The new head of Waikato Chamber of Commerce is a man on a mission. Chris Simpson has the chamber’s seven purposes firmly in his sights, and he’s given himself four years to achieve his ambitions.
He wants the chamber to get involved in dealing with grievances and advocating, providing training, establishing grants and scholarships and partnering with similar organisations.
And he’s optimistic. For one thing, he says the chamber is in good heart after his predecessor William Durning’s time there, and he has the board’s support.
Chris is a man for the big picture, and big questions.
“What is the new economy and the internet of things and the fourth industrial revolution that we’re going through?
“What is the golden triangle for our business and our business growth?
“What is the protein economy regarding New Zealand Inc?”
He says a big focus is also on helping small to medium enterprises grow their business. No 1 is reducing regulation, along with increasing labour productivity and helping members increase their research and development.
The chamber’s role is very much around being the voice of business for Waikato into Auckland and Wellington, and internationally, he says.
“A chamber of commerce is there to promote, it is there to share information, it is there to do high quality research which we can advocate on.”
The last of those speaks to his own background.
After school years in Huntly and then at Hamilton Boys’ High, where then principal Tony Steel bent the rules to get him in, he picked up a management studies degree at Waikato University but switched courses when he realised he could learn all he needed to know about business through his job at a car auction firm; when he thought about what he enjoyed, it was research, politics and economics, so he changed to a social science degree.
That was followed by a stint as director of research in Parliament.
“This was through the 90s,” he said. “New Zealand was in a tumultuous economic period. I saw all of those changes first hand.
“However, with the campaigns I was also put in charge of the war rooms. I learned a lot from running war rooms trying to get re-elected.”
But Chris is not the first or last to realise Parliament is 24/7 and to decide on a change, and in 2000 he went to Auckland to become chief executive of NZ Property Council.
That was followed by a consulting stint which took in the NZ Institute think tank, and then a role as an Australian trade official reporting to the Australian Embassy’s Auckland consulate.
Family illness brought him back to Waikato in 2013.
A contract gig as economic development and growth manager for the city council ultimately saw him throw his hat in the ring for the mayoralty at the last election – to bring the skills he had learned over the years to the role of mayor “because this town and this area, the growth triangle is really that good”.
He reflects on a creditable third place after “coming from nowhere” 12 weeks out.
He won the chamber job from a field of 40 and his 10 minute pitch included a Gantt chart showing what he would do in the first two years of the job.
“The chamber is a business organisation, first and foremost,” he says. “The board is up for it and wants changes.
“Resourcing need not be expensive, courtesy of the chamber’s extensive membership.
“We have the resources if we go out and engage, and the resources we have here are the quality people involved.
“We’re nimble. We can go hard and fast so long as we’re focused on our why and how.
“I love the independence of the Chamber of Commerce,” Chris said.
On the new Regional Economic Development Agency
“We’re commerce and industry, whereas an economic development agency is there to do attraction. Our job is to advocate because it’s difficult for an economic development agency that’s funded by ratepayers to go and do that. Whereas we can go in and point out what changes need to be made, which is why you’ll see us focus on that data aspect. Rocking the boat if we need to, to help our members.”
On the city council
“What should a chamber of commerce’s involvement with local government be? It’s actually to go in and ask those hard questions about where our $700 million of commercial rates are going to go in the next 10 years. There is a voice to be had on that, and at the same time that engagement has to be in a positive way.”
On the rail link to Auckland
“Vitally important. Rail is something that the Chamber of Commerce pushed for back when freight was put through, way back in history. So logistics and infrastructure are bread and butter for chambers. Anything that helps with connectivity between us and Auckland is important, just like they were doing back in the 1870s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and I think even back then when Hamilton’s population was exploding we were bringing in prefab flat-pack houses to deal with our population explosion. Who would have thought that here we are 120, 130 years later – same thing.”
On Waikato’s place in the golden triangle
“If you were to look at it from a purely export perspective, then you’re looking at the likes of protein, whether it’s dairy or whether it’s meat, that is a large part of what we are to New Zealand Inc. At a city perspective, Hamilton is exactly 10 percent the size of Auckland in every way, shape and form, from the population right down to the economy. Hamilton reflects Auckland more than it reflects any other economy. And it’s understanding the role that a town has in a region, and a major city is there to help drive that productivity within a region.”