Nick Hill is chief executive of Auckland Council's newest council-controlled organisation. He talks Covid, stadiums, job losses and the meaning of the name Auckland Unlimited with Super City reporter Bernard Orsman.
First things first. Nick Hill offers up the nugget that he is on a salary of $506,000, having signed a contract the day before this interview.
It's more than the $465,000 salary he was paid as chief executive of Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed).
But most importantly, it's well under the $600,000 cap Mayor Phil Goff wants for council bosses and about a third less than the $815,000 the board of Watercare paid to former chief executive Raveen Jaduram.
With talk of his salary out of the way, Hill is keen to move on to the creation of Auckland Unlimited, the result of a merger of Ateed and Regional Facilities Auckland.
The two CCOs are very different, says Hill. RFA is facility driven, asset driven and service driven. Ateed is more of a marketing and entrepreneurial organisation that puts deals together, like helping to bring Amazon Studios' The Lord of the Rings TV production to Auckland.
His immediate task is to set a clear purpose for the new organisation and resurrect Auckland's battered cultural, sporting, tourism and economic life in a post-Covid world.
The first step is to bring together the 800 staff from Ateed and RFA, appoint a management team and begin finding savings of about $5 million a year. The recent CCO review, which recommended the merger, identified savings of $44m to $67m over 10 years.
"That will inevitably involve streamlining of activities, removing duplication and will have implications for the headcount of the organisation," Hill says.
Over the next year Hill plans to make bold decisions. What are they?
Hill says the CCO review talked about the opportunity to complete the jigsaw of Auckland's cultural organisations and improve the economic, governance and management system of stadiums.
With less money to go around due to Covid, that will force Auckland Unlimited to make "some very hard choices", he says.
In his view, Auckland only needs one proper, rectangular stadium.
"All of them require capital. Sooner or later they are going to fall down or the quality is going to deteriorate and they will be less attractive."
He warned a similar fate could happen to other popular facilities if renewal programmes cannot be properly funded.
Hill is working on the assumption that Auckland will not go back to open borders for the next 12 to 24 months, which has negatives and positives.
Our job, he says, it to take advantage of the positives, like 42,000 people at Eden Park for Aotearoa Super Rugby and celebrated pianist Michael Houston packing the Auckland Town Hall "which they wouldn't before".
"How can we generate more of that, it is home-grown, and how do we get the rest of New Zealand to come to Auckland?"
How will Hill approach the stadium strategy, which has gone nowhere since being announced in 2012?
"I think people are a bit sick and tired and fatigued with all the debates and want people to show some leadership.
"To solve the stadium strategy, we are probably going to have to go to some uncomfortable places," says Hill.
By this, Hill means looking seriously at Eden Park, which is owned by a private trust, possibly at the expense of Mt Smart Stadium and North Harbour Stadium, both council-owned.
"There are some basic things you can't argue with. Eden Park is going to be here for 10 years. We need it. I don't think it's going anywhere. It's what happens after that. Is it still Eden Park? Do we invest in it? Who owns it? How is it governed? Is there a common management structure across stadia?"
Asked about the future for Mt Smart and North Harbour stadiums, Hill says: "I don't know what the future is for them. I haven't gone into that."
One thing he is sure about is Mark Franklin, his board chairman at Ateed and now Auckland Unlimited, "is good at being quite willing to communicate unpopular decisions".
Nick Hill on what's best for Auckland
Hill believes concerts at Eden Park are a good thing for Auckland - a different view to RFA, which has argued rock concerts at the park would cannibalise council finances and not grow the economic pie for Auckland.
The rationale used by Hill is: what is the best thing for Auckland?
"I think Eden Park having more ability to host concerts and more capacity to be used is a good thing for Auckland.
"If that has a negative commercial and financial consequence for the council then the council needs to deal with that, but we start from the principle of what is right for Auckland."
Asked if his first obligation is to the council, Hill said the council's obligations are to Aucklanders. "We have to make those balances."
As a former chief executive of the Commerce Commission, Hill said the council should not be using the Resource Management Act as a commercial tool in the same way supermarkets do to stymie other supermarkets opening new stores.
"I'm very concerned our facilities are viable and commercially successful, but ultimately it is in the service of Aucklanders," he said.
Bringing all the cultural organisations together
A recommendation from the CCO review to incorporate the city's cultural institutions, including Auckland Museum, Motat and the Auckland Art Gallery, into one entity finds merit with Hill.
"New Zealand and Auckland in global terms is really, really small and we end up with these complicated personality-driven structures that create cost.
"There is a real opportunity for a more joined-up, simpler ownership structure than we have in New Zealand, particularly in the sport and cultural sectors. In this Covid world we have got less capital and less resources and we need to come up with models that are more efficient."
Hill loves the story of what happened in Berlin, where it became a magnet for culture and young people, music, art and so on.
"I would love to see in this Covid world the opportunity for that to be so much of the experience we have in Auckland. Culturally and ethnically we have got such a diverse city."
Breathing life back into tourism
Ten days ago, Hill visited Tiritiri Matangi Island, the Department of Conservation wildlife sanctuary in the Hauraki Gulf.
He found the day trip "unbelievable" and it reminded him of the incredibly rich offering Auckland offers visitors. It was also a reminder of the challenge of getting more people to visit the city.
The tourism sector supports between 55,000 and 60,000 jobs in Auckland, and double that are dependent on it.
Unfortunately, particularly with the second lockdown, New Zealanders' desire to come to Auckland has diminished, said Hill.
"We need to persuade the rest of the country that Auckland is friendly, there is lots to do, they are welcome."
Hill is keen to target wealthy visitors, particularly from overseas when the borders reopen, saying they are incredibly valuable in terms of investment and jobs.
"The Government is pumping money into the economy but that is going to run out. We need private investment to be investing here, particularly in those business areas that create more jobs, tech, film, health, construction."
Is the name Auckland Unlimited a bit esoteric and marketing jargon?
Hill says he was deliberately agnostic, leaving it to the process and others to come up with the name.
"Having said all of that I actually really like it.
"Auckland Unlimited is emotionally the idea that there is a lot of potential. Our job is trying to create the opportunity for that. We are the emotional marketing piece of Auckland that gets people excited and doing things."
Hill went to a Writers Festival function last week and was surprised at the feedback: "We really like it."
Reminded that writers tend to be esoteric, Hill laughs.