. Photo / George Novak 140519gn02bop.JPG or 140519gn01bop.JPG
By Samantha Motion
"SOME of my best memories are out on the water when it's dark and you're just in the rhythm of the paddling and you can hear something come and surface on the water.
"You don't know what it is, you suspect it might be a dolphin or a killer whale or a whale, but you know you're out there with something and that's beautiful."
Fiona McTavish - former world champion dragon boat paddler and current Bay of Plenty Regional Council chief executive - gestures out the meeting room windows to the Tauranga Harbour and Matapihi Bridge.
"Even in here I'll be working sometimes on the weekend and I'll see the killer whales out chasing the stingrays and I'll think, 'oh I should be out on the water'.
"You can see the killer whales coming under the bridge and chasing the stingrays.
"Something I had never seen it until I came here - a killer whale surfing. I have seen that out at the Mount. That was stunning. Its body was coming through the surf, like barrel surfing.
"There were surfers out there and this huge fin. I thought they might be quite scared, but after a while, they knew the killer whale was surfing too.
"These are the things we get to see because we live here."
The Zen-like scenes are both a tidy metaphor for McTavish as a person - she exudes both calm and an intense attentiveness - and the stuff tourism campaign dreams are made from.
To be frank, it's precisely the sort of thing we should all be keeping quiet about if we're ever to stop those hordes of blasted Aucklanders (bus drivers excluded) from moving to Tauranga.
McTavish says the council's biggest challenge is balancing sustainable growth with environmental protection.
Since taking up the council's top management job a year ago this monthMcTavish is most likely to be found working in the pre-dawn hours.
"I try very hard not to send emails before 5am. Sometimes I don't achieve that.
"The staff know not to keep their phones close to them when they are sleeping. I'd hate to wake someone up just because I'm up."
The Otumoetai mother-of-two had been with the council seven years as general manager of strategy and science before being promoted to the position vacated by Mary-Ann Macleod.
It's the kind of career achievement her parents hoped to give their children when they moved from Scotland to Otago and had a family - two boys and a girl.
McTavish said they moved for the lifestyle but also loved the education, freedom and opportunities New Zealand could offer children.
"I've been able to achieve what I have achieved in New Zealand and I think they thought I wouldn't be able to do that in Scotland because of the class system."
Her father was a ship's carpenter and the rest of the family tree included "many many Presbyterian ministers".
Growing up in Otago, she was drawn to a career in the public service - no doubt the influence of all those ministers.
"I was one of those few people who went to Otago University that came from Otago."
She is a devoted alumnus.
"Ever since my children have been little I've been saying '...and you're going to Otago'."
The rubber is about to meet the road on that long-term influence campaign, with her eldest daughter in year 13 this year and eager to pursue a career with the United Nations.
Her youngest, 13, wants to be a climate scientist and work in Antarctica.
McTavish moved to Wellington after university.
In the Capital, she met her secondary school teacher husband and picked up paddling - kayaking, waka ama, dragon boating specifically.
"I very much enjoyed it. Some times I would walk up from Wellington Harbour in my wetsuit to get to work."
She represented New Zealand in all three disciplines in her 20s, winning a world championship in Hong Kong with the New Zealand women's dragon boating crew.
For a period she spent almost all her time on the water, but that started to change as she moved up the management ladder at the Ministry of Health.
"I had people who really believed in me and what I could achieve and just kept giving me more responsibility."
She worked for the Capital and Coast District Health Board for seven years, writing the business case for the $300 million redevelopment of Wellington Hospital.
"I think I was quite free and easy before I worked for the district health board. It was really, really hard work."
Her last job in Wellington was with the Ministry of Education as general manager, education workforce.
"I looked after all the industrial relations so I know that if I was in that job now, I would be very busy."
The family moved to the Bay of Plenty, their favourite holiday spot, eight years ago and McTavish started with the regional council as general manager of strategy and science.
The role included responsibility for public transport, overseeing the years-long project to redesign the bus network for a growing city.
The result launched in December with a new contractor, NZ Bus.
Buses quickly hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The council had mere day's notice that NZ Bus did not have enough drivers ahead of the start of the new school term and the beginning of a free school bus trial in Welcome Bay.
It was chaotic. Buses not running, children late to school or left on the side of the road, ring-in drivers from other regions needing instructions from passengers, elderly people left waiting in the hot sun for cancelled services.
McTavish was seven months into the top job.
She had already faced at least one big challenge: leading a restructure that saw 32 people made redundant to meet a target of $1m in efficiency savings set by elected officials.
"It's hard making people redundant, but it is part of how we work now. It's unusual these days to have the same job from when you leave school to when you retire."
But the bus issues were something else.
"It was something nobody expected. My staff and I were pretty devastated that we couldn't deliver for our communities as we expected."
It spilt into her personal life, with lots of questions and "full volume feedback" - always appreciated - from friends about how the buses were impacting their children.
The council scrambled to stem the problems and things have since largely returned to normal, albeit with the reinstatement of some routes amid an ongoing review of the new network, other companies contracted to pick up some school runs, and huge reputational damage to undo with potential passengers.
McTavish is determined to see public transport in Tauranga succeed.
"We have to do better."
She wants potential drivers to see the job as a lifestyle choice, even encouraging a retiring minister uncle to think about getting behind the wheel.
"He'd be perfect!"
She said the council is looking at smaller buses for less popular routes, ride-sharing, total mobility options - a subject close to her heart given both her brothers have disabilities.
She said her brothers also inspired, in part, her leadership style.
"It's about empowering others to achieve.
"I was brought up in a family where it was about realising your potential and seeing people for what they can achieve.
"I get a huge about of satisfaction when somebody else shines."
She has no office and occasionally spends a day in the field walking in her colleagues' shoes.
She's manned the reception desk and helped monitor containment bunds to keep rainwater runoff on land from reaching waterways.
"My job is a privilege."
For her spare time, McTavish lists walking her dog, gardening, reading and chairing the board of Otumoetai Intermediate among her interests.
There has been the odd paddling expedition as well - in fair weather.
She aspired to get out and see Tauranga Harbour with that early morning sheen on the water she fondly remembered from Wellington.
"It's just magic."