Vivien Bridgwater, the outgoing general manager of university relations at AUT University, finds herself in a state of surprise.
“This is the 14th year,” she says. “I don’t ever think I thought I’d ever be here this long. If someone had said to me I’d be here for that long, I would’ve said, ‘No way!’.”
And although she now looks fondly on her long career at the institution, she admits that it wasn’t love at first sight.
“I came in as the marketing manager, and the woman who I replaced told me there’s just something about AUT that you end up falling in love with. I came in having worked at some really interesting organisations … And based on the things I had done before, I couldn’t imagine falling in love with a big institution.”
Prior to starting at AUT, she held senior positions in show business, serving on the board at TVNZ from 1998 to 2001 and as the general manager of the Radio Bureau from 1995 to 1996. She is also credited as one of the driving forces behind the launch of Mai FM, a brand she worked for as the general manager from 1994 to 1995.
Bridgwater’s arrival at AUT coincided with a transitional phase in the institution's history, and she credits this as the impetus underpinning her decision to sign on the dotted line.
“I literally joined one month before AUT officially became a university, and that’s really why I took the job. I knew from a brand perspective, it was going to be a huge challenge to take it from a polytechnic to a university.”
Shortly after this shift, AUT found itself with an uncertain identity in the sense that it was no longer a polytechnic but still not quite a university. And this issue was further exacerbated by the consistent stream of comparisons with the University of Auckland, a stalwart that had cast its educational shadow over the city for over 100 years.
“AUT University was not interested in becoming a boutique version of the University of Auckland," says Bridgwater. “It was interested in creating its own destiny and its own vision and contribution to Auckland.”
In the early days of her career at AUT, Bridgwater spent much of her time discussing with vice-chancellor Derek McCormack exactly what AUT would become.
“You can market anything – you can even market water in a country where there’s a lot of rain,” she jokes. “I used to say to Derek, ‘you just need to tell me what the university is and I’ll sell it’. But in the early days, we were figuring out what we were. It wasn’t that one day we woke up on the first of January, and we were a university, we knew what our brand was, and we sold it. It wasn’t like that at all.”
But rather than being intimidated, Bridgwater says that the entire leadership team at AUT felt energised by the prospect of re-inventing the brand.
“[We] saw it as an exciting time, because we got to contribute to the brand in a different kind of way than you do when you just go to an organisation and you get the new job but you’ve already got the long history. It was almost like starting all over again when we became a university.”
In speaking about the establishment of AUT’s identity, Bridgwater uses the analogy of a teenager going through different phases and trying out different looks, before settling on something that really works. “It took two to five years, I think, for us to figure out and be really comfortable with who we were,” she says.
And, according to Bridgwater, who or what the university was existed in space that had previously been overlooked by New Zealand’s existing institutions of higher education.
“Traditionally, universities primarily focused on the higher decile schools and the top students that went to them. Well, in reality, many students are completely capable of going to university, so we started to do things completely differently in our school’s recruitment activity by engaging with non-traditional audiences, [including] Māori, Pacifica, migrants and even young men … There’s actually a real issue of getting young men to go to university.”
“I had the opportunity here to build a portfolio that was broad. Normally you come in as a marketing manager, and you might get marketing and sales, and you might get PR and marketing. However, what we did was slowly build an end-to-end customer relationship.”
This, she explains, was done by mapping the journey of students from the time they left school to the end of their university careers. The effect of this process was to give the management team an indication of what needed to be introduced in order to make the customer (student) experience as fluid as possible.
“This division that I’m responsible for starts at the brand/marketing/comms front end, but also includes the sale [recruitment], the admissions and then all of the student support services, including Māori, Pacifica, health and wellbeing unit, and all the other non-academic aspects of student life.”
By focusing on the oft-overlooked segments of society and by developing this end-to-end customer-focused approach, the management team has allowed AUT to grow into a respected institution that in 2013 awarded 70 doctorates, 634 masters, 822 honours and 4,002 undergraduate degrees. And these numbers promise to be even higher next year, because the university currently has 27,299 students enrolled in the varied range of 187 qualifications offered.
“[The university] is in the top 500 … and today you can clearly see that AUT has the fastest growth in every way of measuring a university’s success. So whether that’s student numbers in gradutate, postgraduate, international, research, Māori or Pacific, this university is on an upward trajectory.”
And while admitting she played a part in achieving all this, Bridgwater is quick to share the credit with the other members on the team.
“That takes a whole team to create, an executive that has been really focussed and a great executive vice-chancellor that leads that team," she says. “Like in any company, it’s about the leadership both in the executive and senior management team. It’s about everyone being really focused.”
This level of humility has garnered Bridgwater the admiration of many of the people she has worked with. In the lead up to the interview for this article, the general consensus among those who knew her was that she was different from other marketers.
“She’s a special soul,” said Tangible publisher Vincent Heeringa when relaying the backstory of her career at AUT.
And this point is quite evidently made when Bridgwater veers away from the success found in numbers and statistics to comment on what she believes her role encompasses.
“I don’t see myself as a marketer," she says. "I see myself as someone who is really committed to transforming communities, and one of the ways you can do that is through this discipline called marketing.”
And her social development interest is also reflected in other roles that she holds in addition to working at AUT.
“I’m the chairperson of Save the Children New Zealand, I’m also on the international board of Save the Children and I'm on the ATEED board. In these roles, I do that work because I believe that every single individual has possibility and often our communities don’t let them live into that possibility.”
But as a mother of three, a general manager of a major institution and a board member on two separate organisations, she hasn’t had any time for herself, and she cites this as one of the reasons for deciding to end her tenure at the institution.
“I’m creating a space in front of me. When you have a job like this and you have 250 staff, and your portfolio stretches from one end to the other, and you’re having to think across multiple things in addition to being on the ATEED board and the Save the Children board, and having three children, there’s no space. This is about me creating that space.”
At this stage Bridgwater says that she hasn’t filled this “space” with a new full-time job, and she explains this decision with an anecdote about a brief encounter she had with someone else who recently called it quits after a 30-year career.
“I banged into [outgoing MediaWorks chief executive] Sussan Turner in the airport in Los Angeles, and I hadn’t seen her in ages and she asked me how I was doing. And I was telling her: ‘I bought this property in West Auckland that has five acres of bush. I live in a valley with a very big lake. You cannot hear anybody. It is very isolated. I hear the waterfall, and I hear the wood pigeons, and I feel really blessed’ … it’s really liberating.”
Despite enjoying her newfound liberation, Bridgwater has not yet jettisoned her ambition and says that she would still like to achieve “one more big thing” in her career.
“That big thing would have to be about significance, not success … and I think I would like it to be here,” she says. “And it would most likely be in the space that I’ve been in. So it would be around Auckland’s young people, Māori, Pacifica and new migrants … I have a real passion for Auckland. It’s the third most diverse city in the world, and think it’s an amazingly exciting place to work and be part of.”
And given how far she has come with AUT in the last 14 years and throughout her career before that, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the name 'Vivien Bridgwater' involved in another major project in the near future.