Business: KEA boss has big ambitions for town

By David Porter

Kawerau is a town of opportunity, says Helen Stewart
BUSINESS PLAN: Helen Stewart is proud of initiatives that have attracted people to work and live in the town.Photo / John Borren
BUSINESS PLAN: Helen Stewart is proud of initiatives that have attracted people to work and live in the town.Photo / John Borren

Helen Stewart has developed a passion for Kawerau's business life and its local community since moving to the Eastern Bay of Plenty town in 2002 to become executive director of the Kawerau Enterprise Agency (KEA).

"It's been amazing," she said.

"Every day is different and every day is a challenge. I love being here. It's been a real opportunity for growth and development. Kawerau is a fascinating town."

One of New Zealand's youngest centres, Kawerau was created in 1953 when the Tasman pulp and paper mill was set up. The town's population and its economy have been largely tied to the fortunes of the mill, now owned by Norske Skog, and KEA was set up in 1985 to stimulate new business as employment opportunities began to decline.

For Ms Stewart, the KEA role came after a career spent largely in the UK. She was born in Christchurch, but her family moved to Auckland when she was young and she completed her schooling there.

She soon set off to the UK for a six-month holiday. After a short period working in New Zealand and some part-time study at Massey University, she ended up back in the UK where she was to stay throughout the 1990s.

"I love being here. It's been a real opportunity for growth and development. Kawerau is a fascinating town."
Helen Stewart, Kawerau Enterprise Agenc

She and three friends set up an engineering tech business in the UK called TSRL, which was focused on addressing oil spill pollution and won a grant from the European Union.

Ms Stewart studied business extramurally at Massey and, as well as helping run TSRL, worked for several years for the Oxleas NHS and Greenwich Healthcare trusts running clinical audits focused on improving the quality of healthcare.

However, TSRL suffered from being lumped in with other tech stocks and when the dotcom boom went bust at the end of the 1990s, the market fell apart and the partners decided to close the business down.

"It was a very exciting time and I learned a lot about running a business," said Ms Stewart.

Spotting the ad for the KEA job, she applied and was appointed to the role. She had not lived in the Bay of Plenty before but her brother lives in Tauranga and she had been a frequent visitor.

"I felt very privileged to be offered the job and be able to move here."

Ms Stewart has served on the East Bay Chamber of Commerce and is president of the Eastern Bay of Plenty Justices of the Peace Association. She also sits on the board of the Institute of Directors Bay of Plenty, which she credits with giving her a useful overview of other business activities in the region.

"The IoD is really important for my board because it helps us stay up to speed with good governance and compliance, so we're able to take on new ideas and develop them and share that information locally."

KEA is focused on business attraction, expansion and support and collaborative community development. The organisation is unique in that it is the only economic development agency in New Zealand which derives its income from a property portfolio. The agency's $6 million in property assets include the KEA Centre, a business and community hub, funded by the agency's original community and business supporters - many of whom remain cornerstone members. The assets now generate about $450,000 in annual income.

Ms Stewart is proud of initiatives such as its drive to make Kawerau attractive to retirees and mobile-home owners. The city has a mobile-home friendly policy and encourages owners to buy sections and use Kawerau as a base for travel through country.

In the year to June 2015, 110 properties sold to newcomers and the number of real estate agencies has grown from one to three.

"There are also a lot of young people finding work here. But whereas in the past there was a demand for semi-skilled workers, a lot of that work has gone in most places across New Zealand. The demands in industry now are for highly skilled people. And there is a lot of work for those people here."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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