EXPERIENCED HAND: Andrew Smith, the new manager of Whakatane Aquatic Centre has been working in aquatics since his first job as a lifeguard at 16. Photo Troy Baker D8861-05

WHAKATANE Aquatic and Recreation Centre’s newly appointed manager is excited. Not just with the role that signals his return to the familiar world of aquatics, but with the town that he and his family will now call home.

Formerly from England, Andrew Smith rolled into Whakatane earlier this month, taking up his new position, and simultaneously, marking the end of a year-long adventure for he and wife Shannon, and the couple’s three children.

For the past 12 months the Smith family have journeyed from Tauranga to Bluff and back again, with their 10-metre Kodiak caravan their sole accommodation. He says his new appointment has arrived with impeccable timing.

Andrew is an aquatics professional. Beginning with his first job as a lifeguard in England as a 16-year-old through to a position as operations manager of a large-scale aquatic facility in Portsmouth, he says his entire career in England was in aquatics. “It’s in my blood.”

Andrew arrived in New Zealand nearly a decade ago to marry his Tauranga-born sweetheart, Shannon, the couple having earlier met when they worked on a Camp America programme an hour outside of New York – a children’s summer holiday camp programme run throughout the United States – where Andrew had been employed as a lifeguard, and Shannon, a camp counsellor.

His arrival in New Zealand marked the beginning of new roles in the aquatic industry in his new country and has included appointments as manager of Baywave’s Health Club Network in Tauranga, and operations manager of the Rotorua Aquatic Centre. And in each case, Andrew has put his expertise as a lean facilitator to work.

Passionate about the Lean process – a systematic method that was born out of Toyota’s production line in the 1990s and has since been adopted by many industries worldwide, the aim of the process is to eliminate waste. Originally defined as being found in seven areas: overproduction, inventory, motion, defects, over-processing, waiting, and transport.

“The whole concept is based on respect,” Andrew says. “Bringing the best possible value to the customer. “The Aquatic Centre is a great place to use lean because it’s a community facility, and rates-funded. We need to provide the best value for the community,” he says, adding that he is taking over a well-run facility with a great team and that he’s confident that he can do exactly that.

“We need to be transparent on all levels and provide the best possible experience. Clarity under the water, and clarity on the surface too.”

Andrew says aquatics is in his blood. Though having taken a few years out of the industry, he says it’s good to be back. And with the family adventure that took him out of the workforce for the past 12 months, he says the timing has been perfect.

The idea of travelling the country as a family is something Andrew and Shannon had long discussed. “We wanted the experience of just being together,” he says.

Living in Tauranga at the time with their children – Anabelle, 10, Olivia, eight, and Hudson, four, all being home-schooled and at an age their parents considered good for making such a trip, “and with a big mortgage that we didn’t want,” he says they finally just made a decision to do it.

Selling up their house and many of their possessions, and buying the 10-metre Kodiak caravan, the family took to the road, and for the following year, spent an average of $6 a night on accommodation, Andrew says – the cost of staying in a NZMCA campsite or staying for free in allocated community campsites.

“It’s been an incredible time, life-changing and one we’ll never forget,” he says. “A powerful experience for all of us, especially the children. They’ve learnt and grown so much. They’ve become hugely independent and great communicators and all of us have met people along the way that will be lifelong friends.”

He says the trip was also about getting back to basics. “We used solar power, for instance, so there was a lot to learn about that for a start, managing the use of limited power and water and that sort of thing. It’s been a huge learning experience for all of us.”

It was as the family was nearing their return to Tauranga that Andrew was notified of the opportunity at the Whakatane Aquatic Centre.

“Through the whole trip we’d had an eye out for somewhere we’d like to live, a place where we felt a sense of belonging, a sense of it being our community.” And in coming to Whakatane, he says, they found it.

“For me, I could tell straight away that this is a strong community and well looked after, too. Even driving into the area and seeing the flowers at the roundabouts, you can see how the council cares about the town. And the people here are so friendly. I loved it immediately and the rest of the family did too.”

The Smiths have opted to remain living in their mobile home, “our own tiny house” of sorts, Andrew says. Located close to playgrounds, the library and museum, he says the children are delighted and already developing new sets of friends. “We’re all very happy to be here.”