THE MANAGEMENT INTERVIEW Rob Fenwick – Weaving green threads

Perhaps it was all the past photos of him wearing shades of green. Plus his impeccable eco-friendly track record. Strange as it sounds, I couldn’t imagine Rob Fenwick living in anything other than treehouse. So when the founder of Living Earth and chair of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development invited me to talk with him in his downtown Auckland apartment, the idea of sophisticated metropolitan living space seemed little incongruous. Crossing the threshold, I blurt out this rather strange train of thought to Fenwick who tells me apartment living is bit of surprise to him as well.
The family deserted the “leafy suburbs” only last year, he tells me, after giving the move considerable thought. Apartment living is, he says, very gentle on the earth, consolidating density of population in one place and is “sensible” option in city the size of Auckland. I immediately feel slightly guilty about my leafy Mt Albert suburb-dwelling propensities.
And, anyway, there’s always the family home on sprawling 300-hectare property on Waiheke Island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. Just before I leave he shows me nine-page spread in the second issue of new publication NZ Life & Leisure. It shows the Fenwick family in idyllic rural surroundings living the usual glossy magazine lifestyle: traipsing in togs back from the beach, checking out the animals and noshing on nourishing food in dappled sunlight.
“It’s bit over the top,” he laughs, and goes on to talk about how lucky he is that his family has also fallen in love with Waiheke.
Luck and fortune are recurring themes in our conversation. Fenwick says he is lucky to have his Waiheke retreat, to have had “a few adventures” or experiences in his life, and fortunate enough to have been able to take up opportunities when they crossed his path.
Sounds like more than luck, I prod, and he acknowledges that maybe he has “an optimistic disposition” that allows him to pick up and run with new challenges as they occur.
He could, after all, have followed in his father’s footsteps as family doctor and he had mentally started off down this track as teenager until he realised he “never had the aptitude or the discipline to stick out six years of med school”.
Nor could he have envisaged then, he says, how his life would have turned out so far. Instead of med school, young Fenwick checked out Auckland University, clocked up “a couple of arts papers” and scored himself cadetship at the Auckland Star.
With few years at the Star and couple of other journalism roles behind him, Fenwick hooked up with rising public relations specialist Cedric Allan to form Allan Fenwick, which later became Allan Fenwick McCully and powered his way through 15-year stint in PR in the “heady” ’70s and ’80s.
After selling the business to Hill & Knowlton, Fenwick linked up with friends to set up venture capital company, ending up with public company Metropolitan Life Insurance and establishing along the way mineral water company New Zealand Natural.
In many ways this was turning point for Fenwick. manufacturing and marketing organisation, NZ Natural was his first foray into business that needed strong branding. “In terms of its export opportunities it was almost totally reliant on brand New Zealand,” says Fenwick. “And that caused me to think lot about the need to protect brand New Zealand from some of the threats that were gathering over it.”
While this wasn’t quite an awakening of an environmental consciousness in younger Fenwick – that had been there all his life, he says – it underscored the economic importance of the nation’s clean, green brand “and the risk of it turning out to be lie”.
“In New Zealand,” he says, “we tend to see ourselves through certain lens but the reality is that we have the fourth biggest eco-footprint in the world. We’re not what we like to think of ourselves as.”
So, in sense, we’re living lie. “This clean, green thing has been useful tool to help us understand how the world thinks of us,” says Fenwick. “But it’s very passive expression. There’s no call to action in just being clean and green so we don’t do anything about it. There’s no individual responsibility behind that lie. So we’re going backwards.”
As nation, we run the risk of being busted at some point, in Fenwick’s mind: exposed for the underlying weakness of our eco-facade.
“New Zealand’s soils, for example, support about 60 percent of our GDP,” he says. “That thin skin of about 20 millimetres of topsoil supports 60 percent of our wealth. And as any scientist will show you, our soils are very fragile. That’s for variety of reasons but mainly because it’s very young country that was covered in forest until very recently. So our soils erode into the sea 10 times faster than other countries.”
And while it takes about 100 years to make one centimetre of soil, in an average year we lose about 400 million tonnes of soil into the ocean.
“Without being alarmist, the wealth of the country is washing into the sea much faster than nature can create it. So that is huge threat to our economy. Really, we aren’t doing anything about it. At the last round of science funding, soil science was almost abandoned. That is ticking time bomb.”
Soil health is bit of hobby horse of his, admits Fenwick, and he acknowledges that even composting companies such as his – Living Earth – can only provide tiny part of any long-term solution to the problem. The key, he says, lies in us collectively understanding what is going on inside the economic engine of our country – our soil. “I mean, most countries have got water and sunshine. The ‘x’ factor for us is our soil and our ability to grow grass and to convert it into protein.”
Earlier this year Dominion Post article by Sue Allen had quoted Fenwick saying that his 10-year old company Living Earth had been “less profitable than first hoped”. He’d attributed that, in part, to the fact that compost is low-cost, high-volume product that is expensive to make and shift.
Could the company’s slower-than-expected performance also be partly attributed to that passivity Fenwick had mentioned earlier? Well, yes, but there are clear signs that the rural community – which Living Earth also services – is becoming increasingly aware of soil health issues. “Certainly, farmers are really questioning the random application of synthetic fertilisers and whether that is actually sustainable activity.”
Besides Living Earth, which he estimates soaks up around half of his time, Fenwick’s roles extend to broad network of other responsibilities. He is chairman of Landcare Research, deputy chair of TVNZ and, of course, founding member and current chair of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development.
He is trustee of the Zero Waste Trust, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Motutapu Island Restoration Trust.
Over at Ngti Whtua’s broadcasting company Mai FM he is founding chairman. He chairs the Antarctic Heritage Trust and is director of Environmental Defence Society. Most recently he was appointed chancellor of the Order of St John.
The common link is sustainability in its broadest sense encompassing not just the natural environment but also enfolding within it strong social dimension.
“I was explaining this to the people at St John when I agreed to take on the job of chancellor – which is really just glorified chairmanship role,” he says. “A healthy community is just as important as healthy environment.”
Fenwick argues that it would be wrong to think of him as campaigner. “When I was asked to join the TVNZ board I hope it was because I was thought of as good director rather than necessarily battling away for programmes on the environment,” he laughs. “That’s simply not appropriate and it’s not what happens in boardrooms, as you know.
“So my interest in those roles where I’m director is as someone who’s interested in governance. I happen to think that an important element of governance is taking longer term vi

Visited 10 times, 1 visit(s) today
Close Search Window