Chris English, the Timaru District Council's new regulatory services manager, was a community board member until two months ago - on a board representing 66,000 people, half as many again as live in the whole Timaru district.
Council reporter Rhonda Markby chats to him about his career, and his hopes and plans for the district council.
The "customer is king" might be the mantra of many a privately-owned business, but the Timaru District Council's new regulatory services manager, Chris English, believes it should be no different when the public is the customer, and the council the "business".
And he should know about "customers" as his career has seen him dealing with "customers" in roles as diverse as managing an IHC branch employing 120 people, to working as CEO of New Zealand's largest aviation academy and running a company providing administration services to 200-300 schools.
For Mr English, his new position is a case of having come full circle, considering he was an area manager with the Gore District Council almost 20 years ago. He enjoyed that local government role, and would have remained in that sector if the openings had been there.
"There were no opportunities for career advancement [with the council at that stage]", he explained, adding due to his wife's work, the couple needed to stay in Southland at that time.
Mr English's roles have been varied, and not always straightforward. When he moved from Gore to manage the IHC in Invercargill, the branch employed 120 people and was losing $350,000 a year. His task was to turn it around financially. Three years later it was breaking even.
It was a tough job, he says, recalling a staff that was heavily unionised, and employees with very entrenched ideas.
But it was the sort of job that can be all-consuming.
Mr English uses the word "burnout".
From there it was off to Dunedin for a stint with the Red Cross before heading to Christchurch as the chief executive officer with Canterbury Education Services - until he took his son for a trial flight at the Canterbury Aero Club.
Mr English has held his private pilot's licence since he was 18, and the view across the tarmac from the aero club and associated International Aviation Academy was far more appealing than that of the car park he could see from his office at education services. When the CEO's position for the aero club and aviation academy was advertised a month later, he applied, was appointed, and moved to his airport office.
That was 4 years ago. The aero club was just a small part of the operation, as the aviation academy is the largest provider of professional flight training in New Zealand.
Students were drawn from around the world as well as throughout New Zealand.
Mr English describes it as one of those successful businesses that flies under the radar - employing 50 people and turning over $7 million annually.
It was a great job, he said of the role, which often saw him travelling overseas recruiting students. But then the government changed the rules on student loans. He realised that would have a major impact on the number of New Zealand students enrolling. With the likelihood of the business having to downsize, it was time to consider a move.
His election to the Shirley-Papanui Community Board in 2010 had again whetted his appetite for local government. The size of the community board meant it ran like a council, with its own staff, service centre and board members who had a great deal of delegated authority.
The Christchurch earthquakes initially left the community boards at a loss, directionless. But that is all changing as it becomes increasingly obvious the city needs to rebuild itself from the community level up. Mr English believes the community boards will be influential in the decisions that will need to be made.
That time on the community board was enough to encourage him to apply for the Timaru position - even though he knew the company vehicles would be somewhat different from the winged "company fleet" he was used to at the aviation academy, he quipped.
What also encouraged him to apply for the position was the Timaru council's pro business/pro development stance.
"I want to see a more business-like approach, more customer focused," he said referring to the need to break down barriers and red tape to make it easier for businesses to operate and grow.
He believes there is a change afoot in the council, and it comes from the top. Council chief executive Peter Nixon is making it clear he wants the organisation to become far more customer-focused. And it's not all talk. Mr English points to the recently-formed building services group which is advising the council on behalf of the building industry. Staff are listening to what is being said. Workshops and seminars are planned. They are communicating.
And a similar approach is being taken in the planning area, getting the industry and the council staff talking and understanding each other.
"We are listening to what they are saying.
"Customer service is not negotiable, we are not paying lip service to it," says the man who has already dealt with a disgruntled ratepayer who was fined for parking a trailer on the verge - as they had done for the past 20 years.
Mr English is a great believer in the "talk softly and carry a big stick" philosophy, using enforcement only when all else fails.
But that doesn't mean he is a soft touch. As a change manager for much of his career, he has had to make plenty of unpopular decisions.
- © Fairfax NZ News