The wisdom of Mark Solomon

The long haul: Ngai Tahu chairman Mark Solomon is prepared to stay on.
The long haul: Ngai Tahu chairman Mark Solomon is prepared to stay on.

After 15 years on the board, the chairman of Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu, Sir Mark Solomon, is willing to retire, but he will stay on for the long haul if he can't find the right successor to lead the tribal council.

Solomon, knighted in the 2013 New Year's honours list for services to Maori and business, said, as with any organisation, there were people who put their own interests first and people who put the collective interest first. In Ngai Tahu terms he calls these "I Tahu" and "We Tahu".

"I've always stood in the middle of the ‘we' camp," he told an Institute of Directors conference in Auckland last week. "It always seems to me that politics is about ‘I' versus ‘we'."

Whoever takes on his job will have to also be a "we" person, he said.

Solomon insisted that walking on stage at the conference last week to the theme of Mission Impossible was not his idea, but he did come bearing a challenge, a mission for his fellow directors to accept.

It is a mission he describes as both aspirational and practical, a mission "we must all adopt": Business must offer opportunities to Maori and Pacific Island youth.

This isn't about special favours. Demographic changes mean that Maori, Pacific Island and Asian will dominate the working population by 2050. They are the people who will be paying for health and education, he said.

While there are many theories about why Maori youth underachieve in education, Solomon said Maori needed to set higher expectations and Ngai Tahu was doing just that, telling youth that the least they should aspire to was a trade.

"We want many of them to become future business leaders," Solomon said.

In turn, many young Maori now wanted to be the best they could be, and were in turn mentoring those still coming through the school system.

The mission was to create change in small steps, he said, citing a partnership with global engineering firm Aurecon, which was now offering cadetships for young Maori. A similar partnership with Hawkins Construction was also helping to get youth into apprenticeships and participating in the Christchurch rebuild, he said. That had resulted in 76 now in apprenticeships, a further intake of 72 this year, and another 80 in May.

"We had a deal for 300 places. I think we can get to 1000 in the next 10 years."

Having so many young Maori in work and not on the dole had to be a positive for the country, Solomon said.

Maori enrolments at Otago University, he said, had doubled over the last four years.

Such efforts were advancing the nation as much as Maori. Solomon said there had also been a change of catchcry, from "your iwi needs you" to "your nation needs you".

In the boardroom, Solomon favours plain speaking. He tells a story about trying to get his head around the accounting terms used in Ngai Tahu's financial statements, terms like EVA (economic value added) and WACC (weighted average cost of capital).

To improve understanding of such terms he asked for an explanatory document to be created and issued that with the report to iwi. It worked. Recently at one meeting an 84-year-old woman stood and challenged Solomon, arguing Ngai Tahu's WACC was 1 per cent too low.

Business and Economic Research Ltd (BERL) estimated the Maori economy at $36.9 billion in 2010. With settlements still being made, Solomon says, the Maori economy is almost certainly growing faster than the New Zealand economy as a whole.

"Iwi are poised to contribute in a way that could not have been envisaged 50 years ago."

BERL estimated $5.4b of that was attributable to ethnically Maori self-employed, $10.6b in Maori institutions and $20.8b of assets attributable to ethnically Maori employers.

Established by statute in 1996, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu is the vehicle for advancing the collective interests of iwi and to ensure the benefits Treaty settlements are enjoyed by members of the 18 South Island Papatipu Runanga. Apart from large property holdings, Ngai Tahu is also active in fisheries and tourism.

And business appears to be good.

Revenue increased from $162.6 million in the year to June 2011 to $209.3m in 2012. Total assets of $809.4m in 2012 were up from $703.5m. Net equity was $658.4m, an increase of $67.3m over 2011.

Tribal, runanga and whanau distributions by Ngai Tahu totalled $14.7m in 2012, up from $11.1m in 2011 out of a net operating surplus of $55.1m.

Solomon highlighted a small legislative change that has had a big impact on Ngai Tahu, moving it to the top table in planning the recovery of Christchurch. When the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) was established, it was tasked not just with consulting with local and regional councils, but also with Ngai Tahu.

"That marked an improved understanding of the partnership process," Solomon said.

The ripple effect of that was tangible. Doors were opening and enthusiasm for the challenging task at hand grew.

Ngai Tahu is now focusing its attention on Christchurch's devastated eastern suburbs and sees itself as an advocate for families there, Solomon said.

"If not for this early involvement I'm not sure we would be as well placed to assist in the social recovery of the city."

There are still many challenges facing Maori business, but Solomon said the main one was ignorance rather than prejudice.

"Most New Zealanders are fair minded. They weigh up the evidence and make good, informed decisions," Solomon said.

As an example, he spoke at a meeting with two dozen "degreed" New Zealanders and was asked about the foreshore and seabed issue. He responded, asking for a show of hands from anyone who could say what the foreshore actually was. No one could.

Another example: There is a perception that Maori businesses fail more often than others. That simply wasn't true, Solomon said. Only two tribes that received settlements over the last 15 years have failed.

"It's the same as New Zealand business. Some businesses succeed, and some businesses fail."

For that reason, he opposes efforts by some in Maori business to "fly below the radar" and stay invisible. When he is asked to be quiet about such successes he declines, because Maori have to set examples, get out into the country and sell themselves. They have to say what they are and show what they can do to demystify Maori and "take away the nonsense".

Another bugbear is what Solomon describes as a "sanitised version of history" still being taught in schools. For instance, many are still being taught about Maori arrival in New Zealand on board a "great fleet".

"We need to teach true histories. What is taught in schools about the history of Maori is nonsense."

Being in charge of what is essentially a family business means there is nowhere to hide, Solomon said.

"When you are on the marae you are standing in front of family, and no one is as honest as family," he said.

As long as you are honest you are fine, but if you don't own up to your mistakes you won't be trusted.

"The Maori world is open, honest and in your face.

"I love it."

Sunday Star Times