Leeann Watson has always taken great pride in seeking out opportunities, putting herself forward and giving it her best — climbing the ladder rung by rung. Her latest opportunity got her to the top.
Stepping into 2018 as the new CEO of The Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce, Leeann admits, is a humbling feeling.
“I am proud to be given the opportunity to lead the organisation. We have an incredibly talented team at The Chamber who work extremely hard to support our members and I’m very lucky to lead that team.”
Taking the place of former CEO Peter Townsend, Leeann is no stranger to the environment, in fact she has worked alongside Peter for the past 20 years.
Her time at The Chamber began in 1997. “My first job was as their international trade adviser, assisting our exporting and importing members to find connections and understand the complexities of international trade. As the organisation evolved and I kept hunting out opportunities, I gained a number of other responsibilities that led me to a management position.”
Her love for the job is evident, holding close a large collection of fond memories which boasts an impressive list of iconic figures she has met along the way such as Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, Dr Jane Goodall, Sir Richard Branson, and many of our own local business icons like Rod Drury, Jeremy Moon and Christopher Luxon.
Outside of her role at The Chamber, Leeann proves she is a woman of many talents. As well as being an avid side line supporter for her son’s cricket team she is also a coach for her youngest son’s futsal team, or at least attempts to be, she muses.
She is a committed and proud member of the Christchurch Boy’s High School Board of Trustees and confesses to being a bit of a master in the kitchen — becoming a chef was on her list of career choices before the Chamber caught her eye. She gets her food fix nowadays by dining out at Christchurch’s newest hot spots.
Having a good, balanced life and operating with integrity is Leeann’s top priority. “Being the very best person that I can be both on a professional and personal level, is what I strive for every day.”
An unintended shake up
Leeann’s previous role as general manager was far different to what she had originally signed up for, thanks to a little help from Mother Nature. She stepped into management just before the earthquakes struck and, like the rest of the city, The Chamber had to reinvent itself.
The reinvention was a response to business owners’ calls of need, Leeann explains.
“On the 4th of September (2011) our focus was largely on providing support for our members only, and the next day we started providing support for all businesses in Christchurch and Canterbury working with the then CDC (now part of Christchurch NZ).”
After the February quakes that service was “significantly amped up” through the establishment of Recover Canterbury.
Recover Canterbury’s key role was to support businesses through the recovery period, “which included working with the Government to instigate the Earthquake Support Subsidy and a trust fund”. The Chamber introduced new topics such as workplace wellness, an increased focus on health and safety, and new business models to help businesses adapt to operating in new environments.
“Our training topics, advice and support changed, as did the way in which we delivered these services,” Leeann says.
“We continue to this day to support businesses across the region, and on the West Coast, and have become known by locals and nationally, including within Government, as the ‘safe pair of hands’.”
As is the Kiwi way; instead of wallowing in our sorrows we look at the opportunities that have been created for us. The Chamber is no exception, it has recognised since the earthquakes how well-placed it is now for future endeavors.
“We are now an organisation that not only responds to change, but leads change where we can see our members need to be more aware of what’s coming, such as global mega trends that impact all businesses.
“We are resilient, agile and innovative and are continuously evolving our offerings and responding to the changing needs of our members and the market.”
No time for slowing down
“If you’re not at the table when it comes to digital disruption, then you’re on the menu.”
There was something about this quote, Leeann heard at a recent event, which struck a chord with her.
Perhaps it speaks to her forward-thinking nature, her endeavors for The Chamber certainly pay homage to this.
There is no denying Christchurch has been through the ringer and the business community was hit hard, but that gives us no reason to be “on the menu”. As Peter said upon his departure, Christchurch has been through unprecedented upheaval but we are now wellpositioned to be a modern, forward-looking, entrepreneurial, multi-cultural city that is well equipped to face its future.
Leeann whole-heartedly believes in that statement and says the focus now needs to be placed on repositioning our identity and telling a different story.
“We have a city of opportunity, one that is attracting some great new talent, new business and new opportunities. The great lifestyle – no traffic congestion, and mountains to the sea in a mere hour – supported by great education options, a world-class international airport, health systems that are recognised internationally and businesses that are prepared to experiment, try new things, be bold, innovative and stand up on the world stage, mean that Christchurch is a very desirable place to be. That’s something to be proud of and needs to be part of our future story.”
With that being said there are still many mountains left to climb – as is life. Leeann is well aware that we are entering into a transition phase with the new Labour-led Government, a transition phase that even The Chamber is not immune from.
Leeann feels that more than ever she needs to continue to be that safe pair of hands and speak up for the business community.
“There are some big challenges ahead,” she says, “from the mega trends we are seeing play out across the world, such as digital disruption, sustainability and future of work, to the change in government which will bring about new policy across a number of areas that will impact business.
“We are working actively with the new Government on ensuring that the implementation of new policy supports strong outcomes for business and the wider community in a growing economy.
“As you can see – 2018 is shaping up to be a big year.”
Through it all, The Chamber will continue to have all the right advice on hand “whether it be health and safety, human resource and employment legislation, or accessing Government support and export connections.”
We are a community of resilience and innovation, it’s time to really utilise what we have before us. With Leeann at the helm of The Chamber, seeking out opportunities, and a talented team backing her, the future of the Canterbury business community is looking bright.
“It all starts with an aspirational vision; a new identity so the people within and outside our city know what we stand for and where we are going.”
“We may not get it 100 percent right from day one, but that’s okay, in a world of change, we can evolve as we go – but let’s at least get started.”
By Natalia Rietveld