Cawthron Centenary Series – Interview with Dr Grant Hopkins

Position at Cawthron – Manager of Healthy Oceans Group
Duration of Service – 20 Years
Hometown – Katikati, Bay of Plenty

What was your path to Cawthron?

I grew up in Katikati, Bay of Plenty. I left Otago University mid-way through my masters project to take on a junior coastal ecologist role at Cawthron in 2001. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Cawthron until someone rang me to see if I would like to meet Cawthron’s Coastal Group and spend a few days in the region working with them for a few days out in the Marlborough Sounds (quite the interview process back then!). My immediate impression of the region was ‘wow, so many different land- and sea-scapes jammed into the top of the south!’. 

My wife (Steph) and I have two kids and we can’t think of a better place to be living right now.  

Tell us about your career at Cawthron.

My current role is Manager of the Healthy Oceans Group. My typical day involves checking project budgets, signing out Cawthron client reports, and on a good day doing my own research into novel tools to manage and ideally eradicate marine pests. I also have many office drop-ins where I help to brainstorm solutions to day-to-day challenges that pop up in the team.  

I started my career at Cawthron at the very bottom of the Coastal Group pile – a junior scientist working late into the evenings finishing off my university studies. I have had several different roles over the years, including monitoring and assesssing impacts of marine farms and inspecting oil rigs so that they don’t bring marine pests into New Zealand. With increasing managerial duties I do miss the daily interatctions I had with clients, and the buzz you’d feel when you finished a project and delivered a good product. The upside I guess is that with greater responsibilities I can now afford slightly nicer beer! 

My sense of purpose has certainly evolved over the years – when I first joined the group I was very focused on the nuts and bolts of the project at hand; things like how long will it take to do the fieldwork and write the report, how are we going with the project budget, is the weather going to behave, has the client signed the contract yet?! Yes, these were essential project management skills, but luckily I had more senior heads keeping an eye on the bigger picture – what risks or opportunities do we need to prepare for, is there a better way of doing the project, are there synergies with existing research programmes, etc. I guess the latter tasks are where I can help our very capable project managers these days. 

What do you hope lies in Cawthron’s future? Where would you like to see the organisation in 2121?

New Zealand needs more institutes like Cawthron in the regions to spread the population around the country, so I suspect we’ll still be here in 100 years. I’d like to think we would be tackling the emerging environmental challenges of the time, which I suspect will still include issues of today, such as climate change, pollution and habitat degradation. I expect that the toolbox will be full of high-tech gadgets that make action more cost-effective and from what I am seeing from the young generation coming through primary schools at the moment, attitudes of New Zealanders towards acceptible levels of environmental degradation (or inaction) will be different.

What do you see as some of Cawthron’s major strengths?

I really appreciate that we are encouraged (and expected) to have impact – we don’t have a pot of money to fund ideas that don’t have a measurable impact on our communities and environments. I also like that we have a mutualistic relationship with businesses, councils and government, as well as the local community through our Trust Board initiatives. I think we know our strengths and points of difference, and are willing to collaborate outside of organisation to ensure that we provide our clients with the best team available. Finally, we’re lucky to be based in Nelson – people want to live and play here! 

Do you have a favourite Cawthron memory to share?

During my 3-day job interview, the final ‘test’ was a one-on-one chat with the then Group Manager. It was held outside, and the manager was shirtless, relaxing in the sun in a yoga pose. His only questions were about my family and values – he had assumed that I knew enough about science from my education. To me that spoke volumes about his management style, and it fit with the other staff I met, who were all well respected consultants, but had all left their egos at the door. I was lucky to have several influential people in the organisation that spent time developing me – in particular, Barrie Forrest sticks out. He was very smart, caring, and funny, and I don’t think I ever saw him produce a sub-standard piece of work…ever! 

Are there opportunities you have had at Cawthron that you might not have had if you’d worked elsewhere?

Something that strikes me as quite unique about Cawthron is the chance you get to interact with clients, managers and the CE from day one – you are treated as an equal. Dealing with clients is well managed (supervision from senior staff) and results in staff feeling engaged and trusted, and it builds considerable project management capability across the organisation. 

What were some of the things you learned in your career that you’d like to pass on to people who are in the early phases of their working lives?

A few of thoughts spring to mind: Firstly, you are not expected to know everything, so don’t pretend that you do. Secondly, the client isn’t always right. Sometimes we have to say ‘no’ to unrealistic timeframes otherwise it puts our team (and subcontractors) under too much strain and we risk not delivering. Thirdly, it is quality, not quantity, that is important. Don’t produce a 100-page report if you can get the same messages/information across in 15 pages. Finally, if you work in teams, you need to learn how to delegate properly, or else you will pay! 

How have you found the social side of working at Cawthron?

Absolutely – we have a direct dial to the Milton St Sprig & Fern and go for team walks at lunch to stretch our legs and get some vitamin D. I have met most of my closest friends at work – it is like a big family. 

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

I’m really into catch ‘n cook. So for me, going fishing, hunting or camping and cooking up something tasty over BBQ coals is very relaxing and helps me to turn off after a challenging week. Otherwise I am simply being a dad/husband. 

What might people be surprised to know about you?

I love doing magic tricks (but I am really bad at them – ask my kids!). I also enjoy playing pranks on my colleagues! 

What are the biggest changes you want to see in the world?

There are the obvious ones (an end to poverty and wars), but they are probably too unrealistic in my lifetime. I guess some achievable things that would make a big difference include: 

  1. A better alignment of how people view the natural environment and how they treat it directly or indirectly (e.g. consumer choices) 
  2. Reduce waste material. For example, some devices you buy today break after 6 months, and while they were quite cheap, they have been designed to be tossed in the bin when only one small part breaks.  
  3. Improved collaboration between scientists/nations on issues that matter – look what was achieved when Covid popped up – a fully tested vaccine in less than 18 months. Let’s apply this urgency and can-do attitude to things like pollution, climate change, NZ Celebrity Treasure Island etc. 

What ethos do you live your life by, and how do you see it aligning with your approach to work?

Treat people how you would like your family to be treated. At work I extend this to everyone: students, visitors, colleagues, clients and visitors. Even that pesky science reviewer who didn’t appreciate how novel one of my research ideas was! 

What would you like to see happen in the Nelson Tasman community over the next 100 years?

I would love to see the local community begin active restoration of Tasman Bay. We’ve managed to spend decades debating about how much it has degraded and why – imagine if we could harness that same energy and resources into reducing the ongoing stressors and using our collective brainpower to trial new approaches to habitat restoration. I am sure the local fishers, aquaculture industry, divers and scientists could coordinate efforts to bring positive benefits to the region. 

What do you think of Thomas Cawthron’s legacy?

I think that any individual that gives that much back to a community where we he lived and prospered is inspirational.