Chris Barton meets Mark Ford, the low profile but immensely powerful executive creating Auckland's Super City.

If you need a tricky job done in Auckland, someone who will quietly, behind the scenes, do what it takes and deliver on time and within budget, there is really only one person to call.

Whether you want Aucklanders to drink water from the murky Waikato River, make them ride public transport again or happily accept the amalgam known as the Super City, "The Fixer" can make it so. His fee starts at $540,000 a year.

Mark Ford is a disciplined man. He rises at 4.30am, spends around an hour working out in his gymnasium, followed by a swim and sauna - "my thinking time".

At work he's systematic, a stickler for proper process, runs a tight ship, can't abide lateness or, apparently, brown shoes and people who wear pens in their shirt pocket. He's not a night person. "When you're having your first chardonnay, I'm probably asleep."

Ford says he likes debate - "contestable advice" - but he's not afraid to make a decision once everyone has had a say. "You could say I'm firm in that respect." Others say he surrounds himself with acolytes, is charming when he needs to be, but when he's ruthless, he takes no prisoners. Don't mess with Ford. But lately the executive chairman of the Auckland Transition Agency, whose task is to meld seven councils and the Auckland Regional Council into one by October, has been copping a bit of flak.

Conspiracy theorists say he's behind a secret agenda to privatise publicly owned Auckland assets. Others regard him as a Government lackey - bringing Auckland under Beehive control and running the Ministry of Auckland, with himself as the appointed (rather than elected) Auckland minister.

Herald columnist Brian Rudman called him "the Government-appointed gauleiter of Auckland". That was the title given to district leaders in Nazi Germany and now refers to overbearing local officials, especially those wielding a lot of political or bureaucratic power. Others wonder if he is the dictator of Auckland or, at least, the one who dictates what Auckland will become.

Yet most Aucklanders will be saying "Mark who?"

Even though he's long held top positions in Auckland's public services, Ford keeps a low public profile. It's as though Auckland's future is being designed by an invisible man.

Finding out about Ford isn't easy. Initially he doesn't want to be interviewed. "I'm a very private individual," he tells us when we finally meet at the Transition Agency's temporary offices in Newmarket.

Far from shy, however, Ford stands out with his immaculately groomed silver beard and hair, sharp tie, crisp white shirt and cufflinks. Perhaps because he's not in charge in an interview situation, he's also a little awkward. "Oh, I like that," he tells the photographer as he shakes her hand. He's examining her nail polish. "I shouldn't make personal observations," he laughs.

People don't understand his role, says Ford. He's not calling the shots, the Government is: "I'm here to deliver a project. The politicians have to deliver the message - it's their message, not mine."

He's not embarrassed to be known as the invisible man. "I've learned over many years that to deliver means just that - staying in the background. My employers have been very happy with that sort of profile."

SO who is Mark Ford and should we be worried?

Ford came to Auckland when he was 12, from Jersey in the Channel Islands. "Of course it was a big change, but at that age you follow your parents." He began school here at Selwyn College. Later, when his father, an Anglican priest, moved to St Jude's Church in Avondale, Ford travelled by train to Newmarket, then by bus to school. "There was good public transport in those days." He also had a 1947 Royal Enfield, "a magnificent bike", which he wishes he still had.

Before attending Auckland University where he did a BA in the liberal arts - economics, history, politics - he spent two years drilling and prospecting in Australia. He loved the lifestyle and it was his first taste of the oil industry. His university years were during "the Shadbolt period". Helen Clark was there, so was Phil Goff. During holidays he worked at the Westfield freezing works alongside Winston Peters. In 1972 Ford left New Zealand for London - at the end of the Edward Heath Government and during the miners' strike, which caused power cuts, factory closures and lay-offs. "I was lucky because I worked for an essential industry - oil. We could turn our lights and heating on for seven days a week."

Ford worked with Phillips Petroleum in Britain and later in Oklahoma before returning to New Zealand in 1987. He doesn't want his wife named, but she's from Te Kuiti and a teacher. They've been married for 33 years and their twin sons, now 26, were born in London.

Ford, 60 this year, always knew he would come back to New Zealand, but what hurried him along was the mid-80s restructuring of the oil industry. The price plummeted from US$35 a barrel to US$5. It was the time of corporate raiders and greenmail (purchasing enough shares in a firm to threaten a takeover and forcing a buyback of those shares at a premium to suspend the takeover). "My company was hit by three classic greenmail adventures and it was not the same, so we'd decided by then to come home."

Home is Auckland. He lives in the central area, loves the harbour and, yes, he does have a boat - mostly for fishing. Auckland is an affordable, quality place, has good education and it's not so far from the rest of the world anymore, he says. "It's good all round." Although he does think it could do with some infrastructure spend.

"I've committed to Auckland. I've had offers for jobs around the world, but I've rejected them all because I want to stay here," says Ford. "I actually want to give something back." Why? "I guess I was arrogant enough that I wanted to get involved in a legacy-type project like this."

There's no doubt Ford is driven by ambition and loves, perhaps needs, a challenge, but he's aware, too, of the perils of hubris - "you get too close to the sun and you drop".

His politics are private too, but are probably best described as business-friendly. Yet he clearly has respect on both sides of the political spectrum.

His entree into the maelstrom of the Auckland political scene was in 1992 with the Alliance-dominated Auckland Regional Services Trust, where he became friends with the late Bruce Jesson.

"The trust did a good job. I wasn't an Alliance member or anything like that, my politics are my own," says Ford. "I had a huge respect for Bruce Jesson. He had the intellect to not worry that I might have different opinions to him. We all miss him as a thinker in society."

Ford's approach to the mammoth amalgamation task is to adopt the role of uber-project manager. "It's no different from building a spaceship or a bridge in that in a project everything has got to be distilled down to manageable bites." Ford admits the Super City is more complicated because of the enormous amount of components, but he's doing what he always does - following disciplined system processes, distilling the job down to a number of workstreams and delegating people to build, piece by piece. His job is to make sure all the pieces of the new city fit together.

Ford's reach across the political spectrum is also demonstrated by the appointment of former Alliance Party leader and National Distribution Union (NDU) general secretary Laila Harre as "Human Resources and Change Manager" for the Transition Agency.

Will the job get done? "Like all project managers, I'd like to have twice the time that I'm given, but we'll deliver. I am absolutely certain [that] on day one, Auckland will get a huge win out of what we're doing."

What we'll win, according to Ford, is a much more customer-focused organisation, the elimination of "a whole lot of form-filling", lower cost of regulation and the ability to "turn things round quicker". The principles of the new organisation, he says, are leadership, customer services and reasonable risk-taking - not being "worried about making decisions because of the consequences", providing leadership and accepting accountability for what you decide.

What sort of decisions? "I was going to say 'build the bloody cruise ship terminal' [on Queen's Wharf], but that's controversial so I'm not going to go there".

Yes, he does have visions for Auckland. "I firmly believe the airport has got to be linked by a railway system." It something he pushed when he was chair of the Auckland Regional Transport Authority.

He's not a fan of the expensive Stanley St interchange bringing more and more trucks into an "absolute magnificent waterfront" crying out for development. "But I do believe the port is very important to the economy of Auckland - it's just how you balance those two."

Much of the criticism of the new city structure focuses on the new Council Controlled Organisations (CCOs), which will be responsible for amalgamated services such as water and wastewater, transport and waterfront development. Many are concerned the CCOs - initially with board members appointed by government ministers - will be a law unto themselves, able to make crucial infrastructure decisions independent of the wishes of democratically elected councillors.

"All we are doing is cutting 43 pure CCOs down to seven and in some ways we are tightening up the governance," says Ford. He argues there will be more, not less, control on CCOs - through regular reporting requirements, external reviews and performance benchmarks.

There is also the spatial plan, in which Ford says CCOs will have statutory requirement to give effect to, plus "statements of intent", which must be signed off by the councils.

Critics argue such statements are often vague intentions with little meaning and the much vaunted spatial plan will be like "waiting for Godot" - held up by a morass of red tape and complications caused by integrating eight different geographic information systems (GIS). "I'm not so sure the spatial plan relies on GIS. It's a much more aspirational planning process. The spatial plan is effectively where you are aspiring to take yourself as a council," says Ford. Planners disagree. Without detailed information linked to location, there will be no planning.

"Plans have never been successful at a regional level for Auckland, but that's more to do with the silo mentality of all the constituents, [the different councils]," he says. "Now you have one body all working together I have every confidence it's going to work."

Critics say what Ford is creating is a series of hardened silos, independent of each other and likely to work against the very goal of integration that the new city is supposed to achieve. The Waterfront Development Agency, for example, operates independent of the port company and doesn't include the wharf at Devonport. Similarly Watercare will have no responsibility for stormwater, even though it often gets into our sewers. And though much of it washes away on the roads and runs into the harbours, stormwater doesn't come under the control of the Transport CCO either.

While the CCO model is good for expediency - getting things done, as Ford has ably demonstrated in his time as head of Watercare - it doesn't always address the bigger or long-term picture. Yes, Auckland has a water pipeline to the Waikato to ensure continuity of supply, but could that money have been better spent treating our stormwater and recycling it for a variety of uses such as irrigation? Yes, we have top quality sewage treatment plant at Mangere. But a reluctance to deal with industrial waste in our sewers means we have a growing mountain of biosolids laden with mercury, cadmium, copper and nickel, unable to be used as fertiliser, with much of it sitting on reclaimed Manukau harbour land.

Ford doesn't see the CCOs as hardened silos at all. Suggest to him people are worried the CCOs won't talk to one another and he says: "You're being provocative. I'm not sure people are worried." He disagrees, too, that the CCOs will have no reason or incentive to engage with local boards.

"If I was a CCO chief executive, why wouldn't they? [The local boards] are my customers, my stakeholders. I can't see why I would want a silo because the risks are enormous if you don't co-operate."

Purely from a commercial point of view, Ford says there are lost of reasons why CCOs will talk to one another. "Why wouldn't I try and put a pipeline down a road about to be resealed as opposed to paying for reinstatement of that - it has huge commercial consequences."

Ford sees his job as making the legislation work as it stands. If there are concerns that the Auckland Council bill is taking the local out of local government he says: "Don't talk to me about that, talk to Rodney Hide or John Carter."

How, then, does he deal with, for example, a glaring hole in the legislation?

"Privately, offline. I have worked for many different governments run by different political parties - they all trust my advice. I do not embarrass my employer publicly."

Will something change regarding local board governance and responsibilities? "I don't know. Do you think it should? I'm not going to give you that comment."

Ford's biggest worry in the transition to one city is that there must not be a meltdown on changeover. He's determined to have a customer-centric organisation at start-up - with customer service teams "trained to give answers on day one and with a smile". He also wants one-stop shops for bill payments. Redundancies among council staff - especially in duplicated management ranks - are inevitable, but not, he stresses, among operational staff.

As for the criticism about wielding too much executive power, Ford doesn't think he has any, pointing out that he doesn't make the law. "People have a right to their opinions and I can't defend myself against that. The facts are, we are not making decisions here."

He points out too that the only way in which a particular council service could be privatised is as a result of a council decision.

What happens to Ford after the transition remains open - although he's made it clear he will not be taking any executive role within the council. He says experience in transport, Watercare and Ports of Auckland means he's not ruling out a role in one of the CCOs, if he's asked, but he's not expecting anything.

"I've got to carry on working, but nothing has been promised me. I hope the legacy and the way we have done those will make me employable."

The judgment on whether the Super City transition is a success will take some time, but for Ford the judgment of failure will happen on day one. "If people phone in and find there is a lesser service than what they are used to, that's certainly failure."

How does he want to be remembered?

"I'm not sure I want to be remembered. I know I'll be remembered if it's a failure and I'll know if I'm a success."

So if people said "Mark who?" at the end of all this that would be okay? "Absolutely, I'll ride off into the sunset."

MARK FORD - CV
* Age: 59
* BA, Auckland
* Appointed Executive Chairman, Auckland Transition Agency in May 2009.

Personal:
* Born in Britain. Came to New Zealand at the age of 12. Educated at Selwyn College and University of Auckland. Married 33 years, 2 children.

Experience:
1994-2009 - Watercare chief executive
1992-1994 - Auckland Regional Services Trust chief executive
1987-1992 - Forestry Corporation chief executive and Timberlands managing director
Pre-1987 - Senior management positions with Phillips Petroleum in Europe and North America

Directorships
2007-2009 - chairman of the Auckland Regional Transport Authority
2003-2007 - commissioner for the Gambling Commission
2003-2007 - chairman of Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority
2003-2004 - Casino Control Authority
1992-1997 - Ports of Auckland
1990-2002 - Tarawera Forests

Other:
1999-present - trustee of the Bruce Jesson Foundation
2000-2009 - Waitemata Harbour Clean-up Trust (chairman 2006-09)
2004-2009 - New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development (deputy chairman, 2006-09)
2003-08 - member of the ministerial advisory group for the Sustainable Water Programme of Action.