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Hawkes Bay business boss pursues taste for figs

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Retiring Hawke’s Bay Chamber of Commerce chief executive Murray Douglas’ first job title was street worker in Upper Hutt, managing the concerns of 300 families in council housing.

“If you ever need a grounding in reality then go and work in those areas,” he said.

“You really realise what a dollar means in that environment. You realise what a job means.”

He experienced similar when campaigning for the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council in 2010.

“I was astonished at some of the poverty. I shouldn’t have been, but I was. It makes me more passionate that we have to get the right jobs and not assume that everyone is going to be okay if they have jobs.”

He took over from former CEO Richard Heath five years ago.

“We went into recession almost immediately upon my arrival, which is hopefully an unrelated matter.

“So we had had no choice. What the chamber had done, in its comfortable existence, could simply not carry on being relevant to business in Hawke’s Bay.

Murray Douglas, grilling figs and almonds for fig salami, is struggling to keep up with demand for his company’s products.

“We took longer to go into recession here. We were the bottom, in terms of job destruction, longer than any region in New Zealand.”

He said “taking pot shots at councils or Government from time to time” would no longer suffice. The chamber took on an advisory, educational and motivational role, providing courses and seminars that were heavily subscribed.

Hawke’s Bay Chamber of Commerce’s former president and current board member Stuart McLauchlan said Mr Douglas would be a hard act to follow.

“Despite the economic downturn he has been very positive in terms of the chamber’s role in both its membership and support of business and the new initiative Business Hawke’s Bay, to continue to drive economic success and economic development in Hawke’s Bay,” he said. “Murray is extremely capable, energetic and passionate about Hawke’s Bay – developing business and enhancing what the chamber and Business Hawke’s Bay have been doing.”

Mr Douglas’ second job was working for the International Red Cross in Nepal and Afghanistan on public health issues “before all the trouble began in the 80s”.

He then “did everything” in London before returning to New Zealand. He has served as CEO of the Waikato Regional Council, and later headed up Dunedin City Holdings which included forestry, electricity lines, a hydro-electric dam, contracting company, bus company, a half share in the airport and Taieri Gorge Railway. In Australia he had CEO roles in Victoria and the City of Sydney.

He moved to Hawke’s Bay to become an orchardist.

“The chamber had advertised and for some reason couldn’t make an appointment,” he said.

“Their recruitment person rang me and asked if I would talk to the president of the time, John Morrell.

‘We had the conversation in the cherry orchard, I was up a Hydralada, and we agreed I would start a couple months later after I was done with the fruit.

He said the chamber CEO role wasn’t highly paid “but it’s a nice job – you can really get involved and see a difference”. But there was one aspect of the job he has found distasteful. “There is a vein of people within New Zealand who don’t want to debate things – they just want to attack personalities.”

After comments he made about a lack of informed debate regarding oil exploration, he was inundated with abuse.

“I had hate mail on a scale I have never had before. I don’t object to people having an opinion but I do object to very nasty letters and emails. You get plenty of that in local government but this was worse. One email says if he ever catches up with me he will punch me in the face.”

Mr Douglas is moving on so he can develop Te Mata Figs, which sells fresh figs and fig products.

With his wife Helen they formed a fig-growing co-operative that is struggling to meet demand after savvy marketing. “I have been up in Auckland selling in Farro Fresh with my little stall. I love it – talking to people about figs – I didn’t think I would.

“Our big problem is we can’t meet demand – we are primarily supplying the Auckland market so far. We are about a year ahead of our business plan – a positive problem.

“We sat back and said, do we mean this or not? So Helen went into the business full-time late last year and now it is my turn.”

Helen is a clinical psychologist and was the regional manager of Housing New Zealand. “We have primarily had whanau helping and that is going to have to change – we are taking on staff,” he said.

“If we didn’t commit it was a question of which part of our business system collapsed first, in terms of the opportunities. We see it as a small but elegantly formed business – we are not going to make a lot of money out of it.”

He said with the economic recovery his successor should have a good start. While Hawke’s Bay still had a gap between reality and economic potential he saw “huge futures here”.

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