Western Bay of Plenty District Council's new mayor Garry Webber. Photo/George Novak
Western Bay of Plenty District Council's new mayor Garry Webber. Photo/George Novak

In some ways, the road to Omokoroa is still a country road.

It is narrow and meandering but now, in the face of rapid growth in the area, it heaves with a steady flow of cars, trucks and builders' utes.

Even on a Tuesday at 9.45am, there is a long line of commuters waiting to turn left on to State Highway 2 into Tauranga.

Likely, they are timing their journey to avoid the rush hour when queues can stretch from Te Puna to Bethlehem and beyond into the city.


I'm going the other way, following the road to the coast through a verdant landscape of orchards and lifestyle blocks.

I stop to buy four plump Hass avocados for $2, depositing my coin into one of the honesty boxes on the roadside.

Once, the boxes would have been unlocked; now they are metal and padlocked, the one I stop at bearing the marks of attempted break-ins.

Further up the hill, the orchards give way to clusters of new homes with panoramic views across Matakana Island to Mauao.

Some are McMansions, others more modest, but either way, they represent a collision between two worlds - town and country - and the transformation of this once sleepy seaside village.

Western Bay of Plenty District Council's mayor-elect Garry Webber lives with his wife Carole in one of the new hilltop suburbs and says the growth of places around Tauranga is no surprise.

He and Carole have lived in many towns and cities in New Zealand, but are now on their third home at Omokoroa.

"We've lived here permanently since 2003," Garry says. "Other than seven years in Timaru, three years is a long time in one place for us."

The couple are beginning a new decade - Garry turned 70 in February and Carole celebrated the milestone on November 1.

Married 46 years, they moved into their new house in the Lynley Park suburb eight months ago, Carole saying it was time to downsize.

"We had a major cleanout," she says with a laugh.

The sparkling brick home is still generous by city proportions as are the grounds. A wide lawn commands views across Tauranga Harbour while a rock water feature and orchid garden (both Garry's hobbies) frame the landscape.

From below, the drone of earthmovers can be heard as another new suburb is built.

Construction in the Western Bay has reached record levels as people look to the lifestyle offered by Omokora, Katikati, Te Puke and other places on the outskirts of Tauranga.

Priority One figures released this month show an 81 per cent jump in consents issued in the sub-region for the first nine months of the year compared to the same period last year.

This contrasts to a 16 per cent rise in Tauranga for the year to date.

Gazing out across the Webbers' garden to the ocean, it is easy to see the draw of the semi-rural coastal llifestyle.

Garry campaigned on a platform of manageable rates and says key to sustaining the Western Bay's growth is balancing residential concerns with the long-term interests of the economy.

A former dairy company executive, he sits on the regional SmartGrowth committee and says the Western Bay holds a strategic position in terms of access to Tauranga's increasingly busy port.

"The Port of Tauranga in terms of New Zealand Inc is going to be a critical part of our economy," he says.

"A lot of things I do at SmartGrowth are making sure the freight channels to the Port of Tauranga are maintained."

Garry says he is attuned to thinking far into the future and his dairy industry experience equips him well for the job of mayor.

"One of the problems with democracy is we have this three-year election cycle and that tends to constrain people's thinking. A lot of them [think], 'Will this get me re-elected in three years' time?' instead of, 'We have to make decisions for the next generation.'

"Some of the decisions are hard decisions and if you make them now, you won't get re-elected but I come from the school that re-election is not what we're there for. We're there to do what's best for the community and to provide communities that will meet the needs of future generations."

Garry and Carole's decision to settle in Omokoroa came after his career saw them regularly on the move.

"Probably the most interesting period, we went from Timaru to Tokyo to Hawera," says Garry, who is sitting in one of the plush leather armchairs in his lounge.

In Timaru, he was chief executive of Alpine Dairy Products for seven years there before a three-year stint in Japan.

"A lot of the work I'd done [at Alpine] was with the Japanese market so I was appointed business development director in Tokyo for the New Zealand Dairy Board to make changes in their Korean and Japanese operations."

Garry says living in Japan was an incredible experience - "illiterate in the land you live in", he jokes - and gave him the ability to respect differences in culture.

"Coming back to New Zealand, you found we weren't as culturally sensitive on returning as we thought we were when we left."

The years in Tokyo were also pivotal from a business perspective. "The Japanese business culture is very different to the traditional capitalist, run-out-of-America model. They're far more consensus-focused. Everybody's got to agree before you make a change."

Garry says there are good and bad in both models but the Japanese experience influenced his decision-making in his next job for Kiwi Dairy Company in Hawera.

"There was a big switch in our senior management team to get emotional intelligence training - how to actually take staff with you rather than the command of control."

He also learned from the Japanese a long view of investments, saying they are prepared to work on relationships over time.

"In their timings, 20 to 50 years is not unusual ... There's a lot more trust in their business."

Garry and Carole were in Japan from 1995 to 1997 and saw the beginning of the country's population decline.

"We saw a lot of 70-year-old, 80-year-old rice farmers having to walk off the land because their children didn't want to be up to their knees in mud planting rice and could get far better employment in the cities," says Garry.

He has a new book, Rebooting the Regions, about New Zealand's changing demographics, sitting on the coffee table and says what he saw in Japan was "very fortuitous" for his new role as mayor.

I'm trying to sway him to talking about personal stuff, saying readers are keen to get to know their district's new leader, but Carole tells me later they are both very private people.

Garry emphasises his business experience, talking about Kiwi Dairy Company and how the Hawera site was the largest milk processing site in the world when he was in charge.

"We put in place a train for shifting a million litres of milk a day from the Wairarapa and the Hawke's Bay through to Taranaki for processing. The railway line was always there but the technology and the wagons for holding milk and being able to clean milk automatically once they'd been emptied and turn it around, that was pretty unique in the world."

He was also responsible for major innovations at Alpine in Timaru and New Zealand Dairy Group in the Waikato, he says.

"So you're obviously from a long line of dairy farmers then?" I ask.

"No, not at all," he replies, without volunteering anything further.

Prised for more information, he tells me he went to Tauranga Boys' College from 1959 to 1964 after his parents bought a small orchard on Levers Rd.

His father was conscripted in World War II and had been an auctioneer so the orchard represented a new mode of making a living.

When I ask more about his family, he reveals he is one of six siblings.

"I'm number two in the line but there's four sisters in there. I learnt the command and control from the female version from a young age."

He and Carole have two children, a son in Auckland and daughter in Christchurch, both in their early 40s, and one grandchild, a 21-year-old who lived with them for his high school years.

Garry says he was having "a few challenges", and because the Webbers appear to like to keep their cards close to their chest, I feel it is rude to ask more.

Garry does, however, say that Otumoetai College played a critical part in turning his grandson around from "a problem child to now a fellow who has nearly completed his third year at Canterbury University".

"He's doing English and geography, and I think because of some of the role models at Otumoetai College he is pretty much determined that he wants to be a school teacher."

I have never met the Webbers before but it is at this point that we find we have a weird, small-world connection.

Their daughter is named after my mother - not just the name, but the person - and we discover the strange coincidence only when I decide at the last moment to ask their daughter's name.

"Darion," Garry replies.

Hearing the word is strange enough - I've never known another female with my mother's unusual name.

And then he spells it out, "D-a-r-i-o-n."

I am stunned when his wife says she is named after a doctor called Darion Letford. That is my mother.

Carole is a nurse and says she met my mum when they both worked at Middlemore Hospital in the early 1970s, not long after she married Garry.

Carole worked in the plastic surgery unit and needed a doctor to help deal with a difficult patient, and my mother happened to be on call.

"I was very impressed," says Carole, "so that night when Garry picked me up from Middlemore Hospital, I said, 'If we ever have a daughter she's going to be called Darion'."

As fate would have it, Garry also knew my mum.

He had done first-year medicine at Otago University and she was in his class.

Garry opens up a little more and reveals he enrolled in medical intermediate because he had no idea what he wanted to do.

"When I left Tauranga Boys' College, I was far better at sport than I was academic," he says.

"I made the University of Otago soccer team and went to tournaments and all that sort of thing, and then for all sorts of reasons, after two years, I moved into a management cadetship with what is now known as Carter Holt Harvey Industries."

He shifted to Auckland for the cadetship without finishing a degree and began working in the packaging industry, which was starting to automate.

"In 1974, I was sent across to Australia to look at some computerisation or how to automate large corrugated packaging machines. When I came back, I did a lot of work in the meat industry, in the apple industry, in automating packing lines. And then, purely by coincidence, I got headhunted into the dairy industry in 1981 to run their packaging divisions."

"So have you ever milked a cow?" I ask.

"No," he says with a laugh.

With his growing knowledge of computerised systems, Garry was employed by New Zealand Dairy Group to put robots in its packing lines.

"One of the things we did was at the old Waharoa milk powder plant. We changed the packing line from 52 people to five people."

"That wouldn't have been a popular move," I say.

"Not a popular move, not in Waharoa," he agrees. "It's a bit sad. Some of the things I've done have led to the demise of rural New Zealand."

But, says Garry, it was crunch time for the dairy industry and getting at the forefront at technology was crucial.

"If you wanted to be internationally competitive, because 96 per cent of the product was exported offshore, you had to be better than anybody else in the world."

NZ Dairy Group slashed its operations from 16 processing plants in the Waikato to five, Garry saying he got close to Ken Douglas, a leading figure in the trade union movement, during the period.

"But he would've been your foe, wouldn't he?" I ask.

"He was intitially," says Garry, "but what he came to realise very quickly, once you sat down and explained to him, [was] we can continue on the way we are and there will be no dairy industry in New Zealand because the Australians in terms of freight alone are US$13 a tonne better than New Zealand because our freight costs are $13 more."

After four years with NZ Dairy, Garry headed south to Alpine, which was almost in receivership.

Garry says he turned the company around, shifting the focus to large herds of about 400 cows, when the average herd size in the rest of New Zealand was less than 200, and refining bulk cheesemaking.

Garry was visiting someone in hospital when he was inspired by the person's intravenous drip, introducing a similar method to give consistency to the 90,000 tonnes of cheese Alpine was producing daily.

"We had vats where we used petrol gauge technology. They were 40,000 litres [and] plus or minus one was too great. We were within 100ml of 40,000 litres and then we dosed in the starter [curdling agent] very precisely."

Temperature control, cutting and cooking systems were also automated, changing the face of cheesemaking forever.

"Alpine was the first company to put in all that automation and took it from an art form to a science."

In his last role at Fonterra, Garry ran the milk collection operations for all of New Zealand, having at his disposal an annual operating budget of $240 million and staff of 1500.

"And again, the milk collection operation at Fonterra was one of the first paperless operations in New Zealand. We GPS-ed where every farm vat was, where every farm entrance was, and we knew because we pumped on to the truck, we knew down to the litre what was going in."

He says the systems he was involved in putting in place in the 80s and 90s for packing bulk butter, cheese and milk powder have been adopted worldwide and although he feels a degree of pride in his achievements, "it was necessity being the mother of invention".

"It came back to if you didn't do it, the New Zealand dairy industry was not going to be a significant driver of the economy and the New Zealand economy wouldn't be as strong as it is today."

He feels blessed to have worked for "some incredibly capable chairpeople" including Sir James Graham (who lives at the Mount), Sir Dryden Spring and John Roadley, "who basicially said we're not going to be peasant farmers in New Zealand - the farmers deserve a better lot".

But why feel so passionate about the dairy industry if he wasn't a farmer?

"It was some David Foreman courses I went on in the early 70s and it was about continuous improvement. You know, you've got to do better tomorrow than you did today. If you made a mistake today, you've got to work out how to fix it tomorrow. And I've always been, my whole life is about, there's got to be a better way."

Carole Webber says her husband Garry has a great brain and researches everything. Photo/George Novak
Carole Webber says her husband Garry has a great brain and researches everything. Photo/George Novak

At age 63, Garry switched his attention from business to not-for-profit work.

He spent five years on the Child Cancer Foundation's national board and was asked to sit for Omokoroa Community Board after urging KiwiRail not to put a shunting station in the middle of the subdivision where he and Carole now live.

"I suppose because of some of my understanding of milk and milk trains, I was able to talk to KiwiRail and say, 'Have you really got this right?' There were some political decisions among it, but commonsense prevailed in the end."

A passing loop was eventually built by the Apata coolstores near Katikati and his time on the Omokoroa Community Board led to a suggestion he should stand for Western Bay of Plenty District Council mayor.

Since his election, people have broached the subject of amalgamating the regional council with Tauranga City but Garry says it is not his motivation.

"If somebody can show me there's a better way to provide the services to the ratepayers of the Western Bay, either better or more cost effectively, then I would have to get in and support it because it's better for the people who selected me. But I wouldn't do it for the sake of saying we're bigger. I've found that bigger's not better. I'd much rather go for being the best in the field, rather than being the biggest in the field."

Over 50 years, Garry says he has seen many booms and busts in Tauranga and he wants to ensure growth in the Western Bay is about building communities rather than simply serving the interests of property developers.

He says intensification is putting pressure on the region's roads and getting better utilisation of bus services and more people per vehicle are issues to address.

The environment is also a concern and he supports the use of sedimentation ponds in new suburbs to maintain water quality on the coast.

Asked if there are things people might be surprised to know about him, Garry motions to a display of carvings in the front hall.

"I'm a bit of a rock hound," he says. "I carve and polish rocks."

He shows me a patu made of green greywacke and another sculpture he has fashioned out of greenstone and fossilised kauri.

There are more rock works outside, including the water feature, and he says his collection comes from places including the Cascade Valley in South Westland, Great Barrier Island and the Coromandel.

Garry Webber is a self-professed
Garry Webber is a self-professed "rock hound" and made this patu out of South Island green greywacke he collected himself. Photo/George Novak

"I'll go into some pretty incredible places and cart them out on my back."

He also dabbles in photography and after he leaves for a council meeting in Katikati, his wife reveals he enjoys growing orchids too.

Carole and Garry met in Hawke's Bay when she was a nurse at Napier Hospital and she says he has always had a great brain and researches everything.

"He wouldn't just sit there and say, 'I don't agree with that.' He'd tell you why he didn't agree."

She says he has been very successful in business but has done "an awful lot behind the scenes for people as well".

Garry is to be sworn in as mayor on November 10 at Te Puke.