The Eastern Bay of Plenty was in the news recently having endured the full force of Cyclone Debbie; and while businesses took
a hammering, local Chamber of Commerce CEO Gerard Casey says Nothing can dampen the region’s entrepreneurial spirit.
When ex-tropical Cyclone Debbie roared through the Eastern Bay of Plenty in April it left a trail of destruction, and severely tested the mettle of local residents and businesses.
Gerard Casey, CEO of the Eastern Bay of Plenty Chamber of Commerce, was tasked with the job of helping affected business owners mop up the damage and get their businesses back on their feet through collaboration with the various support agencies.
Casey has an extensive business background and could readily identify with the pain business owners were going through. He has strong family roots in the region too, and naturally wanted to throw the resources of the Chamber behind the recovery process.
The organisation has been around since the early 1990s and covers the three local body districts of Opotiki, Whakatane
Casey’s career includes ten years working for an animal health company as a sales rep, covering Northland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty. He was commercial manager of the Opotiki Veterinary Health Centre and editor of the Vetbiz News for five years.
Circumstances dictated a return to the Bay of Plenty, and Casey set up home in Ohope with his wife Janet and four children.
In 2009 he was appointed CEO of the Chamber, after a year as its president. And, as well as those responsibilities, he helps Janet to run an online holiday homes business (kiwibachandholidayhomes.co.nz).
“My role at the Chamber is not to be the leader of the business community,” Casey explains. “It is to provide thought leadership, change leadership, and to be the biggest cheerleader of the region and its businesses.”
He says the Eastern Bay of Plenty region may be known for offering an outstanding lifestyle, with its stunning beaches and beautiful scenery – but it is also incredibly successful in producing premium produce, particularly horticultural products and honey, as well as its fair share of entrepreneurs.
He believes there’s a common perception that New Zealand’s regions are stagnating – but he challenges that thinking. “Our region needs to have an attitude of no handouts, just a hand-up, and it absolutely does have that.”
One very significant development in recent times has been the partnership between the Chamber and Te Whare Wa¯nanga o Awanuia¯rangi – one of only three institutions designated as Wa¯nanga under the Education Act 1989.
Awanuia¯rangi provides educational opportunities to all Ma¯ori, New Zealanders and indigenous students through campuses based in Whakata¯ne, Auckland and Northland, as well as through marae and community networks across the country.
The Chamber of Commerce has co-located its offices into the campus.
“In our strategic plan we have stated that we believe that the biggest contributor to the future of our region will be iwi,” explains Casey.
“We are connecting more with Ma¯ori businesses and connecting them to business advice, funding and networks of business that will buy from them.
“They have a clear focus on not being just Ma¯ori-owned businesses,” he adds. “They know that they are more than just a Ma¯ori business and they want to connect wider – regionally, nationally and globally.”
The Eastern Bay of Plenty region has no shortage of unique and innovative local businesses, and many have great stories to tell.
One of Casey’s favourites is White Island Tours – a business launched in 1990 when Peter and Jenny Tait, seeking a change in lifestyle, relinquished their farming careers and established their fishing and diving charter operation.
While out fishing near White Island one day, Jenny obliged a client request to be taken onto the live volcano. This visit not only sparked a curiosity in Jenny about the island, but led to their operation expanding to include the option of a White Island tour.
Subsequently the fishing and diving tours were phased out and the business focused entirely on the tours. Today, in order to cater for tourist demand, White Island Tours operates four vessels and owns a 38-unit motel, café and gift store.
The Taits were appointed official guardians of the island in 1997 and have since been instrumental in ensuring the island is kept in a natural state. They’ve recently sold the business to Ngatiawa, closing the door an on extraordinary 27-year business journey.
To highlight further examples of business inspiration, Casey points out some of the winners in the 2016 Eastern Bay Horizon Business Excellence Awards. There is Eastern Bay Chiropractic, owned by Dr Anna Heath –
“a business that has done a nice job identifying a target market and pursuing that market through a specially tailored marketing plan”. Not surprisingly, the business is growing fast.
Other standouts include boutique marketing consultancy High Profile Enterprises, farm equipment manufacturer The Wrangler, Extreme Boats, honey exporter NZ Manuka, and Nicholson Autos – the new and used car dealer in Whakatane where 26-year old Brad McKenzie manages 28 staff (up from just eight staff three years ago!).
But passion and enthusiasm is nowhere more evident than in the supreme winner, Kawerau’s Mainstream Engineering – described by the judges as an “excellent business pushing the boundaries”.
Gerard Casey would like nothing more than to see the region grow. “But we need to identify what we are good at and what our story is.
“It takes smart people and smarter industries,” he says, “and we have to break down barriers.”
He sees a mix of targeted tourism, Maori-led businesses and premium food as the region’s future. He’s also incredibly positive about what lies ahead.
“After all, we are the Eastern Bay of Plenty. And there are plenty of leaders, movers and shakers within this community.”