The Whanganui Chamber of Commerce has re-established the role of chief executive.

Marianne Archibald has been appointed to lead the organisation following an eight-year stint at the Whanganui District Council, most recently as innovation leader, where she led the city’s digital strategy.

The Four Five Hundred spoke with her about regional economies, disruption and how Whanganui keeps pace with a changing world. 

Four Five Hundred: The chamber haven’t had a CE for a while but they’ve decided to bring it back. What’s your brief?

Marianne Archibald: It’s been run really by board members, by volunteers and while they’ve done a really good job they all have businesses as well so they needed to have someone whose job it was to run the chamber and I guess one of the first things I want to do is to grow our membership. And to do that we really want to make sure that we provide value to members so I’m planning to go out and survey potential members and existing members as well to see what they want from the chamber.

I think that Whanganui people seem to be really committed to building our reputation as a community so I think there’s an opportunity to do that. To support each other and to tell good stories about what’s going on here.

Four Five Hundred: What does ‘value’ mean?

Marianne Archibald: I really want to go out and ask rather than just assume but I’m guessing that they want their good stories told and they want to meet other people but then on top of that there’ll be areas of training that businesses need. So, maybe looking at how we can pull together some really good training programmes and make sure they’re the kinds of people they’re looking for.

FFH: And advocating?

MA: Advocating and lobbying for business with local and central government. We’ll be working closely with the council so I’m glad that I’ve got some connections in there.

FFH: You talk a lot about the rapid change in commerce – you wrote about this in a LinkedIn post the other day – and a different future for regional economies. Where has your interest in that come from?

MA: It was actually from quite a few years ago. Myles Fothergill (Q-West boatbuilders) went to [former mayor] Michael Laws and said I can’t connect to the internet to send my… like he wanted to bid for international boat building contracts. They’d make this slick presentation and then they’d have to download it on to CD and post it through the mail. That put him a step behind other people who had the capacity to upload it.

I looked into it and that’s when we ended up lobbying to get Whanganui’s fibre network built first and when I was doing that work I was looking at the cost benefit analysis of having fibre. And then I started to look at the digital world and what was coming and what the trends were and stuff and I could see we were looking at a really different future. It’s really difficult for people to understand that, because every day we still get up, like the day is still 24 hours long and the calendar year goes along as normal and its then Christmas and we’re kind of doing similar things but there’s massive changes.

I know for instance one of my board members wrote about Airbnb in the newspaper the other day and how they weren’t subject to the same laws and taxes as motels and I see Netflix have just started paying GST so there are difficulties around tax laws. You know, hotels are really being disrupted by things like Airbnb and so are taxi drivers by Uber. And that’s the tip of the Iceberg. There’s massive changes and we need to think about what kind of community we want in the future.

Having said that some of our best businesses are using technology in really clever ways for example Pacific Helmets. Ten per cent of their workforce is invested in research and development. It’s a fairly hefty number but it’s what keeps them… they’re exporting madly.

FFH: You mention disruption. You look and pretty much any industry and see technology is disrupting the old way of doing things. Look at journalism.

MA: I’m not a fortune teller but, yeah, I think it will change quickly. Look at 2010 to now. Look what difference having iPhones made. You know, there’s so much stuff. Your music is online and Netflix. You get your news from Facebook. You don’t get it from the Chronicle or the Herald, really. You might get it from them, but you get through Facebook.

So, the biggest news company doesn’t own any papers and doesn’t make any content. And the biggest accommodation business doesn’t own any hotels or any property. The biggest taxi service doesn’t own any vehicles.

Everything is going to be different and there’s challenges and opportunities in that. There’s challenges in that people don’t realise there business is going to be disrupted until it’s disrupted.

FFH: Do you think on a local level, in Whanganui, you’ve got a businesses finding that really hard to grasp because it seems like it’s happening away from us.

MA: I think that people are noticing it here for sure. And we are really a centre for excellence in terms on manufacturing and that’s something we need to celebrate and grow and get more investment in. Sir Paul Callaghan said New Zealand’s talent is in the weird stuff and if you look at what we do well it’s in the weird stuff. You know helmets, leather for aeroplanes seats.

FFH: So, what in Whanganui is in danger of disruption?

MA: I mean, retail is always an issue because people can buy online but I think the opportunity there is that you can be selling to Milan. You know, learn about e-commerce, sell your stuff overseas.

And it’s not that easy, you have to manage it. If somebody buys something online you have to post it to them and have good service and have a return policy and things. But start looking at that because, you know what? You can have a shop front in Whanganui and out the back you could be employing someone to just do e-commerce. Sell it everywhere, you’ve got fibre. The whole world is your shop. You’ve got New York walking past your door.

FFH: So the internet’s come along and destroyed retail on the main street but there’s an opportunity in that, is what you’re saying?

MA: Yeah. You can have retail on the main street at well. I know for instance Fifty Five and Country Lane are really starting to get quite good at social media. They’re not exactly going e-shopping yet but they’re letting their customers know what cool stuff is in so they’re on Instagram and they’re posting stuff every day and it’s not just ‘buy from me buy from me’. People don’t want to be sold to all the time. A lot of the time they’re not selling anything they’re just making their presence known.

ZW: So, businesses need to be better, they need to offer something different?

MA: Businesses need to understand what technology can do for them and think about how it can or is disrupting their sector and think about the opportunities in that and what they need to be careful of.

FFH: It’s an interesting thought. Do you think more than ever now being successful in business is about being able to read the future, read five years ahead.

MA: Being able to read the future would be great but people can’t really do that. But we can look at graphs and look at how things are going and we can just try and stay in touch with what’s happening now. Don’t be afraid of having a go, having a look at what’s happening. Make time to read articles on what’s happening in your industry and I’m sure that most businesses do that.

I think in terms of the chamber that’s what businesses will want as well in terms of bringing industry experts in.

FFH: What do you think the future of business in Whanganui is?

MA: I think our opportunities are niche. Niche manufacturing and maker stuff, locally made and sustainable. In terms of the Intelligent Communities Forum, they say that no intelligent community can succeed without being environmentally sustainable. They’re talking about cities with 11million people where you can’t not think about sustainability because you can’t see down the street because of the smog, you know.

For us it’s not so visible but it’s still really important. Just because we can’t necessarily see I think that there’s a lot of value in being a community where people can go for swim without getting sick, where you can drink really good quality water.

We are the food bowl for the rest of New Zealand. People talk about the dying regions but the regions are here for a reason and that’s to feed everyone else. But even then, we need to really think carefully about how we farm and where food comes from.

FFH: You seem sure a fundamental change in commerce is on the way. Unprecedented?

MA: Yeah absolutely. And that’s not my opinion, that’s fact. Like, if you look at graphs of the level of change the industrial revolution was almost non-existent compared to the level of change that is happening now and is expected to happen in the future. And that’s the thing. We need to be aware of that. We need to be thinking about what kind of policies do we want as a community and a country and as a World. What kind place do we want to live in?

I think in Whanganui we’ve got an opportunity to do that because it’s such as small level but we’re quite a connected community – and I don’t even mean in terms in internet – I mean socially. We’re quite connected and we’ve got an opportunity to work together and direct our own future. It’s such a good place to be.

ZW: It seems you’re talking more than just business here?

MA: Well I think it’s all intertwined. You’ve got the business world. I mean, they’re employing people in the community, you know. Lots of our big businesses donate to try and make the community a better place. We need to think about what it will look like. It will be interesting to see the new council. The new council looks business focussed and I think that could be an exciting thing for Whanganui.