Leigh Auton - At the helm of big change

By James Fuller


It's fair to say when you're asked to interview a council chief executive the pulse doesn't exactly race.

Anticipation is not high for an engaging half-hour but, happily, Tauranga City Council's new interim chief executive Leigh Auton is a bit different.

When you meet him you quickly become aware this is not a "boring suit" and, after a few minutes' conversation, that the council has likely made a wise appointment.

Mr Auton has a wealth of experience, having managed "most of what is involved in local government like building roads, upgrading rail, managing water and waste water services", in a career spanning four decades. But this father-of-three and grandfather-of-one is also a rounded and compassionate individual.

He began his local government career with Manukau City Council as a junior planner in 1978, the year after he had completed "the big OE through Asia and Europe" with his wife, Jennie.

"That was in the days when you could travel overland through places like Afghanistan and Iran," he says.

Having started as a junior planner, Mr Auton rose to become Manukau's chief executive (CE) and oversaw a period of rapid expansion. Manukau's population grew by 50,000 in five years between 2001-2006. He says there are similarities with Tauranga.

"Tauranga has likewise experienced quite extensive growth. That presents its own challenges but they're great challenges to have. Having growth is much better than having no growth. You don't want to be in a situation where you're going backwards and there are plenty of places which are doing that. So Tauranga is in great shape.

"The main thing is making sure you're ahead of that growth, providing infrastructure, making sure the land is available, that the place is a receptive location for those who want to invest. The Bay of Plenty has an extraordinary environment but you want to design it in such a way that you're maintaining or enhancing it."

As a character, Mr Auton is relaxed and amiable, self-assured as a leader but also open and approachable.

"I'm not the Queen St corporate out of Auckland," he says. "I haven't got too many pretensions. I think I'm a pretty average guy who has some skills in certain areas. I'm not an extrovert. I like being around people but that's not to say I don't like retreating away to my hole when I need a break."

He describes his leadership, a subject on which he teaches, as "open-door".

"It's certainly not dictatorial although I do set frameworks around what is expected. The key thing is people have access to me. Leadership is about providing a culture and an environment in which people find it easy to express opinions.

"A key for me is understanding your own strengths and weaknesses. You get results through understanding what you can do and what others can do. In the end though, I have an accountability to my council to make the decisions in terms of recommendations."

That we are sitting where we are now, in an office overlooking central Tauranga, is unfortunately due to the untimely death of 61-year-old former Tauranga City Council chief executive Ken Paterson in June.

"It was obviously sad the way in which it happened but the council was left with a decision. I was approached to do the job, which is completing the Council Controlled Organisations (CCO) review which had already been announced. Having announced that, the organisation could either have advertised for a new CE which could, and usually does, take six months or you can employ someone in the meantime."

The fact Mr Auton was available to be approached was due to Auckland local council restructuring two years ago. Manukau, of which Mr Auton was CE, was one of eight existing local bodies merged to become Auckland Super City (or Auckland Council) in November 2010. "I made a choice the year before that I would take a step out and do something different," he says. "So for the last couple of years I've had my own company, Auton & Associates, and worked right across New Zealand with local government and a number of private sector clients. I'm involved in local government and experienced in it. I've been around change processes, I'm on the government's Kaipara Review Team and this opportunity came up."

Mr Auton's two key objectives are completing the CCO review by April and assisting the council in finding a new chief executive. CCOs are companies such as Tauranga City Aquatics or Tauranga City Venues (which manages Baypark).

"There's been a review announced for some time and my job is to complete that and decide in each case either it's OK or to reconfigure it. There are other questions around what activities in the organisation could be conducted through that model or vice versa."

It is another area where Mr Auton has significant experience, having been instrumental in establishing a range of council-owned companies such as Manukau Water, Tomorrow's Manukau Properties, Manukau Building Consultants and Manukau Leisure .

The 60-year-old, who grew up in the far north as a Hokianga farmer's son, says he sees a lot of positives in the Bay of Plenty.

"This is a great region and has done some really great things. I'm here to help the council and the community through reshaping the local governance structure.

"There's some great people here and it's always good to undergo change when you're going from a position of strength."

One of the issues Mr Auton faces in reshaping that structure is doing so in tough economic times.

"Because of the downturn, it's challenging in terms of balance sheets," he says. "A number of councils throughout the country have relied on development contributions and, when that dries up, you either slow down development or, if that development's already taking place, you have to re-arrange your balance sheet to cope.

"In the case of Tauranga, and Hamilton City is in a similar position as is Queenstown, we've had quite a large reliance on development contributions and so the economic downturn impacts you more. The Tauranga City Council has obviously addressed that and part of the review is likewise to make sure we've been as efficient and effective going forward so that there are not costs in there which impact on the balance sheet.

"But it is stretched in terms of its debt levels. The council's done a good job in managing that down and we'll manage it down going into the future but it's not without its challenges."

The biggest of those is making sure the council is financially sustainable going forward.

"You have to design your organisation to cope with sustained periods of low growth. A lot of that work has been done through the long-term plan which has just been completed. A lot of work has been done around pulling back the capital spend, quite significant reductions there, so you're not adding to your debt bill. Because that money at the end of the day, with the reduction in developer contributions, is being paid out of your rates."

As we talk, and Mr Auton talks enthusiastically about his work, a subject close to this chief executive's heart keeps being raised - community.

"I'm interested in social cohesion, society and how we operate as a community in New Zealand. I'm interested in community dynamics and I get out there as much as I can meeting people. I'm a Rotarian and I got a nice letter the other day from a local club inviting me to join them and I'll certainly be doing that.

"I celebrate every part of the community. One of the boards I'm on is the Ngapuhi Asset Holding C up north and I look forward to developing a relationship with the iwi here," says a man with part-Maori heritage.

Even when engaged in one of his pastimes, running, Mr Auton is switched on to his new community.

"You see a lot when you run," he says. He jogs three times a week around Mount Maunganui where he has an apartment. "I've slowed down over the years but I keep fit, mentally and physically. It's important."

Fishing is another hobby as is watching rugby. But Mr Auton, who once sat on the Counties Manakau zone rugby league board, believes sport has a bigger role to play.

"Sport is about community outcomes for me, especially in south Auckland where I live. It's about community cohesion."

Mr Auton has lived in Counties Manukau for more than 30 years and is actively involved in his community through Rotary International (Manukau City Sunrise Club). As he enters his later working years, Mr Auton says he believes it is incumbent upon him to give back where he can.

"I teach leadership and there is a progression: in your 20s you are learning how to do your job; in your 30s you join the dots and get good at your job; in your 40s you start to develop wisdom so you can improvise and employ shortcuts. By the time you get to where I am, you should have developed altruistic wisdom and, by that, I mean a spirit of giving back.

"It's seen in the Maori world but you see it in all societies, where people return learning not because it adds to them but because it helps the community. I think when you get to 60 you might not have a huge number of years ahead of you so you want to give back where you can.

"I'm a passionate Kiwi, I love this country. It's a pretty neat place to be and you want it to continue in a very positive sense."

This industrious man's spare time is spent largely with his wife and family. The couple has a holiday home, with an acre of land and fruit trees, at Kawhai, near Raglan. Its peace and solitude Mr Auton describes as "the perfect antidote to Auckland".

"I still love Auckland though so I feel like New boss manages change

I've got the golden triangle now with Auckland, Kawhai and Tauranga."

Mr Auton is a former president and inaugural fellow of the NZ Planning Institute and, in 2009, received a distinguished service award for his significant contribution over many years to the image and practice of planning. Having lived and breathed local government issues his entire working career, Mr Auton remains heavily invested in what is a changing landscape.

"There is going to be a lot changes in New Zealand local government and I guess the message is, and I'm quite strong on it with Tauranga, it needs to look at how it does the big functions together with other councils. Things like transport, water and waste water services and planning to a degree. In my opinion, the reforms should target how we get better efficiency and better effectiveness out of how we do that together. Government is challenging local government in general to give more bang for the buck and I think it's right to do that.

"For example with transport, how does the council join hands with the NZTA? My opinion is it needs to be done regionally.

"There are efficiencies to be gained by joining hands in some shape or form and the same applies for water and waste water.

"How can the Western Bay of Plenty and Tauranga share more of its services together? That could be a much longer journey than my time here but we have to design an organisation which would allow for those eventualities."

For a man with such obvious capabilities, an obvious question. Would he be tempted if offered the Tauranga CE role permanently?

"It would be fantastic but that's not where I'm at in my career. I'm on three boards, and I chair one of those in the mental health industry. That's where I want to go in my career.

"I'm part of the Kaipara Review team with the government, last year I was on a board of inquiry for a men's prison. I like that variety of work and it's where I want to be in my life."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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