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Māori Business Stories: Culture And Creativity

07 Oct 2017
By Karl Wixon
Maori Business Stories Tawapata South

The Māori economy has grown steadily as its asset base has expanded and the businesses built around those assets have been nurtured. That growth has continued to the point where today, the value of the Māori asset base it is estimated at over $50 billion, and contributes more than $12 billion to New Zealand’s annual GDP.

Recently, we took a look inside over thirty prominent and innovative New Zealand businesses with uniquely Māori personalities to gain an understanding of how they do business, what they do differently, and most interestingly, what has brought them success. 

The Māori businesses we considered and chose to profile, span land based entities – such as Tawapata South Inc, tribally owned businesses such as Ngāi Tahu Tourism – or Māori owned and led businesses – including Straker Translations and Animation Research Limited

Through the stories of the individuals we spoke to, some consistent themes and recurring attributes emerged which you will encounter as you view them, summarised here through their direct words… 

Māori business is about care of people 

A widely known Māori proverb says: He aha te mea nui o te ao, maku e ki atu? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. (What is the most important thing in the world? I will tell you, It is the people. It is the people. It is the people.) In each of the businesses we interviewed, this value of care for people – both inside and outside the organisations – was front and centre. 

Customers were treated as family, not just a financial incentive, and this was inextricably linked to their success. As Quinton Hall of Ngāi Tahu Tourism says, “When we talk about our purpose, we say that the reason we exist is to make a connection with our customers. As hosts, we care for our customers and our team as our own family.” 

Sir Tipene O’Regan of Ngāi Tahu Tourism, adds to this, saying: “People who do business with us do it because they like us. And we’re more interested in getting on with those who like doing business with us. 

Quinton adds, “Importantly, with Ngāi Tahu Tourism you are part of an organisation that’s owned by the tangata whenua – the people of the place – telling their stories in that place.” 

Similarly, Ian Taylor, owner of Animation Research, says “Our approach with clients is to consider them part of our family – our whānau – which is a different way of thinking for the technology sector. By treating those we work with in this way, we build trust and commit to never letting them down.” 

Internally as well, this Māori principle of treating others well, or Manaaki, – gave the employees of these businesses a firm grounding and clear motivation for coming to work every day and giving their best for their respective companies. As Grant Straker, Chief Executive of Straker Translations, says “Storytelling is part of being Māori. Helping our people do that helps them better engage with customers, who trust us to translate their words accurately and allow them to tell their story to wider audiences.” 

The ultimate effect of this people-centred approach has been to develop solid, long-standing businesses through relationships that have stood the test of time, and will continue to do so. 

As Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab, which partners with Tawapata South Inc., says: “I’ve done lots of deals in America and around the world and they’re always very transactional. However, when working with Māori – and especially with Tawapata South and George – the first step was building trust and making sure that we were aligned on values. I think that has given our business relationship a much stronger foundation.” 

Māori business is about guardianship 

All the business leaders we spoke with value their cultural legacy and held a strong sense of duty of care to preserve that legacy and the environment for now and for future generations – best captured in Māori principles of guardianship– or kaitiakitanga. 

As Grant Straker of Straker Translations says: “I was inspired by my ancestors – they took long, risky journeys in small boats to get here and had to figure out how best to do that. I thought if they could do that then we can, as a relatively small company, successfully engage with the world. ‘Not giving up’ is central to Māori culture.” 

Ian Taylor of Animation Research, says: “I’m also inspired by my Māori ancestors, who were true innovators and amongst the greatest designers, engineers, astrologers and scientists of their time. They came to New Zealand well before Captain Cook, sailing across a third of the planet in waka designed to carry 100 people.” 

George Mackey of Tawapata South Inc, adds from his own experience: “Rocket Lab actually embraces the Māori culture. They then have a real connection to the land and so don’t want to ruin the environment or our significant cultural sites, which is really what we’re all about. We have a proverb about the land that essentially says, ‘People come and go, but the land is forever.’ That’s the way we view this. In 100-years’ time or a 1,000-years’ time Rocket Lab may not be here, but the land will still be here.” 

Māori businesses embrace technology to drive innovation 

In each of the businesses we spoke with, technology has become a core driver and point of difference for their success, both in how they use it and how they innovate with it. 

Ian Taylor of Animation Research, says this approach is reflected in New Zealand’s history: “Dunedin is the place that changed the economy of New Zealand in the 19th century using the latest technology of the time – refrigerated ships. These ships took New Zealand products and shared them with the world, and we became one of the richest countries in the world. Similarly, the technology that’s allowing us to take New Zealand to the world today is the Internet.” 

Quinton Hall of Ngāi Tahu Tourism similarly sees utilising technology and innovation as simply the best way to do business: “Essentially, everything about our tourism industry is innovative. We’re always striving for new ways to connect with our customers and create better experiences.” 

Grant Straker of Straker Translations once again, ties the use of technology back to their reason for being, saying, “We’re not just trying to build a super-fast growing, make-lots-of-money tech company – we’re trying to build something that’s sustainable for our customers. As they say on the marae, you’re just a custodian, there to preserve the marae for future generations.” 

It has been inspiring for us to meet the people behind these innovative businesses. We trust that their stories will give you valuable insight into why engaging with the Māori economy is simply good business.

Watch each of the four Māori Business Stories below.