Sutton plays long game one year on

Ten things you didn't know about Cera's chief

MICHAEL WRIGHT
Last updated 05:00 13/06/2012
Roger Sutton
ONE YEAR: Roger Sutton has been the chief of Cera for a year.
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The chief executive of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) does not need much of an introduction.

For a year he has overseen Christchurch's quake recovery, most conspicuously in land zonings, which have seen more than 7000 properties in the region written off.

We know he likes lemon tea and we know of his affable nature and his fondness for getting from A to B by bike.

Some mystery remains. Sutton's Wikipedia page lists his birth year as either 1962 or 1963. Neither is right. He is 47, although Cera would not confirm his birth date.

But mostly he is known as the likeable, bespectacled, long-haired, pinstripe-suited alpha nerd making what most people agree is a decent fist of a thankless job.

Almost unnaturally easygoing, he finishes lots of sentences with "eh", prefers "nah" to "no", and if he was 30 years younger, his mother would probably be telling him to get his hair cut.

Sutton has been in his job one year today. With any luck, the first day of his second year will be easier than the first day of his first, when two aftershocks, of magnitude 5.9 and 6.3, welcomed him into the role.

"That [day] was quite frustrating, really. Just thinking, `This is still going, this bloody thing'."

Now firmly ensconced in his 11th-floor office in the HSBC tower – comfortably the highest office in town, he likes to point out – his outlook on the recovery has brightened to the point of incandescence.

"I guess I'm more optimistic about this than other people because I have people coming into my office who want to be part of the rebuild," he says.

"I meet the local investors who are cashed up but also meet the international investors – guys who have a big amount of money to spend who are excited by the opportunity of building something in a brand-new CBD."

The central business district is Sutton's pet topic.

Before the quakes, it was "very much decaying".

"It wasn't a great place. I think in a lot of New Zealand cities, the CBDs aren't actually desirable places to work," he says.

"I think we're going to create a CBD that is a very desirable place to work in."

Some things still grate. Delays around land rezonings, for one.

"When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I'm still thinking about are those land issues," he says.

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"[It's] been much more difficult than we thought and we put a lot of stress on people by the fact we took much longer than we expected to take, but there wasn't a textbook.

"We had the best experts we could find to help us with that, but even the best experts had never done anything like that before."

For the most part, Sutton has attracted little criticism during his tenure, in contrast to the lightning-rod qualities of Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee.

When it was announced in May last year that the then chief executive of lines company Orion would become the new earthquake recovery boss, the public response was favourable, to put it mildly.

Former Wigram MP Jim Anderton said it was the best news he had had since the February 2011 quake.

Port Hills Labour MP Ruth Dyson gave his appointment "12 out of 10", Canterbury Communities' Earthquake Recovery Network chairman Tom McBrearty was "delighted" and Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend said it was "the most important government appointment of the year".

The Saturday before he started in the job, Sutton featured on the cover of the Weekend Press' Your Weekend magazine in a local adaptation of Shepard Fairey's Barack Obama "Hope" poster from the 2008 United States presidential campaign.

After months of civil defence management, states of emergency and immeasurable heartache, change, it seemed, had come to Christchurch.

But with a tough new job description, it was inevitable Sutton would have to trade on some of that goodwill capital in his new role.

"I could only go down from there. I knew I could only go down and I don't like going down, but I know it's inevitable, so I don't stress about it," he says. "I know some people are just going to feel incredibly frustrated ... 10,000 houses have got to be almost completely rebuilt.

"In the housing boom of Christchurch we built about 3000 a year. The maths are it ain't all going to happen as fast as many would like."

Was the job what he expected? One of Sutton's favourite interview techniques is to repeat your question. It's a good tactic; makes him seem engaging and willing to help. But this is the only time he stumps himself.

"It has been ..." he starts.

"It has involved ...

"It has been ..."

He stares out the window for a few seconds before settling on a platitude: "The key thing about this job is feeling you're supported by other leaders in the community and the wider New Zealand community. I went into this job hoping I was going to be well supported and I've been very, very well supported."

Very diplomatic, if irrelevant.

Later he chides himself for "sounding like a politician" in his answers.

His diplomacy is at work again when asked about his relationship with Brownlee, whom he feels "very privileged" to work under.

Heading a government department has been a change for Sutton. At Orion, he was in charge. At Cera, he is answerable to the minister.

"It is different, but I knew it would be different. It's not just being answerable to a minister; it's that fact that there's lots of stuff I have less control over," he says.

"At Orion, if I wanted to get a big job done I could just write a contract and away I'd go.

"Here, there may not just be ministers who need to approve it, but it may be other organisations need to sign off as well. Sometimes the pace does annoy you and upset you, but I've worked in government before [with the now defunct Electricity Corporation of New Zealand]."

Despite the frustrations, there is little about the past year he would change.

"What are some of the regrets?" he asks himself.

"Nah. I don't really have any proper regrets."

If he had the time again, he would try to recruit his senior managers more quickly – some did not start until last September – but there have been no "dark days" and he dismisses any claim he has tried to resign.

"Yeah, I really haven't, eh."

Easygoing. Roger Sutton.

- The Press

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