In this month’s SAR HUB, we have interviewed Mike Purchase, President of Coastguard New Zealand, asking him about his career and the organisation he manages.

Coastguard New Zealand (CNZ) is the primary maritime search and rescue service in New Zealand.

Staffed by volunteer rescue crews, in 2019, CNZ rescued over 6,000 people after an emergency on the water. CNZ's search and rescue volunteers are based at 63 Coastguard 'units', with 59 wet units crewing rescue vessels and providing services to local boaties positioned in strategic locations around the coast and on major lakes and rivers.

An additional two air patrol units are based in Auckland and Northland and two dedicated communications units are located in Auckland and Tauranga. 

CNZ's national office in Auckland provides funding, governance, operational, administrative, communications and marketing support to the whole organisation.  Alongside its search and rescue (SAR) activities, CNZ offers a wide range of popular boating courses for the boating public, through its subsidiary Coastguard Boating Education.

How long have you worked in maritime SAR? how did you get involved in the first place?

I have been involved in marine SAR for 10 years – starting out as volunteer crew on rescue vessels as part of Auckland Coastguard here in New Zealand. I went on to become a rescue vessel master before moving into a governance role.

I was asked to join the board of Coastguard New Zealand (CNZ) which I now Chair. 

Interestingly enough, 10 years isn’t considered a long time within our volunteer circles where I have had the honour to present several 50 year service awards.

My initial involvement started out from a desire to make better use of my spare time while giving back to my community – it escalated from there! 

Please could you tell us a bit about your career to date, what are the key roles that you have held – what were the challenges, what were the highlights?

My professional career is in IT and Telecommunications – I still work as an Executive for a multinational telecommunications company - Vodafone.

I am fortunate that I have an employer that values community engagement and supports my volunteer work for CNZ.

My marine SAR career covers the span of operational duties from trainee through to rescue vessel master as well as governance work as a board member and president for New Zealand’s largest unit.

I then took on the national presidency for CNZ. There are many further opportunities to contribute, but at this stage the bandwidth I have available to ensure my contribution is a quality one is stretched. 

Like anyone who gives their time to our brilliant organisation I have had highlights and challenges – it is hard to single out examples – I will say that all my highlights have involved people.

I never cease to be amazed at what our teams achieve and how unselfishly they train, commit and perform on and off the water. Every year we make a material difference to the lives of a large number of New Zealanders who simply wouldn’t still be with us without our presence.

Each year at our Annual General Meeting we create a video montage of the year gone by, and every year I have to steel myself not to get emotional while watching it.

I have a huge sense of pride alongside a healthy dose of humility at the honour of leading this incredible group of people.

You’ve been president of Royal Coastguard New Zealand for two years – what does your role cover and involve?

I’m fortunate enough to have high quality fulltime staff running the organisation on a day to day basis.

This leaves me free to do what true governance roles should be doing – focusing on the medium and long term strategic direction of the organisation.

Our sole purpose is “saving lives at sea”. As National President, it is my role to steer us towards long term sustainability of this purpose while executing at the lowest risk to our people.

In practice that involves remaining focused on our long term financial health, our training programs to mitigate risk, and most importantly our volunteer welfare programmes to ensure we have the people needed to execute our mission. Without our Masters, crews, and shore based team we are simply an organisation of 83 floating assets – none of which can deliver a single outcome without our people.

You have some made some significant changes to the organisation – can you explain briefly what and why?

We have embarked on the largest evolution of the Coastguard in more than a decade.

We have taken the national body (CNZ) and 4 regions – all of which were their own incorporated organisations – and merged them into one national entity.

This was a huge task involving the merging of assets and dissolution of existing boards, while retaining our culture and all of our people.

This could not proceed without a vote from all 60+ units within our federation. Unlike corporate restructures this needed full support of all involved to progress and I’m pleased to say the proposal was supported by a huge majority.

Why did we do this? At the heart of the matter was a volunteer engagement review commissioned by the governing body of the NZ Search and Rescue Sector – NZSAR.

The review made it very clear that unless we addressed some significant issues we were facing a volunteer crisis in the future.

We needed to streamline the organisation to increase the speed of decision making, move towards standardisation of policies, create financial efficiencies, and most importantly get the focus back onto our volunteers.

The government of New Zealand also made it clear to us that increased funding was hard to justify while we remained an organisation with governance inefficiencies and disparate accountability. 

We have a big job ahead of us to deliver on the outcomes promised to our volunteers but that is our driving focus for the next 3 years and beyond.

Royal Coastguard New Zealand receives $20m annually and $18m of that is raised by staff and volunteers - is that becoming more challenging – how is the fundraising adapting to a changing environment?

This is an area of challenge for all New Zealand charities and we are no exception.

Thanks in part to our recent changes we have seen increased government funding for our mission, for which we are most grateful.

However, we still have a huge delta between the cost of running the organisation and what we receive in guaranteed income. 

The global pandemic has added increased pressure, with disposable income for both private and corporate citizens reducing. We have definitely seen lower contributions from our traditional donation and fundraising activities.

We were prepared for such an eventuality however, having built up reserves to allow for unforeseen events – these buffer us a little but is not a sustainable solution.

We have looked to our Swedish colleagues and can see the potential to grow our national coastguard membership scheme to offset reductions from our traditional income streams. Funding is an area that requires constant attention.

Having made significant changes, what do you now see as the biggest challenge for your organisation moving forward?

In all aspects our biggest challenge is retaining the engagement of our volunteers – the lifeblood of Coastguard New Zealand.

That means ensuring decisions we make as custodians of the brand and mission are sensible, transparent and defensible when queried. As a national board we have to dedicate time, energy and financial resources to listening and responding to their needs.

This is never easy as gaining uniform agreement across 2,000+ people simply isn’t possible.

Having won the trust of our people to implement the large scale governance changes, we must absolutely deliver against the objectives of that evolution – and in a way that makes a material difference at volunteer level.

What do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be?

In New Zealand, thanks to early lockdown measures, we are suffering a little less than other global SAR organisations.

That said, we have most definitely felt, and responded, to its impact. During lockdowns our teams have been tasked to medical evacuations of potential Covid patients and have put in a lot of work to rewrite Standard Operating Procedures and distribute PPE.

I’m not qualified to predict how Covid will evolve from here – but as a board we continue to put the wellbeing of our team at the forefront and take a deliberately (and non-apologetic) cautious approach to Covid.

Has women’s role in maritime SAR changed during your career? ie. different roles, more representation?

I’m pleased to say that in my 10 years with Coastguard here in New Zealand I have seen an increase in gender and ethnic diversity across our organisation.

Frankly, it is still a very long way from where I’d like it to be, but we remain focused on providing a positive environment where people from all walks of life feel welcomed and are encouraged to grow.

People who judge based on gender, ethnicity or lifestyle orientation are not what we want – rather a place where people feel safe to feel good about their contribution to their communities is our goal.

What do you do to relax, when you are not at work?

I’m a bit of an ‘active’ relaxer!

I take part in motorsport when not working at Vodafone or helping to move Coastguard forward.

I compete in the BMW series here in New Zealand and I’m in the final stages (2 years worth!) of building a new race car.

I say new, but it’s a 1992 E36 that has made the rebuild a challenge from the start. I’ve had to learn to weld as well as re-wire the entire thing. 

The weak link will still be the driver.