The lady running The Show

KIM NEWTH
Last updated 10:02 25/10/2012
Rae Finlay
Heather Ellis

Rae Finlay has made her mark on Christchurch.

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The 150th Canterbury A&P Show this month also marks the end of event director Rae Finlay's long reign.

"Never work with children or animals" is an adage that could apply to the Canterbury A&P Show. With carnival rides, farmyard exhibits and thousands of livestock entries, plenty can go wrong at this giant town-meets-country fête. In 2007, a rampaging bull attracted international media coverage on opening day. Last year, a flying axe head caused chaos when it flew off its handle during a woodchopping event and injured a spectator.

Expecting the unexpected is part of the job for the show's event director, Rae Finlay. Most people would shudder at shouldering responsibility for such a mammoth event, where the unpredictability factors are so high. Yet, Rae has kept her cool now through 11 consecutive shows - this month's 150th annual show is her 12th - while managing risk and keeping things running as smoothly as possible.

"This is a huge event involving children, animals, machinery, wide open spaces, unpredictable weather and now earthquake risks, too! That's why we have really robust health and safety planning," Rae says. "I have a great team of people here and we work hard to ensure we eliminate potential risks as much as we can, but we also accept that accidents do occasionally happen. If they do, we make sure we have systems in place to manage them."

Rae's mantra is if you plan right, everything might just go right. Often she finds the forces of luck, planning and leadership align to create something exceptional. To guide the Canterbury A&P Show through to a successful conclusion in a good year is both "an honour and a joy".

"There's such a sense of achievement to all these people coming together and producing something really great, and we're competitive about retaining our place as the biggest and best A&P Show in the country," Rae says, chatting over coffee at her office on site at the Canterbury Agricultural Park.

"The show I remember as being one of the best was in 2008. It was our biggest show and so many things came together that year," she recalls. "The sun shone for three days. We had the band Opshop, and Princess Anne was there. A record number of people attended - 120,000 over three days - which is also our target for this year."

Anticipating a record crowd is probably not unrealistic. This 150th show is bringing back exhibitors who have stayed away for a few years because of the subdued economy and earthquakes. Plus, this year there's the added incentive of commemorative medals for all supreme champions.

As part of a tour to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, Prince Charles - patron of the global Campaign for Wool - is also scheduled to attend.

"There will be a lot of pageantry, parades and special displays," Rae says. "People will see things at this show that they haven't seen before. This is an opportunity to look back and celebrate our history."

Special projects to mark the 150th show include the restoration of the old Treasurer's Hut from the Addington Showgrounds, publication of a book on the show's history, plus the sale of various other commemorative merchandise, such as whisky, ties, scarves and glasses.

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It has been a long journey for Rae, who is stepping down as event director of the show. Rae had only just set up her event management company, Tenth Dot Management, in April 2001 when the contract to manage the show was advertised. By June, she'd signed up to deliver her first show in November.

Reaction to Rae's appointment was not universally positive. From the region's farmyards came questions about how a woman from Auckland could possibly come to grips with running the flagship agricultural event. It was also a troubled time financially for the Canterbury A&P Association, then carrying considerable debt as a result of cost overruns incurred in developing the Canterbury Agricultural Park.

Rae knew the best way to silence her critics was to deliver a successful show, so she listened to the experienced old hands, surveyed association members and exhibitors to find out what they wanted, gathered a talented team to assist her, and set about putting together a great event. The 2001 show was highly successful, drawing record crowds, higher stock entries and more trade and machinery exhibitors. Key to the turnaround was running it as a royal show and also returning to the traditional three-day format. Good weather was the icing on the cake.

"Previously, the show had been extended to four or five days and the number of livestock exhibitors, farmers and agricultural exhibitors had been declining. A show of that duration was just too much of a commitment. The message we were getting loud and clear from those sectors was it needed to be a three-day show. Once we did that, the livestock and agricultural exhibitors started to come back."

Since 2001, Rae has also listened to ideas coming from the association's various committees. Feature competitions such as the International Aromatic Wine Competition and the Mint Lamb Competition are now major crowd-pleasers. The Food and Wine New Zealand Pavilion has grown to become the biggest marquee on site. Tradition has not been forgotten, with fixtures such as the ever-popular City Farmyard and the BaaBaa Bar.

There have been memorable one-offs, too, such as the 2010 Guinness world record for the greatest number of people leapfrogging at a single venue.

Confident leadership is, of course, something that comes with experience. Rae, the youngest child of seven, cut her teeth in a range of sales and marketing roles through the late 1970s and '80s. In 1988 she set up one of the first colour-copy centres in Auckland, Replicolour - rapidly growing the company to a five-staff operation over three years.

Within a year of moving to Queenstown in 1991 for "a lifestyle change", she was also showing her flair for event management at the helm of the Queenstown Winter Festival. As she describes it, the winter festival is really just lots of little events rolled together. "Being organised is the key. It was just me and a part-timer running it, but it was a fantastic event with huge community involvement."

Her favourite moment in Queenstown was when the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra started to play on a stage built over the lake, just as it began to snow and Sir Tim Wallis flew his Spitfire through in time to the 633 Squadron music. "It was spine-tingling. That's why we do it, for moments like that."

Between winter festivals, she organised a host of other local events. In 1995, she acted as retreat co-ordinator for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, then took the role of liaison officer for a meeting of APEC trade ministers in Christchurch.

Her younger son, Zachary, was born in Queenstown, a month before the 1994 winter festival. "At the media launch just prior to the event, I was very pregnant and when they came back again for the festival, I'd had my baby!" Her other son, Ryan, is 10 years older than Zach. Ultimately, it was decisions around schooling that encouraged Rae to move to Christchurch late in 1996.

By then the year 2000 was looming and the Christchurch City Council was looking for someone to manage the city's millennium celebrations, including events to mark Canterbury's 150th anniversary. Rae was an obvious choice. She soon found herself working as chief executive for the Turning Point 2000 Trust. It was a massive role that involved the development of more than 35 events and projects throughout the year, some of which proved more than a little controversial.

There was the millennium waka that should have been launched at a dawn ceremony on New Year's Day 2000, only to be delayed until December that year. Then came the millennium bridge that was never built. Even the Turning Point 2000 Chalice project hung in the balance for a time as debate raged about the aesthetics of the sculpture.

Looking back, Rae has few regrets. "Although I do still walk down Park Tce and think 'wouldn't it be lovely if that bridge was here' but, of course, it ended up in the Environment Court and didn't go ahead." Consent to build the Andrew Drummond-designed millennium bridge across the Avon River by Dorset St was granted, but then appealed by the Christchurch Civic Trust and the Merivale Precinct Society. Dwindling funds to continue the Environment Court battle meant the project was abandoned.

Rae feels she did what she could at the time to manage all the millennium projects suggested by 14 advisory groups. "These projects had come out of public consultation and were supposed to be a celebration for the people of Christchurch in the year 2000. The reality is, though, you're never going to please everybody."

By contrast, sculptor Neil Dawson's Chalice in Cathedral Square - slammed by many architects and artists back in 2000 - was recently described as a symbol that could represent both the old and new Christchurch. "It's interesting how something that was slightly controversial has now become an icon for Christchurch. It's so recognisable now - it's a part of the city," says Rae, who is pleased at how often the Chalice features in brochures promoting the city.

Tenth Dot Management has flourished over time and has successfully managed a variety of events, such as the recent Canterbury Heritage Awards. Rae has also served on the central government Small Business Advisory Group and was a founding board member of the New Zealand Association of Event Professionals.

This year, Rae has sold a 50 per cent share of Tenth Dot Management to Geoff Bone, who is now sales director for the Canterbury A&P Show. Next year, he will take over as the show's event director. Although Rae will continue to offer advice and expertise, stepping down as event director marks the start of a new phase for her.

"My children have finished school now. Christchurch has been a fantastic place to raise them. With what has happened in Christchurch, I now feel it's time to spend more time with my extended family. It's time for a change and the show is also ready for someone with new and fresh ideas."

Rae has already "partly moved" to Auckland and has her eye on Waiheke Island, where one of her sisters and her family are living. She also has a new man in her life and is looking forward to some overseas travel. "I can hear France calling! In 2009, I took Zach to Italy for a couple of months. He would have been about 15 and we had a fantastic time. Now I'm keen to do a trip to France and spend some time thinking about what's next. I don't have any plans to stop and slow down. It's more about changing gear and finding a new direction."

Steering the Canterbury A&P through to its 150th show has been a considerable achievement for Rae, one close to her heart. "The people I've met over the years here now feel like family to me. I've made lifelong friends. This show is a backbone of the region and holds such fond memories for so many generations.

"I'm passionate about the Canterbury A&P Show and I'm also very confident that it will continue to thrive and prosper and for another 150 years."

 

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