Sir Rob Fenwick is utterly aghast that the buzzer at his gated Remuera home is on the blink and I have been left standing in the “freezing cold” (it was only a minute at max). He offers me a hot drink and something to eat. Tea is served in a lovely china set, with cream, and we take a seat in the airy, light-filled living area to chat for around an hour about subjects such as oyster farming, saving kiwis, and even the Queen. I leave with the impression that Sir Rob Fenwick is the kind of older man that every younger man should aspire to be: worldly, wise, and thoroughly, thoroughly decent.
I congratulate him on his recently bestowed knighthood, and ask how it feels to be a ‘Sir’. Turns out, he’s not so keen on the title part (“it’s rather outdated”), but is “incredibly honoured” by the recognition. “I was fortunate to have been awarded a Companionship of the Order of New Zealand in 2006, so I was already part of the club,” he says. “This was a promotion! But, it really was a very big surprise, and my family and I are very proud of it.”
Rob was a staunch supporter of the change of flag campaign but stresses that that opinion is no reflection on his political beliefs. “The Westminster system has served us well,” he says. “I didn’t want to change the flag because I was opposed to the monarchy, which confused a lot of people. It wasn’t a snub to the Queen. I do think New Zealand will become a republic at some point, though I don’t see any need to hurry. I think she’s been an inspirational female leader.”
Title’s are nothing new to Rob’s bloodline. Sir Frederick Mappin, Rob’s maternal great grandfather was bestowed a baronetcy and was one of the founders of the British Liberal Party. “A huge figure in Sheffield”, he had a successful business making springs for the “burgeoning locomotive industry”. On top of all that, Mappin also found time to start the Sheffield Art Gallery and city university.
Rob has kept himself just as occupied – described by the Herald earlier this year as “quite possibly, the busiest man in the country”. The former journalist and PR man is famed for his environmental endeavours, most notably for co-founding the nation’s biggest municipal composting business, Live Earth Ltd, while also chairing the Predator Free NZ Trust, Kiwis for Kiwi and the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge, among others.
And, about that oyster farm.
Thirty years ago, Rob bought a coastal block of land “at the bottom of Waiheke Island in a beautiful bay called Te Matuku”, which he successfully lobbied to have turned into a marine reserve. The site was also home to a “derelict oyster farm”, which, Rob admits, he initially tried to get rid of, but later discovered a new, ‘greener’ way of harvesting them (suspended freely in buckets, instead of affixed to unsightly wooden racks). Now, he beams, many of the top restaurants in Auckland serve shellfish plucked from his bay mere hours earlier.
“I’ve always had a profound love for the natural environment and the things that make New Zealand special,” says Rob. “It’s probably in my DNA. Things at risk are worth fighting for. I’ve also been ambitious to prove that business can still work within an environmental construct and be successful.”
I ask if he worries New Zealand’s ‘clean and green’ reputation leads to complacency.
“That is something that has always concerned me. The reputation has served us well, however, it implies that we don’t need to to do anything. There is no call to action. We sit at the bottom of the world where the weather and the huge ocean has forgiven us many of our sins – air pollution is blown away and water pollution washed away. Climate change is the by far the biggest challenge the world is confronting, and in many ways, the horse has already bolted. Many of the discussions in recent years, such as Kyoto, have been about how to stop climate change, but we can’t stop it, we can just slow it down. We have to think of how we must adapt.”
Rob’s regular travels to Antarctica over the past two decades (he led a winning campaign to save the Antarctic huts built by Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott) has, he says, enabled him to observe up close global warming research: “It is an important way of determining how coastal settlements all over the world will be effected by, and in tun deal with, the ice melt.”
He is more optimistic about the eradication – or at least drastic reduction – of predators in New Zealand, and, in turn, the preservation of our native birds. “We’ve been trying to manage mammal predators for ever,” he says. “In addition to our work [with Predator Free NZ and Kiwis for Kiwi], there are thousands of volunteers who are committed to the conservation of the birds.”
When the Predator Free Trust was set up, he says the government were wrong-footed by the scale of public interest and have since set up funding partnerships with philanthropic organisations for large scale conservation projects. I ask if he’s confident of their success.
“It won’t work if we have to kill the pests one by one! We need to rely on new technologies and innovations that are still being worked on. The idea of the total eradication of predators may be a long shot, but if we reduce the populations of rats, stoats, possums and wild cats by 80%, the birdlife recovery will be phenomenal.”
Such campaigning has added some rather major milestones to the storied legacy of Sir Rob over the past 12 months or so. The knighthood followed an induction into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame and the New Zealander of the Year 2016 final, and in 2015, he was awarded the Sir Peter Blake Medal.
“I take great pride in knowing that I’ve made a bit of a difference in the way New Zealand operates in regards to the relationships between business and the environment,” he says. “They need not be at the expense of each other. Environmentalists must acknowledge the hugely important role of business in civil society and businesses must realise that the environment is a fundamental contributor to New Zealand success. Whatever part I might have played in helping the scales lift from people’s eyes is very satisfying, whether I get an award for it, or not.”