Interview with Mavis Mullins, Paewai Mullins Shearing Ltd.

Kor Ruahine te maunga

Ko Manawatu te awa

Ko Kaitoki te marae

Ko Rangiwhakaewa te tangata

Ko Rangitane na Atihaunui a Paparangi te iwi

Ko Mavis Mullins ahau

Tihei mauriora

The Ruahine Ranges are my mountains

The Manawatu River is my river

My family house is Kaitoki

My eponymous ancestor is Rangiwhakaewa

I am from the people of Rangitane and Atihaunui a Paparangi

I am Mavis Mullins and these are the things that define me

I breathe the breath of life

Mavis and Koro Mullins currently lead fourth generation Maori family business, Paewai Mullins Shearing Ltd. a sheep shearing business in New Zealand. Over many decades the Mullins family have not only grown their business into a market leader, but have also significantly contributed to the development of the wool harvesting industry. All the while the family maintains a firm rootedness in and dedication to Maori culture, upholding its values and working towards the collective benefit of its people. In fact, the Maori people are establishing themselves as an economic force to be reckoned with.

Mavis Mullins has spent her entire life in wool and agriculture. She began on the ground floor in the shearing sheds as a woolhandler and wool classer and worked her way up to shearing contracting before heading the family business with Koro, her husband. The patron and director of many industry initiatives, Mavis has been honoured multiple times over for her business achievements and contributions to the community. What is perhaps most remarkable about this distinguished businesswoman is her ability to meld Maori ancestral wisdom and innovation resulting in socially responsible and sustainable business practices. Tharawat spoke with Mavis Mullins about Maori values, business innovation, and wool.

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What were the beginnings of your family business?

Our family sheep shearing business was founded in the early 1930s by our grandfather, Lui Paewai. He was the descendant of a family of farmers as was our grandmother, his wife. Farming was marginally better than subsistence living. Men learned valuable farm services skills, and were able to gain additional income for the family.

Our grandfather was a great advocate of sheep shearing as it provided good income and various rewards. He saw the possibility of providing employment to the extended family. Grandparents worked as cooks, gear experts, and in logistics, while younger family members undertook sheep shearing, wool handling, and pressing. Though the work was strenuous and hard, the family was happy to work together and provide for itself. Even the hired workers who lived with the family belonged to that sense of unity. The understanding of family became much more expansive with time – everyone had a place in the scheme of things.

My grandparents had nine children, including my father, Punga. The boys all learnt sheep shearing skills and formed their own business around the trade. The goal for the second generation was to save money and use the accumulated profits to purchase properties for all the brothers. In the late 1980s, my husband and I purchased the shearing business. Now our children are more active and take full responsible for operations.

What are family dynamics like today?

We are all involved in the business in some way or another. My husband, Koro, and I are the directors and mentors. We encourage the children to take charge. They come to us for major decisions and we go to them if we see something our experience tells us may later be problematic.

Our eldest son, Tumatahi, was Operations Manager before taking up professional shearing and has become a lead trainer. He is our eyes and ears on the shop floor. Our eldest daughter, Korina, never intended to join the business, but recently decided that there is a place for her after all. She is an administrator and facilitates the training. Korina has a degree in the Arts and Nursing and works with us part-time. She brings a sort-of outside perspective, which is a huge plus. Our second daughter, Aria, works with a government-funded training organisation, Primary ITO, which allows her to work directly with the training arm of our business interests. Our youngest son, Punga, is the Operations Manager.

We all work together. Of course there are disagreements sometimes, but at the end of the day, we understand that we are stronger together than apart. Now in the fourth generation, we also have a lot of history to draw from.

What are your core principles?

Our Maori values drive us as a family and as a business. They also distinguish us. We follow four key tenets:

Whanaungatanga is family and connectedness. When you work for us, we take you in as family. Your development and success is ours, as are your failures and mistakes. A very strong driver.

Manaakitanga is respect and hospitality. You are judged by your own merits, not those of your parents or the school you attended. To manaaki someone is to support them. Manaaki is also superior hosting. Manaaki is about you, as a person, and how we make things better for you.

Matauranga is learning and absorbing knowledge. We believe in a life time of learning.

Rangatiratanga is the value of self-determination. You are the master of your own destiny, no one else. You hold the key.

We have a whakatauki, or ancient saying, “He aha te mea nui? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.” What is of greatest importance? It is people, it is people, it is people. Business is much more than just transactions. There are real expectations and contributions that have social, cultural, and environmental consequences. We are nothing but caretakers for the next generation, just like our ancestors were caretakers for what is now our legacy.

What are your responsibilities towards the environment?

We have an ageless belief that is as strong today as it was in our past – we are the environment, the environment is us. We acknowledge and describe ourselves as part of the physical environment from which we hail. The environment is as important as our community and stakeholders. The environment is our parent, our family, and will nurture our future generations.

How has the company evolved over four generations, and what role does Maori culture play in these developments?

When the British arrived to New Zealand in the early 1800s, they found a very primitive people. Through colonisation, the Maori went from being landowners and guardians of their culture, to a marginalised group in their own country. Over the past century, our people have almost come full circle. The Maori are now resolutely working through the shadows of colonization and are fighting various social ills. Today, we have significant assets in New Zealand. The government has been tracking Maori contribution to the economy, which now stands at approximately $4.9 billion.

We practice rangatiratanga, self-determination.

Our industry, namely the primary sector of wool harvest, has been evolving and at a steady pace. Our family business has contributed to this advancement. Our close connection to our end product, wool, allows us to focus on process and the value of best practice.

We also understand that the preparation and sale of wool alone contributes just under $1 billion to the GDP. Considering the important national contribution of wool production, we found it imperative to institutionalise our industry by establishing standards, with an emphasis on health and safety measures to protect our people.

In 1996, we were the first wool company to ever globally achieve ISO 9002 certification. We developed a quality managerial system and standards to formalise and systemise what was, up until then, quite an informal industry. We visited other businesses, observed their systems, and attempted to adapt them to fit our own. In the meantime, I returned to university to pursue an MBA, which was empowering.

The professionalism we inspired industry-wide became another project we took on. In our industry, skill is imperative. It actually takes the better part of two years to acquire the proper skills to shear a sheep. It was important to us that our people were recognised as skilled craftspeople, and not as dirty shearers, wool handlers and the “unskilled” labourers they were considered to be. It was important for us to establish standards that would recognise and qualify the talents of our shearers. What better way to build confidence and self-esteem than through positive benchmarking? I became very involved in translating shearing training into a national educational framework so that these very skilled labourers could acquire certification. This development had a powerful impact and great effect, enabling people to expand into other fields. It most importantly gave people in our sector mana – self-esteem, pride, confidence, acknowledgement, and recognition.

To give a person mana is a wonderful thing.

What are the greatest challenges to sustainable business practices in New Zealand today?

Nowadays, it is difficult to keep in mind that business centres on people and is not just about transactions. Global connectivity is certainly advantageous, but it is also challenging keeping up with our fast pace environment. We must think of ways to nurture the environment for upcoming generations.

We also face challenges concerning the breakdown of the family unit. What kind of demographics are we creating for the young? In New Zealand, and for the Maori especially, a lot of future opportunities and challenges very much depend on government policies and legislations.

You are setting a worthy example of Maori strength both socially and economically. Do you believe that the family business model could help the Maori people regain their rightful recognition?

We have an Act of Parliament that makes it almost impossible to sell Maori land. We are compelled to work together to reap the benefits of this opportunity. Maori social structure is very communal, so oftentimes the family plays a big role in how we get ahead. We see our companies as extended family businesses. There are many examples of Maori whanau businesses that include the immediate family and the more expansive models. So yes, the family business model could be helpful since it works with our culture and our opportunities. However, we must be aware of the fast changing global environment. We must continue to acknowledge the past but through the lens of our future.

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 26, 2015