ATEED’s new leader has had his head down trying to introduce a new focus for the organisation since he took up the role nine months ago. Nick Hill spoke to Alexia Russell.

Council Controlled Organisations – CCOs – have attracted criticism for being about the opposite of what the name says. Until recently they have largely operated in silos, answerable to boards that may or may not have councillors on them, at arm’s length to the council but largely going about their business, hopefully in a business like fashion. 

ATEED – Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development – seems like the fun one to be in charge of. Trips! Filming! Shows! Event planning! It can talk about leveraging opportunities and visitor spending benefits and job expansion – and even produce the numbers to justify its existence – but there’s been criticism from those who had a sneaking suspicion it was doing things that weren’t exactly core business for a ratepayer funded organisation. Mayor Phil Goff shared that suspicion and last year spelt out his expectations in a letter he sent all the CCOs. 

ATEED’s letter asked for a greater focus on aligning its work with the council’s priorities and economic development strategy. That includes building a tech-savvy city, boosting economic development in less prosperous areas, working with Māori, and helping to create jobs. It was told to drop any work that doubled up with what other organisations are doing, and to work more closely with other CCOs, particularly Panuku and Auckland Transport. It was also asked to show its maths on administration and corporate spending. 

Goff wanted to see those expectations reflected in the organisations’ Statements Of Intent. ATEED’s SOI went before its board on Friday and is on its website today.  

The job of de-cluttering, clarifying and re-positioning the organisation has been led by Nick Hill, who used to head the Commerce Commission, was in charge of the formation of Sport and Recreation New Zealand and has an impressive pedigree in private management. 

Hill says Goff faces fiscal constraints so he’s very anxious that the council is getting value for money, and the resources are going where they need to go. His priority is infrastructure spending, so ATEED has basically been asked to justify its existence in those terms – “he has asked why do we have an economic development agency, and what role does it play? What is unique that it does, that we need as a priority? That’s the question we’ve been looking to answer. All the CCOs have been asked to answer but we’re a bit more visible. A lot of what we do is marketing and communications about Auckland and we’ve been very visible doing that. 

“The question has been, ‘Yes this is good but is it a priority right now?’, so we’ve had to become pretty clear about answering that. And I think we’ve come out the other side a lot clearer about our purpose.” 

As an organisation, Hill has been looking at what Auckland’s economic development challenges are. 

One is labour productivity – getting people into the kinds of jobs that have a higher knowledge component in them, and giving them the training and skills that generate prosperity. Which sectors of the economy will do that, and how does Auckland attract that kind of investment? As a victory here, Hill can cite the securing of a big international Artificial Intelligence conference in 2020, which will bring an estimated $900,000 in economic benefits to the region. But it will also put Aucklanders in touch with the world’s leading techies, with entrepreneurs heading here who will hopefully develop connections with the city. Attracting more international students here, with the future global links that brings, is also high on the the to-do list now. 

ATEED will not be hanging on to any enterprises it creates – it has off-loaded i-sites for example to an operator who it believes will do a better job than it did. A Youth Enterprise Scheme (YES) is now be handled by the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. Hill says while YES fits in with job creation priorities, ATEED doesn’t need to do it. It will stick with the big jobs – leveraging off the America’s Cup and APEC in 2021. 

The second challenge is inclusive growth. “There are parts of the city that are standing still and going backwards,” says Hill. To that end ATEED is concentrating efforts on the west and south of the region.

Efforts in the west will be bolstered by its co-ownership of the Kumeu Film Studios, which pumps money into the local economy and last year created nearly 7000 jobs – many of them local providers and tradies. 

As for the south, an example is ATEED’s intention to continue lobbying the government over suggestions Te Papa sets up a satellite museum in Auckland. The plan is currently on hold but Hill lights up over the prospect of a Pasifika showcase in Manukau, with good transport links to take tourists out there. 

When it comes to the big infrastructure jobs needed in Auckland, “we’re a tiny little piece in the jigsaw puzzle,” he says. “But there are certain industries where an agency like ours can make a difference.” Tourism and the visitor economy is the obvious one. By being the agent to draw the industry’s operators together you can improve the way that sector works. It’s also a sector that has great opportunities for Māori business, and ATEED will help develop a platform to launch from.

Hill says ATEED’s work from here is not a new strategy, but has a clearer focus. He wants to attract direct foreign investment, help small businesses that want to export, and create a city that’s connected and important globally.

“A colleague said it was a bit like ATEED’s desk was really messy, and we’ve just tidied it up. We’re trying to simplify what ATEED is about and what it does. Inevitably the events stuff and the tourism stuff is fun, and it’s meant to be, it needs to be; because we’re trying to get people excited about bringing people to Auckland and what Auckland’s about …  the heart of our role is to create that energy and excitement about what Auckland is about as a global city.

“You want Auckland to be relevant, people to come here and invest here, to be globally relevant and have cut-through in business, technology, sport … [otherwise] we will be a quiet sleepy little hollow and all our best and brightest kids will go overseas.  

“However perhaps some of the stuff that will come through more strongly now is around the harder, longer term, less visible aspect of economic development and that’s the focus on south Auckland, west Auckland; the development of skills; how do we support Panuku and Auckland Transport with all that huge infrastructure that’s going to go in. Where will the jobs be, how do we attract the right business investment? How do we think about workers’ skill acquisition and their ability to get to work? 

“We could do thousands of things. The question is what’s the most important?” 

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