By Carl Muir
Not many people can say they have worked at the highest level across mining, farming, local government and tourism. With that sort of experience comes wisdom and insight that deserves documenting for future generations of New Zealanders. This is the story of Glenn Leach, and in a roundabout way, it is about myself as well.
Recently I watched a video where Jacinda Adern, in her maiden speech, saluted her idol and mentor Helen Clark. She was noticeably very proud. I had flashbacks of that speech while interviewing ex Mayor of the Coromandel and one of the founders of tourism in our region, Glenn Leach. Because, in my mind, Glenn is one of our country’s great leaders that I look up to. Prime Ministers, Mayors and Councillors come and go. Often the public, myself included, is ambivalent to the difference they can really make. Regardless of their intent and work ethic, their ability to make a difference is often compromised by red tape. Glenn is a different kettle of fish and a unique breed of leader. He has made a huge difference for our region, The Coromandel.
I never thought about how much Glenn had influenced my life until we started chatting and he recounted his CV. It is not everyday you get to have an in depth interview with someone who has had so much influence in a field you are so passionate about, let alone shares the same vision and principles, and is prepared to defend them staunchly.
So how did Glenn serendipitously affect my life?
While I was studying at university in 1991 I stumbled across a recently published paper called the “The Coromandel Experience”: A PATA Task Force study.” Reading that paper, written by a taskforce of global tourism experts, of which Glenn was one, changed my destiny. I read every word from start to finish then read it over and over. A spark went off in my head that I could make a living in the place I loved, home on the Coromandel, from doing what I loved - fishing, diving and exploring. I shelved that idea and got a ‘real job’ after uni, but in the back of my head was a feeling I should be following my dreams on the Coromandel. A seed was sown.
ON COLLABORATION - TOURISM COROMANDEL
Tourism on the Coromandel was in its infancy then. Glenn had moved to Coroglen ten years prior and started the region’s first registered B&B with his wife Rennie. “In the 1980’s there was no togetherness as a tourism industry” says Glenn. “There were people out there promoting themselves, but not pulling together as a collective. It needed pulling together. That was one of my motivations for standing for council at the time. I could see the potential of the region but no one was thinking 30 years out, they were all thinking about next week or next month. That was the motivation for myself, John Sanford and Barbara Doyle bringing the PATA Taskforce to New Zealand. I was fortunate to sit in on the panel. Out of the PATA report also came the document Towards 2020 written by Chris Adams and that set the defining vision for where the Coromandel region could be by 2020.”
Three years out from that landmark date and, by and large the region is well on track to achieving that vision. But back in the day this document set some lofty outcomes that were not on the radar of our governing bodies. Glenn and a growing bunch of people falling in behind him worked hard to achieve that vision.
Glenn founded the industry collective ‘Tourism Coromandel’ in 1990, and that organisation employed the first person paid to steer tourism in the region, Chris Adams. “We took Chris on because he was one of the few people who could have written the Towards 2020 strategic plan that came out of the PATA taskforce. In my mind, it was the best strategic document in New Zealand tourism at the time. We then went about making it happen. One of the defining moments for the Coromandel was when we achieved getting the road sealed between Coromandel and Whitianga, creating the ‘Coromandel loop’. That took a lot of lobbying and sitting in front of decision makers in Wellington with cost benefit analysis. It was a no brainer really, you can see what a huge benefit it has been to the Coromandel. Places like Matarangi would not exist had that road not been sealed. But it took a lot of convincing the paper pushers in Wellington. I take my hat off to the Mayors of the time, Basil Morrison and Alasdair Thompson who helped lobby at a government level.”
Other recommendations didn’t transpire immediately but have come to fruition many years later. “Take the Hauraki Rail Trail,” says Glenn. “A cycle walkway like this was in the PATA report back in the day. When the government went to rip up the railway lines, Chris Adams and I went and pleaded to local and national government to leave the bridges and open access in place for a cycle walkway. It would have extended from Morrinsville to Thames and Paeroa to Waihi. We got turned down. Twenty years later and we spent all that money again to create the Hauraki Rail Trail. We could have done it for a fraction of the cost back in the day.” Talking to Glenn it is clear he is someone who thinks a long way ahead.
ON PRESERVATION AND SUSTAINABILITY
“The Coromandel has been part of my fabric since I was a toddler. I camped with my family in the Pines in Tairua, Kaiaua and Whangamata in the 1950’s, my family had a bach at Oamaru Bay in Coromandel in the mid 1950’s, I’ve lived in Paeroa, Coroglen, Thames, Whitianga and Kuaotunu. I’ve dived, I’ve fished, I’ve shown people from all around the world the beaches, the kauri still standing. With that comes a sense of wanting to preserve what is here. We want to enhance it, sure, but we don’t want to lose what is precious about the Coromandel and that would be very easy to do in the wrong hands.”
Our talk takes a wee deviation into the topic of mining. No discussion about the Coromandel would be complete without it. Glenn comes from a family where mining and earthworks are in the blood. Glenn even did a stint in mine management in the Pacific in Nauru. “Everyone else was heading to South Africa or Zaire places that were a little bit on the dangerous side, I thought a stint in the Pacific might be a bit nicer,” Glenn grins. The family was young and Glenn, Rennie and their two sons uplifted themselves for a few years in the tropics. So with that background, and being the right wing bloke I know Glenn is I thought he might be receptive to National’s desire to see mining in the Coromandel opened up again on a small scale. Think again. “I say this again, and I want to be clear, we don’t want to f*** up what we have here. Mining is part of our heritage but that is it, mining is in our past. We are talking a huge risk to our clean rivers, our coastline and our tourism industry. I say a huge risk because a lot of ratepayers don’t realise how much work some people are putting in behind the scenes to have mining opened back up. Mining is not a part of our future and unless people keep standing up against it, and not just the greenies, we do risk seeing mining in our backyard.”
It is clear Glenn has thought the issue as mid conversation he busts into four reasons we shouldn’t have mining in our region. “First” he says “We have 70% of the New Zealand population living within 2 hours of the Peninsula. They rely on the region for their recreation and wellbeing. Second, the Government recognise us as being part of the economical triangle between Auckland, Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty, we are part of the golden tourism triangle. Third, we are the largest and best performing region in New Zealand for free independent travellers. They do not want mining on the Peninsula. Fourth, we have 55% absentee ratepayers, they come here for the environment and because it is good for your soul. Mining is not.”
“Why” Glenn asks in a rather loud voice “aren’t the politicians getting it? It should be preserved!”
ON TOURISM IN ACTION - AOTEAROA ADVENTURES
Glenn’s passion for tourism hasn’t just been at a governance level. He has spent well over 30 years running his own tourism businesses and still does, in a small way with the Salutation Apartments in Thames. Together with his first wife Rennie he built up the very successful Aotearoa Adventures. This multi faceted business included a conference centre, motor lodge and personalised tours. One of the great things about this business says Glenn, was the lifelong friendships that were made.
“Just one example is a German couple we had tour and stay with Rennie and I here in New Zealand three times. Sadly both our wives have since passed on, but I went up and visited him recently and we still keep in touch and are great friends to this day. The friendships I have made through working in tourism has been the most rewarding part.”
In its day Aotearoa Adventures was one of the Coromandel’s flagship tourism products.
“We proved at Aotearoa Adventures that you can charge a premium. Back in the late 1980’s we were charging $750pp for a three day tour, and people said we were crazy, how can you charge that? Well we did and we were busier than most of those people asking the question.”
Glenn eventually left council in 1995 and the Tourism Coromandel board not long after to concentrate solely on his business interests and family, and in 2004 I first met Glenn. I’d moved back to the Coromandel taking a job at Tourism Coromandel, motivated, in part by that document I once read and taking one step closer to my dream. Glenn always struck me as a straight shooter and I can remember thinking “what a shame this guy is not still in council or on our board. No one has the vision for the region that he has. And no one tells it like it is like Glenn does.”
I left Tourism Coromandel in 2008 to make my own dream a reality, starting my own tourism business, and remember Glenn taking an interest in my plans at the time. About the same time Glenn’s wife Rennie had a battle with melanoma which she lost. I felt for Glenn as Rennie was a great woman who cared as much about people and the area as Glenn. “Rennie was right behind me all the time, she was super supportive of everything I did and stood for, and she was passionate about making sure the Peninsula was kept in a sustainable mannner” said Glenn.
ON LOSS, STRENGTH AND SUPPORT
“To lose Rennie when life was running well for us, because we’d done the hard yards, was not easy. It was the genuine love of my two sons Nathan and Brent, my family, and my tight group of friends that got me through. It is never easy to support in all ways a fight that you know can’t be won. Rennie was loved and that showed. Watching the caring love Oliver our 2 year old grandson gave Rennie and her love of him was unbelievable. He never left her side, he was needed and Rennie called him her little man. There was an inbuilt knowledge of understanding between the two of them.”
So how did Glenn cope with that loss?
“We all do this differently, there is no set routine or way through it when you lose someone that has touched your soul so deeply. While my support team was fantastic I still needed time on my own, and while I was on my own I knew Rennie was never far away from me. I went back to our home town of Paeroa. Once every month or so I would shut the blinds and hunker down. It happened 3 times, the last time it lasted 3 days. It was my way of grieving and in my mind Rennie was there with me. It is unbelievable really, 40 years pushed into 3 days. Our support for one another had been absolute, so it was bloody hard to let go.”
“I lost my Dad when I was 13. We also had a really hard financial patch as a young family in the 1980’s. What I have learnt getting through these three major life events is that anything is achievable. All challenges can be won. Life is about love, respect, tenacity, fairness, honesty, accountability and common sense. You need to be honest with yourself. Get this right and your life will always be full. Treat others the way you want to be treated yourself. That is the way Rennie lived her life and she was loved by all.”
“Most men are lucky to have one great woman in their lifetime, not two. I have been blessed to find another great woman, my wife Trudi.”
ON STEPPING UP TO LEAD A REGION
A few years later and Glenn was starting to think of putting his name in the hat again for local politics. As Glenn says, “Sometimes to make a wave you have to jump in the pool. I could see the vision I had for the Coromandel was starting to fade from being reality. It was time to step back up and get things back on track.”
In 2010 Glenn ran for Mayor of Thames Coromandel District Council and won by a landslide. He had grand visions, he said, of creating a ‘Heritage Region’, an internationally recognised brand for the Coromandel which protected its natural assets and stories.
I can remember thinking at the time, Glenn is a straight shooter, but how is he going to turn this beast around? Most importantly, is he going to have the rest of the councillors along with him?
“Even before we were sworn in as a council, I gathered the whole team of councillors together, and I outlined my vision. I also asked them how they wanted to operate. We all agreed to be united and to make a difference. We created a memorandum of understanding amongst the team.” Then Glenn says “I opened the Pandora’s Box. I thought it was going to be an uphill battle, but I never expected quite what I found. Council was one step away from being placed under a commissioner. We were millions of dollars in debt. Rates were out of control. Our first term was spent turning council around. By the time we’d finished we’d capped rates, and we’ve had no rate increases in 6 years. We’d paid the large proportion of the debt off. And we’d put the onus on the developers to perform and we prioritised our spend like any good business operator would. You can't be everything to everybody.”
“I also had to do one of the hardest things of my life when I stepped back in and dissolved Tourism Coromandel. I was a Life Member for crying out loud, I had helped create it, but it had become ineffective. It was ineffective because it was being driven by one sector and it lacked leadership. We dissolved Tourism Coromandel and started again. We created Destination Coromandel, which is now one of the best performing RTO’s in the country.”
ON CREATING A LEGACY FOR THE COROMANDEL - A HERITAGE REGION
Is there unfinished business? “Yes” says Glenn. “I had a vision when I went into council of creating a ‘Heritage Region’ a region that would be internationally recognised for its preservation of the landscape, resources and stories. A region that adds to the value of the resources it has, and protects what is important to sustain it. The Coromandel is world class but it still has a long way to go. I’ve got to say I was shocked and disappointed to see it torpedoed by straight out self interest.”
One of Glenn’s visions is the ‘The Great Coromandel Walk’. It would potentially be one of the country’s great walks linking all the main towns from Thames to Tairua, Whangamata to Whitianga and further north. “When it comes to developing tourism you can do all the promotion in the world, but it is big visionary projects and product development like this that make the difference. With The Great Coromandel Walk everyone would benefit; retailers, B&B’s, lodges, tour businesses, iwi. The benefits would be far and wide. And it wouldn’t cost a cent in the long term. The proposed structure was to be self funding through charging for carparking.”
What else would Glenn like to see? “Well I think we’re not doing enough to turn our commodities into tourism resources. I’d like to see Ocean to the Plate, I’d like to see Paddock to the Plate, and I’d like to see Vineyard to the Glass. Local produce, maximised economically locally and accessible to international tourists. I’d like to see initiatives that make the most of our fishery and farms, not treating them like commodities that get sent offshore. The philosophy of the Heritage Region is added value.”
Geez Glenn, for a National man you sure sound a little more aligned to what I am hearing from Labour. “Well I have voted National all my life, I thought Sir John Key was a great man, but I am not so sure this time around with their current leadership.”
And there it was, two people sitting there in violent agreement. Both passionate about the Coromandel, talking the same language. But then I thought, maybe that is because Glenn has actually shaped my thinking over the years.
If there is one message I would like you to take from this article, it is don’t underestimate what a strong influence you can have on people’s lives by stepping up as a leader like Glenn has. In doing so Glenn has had a profound impact on my life that I really did not know about until I went to write this story. I can see many others in the same field as me that have been influenced as well.
There is something to be said for having a vision, for collaborating but not conceding, and when the time comes, standing up and being a leader.
So who have Glenn’s role models been as leaders? “Good question. Bob Birch came out of senior executive management at Air New Zealand. He was my mentor from the early 1990’s when we both sat on council. Sir Peter Blake, Sir John Key, two great New Zealanders, Basil Morrison for his role re-shaping regional and local government in NZ and his tenacity and drive for the Peninsula, my brother Bruce Leach as a business leader in our region. Chris Adams and John Sandford in the tourism arena and their love of the Coromandel. They all were or are visionaries, and you need vision as a leader. Peter French was a great deputy leader for me. I respected his fairness, strategic thinking and as a team player. Last and not least is Brent Page. Here is a guy that owned a nationwide business, on sold it, and semi retired on the Coromandel. He had no business interests here, all he had was the desire to see the prosperity of others in the region. I have huge respect for how he helped us at council through his chairmanship of the Econonmic Development committee. It is a sad day to not see him involved at a local government level any longer.”
“I’ve always believed that to succeed in any any organisation you need good people around you. We were lucky to be able to call on some very big hitters, with serious wisdom and knowledge, who were largely donated their time for the region. It’s a shame to see that has been lost recently.”
“You know what?” says Glenn, “These days everything is being centralised. Thames has lost its mills, it has just lost its foundry. The writing was on the wall for A&G Price the day rail was taken out by the government. We took a different tack at council and gave the power back to the community boards. I said to the community boards, YOU make the decisions, YOU shape your community. YOU do what your community wants, as long as it is cost effective. I think as a nation we have lost that. We need stronger regional economies.”
Glenn’s deeds as a leader have not gone unnoticed. In 2017 he was awarded an Order of Merit. “I’d like to think it was for my services for tourism over the years, and not my last stint in at council. That to me is what matters. My DNA is all over Destination Coromandel. My DNA is all over the Towards 2020 strategic plan. My DNA is all over the TCDC empowerment model. And I would like to think my DNA is all over the Heritage Region when it happens one day. All of the above are long term visions not just short term gains.”
I’d like to see that happen too.
ON WHAT IT TAKES TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS
Glenn has obviously had a recipe for success in most things he has put his mind to over the years, so I had to ask thim, what advice would he have for someone that has a vision for their own business?
“Know your product inside out. Write a business plan and have it reviewed by an independent person you have faith in. Prioritise your spend for maximum return, especially in the early stages. Staff are your biggest asset and I have always said that a star team beats a team of stars every day. Staff are your biggest investment.”
Most importantly Glenn says “You never stop learning. Never let your ego get in the way of common sense business decisions and commerce. Be prepared to learn from others.”
ON THE FUTURE
These days Glenn is taking a much needed break.
A few operations on shoulders and wrists that Glenn put off while in office have just been ticked off. Now, once he is fully recovered “I’m back playing golf. I absolutely love the game, you are playing against yourself and it is all upstairs. I also having a passion for motorsport I want to explore a bit more. Glenn now lives overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Kuaotunu with wife Trudi.
“Trudi has been right there with me all the way during my time as Mayor. Trudi has very similar passionate beliefs of the Peninsula and where it should go. Trudi has been a great person to bounce things off because she has been involved in the local industry for so long and she gets it. We’ve just recently refurbished the old Salutation Hotel in Thames. That was an 18 month project and a large part of the vision and execution came from Trudi.
Life is all about Trudi and I now. It is all about enjoying our family and friends. Travel will be a big part of the future. Our grandchildren are and always will be a large part of our life. Watching them grow and enjoy what the peninsula offers gives both Trudi and I faith in the future. ”
So will the challenges the Coromandel faces be far from Glenn’s mind?
“The health of the peninsula will never be far from our day to day life. What that constitutes and how that plays out I do not know. What I do know is that any industry that leaves environmental problems, and that is not prepared to lift its game going forward will be challenged at the highest level. Politicians and industry who do not understand that better get ready for a rough ride.”
Just like Glenn to take a parting shot from the hip and it doesn’t end there. “Clean water is what it is all about and any that doesn’t understand that is brain dead. As Leonardo da Vinci said hundreds of years ago; “Water is the Driver of Nature”. It is not surprising to see it come up this year as an election issue. It should be number one.”
It sounds more and more like Glenn might still have his finger in the pie somewhere along the lines.
“Any role I get involved in now will be about sustainability, prosperity and social prosperity. We need some new blood at local government level who understand the long term. The days of short term gain have to end.”
“We are only the custodians of the land. More people need to understand that.”
TWO COMMUNITY LEADERS TALK ABOUT GLENN
From Basil Morrisson, Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, EW Councillor & HDC Mayor of 15 years ...“I’ve known Glenn and his family all my life. HG Leach is and was a huge contributor to our community and Glenn was involved in the early days. They were always hugely supportive and generous with local developments, including Centennial Park in Paeroa and numerous community causes. When I played rugby, I was a nimble flanker, and Glenn was a hard man, a front row forward. He took that persona into politics, but behind that facade he was as tricky as a half back. He was a dealer behind the scenes, great at getting people on side with controversial issues and focused on getting outcomes. There is no question that Glenn was very successful in turning council around while he was Mayor, both the governance structure and operationally. His initiative to empower the communities shows his understanding of the unique geographic nature of the Coromandel. There is no region like it in New Zealand, and it required a unique approach.”
From Tony Fox, TCDC Councillor, Mercury Bay Ward…..”Glenn was and still is a very visionary person. He was always thinking about how his actions would impact the Peninsula 20 to 50 years down the track. Deep down Glenn is a big soft pussy cat who genuinely cares about people, the environment and especially water quality. He has bucket loads of empathy. But most importantly he is a good bugger and a mate. I appreciate his company on the golf course, at a footy match or just talking. Outside of the world of local politics, I can still enjoy sitting down and talking with Glenn on a range of topics over a beer.”