able to attend the city school - including paying Hostel fees.

During his 5 years with us Peter thrived on the sporting and learning opportunities – excepting French where there was no natural ability. In his senior years he played first XV rugby, was Head Prefect of the Adam’s House and a School Monitor. “The School was in my blood – and I was lucky to have inspirational teachers”.

Brother Robin started school a year after Peter, and his two sisters attended Christchurch Girls’ High School.

Like many students, Peter was looking at going from school to University but an opportunity was offered in a school assembly that he accepted and it changed his life. The Headmaster, Charles Caldwell, asked if there were any (Year 13) students interested in volunteering to teach in Sarawak. Unaware of where Sarawak was, but having no immediate sense of purpose Peter indicated a readiness to go. During this year in northern Borneo he learned a great deal about himself and developed many skills; he also appreciated that others less fortunate also deserved opportunities to learn and to achieve.

During his time at the University of Canterbury Peter continued his link with the school – being a Housemaster at Adams House. He completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Victoria in economics. While a farming career had always seemed a likelihood this was forgone in 1967 when he chose to accept a marketing position with Unilever – the start of a 33 year career with this international firm.

During those 33 years Peter was appointed to increasingly prominent international positions within Unilever; in particular his responsibilities related to personal & household product lines. In 1995 he was named as President and Chief Executive Officer of Elizabeth Arden, and based in New York.

Elizabeth Arden was, and still is, a company world renowned for its cosmetics with designer brands such as Lagerfield, Valentino and Elizabeth Taylor; during his period as Chief Executive Officer it had 5000 employees and an annual revenue of a billion American dollars. Peter took over the role when the company was struggling to retain its place in the market, and re-established its international name – and, at the same time, confirmed his name as someone who could turn companies around.

Retirement came in 2000 when Unilever sold Elizabeth Arden - and the retirement was not a great success; the intention was to settle in Australia, but time hung heavy, and his and Carol’s family were all in North America.

On returning to the United States thought was given to venture capital companies, but, ‘from right field’ it was suggested that he might look at managing the Chicago Children’s Museum - something far from his past experiences and certainly ‘out of his comfort zone’ but a challenge he accepted. The years from 2001 to 2007 “were seven of the best and richest years of my life”.

The Children’s Museum is the 5th largest cultural institution in Chicago with an annual attendance of half a million. The Museum's mission is to create a community where play and learning connect; it is a non-profit organisation that works with families, schools and community groups to support and influence children’s growth and development. Particular attention is paid to children with learning challenges, and those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds – the latter being close to Peter’s heart.

The Museum is highly interactive with many engaging permanent and special events – the Dinosaur Exhibition, Tree Trails, Inventing Lab, Kids on the Fly, Water Ways … just a few of the exhibit titles.

During this period Peter led the drive, planning and fundraising for a new, replacement museum – a museum to be put in a controversial prime space and which will cost $120 million.

Peter has said that one of his personal goals was to regularly see kids dragged out of the museum kicking and screaming when it was time to go home.

On Peter’s retirement as CEO of the Children’s Museum in 2008 the Illinois General Assembly passed a special House Resolution (HR 1267) recognising his excellence in the role, and thanking him; it notes, amongst other things ‘his quirky wit, his honesty and (his) commitment”.

Aware of his skills, Barrack Obama asked Peter to join his Finance Committee when he stood for the US Senate – an offer he did not accept, but he does note that the Obamas were frequent visitors to the museum during his tenure.

Beyond the museum Peter is involved on a voluntary basis with other non-profit groups – working to gain the Olympics for Chicago, but primarily with groups focused on providing opportunities for poor children and their families, and including ‘Cease Fire” which he notes “is the only organisation proven to prevent violence and killings”. Recently Carol and Peter visited a Zulu primary school in an area of marked poverty in South Africa and have committed to providing ongoing support to allow the school to offer greater opportunities for its students.

Peter’s interests, as time allows revolve around world affairs, politics and rugby – and Carol, his three children, and four grandchildren .

Peter’s has continued an active interest in his school – last year coming from the United States to attend an Old Boys Black Tie fundraising dinner, and also making a contribution to the Deans Medal Fund that has ensured that when the Medal is presented each year the associated monetary award appropriately recognises the achievements and status of the awardee.

Peter holds a very strong belief that he, and similarly all of us, have a duty to leave the world a better place than we found it. This is a belief that Peter England is certainly living.

It is my pleasure to present the 2010 winner of the Altiora Peto Award – Peter West England.

I am always interested in getting updates from our Old Boys. If you would like to send an update on what you have been doing since attending CBHS please email to Nigel Vernon - Vernonn@staff.cbhs.school.nz