Wellington Scoop

The rise and fall of WREDA

The news that WREDA is cutting back its activities to focus on six core ambitions is a reminder of the council-owned organisation’s chequered record over its first three years.

Acting chief executive Derek Fry said yesterday that WREDA – the economic development agency owned by the city council and the regional council – had been “too ambitious in the past, and spread itself too thinly,” so he has “distilled its priorities.” The distilled list contains six priorities: “supercharging” events, “pumping” New Zealand’s creative heart, accelerating big projects, talking up tech, selling the student city, and ramping up business growth.

The hyperbole is a rewrite of the ambitions that WREDA has been promising to achieve since it was invented in mid-2014 as a merger of three council-owned organisations, with the aim of combining resources, reducing duplication, streamlining interaction with business and supporting the best economic results for the region as a whole.

Six months later, the new organisation’s new chair Peter Biggs announced that he had chosen a “stellar lineup” of business, research and academic leaders to join the board. They were not only stellar but also powerful, inspired, healthy, diverse … and talented.

He and his stellar group then started a worldwide search for a chief executive, and after eight months they chose Chris Whelan, a South African who had been running a business think tank in Cape Town. His aim:

“My team and I will be looking for opportunities to increase trade, to take scalable Wellington companies global and to attract and retain foreign direct investment into the region. This includes human capital, with the region’s excellent higher education institutions being well-positioned to increase the region’s share of the foreign student market.”

Nine months later, in April 2016, Whelan announced his leadership team, which was praised by John Milford of the Chamber of Commerce as “a real good mix … what the region needs.”

But by the end of that year, the council was starting to question the performance of its new organisation. Councillors asked it to spell out what it was doing with the council’s annual $15m funding, and told it to increase the amount it received from outside sources, such as private businesses.

Ian Apperley asked questions about the organisation: where were its strategic plans? Where were the minutes of the Board and other Senior Management meetings?

And this year there were questions about Wreda’s LookSee campaign which offered free tickets to Wellington for a short list (from 48,000 applicants) of potential employees seeking jobs in the city.

In May a WREDA decision was criticised by a group of its clients. The New Zealand Promoters Association said it was dismayed that WREDA had chosen Ticketmaster as exclusive ticketer to Venues Wellington, and without any consultation with the people who run the events.

And an article in NBR reported

Officials at the head of WREDA are burying their heads in the sand after public criticism of how the organisation is being run. The Agency has copped flak for producing few results, despite getting millions a year from ratepayers through its Council owners.

NBR quoted John Bishop, who set up the Five Cities of Wellington Economic Development Group in 1995, as scathing in his assessment of WREDA.

Mr Bishop questioned WREDA early last month on how many jobs it has attracted to Wellington, how many businesses have started up and invested in the capital since WREDA began and what tangible economic returns WREDA has brought regional ratepayers. He is unhappy his questions remain unanswered.

At the end of May, after a month of rumours, Chris Whelan resigned. Peter Biggs would not speculate on any issues relating to Whelan’s performance, but said he had done a great job bringing together five strong organisations and getting WREDA up and running. The DomPost reported he was leaving because of concerns among the board and senior management about the direction of the agency.

And now Derek Fry is caretaker while the stellar board (have they learned from the issues of the first three years?) begins another search for another chief executive, and plans for another new start. No doubt they will again be seeking approval from the Chamber of Commerce.


  1. Anabel, 17. October 2017, 14:17

    Same problems as the WCC. While losing focus on providing core services and the needs for the people of Wellington, it focuses instead on private business profits and how the ratepayers can risk manage and take the losses for the group.

  2. TrevorH, 18. October 2017, 7:55

    WREDA is an expensive joke being played out on the ratepayers of Wellington. Can they point to a single achievement, apart from enjoying some very fine lunches?

  3. Sekhmet Bast Ra, 20. October 2017, 15:54

    Right you are TrevorH. While Derek Fry may think WREDA has “spread itself too thinly”, if this editorial is correct, when it comes to the matter of Chris Whelan doing his Jabba the Hutt impersonation at a public funded dinner to the tune of $1100 including $216 for 36 Bluff oysters, we’d say that’s not ‘spreading thinly’ more like making pigs of themselves. How dare they do this when there are homeless out on the street and folks needing to access the foodbanks to get by. More importantly, and this is an open question to all: what shall we do about these corporate pigs who bleed us dry so they can party hearty at our expense?