Vanessa van Uden - From managing the money to mayoral motorcade showdowns...
She grew up a farm girl near Te Anau and after multi-tasking through early motherhood and a full-on corporate and civic career she became Queenstown Lakes’ first female mayor at 43.
Testament to Vanessa van Uden’s ‘get things done’ attitude is her long list of accomplishments, achievements and community contributions that just keeps on growing.
The daughter of a Dutch immigrant, Vanessa’s father was her inspiration, arriving here in 1952 with “no English and no money”, eventually settling on a Lands and Survey Department ballot farm block near Te Anau.
She was constantly at his side on the farm. “He walked on water as far as I was concerned. I didn’t do dolls. I did bulldozers and trucks.
“Education was his top priority. He taught me that if you set your mind to it, you can do it. That stuck with me.”
Rural schooling at Mararoa - one of 60 pupils, Vanessa then boarded at St Hilda’s in Dunedin where she met ‘childhood sweetheart’ husband Pete Laurenson.
After graduating from Otago Uni with a commerce degree Vanessa faced months of rejection letters in search of work until scoring an accounting job at Cadbury’s in Dunedin, quickly rising to factory accountant at 24.
She worked on the team that handled the transfer of Cadbury’s biscuits to Griffins.
Her sharp mind and cost accounting skills soon saw her sent to the Avondale factory to troubleshoot.
The day after her 22nd birthday in 1989 Vanessa married Pete. It wasn’t a grand affair. “My sisters paid for the flowers. My best friend’s mum donated the veil. Our mate took the photos – one-hour processing with an extra set on our three-day honeymoon in Alexandra which was paid for by my sisters.”
By 26 Vanessa was leading the charge at Southland Boys High as its first administration manager. “They brought all the external finances inside and I had to get spending under control,” she says. One of the biggest areas of spending was the school’s First XV which she had to rein in amid protest from the coach.
In 1994, Vanessa had a narrow escape after premature emergency Caesarian delivery of eldest daughter Caitlin on Christmas Eve landed her in intensive care in a coma on life support in Southland Hospital, Caitlin in the neo-natal unit. However, back she was 13 months later delivering Laura.
When Pete was headhunted to work in Auckland, Vanessa managed two small kids, with help from sister Jo, and Pete, while contracts manager at Manukau City Council in South Auckland, also studying for a Masters of Business Administration.
In the late 1990s her bright red hair and jovial manner won over an interview panel of Duncan Field, Ken Matthews and Ian Kirkland and she became contracts manager for the Queenstown Lakes District Council.
Vanessa branched out into her own contracting consultancy and troubleshooting business, which she still runs today, before being elected a district councilor in 2007, then mayor from 2010 until 2016.
It was a huge learning curve. “I’d never envisaged being a politician, but I was fed up seeing things not getting done. The council was going through so many consultants and panels. I didn’t think the little local guys should be shut out by big city boys.”
To her surprise she was elected mayor. “It was a baptism of fire dealing with the controversy of the earlier sale of the Queenstown Airport shares to Auckland Airport – an “internally stressful” time.
During lighter moments she and Pete found themselves in a Dukes of Hazzard showdown trying to rejoin royals William and Kate on their Queenstown visit. “Our limousine had broken down on the tarmac and we were supposed to be in the motorcade to Amisfield, so Pete grabbed his truck and went off-road on the reserve by the airport,” she grins. “I suddenly said, ‘Hey, Pete! There are snipers up in those hills and we’re in an unknown car! He said, ‘Use your (mayoral) chains’, so I waved them out the window frantically, calling, ‘I’m the mayor!’.”
On another occasion Chinese dignitary ‘Chairman Ja’ insisted walking back to his hotel from dinner with Vanessa against the advice of his security team. “We walked down the Mall with his entourage of 20 bodyguards in tow.”
Vanessa co-founded the Branches Trust and was instrumental in bringing Baby Box Trust – a Finnish project, to Queenstown to ensure new mums of all cultures feel supported.
In 2017 she was awarded the distinguished ONZM.
She’s chair of the Pivotal Point Trust, Remarkable Cancer Gym Trust, on the Louise Nicholas Trust, the Otago Southland Lotteries Community Grants Committee, Otago FENZ advisory committee, Wilding Control Group, is a director of four companies, business mentor and Shaping Our Future chair. She also served six years as Abbeyfield chair.
“Too often things are a talkfest. I like to get things done.”