Irrigation NZ magazine, Autumn 2020

Working for the future of water in the Wairarapa

Robyn Wells grew up in Masterton and has almost come full circle after being appointed chief executive of Wairarapa Water Ltd (WWL), the region’s community water storage project.

Ms Wells was appointed in the role late last year, previously she was the chief executive of North Otago Irrigation Company.

However, her responsibilities haven’t always been for water and she has had an extensive career in executive and management roles that reach beyond New Zealand.

After growing up in the Wairarapa, Ms Wells studied at Massey University where she gained a Bachelor of Science before heading overseas in the 1980s to Australia where she completed a Master of Science in Applied Microbiology. Ms Wells had her first child Jeremy in Dallas, Texas 1992. While pregnant with her second child Elizabeth, Robyn completed a Master of Business Administration at the College of William and Mary in Virginia which enabled her to bring her science background and management skills together. She became the youngest and first female general manager of an ethanol plant  in the country in a role which she took up in 1998.

She then moved to Australia in 2001 where she worked in the cane sugar industry as the manager of the largest ethanol distillery in Australia based in North Queensland. She undertook the role of project manager as  half the distillery’s capacity was converted to renewable fuel production, and was responsible for importation of molasses and exporting ethanol.

In 2007 she was then recruited back to the USA for what she said was a “huge growing opportunity” in her career. Here she was Executive Vice President for an Australian – initiated company (cooperative / investment bank ownership) that purchased ethanol plants to produce 1⁄2 billion litres of fuel per year. She assisted in guiding the finishing of the construction of one plant and set up the operational structure and systems of business for both. 

Robyn Wells, chief executive of Wairarapa Water Ltd

Ms Wells decided to return home to New Zealand in 2009 to be closer to her family.

“I came home and sort of thought ‘what am I going to do now?’ and that’s when the role for North Otago Irrigation Company (NOIC) came up.”

“I hadn’t previously had any involvement with irrigation schemes but in some ways they and the ethanol plants were similar ... they’re both large infrastructure projects, typically farmer­owned, are in rural communities and create social development in communities.” “Both have an environmental oversight.”

Ms Wells became chief executive of NOIC in 2010. During her time there she moved the organisation from a primarily out­sourced to an internally managed business, integrated environmental management into all aspects of the company, restructured debt and oversaw the construction of stage two which she said was one of the biggest challenges of her career.

“The delivery of the NOIC project was delayed by a year due to construction setbacks and unintended failures.”

“It taught me the importance of keeping all the groups together through the difficult time and being open and transparent ... it is what it is, there’s no point in trying to hide things.”

Ms Wells was the CE of NOIC for almost nine years and in that time, she helped to double the size of the scheme.

“It was incredibly challenging, but we had a great team and we’re lucky to have a good outcome.”

“Running an irrigation scheme is more complex than running an ethanol plant in the USA.”

Ms Wells finished her role at NOIC in May 2019 when she decided it was time to move on.

“I was looking for something different I enjoy a challenge.”

Currently based in Dunedin, Ms Wells travels to the North Island for her new role as CE for Wairarapa Water Ltd which she took on late last year. However, she knows Masterton well.

“I grew up here and we swam in the river all the time ... this role really resonated with me, I wanted to come back and help make a difference.”

She took on the role of CE at WWL in September last year, although the role is part time she is also kept busy by her other responsibilities which includes being a board

member of IrrigationNZ, filling in as Acting Director of Strategy and Policy at Waitaki Irrigators Collective (for which she was a board member from 2011–2019) and provided some consulting advice through McKeague Consultancy who are also based in Dunedin.

Being CE at WWL involves the develop­ment of the Wakamoekau Community Water Storage Scheme (WCWSS) which, when completed, would provide water to multiple users across the Wairarapa, including food and fibre production, environmental, industrial and urban.

Ms Wells has a big vision for Wairarapa Water and realises the importance of water storage and looking after water in New Zealand.

“The times have changed and there is a maturing approach for water storage that includes whole communities in a collective approach ... it’s not about intensification it’s about fulfilling a reliability gap for all end­users in the face of increasing climate change.”

She said everything she had learned from her previous role would help her at WWL.

“A, B, C it’s not like that at all ... building all the required blocks incrementally is so important, as is to have everyone involved and ensure two­ way communication.”

Ms Wells was looking forward to continu­ ing her interest in biking in the Wairarapa however a switch from mountain to road biking is on the cards. A competitive swimmer in her early years she is also heading back to the Masterton pool where she spent so many summer days growing up.

Irrigation New Zealand Magazine - Autumn edition 2020

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