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Finding the right path

  • james

James Renall, Business Development Manager at leading land development consultancy, McKenzie & Co, says Unitec’s Bridging and Foundation programme helped set him on track towards a rewarding career.

James grew up in the small town of Waimauku, near Riverhead forest in Auckland. One of four boys, he says he didn’t always know where he wanted his career to take him.

“You could say High School didn’t really agree with me! I found the schooling didn’t fit with my learning style, so I looked into alternatives and discovered Bridging and Foundation Education at Unitec. When I first started the course I was only 16 and lacked complete focus and direction, so made the decision to take six months off.”

James spent half a year in Brisbane, working with one of his older brothers as a Surveying Assistant. It wasn’t long before he discovered surveying was something he wanted to pursue himself.

“My brother had started a career in land surveying at the suggestion of a guidance counsellor, who thought it would be a good combination of his love of the outdoors and advanced ability in math. After spending time helping him out I knew it was what I wanted to do too. I guess that realisation gave me the motivation to go back to Unitec and complete the Bridging and Foundation Education course - I understood that this, along with my practical experience, could get me into university to complete a surveying degree.”

With this newfound direction, James finished Unitec’s six-month course and applied for a Bachelor of Surveying at the University of Otago. 

“I was accepted on the grounds that I achieved an above-average grade across all of my papers - so I had to work really hard! I knuckled down and just nailed it for four years, coming out with a degree in Surveying in 2010.”

Building a complementary skillset

Unlike two of his brothers, who focused on the technical aspects of surveying, James had more of a drive to get into the business side of things. 

“I did minor papers in business at University and really enjoyed them. I’ve always had a passion for growing and streamlining businesses, and this combined with technical ability has given me a really unique, complementary skillset within the industry.”

James spent seven years working as a surveyor, senior surveyor, and construction manager in Sydney. He was then asked to come back and start up an Auckland office for a surveying company that had originated in Christchurch and developed into a multi-disciplinary firm across the country. 

“I grabbed that opportunity with both hands. It tied in perfectly, actually, as my wife and I were pregnant with our first child and wanted to move home to New Zealand. The role was a huge step up for me as I was literally managing most aspects of the business myself. I’d be out in the field completing a surveying job while working on business development from my laptop at the same time. I grew in so many areas - marketing, strategy, business development, and recruitment. The hardest part was hiring the first two people, but after I’d taken that risk and stepped off the tools, things just took off from there.”

Over the next two and a half years, James grew the team to 35 people. He moved into the role of General Manager and became Chairman of the leadership team, overlooking the Christchurch and Whangarei offices. He also started up a new office in Queenstown. He says it gave him invaluable experience that set him in good stead when he began his current role.

“When the opportunity arose to move to Cato Bolam in a business role, it was too good to pass up. It was hard to leave the company I’d put my heart and soul into, but the opportunity to help lead such a reputable firm was priceless.”

Taking the next step

In early 2019, James started at land development consultancy Cato Bolam, as Business Principal. Cato Bolam provides start-to-end solutions for land development, rural and urban subdivision. In his role, James looked after the company’s marketing, business strategy, business development, and client management, with the ultimate goal of growing the business. He also worked on staff wellbeing, staff retention, and recruitment, and led the company’s Sustainability, Diversity and Inclusion programmes.

Then, as New Zealand came out of its first COVID lockdown, James was approached by one of the industry’s most renowned land development consultancy firms, McKenzie & Co. After some lengthy discussions with his family and newfound company, he decided to move into a Business Development and Client Management role.

“When the opportunity to move to McKenzie & Co in a business role came along, I was very excited. McKenzie & Co provide top-level design, delivery, and advisory solutions for land development at a whole different level. They’re well-respected in the industry and have a real passion for creating high-quality environments and great spaces for people to live, work and play. Within my role I look for new opportunities, help grow the business, and work with existing clients to see how else we can support them. It’s a challenging role that offers something different every day - I love it.” 

James has continued to fine-tune his impressive business acumen - upskilling himself through a wide range of business courses, which he completed while working. When he looks back on his relatively short but steep career journey, he says his biggest piece of advice for students and graduates would be to avoid setting limits on what you can achieve.

“Don’t cap yourself at anything! I always push myself, and I tell my kids they can do anything they put their minds to. The Unitec portion of my journey, along with my practical experience, was invaluable and enabled me to get into University. I was always told I should get into a trade, which is great if that’s what you want to do. But my advice would be to make sure you learn about the business side of things too. If you have practical skills as well as advertising, marketing, and business knowledge, the sky’s the limit.”


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