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Role new COO’s “Holy Grail”

Wednesday, 3 February 2016 2:15pm

Stephen-Willis-image-with-quote-crop
Stephen Willis will become the University's new Chief Operating Officer in April following the retirement of John Patrick.

The University’s incoming Chief Operating Officer (COO), Stephen Willis, says the role is his “Holy Grail”.

Mr Willis will step into the position on 11 April following the retirement of long-time COO John Patrick.

"At her funeral, I promised that things would change, and that whatever happened Maggie would be a lasting legacy for myself and my family."

Currently the Manager of the Capital Project Unit, Mr Willis came to Otago from Australia six months ago for new career challenges and improved lifestyle, as he and his wife worked to move on from the death of their fourth child, Maggie.

He brought with him 14 years’ experience in management and property development acquired at Mater Health Services, a large not-for-profit private health services company in Queensland.

This experience places him in an excellent position to help lead the University of Otago successfully through the biggest single construction phase in its history.

In an interview with the Bulletin Board, Mr Willis discusses his hopes for the role, the challenges facing the University, and the circumstances that brought him to Otago.

1. Congratulations on your new role as COO. How do you feel taking on this vast and varied position?

Very honoured and excited. I have spent 20 years in the health sector, and 10 of those years I have spent studying at university in a range of professional fields while working. As such, I place great value on the role of tertiary education for individuals and the community and I’m delighted that I can now play a pivotal role in the sector. In terms of the vast and varied nature of the role, that is what I love. It’s more akin to the role I played in more recent years with a previous employer. There I had a very large portfolio responsible for strategic property and master-planning, capital works and professional services, property and space, campus fire safety and security services as well as all the commercial and support services that provided amenity for the seven hospitals, three campuses, 7000 staff and millions of visitors each year. These were diverse services such as major childcare centres, retail outlets, commercial car parks, accommodation facilities for families and patients from regional areas, and patient entertainment services.

2. You have been at Otago six months already as Manager of the Capital Project Unit. Do you think that experience will help in your new role, particularly given the University is in its biggest construction phase in its history?

Without doubt. The six months have given me the opportunity to learn what a great organisation the University is and appreciate the culture. It has given me the opportunity to meet many wonderful people as well as getting to understand the current and future projects. I believe it has positioned me very well to understand the opportunities and challenges each project presents on their own as well as the opportunities and challenges the project portfolio will present to the University as a whole moving forward. I came to the University coming off the end of my previous employer’s largest ever capital programme that spanned over approximately 13 years. This was of similar value to Otago’s current and future programme of works.

3. What challenges do you believe the University is currently facing?

Given my background and recent experience, I would have to say the continued success of the capital programme and integrating these new assets back into business-as-usual will continue to be a major challenge for the University. Major new infrastructure projects have a long lead-in, so continuing to ensure new infrastructure development is well aligned with our strategy will also continue to be a challenge. In addition, like all Universities around the world, maintaining high standards, relevance and expectations of quality in absolutely everything we do as well as balancing the need for long-term financial sustainability will be a challenge, but one I believe the University of Otago has already taken a leading approach to.

4. How do you hope to help guide the University through these challenges?

I don’t hope. I will bring my unique set of skills, experience, personality and values to play in my role as an individual but shoulder-to-shoulder with the Vice-Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor’s Advisory Group. I will also harness the many skilled and talented people in my future team. I also aim to increase efficiencies through direct alignment with strategic objectives, reducing complexity and standardising process, practices and systems.

5. What are your aspirations for the University of Otago?

That is easy – to be the best. Not just the best when it comes to teaching and research, but backing that up with being the best behind-the-scenes in all that we do to support the education and research as well. While I still need to explore it once I start, I am particularly excited about potential opportunities for more crossovers between our day-to-day business operations and what we teach and research. I would like to think there are opportunities to provide real life opportunities for students, academics and our own staff to learn from each other and ensure we are industry leaders.

6. How are you finding Otago and Dunedin?

I love it. The reasons for moving here were many - both personal and professional. A big reason I am so excited about this role, is that I can now firmly call Otago and Dunedin home. The University and the city are remarkably refreshing and embracing places to come to after working in other large organisations and cities. The lifestyle, the endless opportunities for outdoor activity and adventure are sensational. My wife Cheryl (a midwife) and three children have settled so fast, and have been embraced by so many wonderful people in the community. We are delighted!

7. What are your interests outside of work?

One of the reasons for wanting to move here is my love of the outdoors. As a family we love to get out walking. Both Cheryl and I are keen trampers. I enjoy mountain biking, sea-kayaking, skiing/snowboarding and archery.

8. Favourite book/movie?

Probably ‘Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett. Historical based novels would be my favourite genre.

9. Anything else you wish to add?

Cheryl and I lost our fourth child, Maggie, in March last year, one of the reasons behind our change and move. At her funeral, I promised that things would change, and that whatever happened Maggie would be a lasting legacy for myself and my family. Both Cheryl and I are firmly of the belief that those circumstance have led us to a wonderful community, a greater lifestyle and for me an incredible career opportunity that I have called my “Holy Grail”. It has been a hard road, but we are happy and incredibly blessed and that is Maggie’s legacy!