In business of backing business

Otago Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Christie (left) and president Peter McIntyre with...
Otago Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Christie (left) and president Peter McIntyre with their copies of Tartan Mafia. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
One of the long-standing traditions in New Zealand business is using the term "Tartan Mafia" to denote any business person from Otago.

As part of the Otago Chamber of Commerce celebrations of 150 years of commerce in Otago, president Peter McIntyre and chief executive John Christie urge all Otago residents to lend their support to a new wave of entrepreneurship in the region. Business editor Dene Mackenzie reports.

A more apt name for the book commissioned by the Otago Chamber of Commerce is hard to imagine.

As part of the chamber's 150th celebrations last year, it commissioned a book to remind the province, and the rest of New Zealand, how important Otago has been to commerce in the country.

Tales of the Tartan Mafia: Celebrating 150 Years of Commerce in Otago will be launched officially on Tuesday and it contains a myriad of tales from the past and present which, when put together, provide a record of the involvement the chamber has had in the development of business in New Zealand.

Author Clive Copeman has drawn together tales starting from Dunedin in 1857, when the area between Stafford and Dowling Sts was described as a "depressing little huddle of primitive buildings in a muddy hollow".

Chamber president Peter McIntyre said Otago had a rich history of business, with companies that had started in Dunedin going on to gain a national presence.

"We are custodians of their history and these stories recognise the history of business around the region and the country."

Chamber chief executive John Christie believed the book showed how strongly the chamber had advocated on behalf of its members and how its members had advocated on behalf of regional businesses - from the acknowledged founding father of the Otago settlement Captain William Cargill, the swashbuckling capitalist Johnny Jones and his business rival, James Macandrew, through to leading business people like Michael Stedman, Richard Emerson, Sir Eion Edgar and the entire chamber board.

The chamber had substantial achievements on which to look back, he said.

It was instrumental in the formation of the University of Otago, it was a strong advocate for setting up what is now Port Otago and it helped pave the way for Chinese goldminers not only to immigrate to Otago but also to gain civil rights, which were denied them in Australia and other gold-mining communities around the world.

In recent times, it had advocated on behalf of the region to try to keep rail wagons being built at Hillside workshops, and on city parking, the air gateway, digital communications and the Dunedin City Council rating system.

"We stood up for our members then and we will stand for them now. We continue to advocate on behalf of members," Mr Christie said.

However, Mr McIntyre made it plain during the interview that advocating for members did not only mean the chamber representing businesses at the expense of the community.

"If we can save one business on one corner through our advocacy, then our lawyers, dairies, supermarkets and retailers still know they have a client to go through their doors.

"It's my belief that every business in Dunedin and Otago should be members of the Otago chamber."

Asked to explain, Mr McIntyre said chamber members employed many thousands of people in the region, and through that supported families, communities and associated activities.

With an increased membership of the chamber, it could be much more forceful in its advocacy for the region.

"We do significant good for the region and that will continue. Some organisations have their day and disappear as the issues they were founded to lobby on disappear. The purpose of the chamber will never disappear."

The chamber was focused on sustainability, not just for the sake of the environment, but also to make sure businesses thrived in the region, he said.

The small and medium-sized enterprise sector was the mainstay of Otago and those businesses were more likely to look to expand. The days of the "silver bullet" of a large factory with 2000 jobs arriving in the region had gone, Mr McIntyre said.

Nonetheless, the chamber had members of all sizes in the region and advocated strongly on behalf of both large and small businesses, he said.

"We are reliant on our members - the established ones but also the new ones coming through. We have links to big business, but we are not beholden to it.

"We have a proactive approach. If we don't think our local MPs are representing business and the city, we get right on their case," he said.

Mr Christie said the chamber had no agenda other than to represent its members well.

Much of what the chamber did benefited the wider community, such as lobbying for more jobs, air services, telecommunications services and transport links.

The message both men wanted to impart was that it was important for everyone who lived and worked in the region to actively support its businesses.

Without that support, the region's business base would be eroded.

It was up to everyone to solve the problem, Mr McIntyre said.

The chamber remained frustrated the wishes of the majority were often overridden by the minority, he said. When more than 80% of the population favoured a measure, it should not be stopped by a small minority.

The minority should be listened to but not be able to stop the wishes of the majority.

Asked about the future of the chamber, Mr McIntyre said the business community needed to be united in its effort to promote Otago as a good place to live and work.

"We have a great team of people to serve the needs of our members. Our purpose hasn't changed for 150 years and it won't change for the next 150."

The services offered by the chamber did change to reflect the needs of its members. That included training through apprenticeship schemes, business courses and lobbying.

The job of the elected board was to give a greater voice to the business community, he said.

The chamber had to remain fiscally responsible and maintain a balanced budget, something it had done for many years. It was a financially strong organisation.

When Mr McIntyre travelled to Wellington and Auckland on business, he always talked about how good it was to live and work in Dunedin.

"I see it as my role to change the perceptions about Dunedin. We should be driven by the views of people living in the city, not by those living elsewhere."

One of the challenges faced by Dunedin was determining its identity and where that placed the city in national terms, he said.

"We are a beautiful city with unprecedented access to the hinterland. The hinterland has been contributing to the local economy for all of our 150 years and will do so much longer.

"We have to keep battling the Government to stop it cutting every southern link."

Over the years, the chamber has often had a testy relationship with the Dunedin City Council but Mr McIntyre was full of praise for the work being carried out by new chief executive Paul Orders.

There was a new willingness on the part of the council to engage with the chamber, and that was regarded positively, he said.

There was an "air of change", around the relationship between the two.

That relationship was important as the city tried to identify its future role in New Zealand.

"Do we push to have a substantial role in the development of business or do we simply allow the erosion of services? There is only one answer to that."

For the past 20 years, there had been an erosion of the local economy, masked by a growth in the tertiary sector and strong returns from the primary sector, Mr McIntyre said.

Mr Christie has an aim to fill the "blighted areas" of Dunedin with workers again. He pointed to the former thriving "heart" of commerce around the Exchange as an area that could house all sorts of businesses that could use the latest technology to remove the barriers of distance to markets.

A new breed of entrepreneurs were arriving in the city because they wanted to live and work in Dunedin.

"Dunedin holds an attraction for this new generation of business people."

- dene.mackenzie@odt.co.nz

 

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