Influencer of the year: Roger Sutton

Last updated 05:00 18/08/2012
Roger Sutton
Guy Frederick
ROGER SUTTON: "I want to be part of making Christchurch a wonderful place and I don't have ambitions to be doing anything else."

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Roger Sutton, bike lover, once recounted in an interview with Unlimited an altercation he'd had with a driver who'd cut him off while he was cycling home from work.

As the driver pulled up alongside him at a set of traffic lights, she goaded: "Why don't you get yourself a proper job mate and then you can buy yourself a car?"

At the time, 2009, there was a nice irony to the story given Sutton was the highly paid chief executive of Christchurch lines company Orion and chair of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority.

Fast forward to 2012 and jobs certainly don't come more 'proper' than Sutton's.

"The job that Roger's got is the biggest job in New Zealand by a country mile," says Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive and Influencers judge Peter Townsend. "It's an enormous undertaking."

Sutton was appointed chief executive of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) in May last year, heading the new government agency charged with leading and coordinating the ongoing recovery effort following the September 2010 and February 2011 quakes.

The total cost of the Christchurch rebuild has been estimated between $20 billion and $30b. As Finance Minister Bill English outlined in his 2012 Budget speech, "it is without doubt the largest - and most complex - economic project in New Zealand's history".

Cera's remit is massive. Its work spans everything from setting the recovery strategy to infrastructure coordination and planning, demolitions, coordinating economic recovery and skills; and workforce planning.

Sutton agrees he's got a big job.

"The Orion job, around the earthquakes, was like running a 1500-metre or a 3000-metre race. You had to manage yourself; it wasn't an all-out sprint. But this is like running a really big iron man race," he says.

"In some ways it's like we're barely in the swimming section at the moment and we're not actually quite sure where the swim section is going to take us, it's just that we know there's going to be some choppy water at some stage."

After a little more than a year in the job, how influential does he feel he's been?

Sutton higlights two major areas of influence.

The first has been gettting decisions made on damaged land, a process that is mostly complete. Roughly 5 per cent of Christchurch households won't be living on their land in two years, he says - "a pretty big change for a city".

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The second is the work Cera is doing in the devastated CBD, overseeing a huge amount of demolition and working out the shape the new inner city will take.

"I say if you go buy the wrong sort of lightbulb, you're stuck with that for a year. If you go buy the wrong sort of car, you're stuck with that for five or 10 years.

"But if you set your cities out the wrong way, if you put the buildings in the wrong places or you build buildings with crap architecture, then you're stuck with that for 100 or 150 years."

Does he feel the pressure?

"It's an honour to have this job, but there's an enormous pressure that we want to do it right and the pressure is often to make decisions quickly," he says.

"There's sometimes pressure to bring different parties together. This is working with the council, working with elements of central goverment, also working with the business community, NGOs [non-government organisations], insurance companies - often there are a lot of different players that need to come together for us to make decisions."

Sutton became one of the country's most recognisable faces after the quakes, fronting the media with power updates in his Orion role. The leadership he showed in these times of crisis made him a hugely popular choice for the Cera role.

This June he was named the country's top public servant in a report compiled by political newsletter Trans Tasman, which also ranked Cera second to the Ministry of Economic Development as a top-ranking government department.

The online comments on Sutton's effectiveness that invariably accompany news reports about his work attest to the sense his position is a lightning rod.

"He's had a huge challenge," says Townsend, "effectively to build a new ministry of government, with all the politics associated with that, and keeping the community on side."

Still, Sutton feels well supported, not just within Christchurch, but also by our political leaders in Wellington - "they really do back me", he says. As a leader, he aims to give others confidence in Cera and to instil the city with self-belief.

"We have to have an environment where people will have confidence to go out and do really brave things," he says. "To get out there guys, be gutsy."

Influencers judge Sandra Lukey, a Christchurch-based communications and PR specialist, rates Sutton's decisiveness as a leader as well as his open communication and accessibility. He's a chief executive, but he peppers his conversation with the occassional expletive. He has unruly hair and still rides a bike to work.

"He's not the kind of person who has to put on a pinstriped suit and chop his hair to have influence," says Lukey.

He is, however, absolutely committed to the city.

"Most people know I'm in this job because I want to achieve things," says Sutton. "I'm not here for any other reason. I want to be part of making Christchurch a wonderful place and I don't have ambitions to be doing anything else."

- Unlimited

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