Sutton 'quirky, straight and honest'

19:40, May 12 2011
Roger Sutton
WELL SUITED: Roger Sutton on a phone call yesterday, wearing his work boots beneath his suit.

Roger Sutton calls himself a "big picture guy", but admits his new role heading the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) is going to require a wider lens.

As chief executive of Christchurch lines company Orion for the past eight years, Sutton has built a reputation as an approachable, communicative, analytical, creative and quirky business leader.

However, it was his nationwide media appearances and electricity grid updates for Christchurch residents after the September and February quakes that put him on the wider public's radar.

Schooled in Gisborne and Hamilton, Sutton, 46, gained his engineering degree at Canterbury University, graduating in 1986.

Apart from a short stint as what he calls a "real engineer" at the New Plymouth power station, he returned to make Christchurch his home and foster his talent for ideas.

"I found I wasn't that good at pure engineering," Sutton said after yesterday's announcement of his position as Cera chief executive.


"[In New Plymouth] I was surrounded by people who knew how to fix things and had an intrinsic feel for how to make mechnical things work, and I wasn't that kind of guy.

"I was a big picture guy."

Sutton worked his way up from general manager of trading at Orion's predecessor, Southpower New Zealand, to become general manager of commercial operations at Orion from 1998 to 2003.

In 2003, he beat 38 other applicants to the chief executive job.

He has made it his own through a tumultuous time in the energy industry.

Sutton said he relished the cross-over of engineering into wider society – economics, environment and regulation – and saw an opportunity to take those interests by applying to lead Cera.

"I didn't initially apply but a lot of people talked to me about the role and suggested it would be a good thing if I applied, so in the end I did, so here I am," he said.

Orion chairman Craig Boyce said Sutton's honest style would suit the Cera role and the delicate job of keeping the public informed and engaged.

"He's absolutely straight and honest," Boyce said.

"He tells it like it is no matter what the subject ... he's very insistent on personally communicating so that people's knowledge of any particular issue is full.

"I think it's fantastic that it's a Christchurch person leading Cera.

"He has a great love for the city and he's a bit quirky in a way.

"He uses the bike a lot and quite often he'll turn up at meetings, even with directors, in his riding shorts and shoes.

"He doesn't like dressing formally, but when he does wear a tie it's usually loud."

Mike Underhill, chief executive of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority where Sutton was reappointed as chairman in May last year, also gave Sutton a glowing recommendation.

He often went further than other energy chiefs to ensure Orion was being transparent and open about its network's performance, Underhill said.

"I think that is a really important thing, especially with the recovery from the earthquake," he said.

There's lot of stuff people want to know, but there are also questions there aren't answers for yet.

"He's got a great way with people so although he's often got strong messages, he's got a way of saying it that people buy into."

Sutton said he and his wife – former television journalist Jo Malcolm – often sit on the sofa watching television "scratching our heads wondering why people can't just cut to the chase and tell people `why'."

He is quick to give credit for his straight-shooting to Malcolm and his three sons, George, 10, Harry, 7, and Jimmy, 5.

Malcolm's mother, Anne Malcolm, was in the Canterbury Television building when the February earthquake hit and suffered severe injuries.

He plans to take some family time before diving into the Cera job properly in mid-June.

"I will have to be careful that I do actually continue to be a father ...

"I'll have to find a balance.

"I'm going to spend some time with my family and I don't really mind where that is, but I'd also like to spend some time in the mountains.

"I do like walking up easy peaks so that's where I find some relaxation."

'Orion's loss is the city's gain'

Earthquake recovery chief Roger Sutton will start his new job with a wealth of goodwill from Christchurch politicians, business leaders and community groups.

Sutton's appointment as chief executive of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) received widespread praise yesterday.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said the appointment was an "astute move".

"It's sad to lose him from Orion, but Orion's loss is the city's gain," he said.

Parker said the council had developed a "close working relationship" with Sutton during his time with Orion, which would be useful as the council and Cera worked together.

"Now we can clearly identify the responsibilities of the organisations," he said.

Former Christchurch mayor Garry Moore, who had called for Sutton to head the recovery effort, said the announcement was good news for the city.

"Roger Sutton is a guy who walks in ordinary people's shoes. He understands the city, understands the people," he said. "He's got a good family and good networks. These are all the attributes we need to rebuild the city."

Wigram MP and former mayoral candidate Jim Anderton said the appointment was "the best news I've had since the earthquake".

"He is an incredibly good communicator. He tells it as it is. When he said the Orion cables were buggered, everyone understood it."

Anderton praised Sutton's management skills at "one of the best-managed corporations in the country".

He said Sutton was a "quintessential Cantabrian".

"We deserve someone who understands the ethos of the city – the anguish, the aspirations, the whole works," Anderton said.

Christchurch Central Labour MP Brendon Burns said Sutton was an "excellent appointment".

"He brings together shown leadership skills, a command of structural issues, a real capacity to engage with community leaders – I couldn't think of a better choice," he said.

Port Hills Labour MP Ruth Dyson gave Sutton "a 12 out of 10", saying he had a "good strategic brain".

"In his job as CEO of Orion he's shown an amazing ability to keep people informed ... Given what we need to do to recover strongly, he's just perfectly positioned," she said.

Business groups Recover Canterbury and the Central City Business Association backed the appointment, and Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend said it was "the most important Government appointment of the year".

"I have worked with Roger on various issues over the years and I have a high regard for his skills, his integrity and his concern for community wellbeing," he sid.

Canterbury Communities' Earthquake Recovery Network chairman Tom McBrearty said he was "delighted" with the appointment.

He said Sutton had engaged well with the public at community meetings after the February quake.

"People understand the language and direction he talked about, so it's a good choice."

Action for Christchurch East organiser Angela Wasley said Sutton's Orion experience was "definitely a bonus", and she hoped he would work closely with community groups.