Harvey Weake

Finalist
2012
Methanex

Harvey Weake, managing director of Methanex Corporation's New Zealand business, is credited with keeping alive the company's production options in this country.

A 30-year veteran of the petrochemical industry, Harvey has always been recognised for his passion for New Zealand's economic success and the role the energy sector - and methanol - can play in that.

But his biggest achievement may have been in his dogged, and ultimately successful efforts to maintain a viable methanol operation in Taranaki after the 2003 Maui gas redetermination slashed the company's feedstock supplies.

Colleagues speak of the calm professionalism Harvey maintained as he prepared for the structured downsizing of the New Zealand operations, which could have seen Methanex leave these shores around 2005.

Before the Maui redetermination, Methanex employed more than 200 people in New Zealand, produced up to 2.4 million tonnes of methanol annually, and generated more than $900 million a year in export earnings.

After the reserves downgrade the company lost 85 per cent of its primary gas feedstock and was forced to cut production by 60 per cent. This had an immediate effect on local operations, forcing the mothballing of the Motunui plant and the first round of redundancies.

Methanex recognises the role Harvey took in actively managing the redundancy process, keeping as many employees as feasible, but offering the best support he could for those who had to leave. Solid redundancy packages were available, training assistance was available for staff wanting to up-skill, time off was given to attend interviews and a ‘life after Methanex' programme was run.

Innovation

But even when the company got down to 84 people, Harvey's innovation enabled the company to keep as many people as possible deployed in different roles while he negotiated sufficient gas supplies - often for three months at a time - to keep the smaller Waitara Valley plant operating.

Despite such an uncertain environment, local colleagues say it was Harvey's honesty, his demonstrated commitment, and face-to-face communication that kept staff engaged and committed.

By 2008 Harvey's Auckland-based executives had secured a three-year gas supply which enabled the first train at Motunui to be re-started and Waitara Valley idled. Last month the second unit at Motunui was restarted in a $100 million project and, because of Harvey's efforts during the earlier tough years, the company can boast that 35 per cent of the current workforce has been with the firm for more than 15 years.

Methanex chief executive Bruce Aitken says that Harvey was not only continually optimistic of the long-term gas supply outlook here, but he managed to keep the New Zealand operation efficient enough to survive while he proved it.

Since 2003, the New Zealand business has maintained 99 per cent reliability and in 2010 celebrated a decade with no lost-time injuries to staff.

Such was the confidence the company had in Harvey that Methanex committed tens of millions of dollars for the 2008 and 2012 restarts before there was any certainty of gas supplies, Aitken says.

Now the business is poised to thrive. Active participation in the search for new gas supplies, including an exploration alliance with Kea Petroleum, culminated last year in negotiation of a new 10-year supply from Todd Energy.

Methanex says Harvey was pivotal in negotiating the deal which will underpin 50 per cent of the production at Motunui from this year and position the company for further growth. The business is already looking at options to also restart the Waitara Valley plant.

And Harvey is far from done yet. In a carbon-constrained global environment he sees even more potential for methanol's use as a direct fuel substitute or as a blend. And that could potentially see methanol used here in transport fuel to reduce the country's reliance on imported crude oil.

Methanex says Harvey has been exploring a "myriad" of synergies that would be enabled by methanol production in New Zealand, including the production of biofuels. These are concepts he is "extremely passionate" about.

The Energy Executive of the Year Award category is sponsored by Transfield Worley.