Taupo mayor David Trewavas is engaged in the battle to bring back growth to the regions. He talks with Ruth Le Pla about how he applies retail thinking to Taupo and shares his ideas for other parts of the country.
It’s a wonder I’ve recorded anything at all from my talk with David Trewavas. He likes to bang the table when he’s emphasising a point which makes my recorder jump about in an alarming way. And he had lots of points to make when we nipped off for a hot chocolate and a chat at the LGNZ conference in Rotorua recently.
Still, the mayor of Taupo is refreshingly practical and not a bit academic. He draws inspiration from paint and wallpaper retailing kingpin Sir David Levene and rugby legend Sir Colin Meads. And you can’t get much more gritty than that.
Growing up in Dannevirke, David just wanted to be involved in farming. (The story goes that his parents, who met on the streets of London on VE Day, fell asleep on a southbound train from Auckland, ended up in Dannevirke by mistake and decided to stay.)
When David left school he scored a cadetship with stock and station agency Wrightson NMA. He trained in every part of the job – everything from appliances, wool, stock, merchandise and grading seed. And “followed the money” to become at 18 the firm’s then youngest livestock agent and the youngest licensed auctioneer in the country.
Later he slipstreamed into full-on retail, joining one of his brothers at – and eventually becoming a director of – retail giants Levene and Freedom Furniture.
He segued into public service via business sponsorship of local schools, sports and service clubs. And, as with so many other people in the local government sector, he was approached to stand for council.
Given his business background, it maybe shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that he believes every nook and cranny of New Zealand has something inherently special embedded in it which can be emphasised and, let’s be frank, marketed, to maximum effect.
In Taupo’s case the benefits of local geothermal activity are a bit of a no-brainer for a start. Then there’s forestry and wood processing, agriculture, aquaculture and the ubiquitous Kiwi standby solution of tourism.
So ever since he took office as mayor back in 2012, David has been hell bent on making sure the region plays to its strengths. He’s been right behind a business attraction programme intent on luring new companies to the area.
The Taupo region, as he points out, produces about a fifth of New Zealand’s total power. And the fact that much of it is geothermal means local businesses can tap into an energy source that makes their operating costs at least 20 percent cheaper than those of their counterparts in other parts of the country.
So whether it’s timber processing, hydroponics or a resin-production firm, companies are being enticed to Taupo with a $20,000 package to help them set up. The benefits, says David, ripple out to other local firms.
“There’s a credit at the lawyer’s office and the surveyor’s office, the Chamber of Commerce, the radio station… all sorts of things like that,” he says. “And on your first day of business,” he laughs, “I’ll bring everybody morning tea.”
He’s so keen to make sure the programme is working that he keeps close personal tabs on the benefits to the region of the new businesses flowing in to town. So he knows for a fact that the people behind these new start-up companies have all brought family with them and bought houses in the area.
“We’ve got all the natural resources in our region… a beautiful landscape,” he says, “but we’re lacking people. We have a base of just 35,000 people and we have a couple of towns such as Mangakino and Turangi where we have challenges around growing those areas.”
So as the “old retailer” lurking just beneath the surface of the new mayor keeps saying to himself, “Taupo needs more customers: we need more sales”.
Retailing, he says, centres on meeting the needs of the largest possible number of customers and getting them coming back for more. And it’s pretty much the same with local government. If his council can attract more people and businesses to its area and keep them happy, the local economy will flourish which, in turn, will attract more people and growth will spiral upwards.
“It’s about keeping your customers – or your ratepayers – really happy.”
His measures of success? “I’m a retailer so sales have got to go up. GDP should be trending up every year… And we were one of the few provincial regions in New Zealand in the last census to actually go up in population.”
He agrees that ‘local government as a retail unit’ is not a typical line of conversation. “I’m not an academic but I’ve been modestly successful in the businesses that I’ve run.” And he’s seen first-hand the positive word-of-mouth that comes from slowly building firm relationships with customers over time.
He’s a firm believer in “nice” straight talking – without the aggression. “You want to take the scenic route, as it were, and take people with you… Talk with people … Get them to like you first and understand where you’re coming from. It’s important to recognise that not everyone has the same strengths and weaknesses. Try not to upset anyone on the way. So they can see you as a good contributing New Zealander and that you haven’t shafted anyone.”
THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
The results of all this retail thinking have been paying off.
Taupo District Council also works in close regional partnership with other local authorities in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty. And it’s keen to support other initiatives, such as the new fishing venture over in Opotiki, that help lift the economy of the region as a whole.
While it’s tempting to see its geothermal resources as a special blessing for areas such as Taupo, David is convinced other regions can use the same underlying thinking to kickstart their own growth.
“Pick a couple of things that you are good at,” he says. “This could be something that your people are good at or it could be that your topography suits a particular initiative. Get some good people around you and focus on what you have to offer that’s different to anywhere else. Then just go for it.
“Every region and every little pocket of the country has got something in its favour,” he says. That could be anything from wineries, Ma-ori heritage, walks or a rail trail. Even a clear sky.
“When I came back from China a couple of months ago I could see all these Chinese people in Taupo looking up at the sky at night. I’d seen this happen before and I’d wondered what they were doing. But they were just looking up at the stars. They’d never seen them before.
This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.