This year’s Blake Medal winner has a talent for persuading us all — from the rich and powerful to volunteers — that our natural environment is our biggest priority.

For an ex-PR man, conservation linchpin Rob Fenwick might try harder to promote himself.

Mr Fenwick is the common thread behind a suite of winning environmental and social endeavours after a stellar business career. From saving kiwi on the mainland and the Scott and Shackleton huts in Antarctica to his work with the Fred Hollows Foundation in the Pacific and St John in NZ - the CV is too long to do justice to it here.

Yet beyond his network of influential, wealthy and not-so-wealthy friends, he's probably best known for raking muck: the Living Earth compost venture he launched when he saw "economic value" in waste - be it garden, food or human.

That profile may change with last night's conferring of the Sir Peter Blake Medal, though he's not the type to trumpet it. The medal citation acknowledges Mr Fenwick as "New Zealand's foremost statesman of sustainability and the environment, and an exceptional leader and motivator in business and governance".


Not bad for a PR veteran. Acquaintances call him the consummate networker, the go-between who convinces private enterprise and Government that preserving our remaining biodiversity is very much in their interests. Like the best PR practitioners, he's largely unseen - pulling the strings that bring big rewards. His biggest client - our natural heritage - is a freebie but, as he'll tell anyone who'll listen, we ignore it at our peril.

Private enterprise and conservation traditionally make uneasy bedfellows - staunch greenies remain sceptical. But Mr Fenwick says he has always admired the business ethic. "We are a monetarised society that relies on enterprise. We can't really live without it."

His trick is persuading business that it cannot live without a healthy environment. "No economy in the world is more dependent [than NZ] on its natural heritage," he says, "so there has to be an accommodation."

Take Predator Free NZ - that's some vision. But it's uniting hundreds of voluntary groups and farmers already beavering away with scientists, DoC and serious philanthropic money.

Mr Fenwick can pick up the phone and bend the ear of long-time friends in high places: the Conservation Minister (Maggie Barry), the Environment Minister (Nick Smith) and the director-general of DoC (Lou Sanson); or his old PR mate Murray McCully (Foreign Affairs Minister). But he laughs off any suggestion he pulls strings in Cabinet.

The National Party links date from the 1980s, when he and Mr McCully co-founded Allan Fenwick McCully with Cedric Allan. He would badger chief executives about sustainability and the triple bottom line; more so after co-founding the Business Council for Sustainable Development. This networking fostered long-lasting DoC programme sponsorships such as BNZ Save the Kiwi and others involving Air New Zealand, Dulux - even Comalco smelter owner Rio Tinto.

Conservation Minister Mrs Barry and Mr Fenwick go back to Living Earth's sponsorship of TVNZ's Maggie's Garden Show, which former broadcaster Mrs Barry hosted.

"I've had more than one phone call [as minister] from Rob and he's clearly very interested in things I'm interested in," she says.

"He's someone who inspires, cajoles and charms and he backs that up with an intellectual rigour. He doesn't really let go of projects; he works phenomenally hard on things. He wants to leave a legacy with whatever he's involved in."

His political appointments - the Waste Advisory Board, Antarctica NZ, the Antarctic Research Institute, the Sustainable Seas science challenge - raise a stir only among the most implacable lefties. His proudest business success was Mai FM, the Ngati Whatua-owned radio station which "succeeded not only in promoting te reo but commercially".

He's walked the talk, not just with Living Earth but in voluntary work and in restoring, over 30 years, the family's 350ha of native bush on Waiheke Island, eradicating rats and planting thousands of natives. He's had help of course - wife Jennie, a yoga teacher, three daughters and a granddaughter all share his concern for the planet. The family have covenanted the peninsular property so it can never be subdivided and, in 2010, gifted a 3km walkway to the Auckland Council.

He became a driving force in the restoration of Motutapu Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

"I never thought we'd see takahe back on Motutapu in my lifetime," says the island's farmer Rick Braddock. "He works relentlessly and tirelessly and without financial reward in many of these projects.

"He draws people to him."

Mr Fenwick admits he still brings his PR skills to bear. "PR was always about trying to tell an interesting story. Most things boil down to trying to engage people at a level that touches hearts and minds. It's as important to promoting good science as it is with trying to save the kiwi."

Still, he is misunderstood. Some of that stems from his privileged upbringing (a grandfather gave away the family estate to become the Governor-General's Auckland residence) and the circles he moves in: the mega-rich, judges, Cabinet ministers and business leaders. But he has friends on both sides of the political fence and from all walks. He's a man who, says one, "likes everyone".

The Green Party has never quite forgiven his role in the Progressive Greens which contested the 1996 election after the Green Party joined the left-leaning Alliance. It flopped, but Mr Fenwick maintains the Greens' participation in social and economic issues "muddies the message".

Another bone of contention is his advisory role in the 2013 restructuring of DoC under Al Morrison. The upheaval regeared DoC to pursue partnerships (with business, volunteers, councils, iwi) but brought a loss of capacity in key areas and dysfunction which Mr Sanson is still putting right, sources say.

Critics see real risks in the partnership model: the temptation for Government to cut state funding; potential for easily accessed areas or "cute and cuddly" species to gain priority; the risk that a generous corporate could gain favour or get away with an environmental crime.

But Mr Fenwick is adamant, as Mr Morrison was, that the task of preserving our natural heritage is beyond DoC alone. "If you accept [funding] is going to flatline for a while DoC simply has to find better ways of doing what it's currently doing and find new sources of revenue."

Aged 64, the former pipe smoker has scaled back activities over the past 18 months to fight lung cancer. There've been dietary and lifestyle changes before surgery and chemotherapy and he feels "back on track". Part of the response is a raised vege garden on the deck of the Remuera home he and Jennie moved into in January - leafy greens sown in Living Earth compost. He's eyeing fresh projects - privet trees in the gully below their home are in his sights; he's been in touch with the local school.

"Environmental education," he pronounces. "I've got a lot of faith in young people to continue to build a better world ... "

Leading the way

The Sir Peter Blake Leadership Awards recognise leaders who set an outstanding example for young people to emulate.

The annual Blake Medal winner is selected from nominees who have "achieved both personal success and added significantly to the cultural landscape and/or commercial success of New Zealand". This year's winner, conservationist Rob Fenwick, was announced at a black-tie ceremony last night. Six "Blake Leaders" — people between 25 and 45 who have shown exceptional leadership potential - were also confirmed. They will receive mentoring and support. The six — Claudia Batten, Andre Lovatt, Tina Porou, Sita Selupe, Michelle Dickinson and Brendon McCullum — will be profiled in the Herald, beginning on Monday with digital entrepreneur Claudia Batten.

The Fenwick Files

Rob Fenwick's projects, past and present (as chairman, patron, trustee, director, adviser, volunteer) include:
Antarctica NZ; Antarctic Research Institute, Predator Free NZ; Air New Zealand Environment Trust; Kiwis for Kiwi; Next Foundation; Fred Hollows Foundation; St John; Business Council for Sustainable Development; Motutapu Island Restoration Trust; Waste Advisory Board; Sustainable Seas (marine science challenge); Mai FM (founding chairman); Whai Rawa (Ngati Whatua Orakei commercial wing); TVNZ board; Landcare Research.