Trust saviour gets our nod

2013 Taranaki Daily News Person of the Year Bryce Barnett
2013 Taranaki Daily News Person of the Year Bryce Barnett

When Bryce Barnett hears the familiar whop-whop-whop of the rescue helicopter a small smile appears on his face.

To many the sound spurs unease, as they know the chopper is rushing to yet another potentially deadly situation.

But for Mr Barnett and those waiting desperately for the crew, the sound of the twin-engined Agusta 109 Power is a relief.

It was a sound that was almost lost in 2012 when major financial difficulty nearly caused the chopper to be grounded indefinitely.

Mr Barnett, the man behind the trust's turnaround, has been named the 2013 Taranaki Daily News Person of the Year.

The chairman of the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter Trust gets the award for his role in bringing the region's emergency chopper back from the brink of financial ruin.

He is also recognised for his tireless contribution to the community and the time he has given to countless trusts in the province.

He received the award ahead of retiring Waitara High School principal Jenny Gellen, Anglican Archbishop Philip Richardson, Kindling Cracker inventor Ayla Hutchinson, and Hawera Memorial Theatre stalwart Russ Standing.

"I'm flabbergasted about this win. It's sort of all come out of left field. I guess it recognises not only my work, but it's for the community and the whole team at the trust.

"And I really want to congratulate the other finalists. Without people like that who have vision and give their time to the community then Taranaki wouldn't be the place it is."

His win capped a memorable year for Mr Barnett, who became the chairman of the once-troubled trust 12 months ago.

Taking over the reins of the failing trust was not a decision he made lightly.

"When something is in that bad of a situation bringing it back from financial ruin is very time consuming and you don't know if it will be possible. It could have been past the point of no return."

In August 2012 the trust revealed it needed $400,000 to keep the chopper in use beyond Christmas.

That was followed by the resignation of two pilots and the news major backers the Taranaki Electricity Trust and TSB Community Trust had refused funding applications.

While the community was left pondering a dark future without a rescue helicopter Mr Barnett, a prominent Taranaki businessman, was deciding if the trust could be salvaged.

"A few people who were not on the trust were aware of the dire situation and they approached me to see if I could turn it around. I had to think long and hard about it."

Before he made his decision, the 55-year-old did his research, looked at the numbers and started phoning previous and potential sponsors.

"I couldn't stop thinking about what would happen if the helicopter wasn't there. I knew someone had to try and save it, it's absolutely an integral part of our community."

A year later the twin-engined chopper is still flying, filled with an able and dedicated crew of people who Barnett believes are Taranaki's unsung heroes.

It is that crew, along with the volunteers, the staff, the trustees and the sponsors who have made the trust's triumph possible, he said. "They have backed me and the decisions I have made. Without them we may not have a rescue helicopter anymore."

The helicopter's chief crewman, Jayden Strickland, has been with the trust since 2011 and said Mr Barnett had refreshed the vital service and become a role model for the staff and volunteers.

"We are humbled to have Bryce as our chairman. How many people would have lost their lives without Bryce taking up the reins?

"Quite simply Bryce is a man of his word," he said.

Mr Barnett's approach to rebooting the trust has highlighted some of the best qualities a leader could have, Mr Strickland said.

It was not only his business knowledge that came into play, but also his ability to interact with people and make them feel valued and appreciated.

Mr Strickland, who came to the trust directly from the Royal New Zealand Navy, said Mr Barnett was one of the most effective communicators he had ever worked with and this was the reason the trust survived.

The intense nature of a running a rescue helicopter trust does not escape Mr Barnett.

He knew it would be time-consuming, but he didn't expect to learn so much about choppers or the staff who operate them.

To understand the business and be able to create a five year plan Mr Barnett spent as much in the hangar as he could, which was no easy feat for the busy director of the multi-million dollar property investment company, KCL.

He spent hours meeting current, past and potential sponsors, and communicating with them about the state of the trust.

"I don't call them sponsors, I call them strategic partners because that's what they are, our partners. You've got to thank them and tell them the good with the bad and make them feel as if they are a part of it because they are."

It hasn't all been about refilling that dwindling bank account though. Mr Barnett said the Taranaki rescue helicopter has one of the fastest response times in the country.

"That's something the team is very proud of, and so they should be. But there is always more to be done. We want to be the financially strongest, have the fastest response times and have the happiest crew. All three - that's the goal."

Mr Barnett is under no illusions about the future. He knows it will be a hard slog, especially until the trust is locally funded again.

"We've crossed the first mountain but there's still more of them to come. It's going to take a while and it will be a lot of work."

He's not afraid of that hard work though and said he is constantly reminded about why he has poured his heart into the service.

"When you read the letters and the stories from people who have written to thank the helicopter and the crew it gives you the biggest sense of satisfaction imaginable. When it involves people and you can help to save lives, that's just incredible."

Taranaki Daily News