NRC CEO retirement looms

7 Sep 2022, 9:29 AM

Retiring Northland Regional Council CEO Malcolm Nicolson will leave behind a much bigger – and busier – organisation than the one he inherited in January 2012.

Mr Nicolson, 65, officially retires at the end of this month almost 11 years after he took up the council’s top job.

The council in 2022 is a far cry from its 2012 predecessor.

In 2012 the council’s 142 full time equivalent staff were responsible for an organisation with a total annual operating revenue of $30M.

In 2022, staff numbers have doubled to 284, but when vacant positions are counted the actual number is more than 300, responsible for an organisation with a total annual operating revenue of $73M.

Malcolm Nicolson.Retiring Northland Regional Council CEO, Malcolm Nicolson.

Mr Nicolson says the organisation has grown as the Northland community has asked it to do more.

He says over the past few years, public expectations have also grown and the community has effectively offered to fund a lot more work.

“Quite honestly I think we were all surprised that the community was prepared to fund far higher levels of environmental work than we thought.“

“We are making a positive environmental impact by doing a lot more work in biosecurity and land management in terms of water quality and indigenous biodiversity off the back of the community support.”

The way that work is delivered has also changed.

“Previously we were trying to do a lot more work ourselves. We now spend much more time and effort supporting communities to do work in their own communities.“

Mr Nicolson says highlights of his time have included improved relationships with tangata whenua and communities at large, which he counts as one of the council’s major achievements.

“Another big achievement has been the lifting of communities' resilience through flood schemes across the region and in Whangarei’s case, a large detention dam.”

Mr Nicolson says the council as an organisation is “quite phenomenal”.

“The academic grunt of the organisation is quite exceptional and seldom seen outside of a university setting.” “Our staff are also very passionate about contributing to the community.”

If he has any regrets, it is the one area that the council has not been able to progress; the development of marine sanctuaries.

“We’ve been quite successful on land, but haven’t made enough progress on the marine front.”

“The national setting has not been conducive to creating marine sanctuaries...there hasn’t been the political will at a central government level to doing anything about it.”

Looking forward, Mr Nicolson expects “the whole economic environment is going to be quite tight” and says high inflation and interest rates will be a factor for the next several years.

“We’re on the back end of the business cycle, funding is going to be a lot harder going forward.”

In his immediate future, however, it will not be economic considerations, but his 152-hectare Kawakawa farm that takes up much of Mr Nicolson’s time.

With over 80 percent of the farm in bush and wetlands, “it’s not a farm in the common sense, it’s a piece of land that I’ve chosen to try to preserve”.

With the regular early morning commutes to NRC’s Whangarei head office and long hours about to come to an end, Mr Nicolson says he plans to do more work on the farm to fence off wetlands on its lower reaches - “there hasn’t been the time to do that”.

“I've also got 45 years of family history research that I want to write up for the kids.”

A family man, Mr Nicolson is looking forward to spending more time with his wife Theresa, who is currently head of special needs at Okaihau College. He also has a daughter in Whangarei, a son in Auckland and four grandchildren.

A major item on his ‘bucket list’ is to go back to Scotland to visit ancestral homelands.

He says after a bit of a break, he expects he will look for “some way of continuing to contribute to the community in some form or another”.

Serving the community is important to Mr Nicolson.

“One of the great things about this CEO job was being able to serve the community in such a variety of ways and that’s really important to me.”

A South African, Mr Nicolson came to New Zealand at the beginning of 1996.

“After marrying Theresa, the move to NZ was the best decision I made in my life.”

He says his adopted homeland – which he visited twice before moving here – is more equitable and inclusive than South Africa.

“It’s a very much kinder culture than South Africa and in that way it’s fantastic.”

His early time in New Zealand saw him farming for the first three years while getting involved in the local community in Kawakawa which led him to a role at Far North Holdings.

He was on the Far North Holdings board initially, then was executive chair from 2000 to 2008 and CEO from 2008 to 2011.

In terms of contacts, his time with the organisation was a useful stepping stone to his NRC role, especially through contacts he made with Maori community.

The late Erima Henare and the late Sir “Hek” Busby gave generously of their time as mentors who gave him an insight into Maori culture and “the way things work in Northland”.

“They were two people who played a key part in terms of my early acclimatisation into NZ.”

Despite the challenging economic conditions his successor Jonathan Gibbard will face when he takes over as CEO next month, Mr Nicolson says the new CEO has “an exceptional opportunity to contribute to the development of Northland”.