Contribution to the immense South


Change is in the wind in Invercargill as the city center undergoes a massive redevelopment. Otago Daily Schedules Business Leader of the Year Scott O’Donnell explains to editor Sally Rae why this had to happen – and how to do business in the South.

When Scott O’Donnell said goodbye to Invercargill as a teenager, he never intended to return.

In his own words, the country’s southernmost city was “too small a town” and he was eager to experience the bright lights of the larger city life.

But tragedy later came with the untimely death of his brother-in-law, and he was summoned to the South to join HW Richardson Group, the family business of his wife Jocelyn (Joc).

Southland is now very firmly home to Mr O’Donnell (55), who is leading Invercargill’s $ 160 million CBD redevelopment, which he describes as a “game changer” for the city.

In true Southland style, and following on from his father-in-law, the late Bill Richardson, he is uncomfortable with accolades – “it’s not really me” – but his contribution in the South has been, and continues to be, immense.

Mr. O’Donnell was born and raised in Invercargill. After graduating with a commerce degree from the University of Otago in 1987, he worked for the accountancy firm Arthur Young in Dunedin and took a marketing course while working full time.

Shortly after completing this course, he moved to Wellington and briefly worked for New Zealand Post before New Zealand Post was split into state-owned enterprises NZ Post, Telecom, and PostBank.

After five more years of accounting and management experience, he started his OE, working in banking and telecommunications in the UK, before returning and working in Christchurch for technology entrepreneur Dennis Chapman.

On Christmas 1995, Mr. O’Donnell returned to Invercargill with his wife, at the request of his stepfather, following the death of Mr. Richardson’s son, Harold – the heir apparent to the management of the family business – in a car accident in September of the same year, aged 28.

HW Richardson Group is a Southland success story with a long and proud association with the region, which began when the Richardson family started in the transportation business in 1878 and moved into construction and later transportation. Bill Richardson was a broken man after his son died, although he kept appearances, Mr O’Donnell said.

Mr. O’Donnell held a wide range of leadership roles within the group between 1996 and 2005, and he described his stepfather as an excellent mentor.

“I am a graduate accountant, I learned more about accounting … thanks to my father-in-law who left school at 15 to become a carpenter,” he recalls.

Mr. Richardson, who “took away all my business advantages pretty quickly”, was a very modest man. He didn’t like to be seen as flashy; he had a brand new Mercedes parked in his garage that he only drove in the dark so people couldn’t see him driving.

He was very good at structure and he was also an excellent communicator; he didn’t send e-mails – instead he talked to people. Mr. O’Donnell had learned quickly that it was much better to pick up the phone or, even better, catch up with someone in person over coffee, instead of sending an email – and that was something. which he believed lost in the modern world.

Mr O’Donnell acknowledged that it was a “tough time” after Mr Richardson died in 2005. He was the “absolute boss” – “he was a pretty iconic man, no one had a problem. with Bill “- and when Mr. O ‘Donnell took over as CEO in 2006, people saw a” little gap in the armor “.

But during his 10 years in this role, the group doubled in size and became a national player in the petroleum, rural transport and waste sectors. The number of employees has grown from around 800 at the time of Mr Richardson’s death to around 2,500, and it was now also present in Australia.

Ms O’Donnell was also heavily involved in the family business and led the redevelopment of her father’s truck collection, which spawned Bill Richardson Transport World, which opened to the public in late 2015.

She was very knowledgeable and also a very good mother to the couple’s three children while her husband was not at home much, Mr O’Donnell said.

After retiring from his role as Managing Director, Mr. O’Donnell took on the role of Managing Director of the group’s real estate company and most recently he was Acting Group Managing Director.

In addition to being a director of various group companies, Mr. O’Donnell has held various governance positions; he is currently chairman of Blue Sky Pastures (formerly Blue Sky Meats) and a member of the board of directors of MotorSport New Zealand.

Governance, he said, was “another issue for NZ Inc”. Everyone had read “the book of governance” and went to the meetings, wondering if the composition of the board of directors was correct and if the company concerned had a spam policy. “Anyone thinking about the customer?” ” He asked.

It was a fundamental challenge in business. He described himself as customer-centric, saying that without the customer a business has nothing. In the modern world, health and safety was a priority, but health and safety was not necessary if there were no customers. Dealing with compliance regulations also limited the time spent with customers, he said.

Another problem he saw was that people with higher education wanted “all information on a subject known to man” before making a decision, but by this point the opportunity had often passed.

People with less education often had better connections between the mind and the gut, and he enjoyed working with these people. Making decisions early was something that had been essential at HW Richardson Group; they may not always be correct, but if done quickly they could be changed “tomorrow”.

Mr O’Donnell led the redevelopment of Invercargill’s CBD, which he said was meant to give the city back its heart. The project has been cited as having the potential to increase Southland’s real GDP by around $ 48 million per year.

He said his and Ms O’Donnell’s desire to see change dates back to their initial return south and the town was “on another of its death spirals.” The Tiwai Point aluminum smelter had completed a big modernization and people were leaving town, and that was before dairy conversions started in the area.

As they walked through town, they thought it looked “worn out” and in their first year tried unsuccessfully to start a project to paint the buildings on the main street. So they “quit trying to fix this thing and started doing business.”

Mr O’Donnell called the redevelopment “a game changer.” The city had “phenomenal sports facilities” but it lacked the basic infrastructure where people could meet, greet, shop, eat “and just have a good time”.

The project had seen a High Court injunction, Covid-19 lockdowns and problems with building materials – “you probably couldn’t get more from a perfect storm” – but it was eagerly awaiting the opening of first stores around the middle of next year.

Invercargill was a very easy going place. It took four and a half minutes to get to work – “rush hour takes five” – ​​you could pick up the phone and do something quickly, people weren’t asking for credit references, and you could bypass them as well. people quickly, he mentioned.

The Southlanders weren’t great people, and they weren’t looking for the limelight either. They didn’t have massive aspirations but, at the same time, what they were doing they tended to do very well.

They were good people to work with, humble and hardworking, “and everyone’s got something interesting in their garage,” whether it was cars, bikes, or art collections.

Motorsport – including racing car ownership – was Mr. O’Donnell’s special passion, something he inherited from his parents who were long-time members of the Southland Sports Car Club. From an early age, his job was to open the barrier at the Teretonga Park level crossing.

Riding the Teretonga track at high speed was an opportunity to not worry about the pressure of work and to spend time with like-minded people.

He liked the offshore competition, which had been blocked by Covid-19; he sent a classic car to the UK to race at Goodwood and it ended up spending a year in stock there before being sent home.

A particularly special project for Mr O’Donnell was his involvement and investment in the Hawthorndale Care Village, an elderly and dementia care facility that would be based on the Dutch De Hogeweyk model, where the focus on care highlighted what residents could do – not what they couldn’t.

Hopefully it gets built next year, it would be on the former site of Hawthorndale School – her former elementary school and where her mother taught – and replicate life in a suburban neighborhood in a safe and secure setting.

After watching his father’s battle with dementia, Mr. O’Donnell was determined that those who worked extremely hard, like his father had done, should be able to afford the best care they needed.

Asked about Southland’s future, Mr O’Donnell said the government had to be “smart” about the Tiwai Point aluminum smelter, which was due to close in 2024, and make sure it was running too. as long as possible.

Tiwai Point was a very good provider of capital for Invercargill and it was also probably the most sustainable aluminum producer in the world, he said.

Southland was an area that had a natural advantage – it was called “irrigation in the sky” – and it turned that rain into aluminum (using hydroelectric power), milk, meat and wool.

New Zealand was the lowest carbon milk producer in the world and exported the result. It could produce more methane from animals than other places – but they produced steel and cement, and some logic was needed in the “great carbon debate,” he said. .

We had to continually find ways to get better results for products, and a better job had to be done to bring those products to market on the world stage, “and then we can de-intensify agricultural products.”

Developments at Invercargill have made the town liveable; the house prices were affordable, it was a great place to raise a family, there were loads of sports facilities, it was “next to the great outdoors” and the residents could live very comfortable lives.

Mr. O’Donnell was eagerly awaiting the opening of new hotels in the city and there was “a lot of other things to do”.

“It’s a whole new city, it’s a bit like Las Vegas in some ways.”

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