15 April 2015

Chamber chief relishing new role

The Southland Times

Sarah Hannan has worked in everything from cancer research to tourism - and it is this diverse background which is helping her reinvent a Southland institution.

Hannan is the Southland Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive. She took on the role a little over a year ago with a brief to put into practice the chamber board’s renewed vision - which revolved around reinvigorating its place in the Southland business scene.

The former Southland Girls’ High School student moved home four years ago after working with Lincoln University as its marketing director. She has a rich and varied background in marketing and business, which includes working for Shotover Jet for five years and as manager of the Christchurch Tramway.

During a two-year stint in London, she did retail marketing for Pizza Hut and worked for the Cancer Research Fund. After that, she gained what she said was invaluable experience in the agricultural sector at Lincoln -and also as a contractor to Crop and Food Research, working on a global food strategy.

She also squeezed in a stint at an advertising agency before heading back south.

“Some people just stick to one industry but I quite enjoy being involved in different industries,” she said.

The chamber role is officially 20 hours a week but Hannan admits it can stretch out a bit each week as the organisation’s ambitious plans for reinvigorating itself continue to take shape.

She said she would not have considered the role if it was fulltime, and used it as an example of a business offering flexibility to someone looking for work-life balance. Hannan has two children, aged eight and 10, so the chamber role suited her perfectly.

“It’s always a balance and I think more businesses should offer more flexibility.”

Businesses in Southland needed to consider flexible work arrangements as one possible answer to retaining existing skill-bases and attracting skilled newcomers, she said.

Her focus had been on showing value to existing chamber members with increased services on offer and an increasingly packed events calendar. Connections to national and international chamber resources and networks were also being reinforced. The chamber was now looking to grow membership and had employed someone in a specialist role to achieve this, Hannan said.

The move to its new Tay St premises, within the SIT campus footprint, had been hugely positive for its profile and to increase its relationship with SIT.

A speed-dating style event held last month to introduce business students to Southland employers had been successful and the chamber would look to host more events bringing students and employers together, she said.

“The feedback from employers was really positive.”

Hannan said she thought Southland was doing well as a region, registering the third-highest GDP per capita of any region in New Zealand.

“I think if you look at the here and now, Southland is performing pretty bloody well.”

There was an economic tightening likely with the drop in the forecast dairy payout, but employment remained buoyant at the moment.

The chamber aimed to get businesses working more closely to help make the economy and community more resilient, she said.

Attracting more people to set up business hi the south was one key to achieving this, Hannan said.

Her first year in the role had helped her distil the importance of the chamber in being a relevant, engaged and forward-thinking business support group, she said.

The chamber had been around for a long time and moving with the times and reinventing itself was an important cyclical function. Some themes were enduring, however, such as the chamber’s central role in bringing like-minded business-people together, Hannan said.