Young, female or Māori business leaders most optimistic in NZ

The most optimistic business leaders in New Zealand are young, female or Māori, according to a recent survey.

Westpac's Grow NZ report measured the mood and intent of more than 1200 of the country's business leaders through an online survey in February.

It found that 40 percent of women who were surveyed reported business growth in recent years, compared with 32 percent of men.

Some 55 percent of leaders under 35 expected business conditions to improve, making them more optimistic than those in the 35-59 age bracket, of which 41 percent expected things to improve. Just 34 percent of business leaders over 60 thought conditions were likely to get better.

When it came to ethnicity, Māori, Indian and Asian respondents were more confident about the future of their businesses than those who identified as European.

The survey also revealed that larger businesses have very different attitudes toward automation than small to medium-sized enterprises.

More than 50 percent of large businesses expect they will begin to automate parts of their operation in the next five years, while less than a quarter of smaller enterprises said the same.

More businesses are moving toward flexible working hours, with almost 80 percent of leaders surveyed saying they offered them to employees, and nearly half of them believing that they support business growth.

Westpac NZ chief executive David McLean said the report showed a shift in feeling since previous surveys in 2011 and 2015.

"This time, reports of positive growth were higher than ever before - however expectations that business conditions would improve have tapered off," he said.

"That thinking is consistent with the view of Westpac economists, who believe we are now past the peak of the business cycle."

Small to medium-sized business leaders said they preferred up-skilling existing staff over other forms of expansion, which Mr McLean said was in keeping with what Westpac has observed at a "macro level".

"Difficulty finding labour has emerged as a major constraint on business, with the unemployment rate now at a nine-year low," he explained.

"What we're seeing in the survey results is that businesses want to hold on to the good people they've got and invest in their professional growth."