Who is Don Elder?

  • 08/03/2013

The man who was at the helm of Solid Energy for 12 years has gone to ground without any explanation of the company’s $400 million debt.

Don Elder still works for the state-owned company from his Christchurch home in an “advisory position”, but he’s still on his old salary and will be until he officially leaves on April 4. 

He resigned as the chief executive of Solid Energy on February 4 after more than a decade in the role. His severance package is expected to be in the millions of dollars.

He was one of the highest paid executives in the country with an annual salary last year of $1.34 million, around $5,150 per day.

The average salary in New Zealand is $46,169, around $177.57 per day. This is 29 times less than Dr Elder’s salary in 2012.

But Dr Elder’s salary pales in comparison to the debt Solid Energy is currently in, which wasn’t public knowledge until 18 days after his resignation.

Finance Minister Bill English and State-Owned Enterprises Minster Tony Ryall called a press conference on February 21 to announce Solid Energy was $389 million in the red.

They wouldn’t rule out a bailout, saying they’d do anything to save it from receivership, including closing mines and laying off staff.

Solid Energy’s new chairperson Mark Ford and an interim chief executive Garry Diack received a grilling from MPs at the Commerce Select Committee yesterday because they couldn’t give an in-depth explanation about how the debt accumulated.

MPs called for a Parliamentary inquiry into the ordeal and wanted Dr Elder found and brought before the committee to answer questions.

Dr Elder isn’t answering calls and his voicemail message says he is likely “out of range”.

So who is the man not fronting to explain why the taxpayer-owned company he was in charge of is now in a financial hole?


Donald McGillivary Elder was born in Christchurch and spent all of his early life there, attending primary school and Christ’s College.

He attended the University of Canterbury where he earned a first class honours degree in engineering and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in 1980 where he earned a PhD.

After receiving his doctorate, Dr Elder worked at Oxford as a research consultant for two years.

He is married to Therese Arseneu, a political studies lecturer at the University of Canterbury.

Dr Elder owns five properties. Two of them are at Hamner Springs and the other three are in Christchurch.

Positions held

  • 1986: Began his career as an engineer with American company Bromwell and Carrier in Florida.
  • 1987-1990: Returned to New Zealand and became the manager of Christchurch engineering company Soils and Foundations Ltd.
  • 1990 -2000: Worked for Canadian engineering firm Jacques Whitford Stantec in a number of management roles, eventually becoming the vice president on its board.
  • 2000-2012: Chief executive of New Zealand’s largest coal company Solid Energy. During his time in the role, he earned more than $10 million for himself. He had never been a chief executive before.
  • 2000-present: He is one of two directors of Coal Corporation Holdings, formally Corporate Guarantees Ltd. 
  • 2002-2007: Director for Christchurch transmission company Orion.
  • 2002-2012: Joined the governance panel of the NZ Hydrogen Research Project.
  • 2004-2012: Director of Solid Energy’s methane division, Coal Bed Methane.
  • 2006-2012: Director on the board of ASB Bank.
  • 2007-2012: Director of Solid Energy-owned Biodiesel NZ, which was sold last month and renamed Green Fuels.
  • 2009- present: Vice chairman of the International Energy Agency.
  • 2009-present: Vice chairman of the Coal Industry Advisory Board.
  • 2008-present: Chairman of the World Coal Association.
  • 2008-present: Director and shareholder of Bras D’or Investments.

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