Strategic thinker called to tourism

By David Porter -
2 comments
Allison Lawton realised she "didn't want to stay in the public sector".
Allison Lawton realised she "didn't want to stay in the public sector".

A key turning point in Allison Lawton's career came in her mid-20s when she was sponsored to do a 24-day Outward Bound course by her then employer, Housing New Zealand (HNZ).

"I didn't actually think it was a big deal at the time," she said. "But it was quite life-changing for me."

Ms Lawton came away from the course with a new awareness that she had leadership qualities. She set out to achieve increasingly senior roles at HNZ, Te Puia, SkyCity and Waiariki Institute of Technology, before setting up her own business, AVID Creative Business Agency, in 2013.

And she is committed to Rotorua. "I was born, bred and will die here."

Of Tuwharetoa and Rongowhakaata lineage, her first job on leaving school was at the local Department of Maori Affairs office as a clerk, before moving on to HNZ.

She was promoted to Rotorua rental and mortgage manager, then became one of the youngest regional managers in the organisation, looking after the central north.

She completed a MBA at the University of Waikato while working full-time, which provided the inspiration for her next venture. Always interested in the tourism sector, her MBA dissertation was a strategic plan to set up a motel.

"I realised I didn't want to stay in the public sector," she said.

She and her husband, Terry, bought the newly built Pohutu Lodge in Fenton St in 1995 and ran it for three years, but she discovered she hated being tied to the role 24/7 and began consulting, forming a close relationship with Te Puia (then the Maori Arts and Crafts Centre).

Beginning as a project manager in 1997, she became business development and marketing manager and eventually served as chief executive for two years from mid-2001 to 2003.

"Working at Te Puia was the hardest six years of my career," she said, noting that the institution was going through cashflow problems, had a disillusioned staff and underwent a major redevelopment during her time.

"But I'm very proud of what the team did in turning it around, and it was a most rewarding time professionally and personally."

Ms Lawton then briefly held a role as a fast track manager for The Warehouse before deciding it wasn't for her, and was appointed attractions manager at SkyCity in Auckland, where she was responsible for four business units with annual revenues of $25 million and 160 staff.

She commuted to Auckland for the next couple of years, then returned to Rotorua in late 2006 to join Waiariki Institute of Technology as director of the school of business and tourism. She stayed for six years, which included eight months as acting deputy chief executive (Maori).

Tracey Fitzgerald, who worked in Ms Lawton's management team at Waiariki and is now setting up her own design consultancy, described her as a great communicator and very inclusive.

"She's really encouraging and an amazing mentor, especially when it came to difficult decisions I had to make as a manager," Ms Fitzgerald said.

"She's got a real eye for seeing the qualities in people and she's not threatened by people that may want to eventually do her own job."

In 2013, Ms Lawton struck out on her own to set up AVID, which provides management consulting services and business mentoring. Her contracts include a major focus on the tourism sector, including serving since the beginning of this year as general manager for the Wai-o-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland.

Matt Dawson, managing director of Rotorua firm SupraIT, who has known Ms Lawton for several years and regards her as a personal mentor, is also an AVID client.

"She very organised and a very strategic thinker," he said.

"She's been there, and done that, and when she's giving you advice it's coming from things that have actually worked."

Allison Lawton:

* Roles: Director, AVID Creative Business Agency; board member, Rotorua Chamber of Commerce; Trustee, Rotorua Public Arts Trust

* Born: Rotorua, New Zealand

* First job: Clerk

* Recently read: The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson

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