While it may have seemed an ambitious goal at the time, it turns out dreams really can come true.
Chris has just finished 10 years as the director of Tihoi, a role that he shared with wife Cyn Smith who has since taken over sole directorship. He is now working as a commercial helicopter pilot based out of the Western Bays.
Chris had only just left Tihoi in late 2005, after completing a three year stint as chief instructor, when St Paul’s chair of the Board, John Dawson, made contact to tell him the director’s role had become available and that he should apply.
“This was what I had dreamed about as a 14-year-old and it had come back full circle. What I had said to Bryan Neville, the director of Tihoi when I was a student back in ’89, was right in front of me,” Chris said.
He and Cyn had just purchased a beautiful 25-acre property in Rotorua where Chris was rearing calves when the offer came through.
They were perfect for the job, collectively Chris and Cyn had more than 10 years’ experience working at Tihoi across a number of roles from gap tutor to chief instructor.
Chris first returned to Tihoi when he graduated from St Paul’s in 1992. He loaded his car full of gear and moved into the rickety rodent-ridden Noxious Nook as a gap tutor earning $6000 a year.
This was the beginning of his Tihoi career.
“It was awesome! All I could think about was going hunting on my days off!”
It was a learn-as-you-go type of role and most of the work included maintenance, rubbish runs and mowing lawns.
After two years, directors of the time Christine and John Furminger (staff 1992-2006) insisted Chris go to university and promised there would be a job waiting when he graduated. He went to Lincoln where he completed a parks, recreation and tourism degree before moving on to a one year teaching diploma.
This was a hard time for Chris, who had always struggled academically at school.
“I bombed out big time, I think I failed three papers.”
He had a minor meltdown on the phone to his parents saying “This is ridiculous I just want to go back to Tihoi.”
After four years of hard yards he completed his degree.
John and Christine were as good as their word and there was a job waiting for him. He joined Tihoi as a teacher and outdoor instructor.
That’s when he met Cyn. He had mastered the role after four years and there were no opportunities for a promotion so he and Cyn moved back to Rotorua to work at the polytechnic.
Chris managed an at-risk youth programme but found the role “energy sapping.”
“No matter how hard I tried, it seemed the students were going backwards. I would think I was making wicked progress and then the next day no one would turn up and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
He returned to Tihoi one more time as the chief instructor and head of maintenance before being offered the director’s role along with Cyn.
Board chair John Dawson knew they were the right people for the job. Their experience working across various roles in the Centre was like no other.
Despite their experience, the young directors still struggled. Chris was only 31 at the time and says in the beginning he couldn’t sleep.
“It was bloody hard for the first few years and I was pretty sensitive when I started. I lost a lot of sleep thinking about how I was going to deal with certain situations.”
“I sort of blundered my way through in the beginning and messed up half of the time but over the 10 years the decision making got easier and I built up a thick skin.”
The duo split the workload – Chris managed the staff, outdoor programme and site maintenance while Cyn focused on academics, pastoral care and the day-to-day operation of the centre.
They pieced together a highly skilled and reliable team of staff, which was one of their main goals when taking on the job. Staff turnover was extremely high when they started and they made it their mission to transform Tihoi into a more attractive place to work. Most of their staff have now been on-site for between five and 10 years, allowing Chris and Cyn to step back from the daily demands of the job.
“When we first started we did everything, it didn’t matter what it was one of us would always be there to deal with it. We had to learn to let go. We probably micromanaged everyone to death during the first few years.”
They also introduced NCEA Level 1 and beefed up the outdoors programme by introducing sea kayaks, canoeing, mountain biking, a high ropes course, running tracks throughout the Pureora Forest and extended the five-day expeditions to locations further than the Central North Island.
The Centre was in the starting phase of redevelopment when Chris and Cyn came on board as directors. Most student houses and the dining room had just been completed but the grounds and older facilities needed plenty of work. Chris made it his pet project to improve the quality of the facilities and grounds. During his time, he has overseen the build of a new classroom, upgraded the houses and spent about 100 hours on the lawnmower every time the boys would go on break.
He says the first three years as director were the hardest. They worked day-in-day-out to achieve their vision and then after years of hard graft Chris, decided it was time to do something for himself. He got his commercial pilot’s license and then set a 10 year plan to exit Tihoi to become a full-time pilot. However the exit came about two years sooner than he planned.
“I got to the stage last summer where I was so busy I couldn’t keep up. That’s when I thought I needed to pull the pin on working both jobs.”
He resigned and finished up as director of Tihoi at the end of the first intake this year. He couldn’t have timed it better. Chris and Cyn’s son, Blue (14), started at Tihoi at the start of the second intake.
Instead of stressing about the speech he had to make to the incoming Year 10 boys, Chris helped Blue make his bed and unpack his gear.
Despite living in an outdoor playground for 12 of his 14 years of life, Chris and Cyn held Blue back from the Tihoi experience so he could “experience it with the other boys.”
He is in Jocks House, the furthest house from Chris and Cyn’s place and the house that Chris called home while he was a student.
Chris and Cyn still live onsite at Tihoi with their children Jessica (7), Jasmine (8) and Blue (14).