Lindy Laird

talks with Steve Smith, the new chief executive for the Northland Chamber of Commerce.

STEVE SMITH has been in the chief executive's chair at Northland Chamber of Commerce for a couple of months.

Right now it's an easy chair from which he's observing and contemplating things. Not in a navel gazing way, mind. Smith is admiring of but not at all complacent about the good shape the Chamber is in after Tony Collins' nine year chief executive stint.

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''Not just Tony but the staff and board, they've all done a great job,'' Smith says.

''In essence, two months into my job, I'm getting a handle on the nuts and bolts. The machine is in good shape, thanks to my predecessor, which enables me to look into the future, to see the lie of the land now and what it could be.''

Smith has identified two key areas he would like the Chamber to focus attention on:
''One, better infrastructure. That's mainly roads, better transport links, this region is utterly dependent on that now let alone in the future when needs will be even greater.

Telecommunications, capability. Regardless of improvements, we are being choked, stifled, starved out of making growth.

''Two, we need to support the development of the Whangārei CBD. The 2017 Whangārei [District Council] City Centre Plan is courageous but there are some gaps. The revitalisation plan does include an element of bringing tertiary education into the centre but in our view, not nearly enough.''

Smith says bring in a strong ''tertiary brand'' and shops will open to cater to the market, support businesses come in, inner city accommodation grows, the population swells, the city's reputation expands as a hub of education excellence and range, and the whole shebang creates a thriving, multi-fed centre in its lovely Northland setting.

''I'm talking over a 25 year view.''

I ask him if the Chamber, a non-profit, representational body with members from a wide spectrum of business interests, is mandated by anyone other than those members. What does it actually do?

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And although it claims to be non-political, the Chamber takes a close interest in public policy and advocacy initiatives, business development programmes and services.

But isn't public policy encumbered with what is political, and can business be isolationist among the affairs and needs of the economy or community it lives in? With Northland Inc as the region's cheerleader and signatory to regionally beneficial development programmes and services, is there an overlap there with the Chamber's kaupapa?

Smith is about to launch into explanations and unravelling of my onslaught of questions, or more correctly, my stray thoughts.

But he's also happy to explain those points and many other topics he'll choose to cover in regular columns in the Advocate, the first of which is in our business section today on page 21.

Steve Smith, new head of Northland Chamber of Commerce.
Steve Smith, new head of Northland Chamber of Commerce.

INSTEAD, the conversation turns to who this Smith chap is and how he came to be here.

He says he dreamed of living in Northland for 35 years but he and his wife Paula only moved here a few years ago.

The Smiths might have made that move sooner if he had been able to drag himself away from the exciting, often dangerous, generously bankrolled world of international telco set-ups.

''I was moving into semi-retirement, or so I thought. I came up here with modest expectations and worked a little in the marine industry. I have some background in the fishing industry.

''But typically in my career, I was a chief operations officer or chief executive in telecommunications-based companies. Telecomms, it's a broad term including, often, setting up anything from banking to payroll.''

That was in places like Afghanistan (twice), Slovakia, UK, the Maldives, Malaysia, Vietnam. The first time Smith worked in Afghanistan, in the early 2000s, he was there to organise a subsidiary telco system for an NGO, essentially to ensure the police, teachers, the army, and the friends of the powers-that-be got their wages.

If there were any gaps in cash-in-transit routes, the Taliban would find a footing and then control the population through cash, those re-routed wages.

In 2013, Smith was rehired - shoulder tapped by the Aga Khan's philanthropic network - to come in to sort out problems in another system.

The Aga Khan Development Network is a mega-rich company with two strings to it.
''One is primarily for profit, one primarily philanthropic,'' Smith says.

The second provides communities with water, power, education, sanitation, medical and education schemes. ''At the far end of it, he (Aga Khan) has led the development of entire universities.''

Smith's job was to smash the over-priced telcoms who had moved into Afghanistan.

''It was to make a difference to the country. The corporate social responsibility was extraordinary. Communication had a profound effect on the people.''

At some time, during a stint back home in New Zealand, between international telcom trouble shooting or development, Smith ''smashed myself up when I fell off my motorbike".

He ''got shuffled off'' to the Maldives, and long story short, ended up with an interest in a fishing fleet in Vietnam, before being invited back to ''the branchless, cashless, banking system''.

And from there to here.

A founder of Cellular 1, Digital Mobile and others, he's kept a finger in a couple of successful telcoms, fishing gear and boats, this and that.

But with their three daughters grown and gone to their own exciting international lives, it was an advertisement for a property near Whangārei that enabled the Smiths to see that 35 year dream come true.

His new job isn't anything like what semi-retirement looked like a few years ago. But it's equally challenging and exciting as previous work has been, insists the man who introduced cell phones to Afghanistan.


* Northland businesses come in all shapes and sizes. If you have a business story to share please contact Lindy Laird, Ph 09470 2801, or email lindy.laird@northernadvocate.co.nz