Young Executive of the Year

The Chathams might be small island group with 750 peo-
ple, 500 miles off the coast of New Zealand, but it has big ambitions. And the biggest ambition for Joseph Thomas is to make it viable for future generations to live off the island economy.
“We have to ensure our young people have choice in the future. That they don’t have to live elsewhere because there are no opportunities here for them. That’s what I always have in the back of my mind, securing good future for them,” says Thomas.
As CEO of the Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust, and an islander himself, Thomas has experienced the process. Before completing his commerce degree, he worked on the island as slaughterman in the meat works, crewman on rock lobster vessels, and with his inshore fishing skippers’ ticket, skippered vessel. Thomas studied at the University of Waikato, and in 1991, finished four year Bachelor of Management Studies degree with double major in accounting and economics. He returned as administrator for the Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust and its trading companies, becoming its CEO in 1995, with portfolio that included an airport company, an electricity company, an abattoir, port and forestry company.
Since then he’s turned these trading companies from loss making liabilities to cost recovery operations which now have secure futures. “Prior to the establishment of the Trust group, the Crown had an annual budget of over $5 million with which to provide air and sea transport to the Chathams, and to fund the operations of the local meat works, airport and electricity system.
“In 1991 the Crown passed these responsibilities over to the Trust and subsidies ceased,” says Thomas. Under island management the air and sea services were put out to the private sector, and the trading companies were aggressively managed back to the breakeven position in just over two and half years.
“The multimillion dollar loss previously incurred by the Crown was turned around within very short timeframe to viable operation.
“This growth has occurred despite the Trust’s policy of not competing with the private sector in the provision.” The total restructuring of the trading companies in the first three years required strong leadership.
Cost cutting, price increases and redundancies were initially met with some resistance by employees, users of the facilities and the community, he says, adding that his father was an early casualty. “But those are the dynamics of the island,” he adds.
“It’s unique beast,” he says of the Trust. “I think you’d be struggling to find structure similar in nature. It’s commercial but operates for the benefit of the community.” His election to the Chatham Islands Council in 1992 allowed Thomas to play an active role in local government. It also gave him the chance to “improve accountability for use of public funds, encouraging strategic and financial planning, and reviewing and setting council policy have all provided sound base from which council now operates”. On an island where his family goes back to early inhabitants, where his uncle is the mayor, and he’s related to many in the community, leadership is an interesting challenge. “I tend to be hands on and like to develop detailed knowledge of all projects, to offer practical and creative advice. The key is letting people know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, what you’re trying to achieve and where it’ll take them.”
“I guess I have strong focus on the fishing industry because if that collapsed we’d have major problems sustaining the airline, and the shipping service.”
While he’s managing traditional resource-based industries, he’s also aware of the needs of the new economy, and the potential to put the island on the map through Internet technology.
“In the past people have left the Chathams because of limited opportunities. I think if we can lead development and create employment, we can attract those people back. Plans to develop forestry, fishing and visitor industry will provide those opportunities. The forestry project we’re working on at the moment has 100 hectares of macrocarpa. I see it’ll be sought after commodity with the reduction in native timbers.
“We’re looking to develop 500 hectares. rule of thumb in the industry says that as the forest develops you can work on one person per l0 hectares. So we’re talking about serious employment opportunities.” Fishing could also be further developed by adding value, he says. “I think there are huge opportunities there for product development, further processing and adding value with Chatham branding. That’s part of our economic plan – to develop product branding, and promote the Chatham product whether it is fish, meat or rural products.”
It’s an exciting future, and one Thomas is sure he’ll play part in, whatever his official role.

Visited 9 times, 1 visit(s) today
Close Search Window