Entrepreneurial culture attracts South African CEO
New Zealand’s entrepreneurial and innovative business culture was what attracted the current CEO of business think-tank, Accelerate Cape Town, to his new role as chief executive of the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (WREDA).
Mr Whelan, who joins WREDA in September, has spent several years working in the area of city and regional growth, and intends to collaborate with relevant role-players at a local, regional and national level in New Zealand to collectively contribute to the region’s success.
His current role as head of Cape Town’s business think-tank is all about regional economic growth, which he says, has many parallels with the Wellington region.
“My background in business, having worked in Asia Pacific, Africa and Europe, provides me with a multi-national perspective. As an African, diversity is in my 'DNA' and being able to bring that to the table, together with strong commercial focus, will hopefully be worthwhile for Wellington and New Zealand business,” he said.
Mr Whelan said his experience of the people; the environment and the overall 'can do' attitude were what enabled him and his family to make the decision to migrate to New Zealand.
“I particularly think the entrepreneurial nature of the business environment, focussed as it is on innovation, stands the country in great stead for long-term prosperity. Likewise, the education system – and opportunities to raise our children in it – played a role.
As a family we have always loved our times in New Zealand, so from that perspective it was actually quite easy .
“As a family we have always loved our times in New Zealand, so from that perspective it was actually quite easy. Of course, having a Kiwi sister certainly helps, as does having several friends across the country.”
Wellington is one of the top 20 innovative cities on the Innovation Cities Asia Index and is the fastest growing region for high tech companies (with real strength in high tech manufacture, IT, software and creative industries).
“The 'city vitals' for city and regional success include talent (attraction, growth and retention), connectedness (to global markets, both physical and virtual), innovation (focusing on new value and innovative ways to add value) and distinctiveness (knowing what you are good at and relentlessly driving it).
“When I made the decision to locate in Wellington I looked carefully at the city and region through those lenses, and the overall picture is one where all of the elements are in place, to a greater or lesser degree. It is a city of significant untapped potential,” he said.
Many of the boxes that Wellington ticks for Mr Whelan include strong research and academia and one of the highest per capita graduate populations in New Zealand.
“The US group CEOs for Cities has researched the success factors for regional growth and the best correlation is exactly that – high per capita graduates. From memory, the city and region has a high number of New Zealand companies in the Deloitte Technology Fast 500 Asia Pacific group.”
Mr Whelan said governments around the world need help in managing increasingly complex issues.
“I believe there is a very real opportunity to look at the role of tech, Government and innovation and to leverage that IP for global application. Whilst the above gives a few areas of opportunity, the ambition of the region’s councils to drive growth is very welcome.
“Together with them, my team and I will be looking for opportunities to increase trade, to take scalable Wellington companies global and to attract and retain foreign direct investment into the region. This includes human capital, with the region's excellent higher education institutions being well-positioned to increase the region's share of the foreign student market.
“Attracting and retaining talent ('first amongst equals' in terms of the 'vitals') is not only about making Wellington 'cool'. It is about establishing a growing and talented pool of workers and entrepreneurs in an environment which allows them to connect easily, to live and work in a great environment – and that is something Wellington has in heaps!
“It is a compact city, with excellent natural and human capital, a vibrant arts and culture scene and overall a very compelling live/work/play/study ambience. Several global indices rate it highly in terms of liveability; its housing is reasonable and it has world-class attractions and events.”
Mr Whelan said the other point that cannot be overstated is that it is not only about Wellington, but about NZ Inc. – what is good for Wellington's economic growth contributes to the country, and he is very keen to engage with people with that in mind.
“Growing Wellington is about the 'whole team' pulling together for the country,” he said.
Mr Whelan’s new boss, WREDA Chair Peter Biggs, said the Board was delighted to find a person who combines an economic development and growth focus with strong leadership skills.
“Chris is an economic development expert and just the person to help realise the enormous potential and confidence we all have in Wellington City and the region.
“He also also has the management experience to lead the transition that will combine the five existing business units into the recently formed Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency.”
Mr Whelan has New Zealand residence with his wife and two school age children.