Former Masterton Mayor Bob Francis has been appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. PHOTO/SOUMYA BHAMIDIPATI
Queen’s Birthday 2021 honours
Robert [Bob] Charles Francis, QSO, MBE, JP, was the Mayor of the Masterton District Council from 1989 until 2007. However, the 78-year-old didn’t stop there, contributing to the Wairarapa community through various positions and organisations ever since.
Bob opens the door to his Solway home before I have a chance to knock. Molly, a friendly white maltese-highland terrier cross, is equally punctual in arriving at the door of the tidy, modern home.
I am led through the hallway to meet Mary, Bob’s wife. The pair were married in October last year and positively twinkle when they look at each other. He says his life has “better balance” with her in it.
We settle on to couches in a sitting room artfully decorated with soft throws and a few bright cushions, contrasting against the teal walls with white skirting.
Bob tells me he was advised of his Queen’s Birthday Honour about three weeks ago.
“You then get a chance to accept it,” he says.
“I was surprised, but I just know that my family and friends will really enjoy it.
“You’re not in this game for accolades and awards, but I suppose it’s nice to be recognised.”
Mary is a little more forthcoming in expressing her delight.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she says, “It’s very well-deserved.
“It’s just recognised the work he’s done over the years. I didn’t realise how much he’s done over the years until I met him a few years ago.”
She describes her husband as “very humble, very generous, very kind”.
“Everything nice, really.”
The pair are early risers, usually going for a walk first thing in the morning.
“I’m a really punctual person,” Bob says.
“I’m an early riser, I do a lot of prep for meetings.”
He tells me his organised personality means he can make the most out of each day.
“I plan the following day the night before, so when I get up in the morning, I know where I’m going and what I’m doing.
“I work pretty hard to run a tight diary.”
While he doesn’t need to do as much weekend preparation these days, Bob still works for a couple of hours each weekend.
Another key to his success has been acknowledging his strengths and weaknesses, and surrounding himself with the right people.
“I’ve always had a lot of support,” he says, “I’ve often found people that have the right skills.”
He describes himself as a good decision-maker, attributing this, in part, to his career as a referee.
“One or two of my critics have called me ‘Bulldozer Bob’, and I don’t mind that.”
Before becoming mayor, Bob had been a Masterton borough councillor for six years. He established Violence-Free Wairarapa in 2002 and the Pete Laing Memorial Trust in 2005.
He is presently the chair of nine boards and is also a life member of the Wairarapa Chamber of Commerce. He was the first person to be awarded the ‘Keys to Masterton’ in 2017.
Bob has been the chairman of Pukaha National Wildlife Centre since 2006 and has helped drive several conservation programmes, fundraising more than $5 million since 2008. Most recently, he led the planning for the sanctuary’s education centre.
“[Pukaha] is now recognised nationally as something quite special.”
A keen conservationist, Bob said climate change is one of the big issues the region will face in future. To this end, he has been chairman of Wairarapa Water Use Project, a major regional irrigation scheme, since 2014.
He says his love for the region is what keeps him going.
“When I stepped down from the mayoralty in ‘07, I still had a lot of energy and motivation,” he tells me.
“I wanted to keep involved and keep working … I was really keen for Masterton and the region to continue growing.”
Along with the region’s “perfect climate”, he also admires its resilience.
“We’ve been through some really hard times and we’ve come out of them really well.”
One of these times Bob refers to was after the government reforms of the mid-eighties, when the local freezing works closed and many jobs were lost.
“It was a major adjustment in the New Zealand economy and in Wairarapa.”
Dealing with the social issues arising from this period was one of his proudest achievements to date.
“We took a lot of strong initiatives,” Bob says.
“I also look back at some satisfaction with what we’ve achieved at Pukaha … and a small group of us rescuing Wings over Wairarapa in 2011.
“There’s a lot of other things really, but these three things stand out.”
These days, Bob finds himself spending his spare weekends taking domestic trips with Mary, working in their well-maintained garden, and watching his 14-year-old grandson play rugby.
However, his motivation to create change in the community is never too far from mind, and he says his work has only become more enjoyable over the years.
Bob has been the chairman of Wings over Wairarapa Community Trust since 2011 and has contributed to the development of Masterton Aerodrome. As well as ensuring water storage for the region, his focus is on creating an “incredibly ambitious” aviation attraction.
“That’s really creating a visitor experience that’s unique in New Zealand terms and would be to international standards,” he said.
“It would really be a big boost to the local economy if we can pull this off.”
As well as these, he was keen to support smaller organisations through what he called their “growing pains”.
While he has travelled extensively overseas as a referee, Wairarapa has always been and would continue to be home.
“I’ve spent my whole life here, of course,” Bob says. He responds with an emphatic “no” when asked whether he’d ever considered leaving.
“It’s that whole urban-rural mix,” he says.
“The mountains to the seas … that magnificent coast and then the Tararua ranges to the west.”
It seems the work and goal-setting will never end for the septuagenarian, and nor does he seem to mind.
“There’s still some important issues that we continue to deal with,” he says, “I still have this vision for the future.”