In the third of our new interview series we have a casual chat with Ilana Miller, national manager minerals at NZP&M, who started her career as a veterinarian.
How long have you been in the industry?
Though relatively new to the minerals sector, I have been involved in regulatory roles since 2011, when I moved back to New Zealand to run a project at Fonterra. This project investigated areas of emerging and existing food safety risks, including comparisons of regulatory systems here and overseas and impacts of these risks on market access in other countries. I then moved onto the government side of the fence in 2012 to work at the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) running the Hazardous Substances Teams (regulating explosives, dangerous goods, pesticides, hazardous waste etc) where I was until I started at New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals (NZP&M) at the end of 2014.
Where did you do your qualifications?
I did my undergraduate and postgraduate study at Massey University. I did my undergraduate degree in Palmerston North and then did my postgraduate study by distance when I was working in Melbourne.
Where did you start?
For someone who is working in minerals, I had an unusual career start – believe it or not, as a veterinarian. I worked as a vet for eight years in New Zealand, Australia and the UK and took up positions from running a clinic all the way to working in large hospitals which gave me a wide range of different experiences. After eight years I decided it was time for something different. I did a postgraduate qualification in environmental management focusing on natural resources, which started me on this path.
How did you end up in your current position?
I was working at the EPA and looking for a new challenge. I was fortunate to hear of an upcoming opportunity at NZP&M through my networks. I was initially recruited into the manager minerals permitting & compliance role, which used my skills in running high volume processes, driving operational efficiency and making sensible, balanced regulatory decisions. When the national manager minerals role became vacant I threw my hat in the ring to step up.
What does the job involve?
The job involves a large variety of stakeholder meetings and communication to a variety of audiences. From the Energy and Resources Minister and senior leadership at the ministry, to industry bodies such as Straterra and Minerals West Coast, to companies operating in New Zealand and potential new entrants interested in understanding how our system works and how they can put their best foot forward. There is also the day-to-day management of the minerals team and working with my colleagues across the other teams in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s energy and resource markets branch (which NZP&M is part of).
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Probably the range of vastly differing audiences we interact with, given the shape of the industry in New Zealand. This presents challenges in making sure we are communicating the information in a form that is relevant and understandable. I’m a huge fan of using plain English as much as possible and talking to people, instead of at them. I am currently working on some initiatives, using plain English, to help applicants understand what information they need to provide to NZP&M up front. This should help speed up our processing and get faster decisions on applications, which is what we all want.
What is the best part of the job?
My favourite part of the job is going out on site, listening to people in the minerals industry and having very free and frank discussions about the challenges and issues they are facing. The best permit holders I’ve met have not been afraid to lay the real issues on the table and because of that we’ve been able to work through to good sensible solutions. It means we can be satisfied from a compliance perspective and that permit holders can get on with the job.
Does your role conflict with views of friends or family?
Work-life balance is really important to me, so I try to ensure when I leave the office of an evening I can focus on spending time on other pursuits and with friends. Coming from a Waikato farming family, conversation is more often about milk prices and the weather, so we don’t often talk about the specifics of my work. It’s often joked at family barbeques that I work in a government department somewhere in Wellington.
What is the most interesting aspect of the job?
The sheer range of what is going on at any one time. The incredible diversity of the sector and permit holders makes sure the job is always interesting. The challenges range from the big policy and regulatory questions involving the sector to the operational challenges of running the shop floor efficiently.
Describe a job incident you are memorably proud of.
When at the EPA I was involved in the APEC Committee for Trade & Investment, which involved industry and regulatory groups from across the Asia Pacific region. Through this I got an opportunity to provide support and input for an Australian minerals industry initiative on upskilling regulators across the region to get more sensible and consistent decisions. Through my input on this, we were able to get the project successfully funded and underway.
The overall outcome of the project is intended to reduce unnecessary compliance costs on companies. Where possible we were also aiming to achieve a level of consistency across the region. While this is quite ambitious, given the diversity of the region (from USA to China to Papua New Guinea) and the different legal systems, it was the first step in the right direction.
Describe an incident that didn’t go so well.
When I was working as a vet in Melbourne I was involved in a rather gruesome animal neglect case. I was responsible for reporting the case and providing evidence for the prosecution. Disappointingly there was little repercussion for the owners of the animal at the end of the legal process, but the images of that experience are clearly etched on my memory.
You are a member of WIMNZ; would you encourage others to join the association?
Coming into the industry relatively recently I have found the WIMNZ network a really useful one to utilise and meet some incredibly talented and well connected people. As with any specialist industry, we should encourage more diversity.
What plans do you have for the future?
Outside of work I am a keen sailor and my long-term dream is to sell up, buy a yacht and sail the world. There is something very satisfying about harnessing the wind to get where you want to go and the idea of leaving the daily distractions of phones, computers and TVs is quite attractive. I still have to convince my significant other that it’s a good idea, but I have time to try!
If you weren’t in mining what other industry could you see yourself in?
I think the natural resources sector in New Zealand presents many opportunities and it is one I would like to stay involved with in the long term. Given I come from a farming background my most likely leaning would be in an agricultural-related industry.
What future do you think extraction has here?
I think there is a lot of potential for the extractives industries in New Zealand. We have a host of natural resources and a fairly mature regulatory system.
We have long established metallic mineral operations but there is still a lot of exploration work to be done and real opportunities for investment. With the Christchurch rebuild, the growth of Auckland, and some major roading projects coming up, aggregates quarrying has a vital role to play in economic development.
What needs to be done to achieve that?
I think New Zealanders need to better understand the minerals industry – including the economic benefits through good jobs – and that it has a long history here. At the same time we have a world-class regulatory system. It’s not a matter of extractives or the environment – it’s actually both. The industry can contribute to this by coming to terms with change as it occurs and proactively working with regulators to work through what this means for them. We all want to be proud of the minerals industry in New Zealand and working together is the best way to get there.