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On Leadership, Kaitiakitanga And Custom-Built Hip Implants

Why ChristchurchNZ’s new chief executive is convinced she has the best job in the world.

New ChristchurchNZ Chief Executive Ali Adams has worked on four continents, ranging from volunteering in an orphanage in Zimbabwe to leading New Zealand Trade and Enterprise’s European division. Along the way she’s managed NZ Cricket’s domestic competition and run her own tourism business on Banks Peninsula.

We sat down with Adams to find out how she was first drawn to Canterbury 20 years ago — a fish and chip lunch in Akaroa closed the deal — and why she’s convinced she has the best job in the world.

You came to ChristchurchNZ from being NZTE’s regional director for Europe. What about that role do you think is most relevant to leading the city’s economic development agency?

It’s very important for me to work for an organisation that has a purpose and cause that I care about. NZTE was that on a national level, as I got to represent the country of my choice in the region I was born. ChristchurchNZ is that on a city level: I get to represent the city of my choice within New Zealand. I also love the leadership challenge of the CEO role — at NZTE I had a team of over 40 in seven different countries, managing a very diverse group of experts. That is obviously very similar to my new role at ChristchurchNZ. I am so impressed with the quality and passion of the team here, and really looking forward to working with them.

Prior to that, you led NZTE’s South Island operation from the Christchurch office. What was your key takeaway about the Christchurch economy?

Just how amazingly varied it was. When I first joined NZTE I didn’t know a lot about the New Zealand economy. I was thrilled to discover how brilliant we are at making widgets I didn’t even know needed to be made. Christchurch businesses fill niches and gaps in the market, and they are the very best at delivering bespoke solutions to problems. It was a constant surprise and revelation. One day I’d be meeting with people developing pumpkin brushers, and the next day it would be a health-tech business developing custom-built hip implants. It’s a really varied economy delivering specialised solutions in a high-quality way.

That role also taught me to have an enormous respect for entrepreneurs. People who build their own businesses are truly remarkable. So many of them invest so much of themselves in their business and as a result, give so much to the local economy.

What about this role drew you back to Christchurch?

This really is the best role in the world. What a gift to be able to have that kaitiakitanga, that responsibility for the city you have chosen as your home. I love so much about the Māori language and culture and that word kaitiakitanga is so meaningful to me. It cannot be replicated in English and it’s such a beautiful concept. This is on behalf of the region’s original inhabitants and those amazing settlers who came here all those years ago, and on behalf of my children and the children who will live here in the future. I love the fact that I have responsibility to help grow this amazing place. It’s a wonderful remit. And to me, that is exactly why this job is so motivating. It is a joy and an amazing privilege.

You were born in England. How did you come to live in New Zealand?

I made the decision to move to New Zealand over a fish and chip lunch in Akaroa while I was on holiday here. We were living in Vietnam working for Unilever at the time, and we’d visited New Zealand for a couple of months and loved it but it had never crossed my mind that we might emigrate. But on the next holiday, New Zealand just put on its best clothes. The sun shone, we swam in the sea at Nelson and we did the Queen Charlotte Track, where I promptly got a massive blister. So instead of doing the Routeburn Track, we booked a couple of days in Akaroa. We stumbled across a 12-acre plot in Robinson’s Bay with a run-down 1915 villa on it and 1500 olive trees. We literally bought the place on the day we saw it and signed the paperwork over that fish and chip lunch.

What was your impression of Christchurch before you moved here?

We thought Christchurch was a nice town and enjoyed walking alongside the river but as tourists in those days, we hadn’t come to New Zealand to spend a lot of time in the cities. It was primarily a launchpad to the glories of the South Island. Now that I’ve been a Cantabrian for almost 20 years, I’ve seen the city evolve so much, and it has so much to offer overseas and domestic visitors. As a new resident, Christchurch was quite a hard place for a newcomer to break into, but I think the earthquakes really changed that. The trauma brought us together and broke down so many social barriers. We had a solidarity and a Blitz-like mentality, people became kinder and more community-focused, and a lot of that has remained through the difficult times the city has endured. The city feels much more multicultural, more welcoming and more inclusive. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

Speaking of welcomes, what is your favourite place to take visitors in Christchurch?

I love Taylors Mistake and Scarborough Hill. It’s where I first lived with my Kiwi husband so it has special memories for me. We were staying in a friend’s house that had no curtains, and every day we’d wake up and see a different scene down on the beach. I also love the south of Christchurch, which I now call home — the Port Hills is my happy place. There are fantastic little pockets and secrets all over the city, whether it’s the Opawa Farmers market or The Tannery. When my kids were younger we spent a lot of time at the Canterbury Museum and the Air Force Museum and recently I’ve lived on Cashel Street for six weeks and fallen in love with the Botanic Gardens, which I think are a massively underappreciated asset for the city. I’ve just been to Kew Gardens and the Christchurch Botanic Gardens are truly just as magical.

You’re a cricket fan and were a board member of Canterbury Cricket. Who should we keep an eye on in the White Ferns during the upcoming Women’s Cricket World Cup being held in Christchurch?

I’m excited to see the Kerr sisters from Wellington, Melie and Jess. I’ve watched a lot of the Super Smash and those two women have really stood out to me — they’re quite spectacular. I’m thrilled to see how much coverage women’s cricket is getting and the bigger crowds. I’m seeing young girls with replica shirts and it really feels like a big shift for women’s sport.