This is the man who arguably holds more of the keys to Ballarat's future than any other resident. Evan King has, officially at least, been the City of Ballarat chief executive officer for a month now.
However, he has been seen in the corridors of town hall for a while longer - "a Dennis Lillee sort of run-in" he says himself. His arrival this year is the culmination of a process described as the most important task for a council fresh from last October's elections.
After a tumultuous year, with the pandemic eclipsing gripes about parking and bins, coupled with an Ombudsman's report that led to wholesale changes, a steady hand and a clear sense of direction were called for in the new, permanent CEO role. Councillors picked Mr King as the right person for the job.
So what can we expect from the new incumbent? What can we glean from his track record? And what are the early signs from his first few weeks at the helm? As he settled into the new job, The Courier spoke in detail to Mr King, alongside the mayor Cr Daniel Moloney, about his plans and his approach. He is open about wanting to send the right signals out about the organisation and the direction of the city.
"It's important that we get the message out about what we're doing and where we're going so people start to feel assured it's all in safe hands," he said.
We already know his links to the area run deep, one of the reasons councillors say Mr King's application stood out. He has more skin in the game than most. His three daughters have all been educated here, first at Alfredton Primary School, then at Ballarat High School where two of his children still study. The eldest is at Deakin University.
With a wife who is an avid netballer and his own love of athletics, he said: "We are quite connected into the community on a whole range of fronts."
Moving to Ballarat to study business and accounting in the late 1980s, he has stayed in the area since. Even while growing up in the Wimmera, Mr King was familiar with the city. His parents would make a long, weekly drive so he could run for Wendouree Athletic Club, helping to nurture a sprinting talent that would take him all the way to the Stawell Gift podium.
A Ballarat career
He has worked for everything from small private businesses, a huge multinational, not-for-profit organisations, and local government - a combination one councillor called the "perfect trifecta" for the CEO role.
His career started off at Smith and Jenning accountants, a position Mr King says taught him the value of customer service as the firm battled for business in a crowded local field.
"Every single client was either an existing client you had to keep or a new client that's going to pay my wage the next week," Mr Evan said. "The link between customer service and output was so intrinsic - you could see it. We have got to bring that back from a local government perspective."
That was followed by jobs at Ballarat-based companies Friction Materials Pacific (or FMP, previously known as Bendix Brakes), then Mars Wrigley where he was a finance manager. A subsequent five-year stint as the Salvation Army's business manager offered a prolonged insight into the financial challenges of not-for-profit organisations, as well as the social and economic issues in the region.
Moving into local government administration, Mr King held senior executive positions at two of the surrounding municipalities prior to his role at the City of Ballarat. Most recently he was the chief executive of Hepburn Shire, which followed a four-year stint as the director of corporate and community services at Pyrenees Shire.
However it was the top job in his home city that he unashamedly says he had wanted for a while, and he describes himself as "probably the closest thing you get to an internal candidate".
As well as Mr King's connection to the city, for the councillors one of the big appeals of his pitch for the role was the promise of a more methodical approach to the council's many projects. In recent financial years, there has been a surge in carryovers in the financial budget - $54.7 million in the previous financial year.
It may sound like a technical accounting detail but the figure matters. It shows the unspent money the organisation had earmarked to spend for the financial year, which is then "carried over" to the following 12 months.
Mr King says he wants this to change.
We'll be a lot better off delivering five really good things, than chipping away at 140 other items in the endBallarat CEO Evan King
"It's no secret council has a very significant carry forward from last financial year," he says. "Some projects have been put in there to be delivered but in fact we need to plan them, we need to engage with community on them, we need to seek funding on them - so we have set ourselves up for failure."
While it can be difficult to extrapolate the exact situation - the arrival of grant funding at the end of a financial year can distort the story, for example - the amount of funding was significantly more than comparable municipalities in Bendigo and Geelong.
One of the early tasks for Mr King and his new executive team will be to finalise a council plan, as well as long-term budgets - a requirement of the new local government act. However, he also wants to introduce better short-term parameters, with plans to hone clear priorities every 12 months around budget time.
Mr King says: "We've got to get smarter about how we phase projects and that we are absolutely realistic about when we are going to do what. That's not taking the pressure off, it's just about smart planning and not setting ourselves up for failure.
"We've also got to be really clear on our priorities - we can't be everything to everybody.
"We'll be a lot better off delivering five really good things, than chipping away at 140 other items in the end."
It is still of course the honeymoon period for his new role. His direct predecessor, Janet Dore, held the job on an interim basis. On board for the short haul, she was freed of many of the normal constraints of long-term chief executives, and could make decisions - and waves - that would be hard for a permanent incumbent to make.
Mr King may, by contrast, need to be more mindful of the dynamics of the councillor group that employs him. For now, he seems to have inherited a relatively cohesive group - reasonable, measured councillors outnumber the tub-thumpers - although inevitably managing a politically diverse group (there are three independents, three Liberals, a Green and two Labor party members) will present some tensions.
However, he will be hoping he has a relatively clean slate in front of him. Some of the grittier tasks in responding to the Ombudsman have already been put in train by Ms Dore: an entirely new leadership team, and the Halliday culture review among them - although he will be in charge of putting in place a long-term response.
This may prove one of his more delicate balancing acts: addressing those high-profile past issues while pushing to gather momentum for the future.
His time in the corporate world pops out in the occasional phrase he uses (values are "cascaded down", for example), but there is no sense he uses language as a shield against scrutiny. During his time at Hepburn Shire, he gained a reputation as approachable and transparent. Union members liked his push to bring back jobs in-house to the council and thought his approach to staff was reasonable. Journalists in the meantime valued his willingness to pick up the phone. In camera decisions went down, a trend that he is keen to see maintained at the City of Ballarat.
He also dealt with his fair share of controversy such as the inherited budget blowouts from the Rex Hepburn Hub project, as well as the highly charged reaction to new local laws. He will be only too well aware of the sensitivities of being the layer of government closest to the people it serves.
The challenges in the new role will be different. Ballarat's growth rate is now exponential - and pressure is mounting on its infrastructure. Combined with a statewide shortage in planners and project managers, work to market Ballarat will take on new significance. Details of a new plan to do just that will come out later this month. Mr King said: "It is a really exciting time - we always talk about being an employer of choice in the end. We need to be really positive about ourselves and where we're going because we will have some incredibly exciting projects."
Those outside of the council who have worked with him so far have reported a positive, collaborative approach behind the scenes too. "He's the right person at the right time," one told The Courier.
Cr Moloney says: "For me [it's critical] having Evan get that culture right, and not take forever doing it - getting a sense of quick improvements and quick wins - and then be able to sell the city as an attractive place to come and work for."
Still immersed in the sporting world - although more as an administrator in his beloved athletics these days - Mr King now balances the pressures of his high-profile role with cycling. "You need an outlet," he said. "I have always had reasonably high pressure jobs. Riding has become my physical outlet." This weekend he will take on the 100km-long Fiona Elsey Cycle Classic.
Cr Moloney, meanwhile, says the effort Mr King is putting in around the corridors of town hall is already paying dividends. "There's a whole new sense of energy in the place," he says. "It's great."
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