Fifty years ago, Don Mann senior was making his Tongan whānau and Ponsonby clubmates proud of the impact he was making in top level rugby league — all the way up to playing for the Kiwis in 1972. Don Mann junior has carried on his dad’s love for the game. As well as serving his time at Carlaw Park, which used to be the headquarters for rugby league in Auckland, he was the Warriors general manager for more than a decade — and since then he’s branched out to lend a hand to organisations in all sorts of endeavours, including the Pacific Media Network that he now leads. He’s been a busy and versatile man, as you can see in this chat with Dale.
Kia ora, Don. How’s your dad?
Good. He’s going strong. Playing golf. Fussing over his mokopuna. And still a rugby league diehard.
You’re both named Don Mann. But perhaps you have a middle name?
Yeah. That’s Keio, a Japanese name. Dad was born in Vava’u, Tonga, in 1942, during World War Two. He grew up hearing bedtime stories about Asian princes and princesses, and one of them was a Japanese prince named Keio.
Dad’s grandfather, Ikineasi Tupou Fulivai, was the harbourmaster in Neiafu. He travelled through Asia, and he brought back a lot of stories and mementoes.
And where does the Mann name come from? It isn’t particularly Tongan, is it?
Well, there were two English brothers who came to New Zealand from Coventry in the UK. Thomas Slingsby Mann and Richard Arthur Mann. They arrived in Aotearoa on the Caduceus in 1879. Thomas and his wife, Annie Watson, then migrated to Vava’u. My grandfather, Richard, is descended from them.
Richard married Veisinia Moalapau’u Tupou, who was the daughter of Ikineasi and Temaleti from Vava’u. They lived on part of the Fulivai estate below the summit of Mt Talau in Neiafu where Dad, his older brother George, and their older sister ‘Ilisapesi were born.
Papa Richard and Mama Veisinia came to New Zealand in 1947. They first lived on the edge of the Manukau Harbour near what is now Karaka and Clark’s Beach. Papa milked cows on the Clark family farm. And when they had saved up enough money, they moved to Hakanoa Street in Grey Lynn. Then they bought their own home in Sussex Street.
My wife, Louise, and I now own a small part of the Clark farm, and we’ve built a home next to the paddock where they lived.
We know that, maybe 20 years after Papa Richard’s cow-milking days, your dad found a Māori maiden. What has he told you of that period of his life?
Yeah, that wahine, Elaine Mihi Hema, became our mum. My koro is Wano Hema, one of eight children of Wipuhara Hema and Titihuia Hema (born Kokere) of Rangiāhua, Ngāi Tamaterangi near, Frasertown-Wairoa. And my nanny is Mabel Peti Waiwai of Te Kuha marae, Ngāti Ruapani ki Waikaremoana.
So, on my mother’s side, I whakapapa both to Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu. Mum is the eldest daughter in a family of 16 children. She was born in Waikaremoana and was sent to Auckland Girls’ Grammar in the mid-1950s. Then she went on to nursing school. She never lived in Waikaremoana again.
Nanny and Koro left Waikaremoana in 1958 and moved to Mangakino for work. They raised Mum’s younger siblings and lived out the rest of their days there.
Mum and dad met in Auckland in their late teens. And they’re still going strong.
I see that half of all Tongan marriages in New Zealand are to Māori partners, Don, so there are many like you with Tongan-Māori whakapapa. You have a good understanding of those whakapapa lines too. Has it always been important to you to know these connections?
Yeah, we’ve always been strongly both Māori and Tongan. You sometimes hear people talk about being half this and half that, but I’ve never felt that. That hasn’t been the way I describe myself. I’ve always felt Tongan and always felt Māori. Equally. Not half of one, and half of the other. But wholly both.
I think of my childhood as blessed. We were very close to our Tongan whānau and to our Māori whanau as well. We’d be with our Tongan whānau one weekend and the next weekend with our Māori whānau. That’s how I recall my childhood. And I feel fortunate to have grown up that way.
Dad’s mum, Veisinia, was one of 12 kids, so Dad had lots of uncles and aunties. Most of them came to Aotearoa, and then many of them went on to Australia and the United States. My Tongan whānau now live all around the world.
And we’ve got strong ties to the Latter-day Saints church too, so pretty much anywhere there’s a Tongan community and an LDS church, there’s a good chance you’d find one of my uncles and aunties and cousins.
That connection goes back to Ikineasi, my great-grandfather, who was responsible for the first school in Neiafu. In 1907, he cut a deal with the LDS missionaries. They wanted to set up a church in Tonga and couldn’t get permission to do that in Tongatapu. So they came north to Vava’u to negotiate with Ikineasi. He gave permission for an LDS church to be built on condition that the missionaries also build a school where his 12 children could be taught English.
Your dad made a name for himself in rugby league, 50 or so years ago. He was a fabulous footballer, especially for the Ponsonby team captained by Roger Bailey. He came across as a tough hombre, a prop forward who took no prisoners.
Actually, Dad’s always been a big softie, as my mum will tell you. He’s a big, cuddly teddy bear. That’s our father. The one you wanna fear is our mum. You don’t mess with her. She’s a wahine toa. She’s Waikaremoana Tūhoe and proud of that. She ruled the roost in our whānau — and still does.
But yeah, it was a privilege being part of Dad’s rugby league world. As kids, we had the thrill of growing up on the terraces of Carlaw Park and seeing Ponsonby and the other great teams of the early 1970s. I remember watching Dad playing for Ponsonby and Auckland and the Kiwis on Carlaw Park, with other great rugby league players like Roger Bailey, Henry Tatana, Roy Christian, Ken Stirling and the Rota brothers.
We spent a lot of time at Carlaw Park, mucking around behind the scoreboard, or asking people on the terraces for their empty bottles so we could cash them in for four cents.
I know a lot of guys who’ve been good at footy but then have struggled to make a living after they’ve retired. Your old man, though, became a successful businessman. He set up Machinery Movers and I see that their trucks are still busy today.
That’s right. Dad set up his business after the deregulation of freight and rail in the early 1980s. He was a manager at Freightways, and he and a few mates saw an opportunity to buy out the heavy haulage division, which became Machinery Movers. And that’s now operating globally.
He probably re-mortgaged our Kelston home to do that, but good on him for having the courage to buy into the company — and for travelling the world to build up the business and getting the international contracts.
I’ve been proud growing up as the son of a Kiwi, but also because Dad has had a successful business career. And then, with his brother, George, they laid the groundwork in the mid-1980s to establish the Mate Ma’a Tonga rugby league team.
Then there’s our mum, who came to Auckland as a 13-year-old Māori girl from Waikaremoana for her high school education. Mum is the one who raised us boys, carting us around to league training and games in the back of the ute, while Dad was travelling around the world, first for rugby league and later for his business.
And they’re still active in our lives. Still looking after us all and telling us what to do.
In the 1970s, long before Dad turned to business, Mum had factory jobs and Dad was working on the roads. But whatever financial struggles we had as a family, you wouldn’t have known because, like many of our parents, they did everything for us boys.
I remember when Mum was a machinist at Cambridge Clothing in New Lynn. Every payday, she’d clock out of the factory at lunchtime and drive to St Leonard’s Primary School and deliver fish and chips for me and my young brothers. She’d give up her whole lunch hour, running around getting our kai and then dropping it off for us kids — and then driving back to clock in at the factory again. It made us feel like the richest kids in the world when our mum was doing that.
Tēnā koe, Don. How many are there in the Mann clan from Kelston?
There’s five of us boys. No sisters. There’s Heta, then Richard (who’s named after my Tongan grandfather) and me in the middle. Duane is next. And then our youngest brother is Alipate, usually known as Bart.
But, as in many Māori and Pacific families, there were others. Mum’s younger siblings are closer to my age — and some of them lived with us. And then, on our Tongan side, there were always people coming through and staying with us in our little, three-bedroom house in Cobham Crescent in Kelston. We had moko and cousins as whāngai — like Anthony Pereira, who’s our sixth brother and a successful Auckland lawyer.
I know that you did well at school and that you were the deputy head prefect at Kelston Boys’ High. And, since then, you’ve had a police career, you’ve done university studies, worked in Tongan business as well as in Auckland tourism, and you were with the Warriors too for a long time. And now you’re heading the Pacific Media Network which runs 531pi and Niu FM — and also doing governance work with community trusts and literacy.
I just think it’s all meant to be. Having a 13-year career as the Warriors general manager seemed like destiny after the impact on rugby league by Dad and Uncle George — and later by my brothers (Duane and Bart) and cousins (Warren, George junior and Esau).
But it wasn’t just about sport for us because education was a high priority in the families of both my parents — and that led me on to being the co-chair of Literacy Aotearoa.
We always had lots of books at home, so I know the value of that. And Mum sent me to St Stephen’s School near Pukekohe for my third-form year where I learned to speak Māori.
But when I came back to Kelston Boys’ High, I got my first taste of systemic racism. I was placed in the bottom class at Kelston for no other reason than that I came from a Māori boys’ school. That pissed me off, and still does.
When I was 16, a few mates and I marched against the 1981 Springbok tour. We also spray-painted the local shop with “Muldoon is a racist pig”. We got caught by the police, but I have no regrets. In fact, I joined the police after I left school. That wasn’t out of any sense of service though. It was just that my parents said I should go and do something.
But I loved the police. I was able to complete a Bachelor of Business while I was there, and I got to work alongside experienced Māori police officers who helped me find my feet. People like Matua Bobby Newsom, Steve Shortland and John Purkis. They all comfortably owned their taha Māori while doing their police work.
I was about 20 when I went to the police college, and I started my policing in West Auckland where I’d grown up. In my first year in the police, I was still playing under-21s rugby league for the Glenora club. My mates in the league team used to call me “The Filth”. It was sort of a term of endearment because I was a police officer.
And I remember one morning, after having a few beers the night before with the boys at the club to celebrate us winning a game, I was in a patrol car driving out to Wood Bay or French Bay to check out one of the carparks there. We pull in — and there’s a few of my mates from the league team stripping a car.
With your exposure to the harsh realities of life as a young police officer, I wonder whether that influenced some of the directions that your subsequent work has taken because much of it seems to me to be you trying to address imbalance.
I think it played a part. In recent years, I’ve taken on governance roles, and that’s been a deliberate decision to be part of a movement where Māori and Pacific people have a voice at the decision-making table. I’ve always believed we need to use our influence and our time here to move things along. If we don’t, we’re just part of the problem.
I was in the police for 13 years. It was the police that set me up with the training and life-skills to go and do other things. And my time there, especially as a homicide detective, gave me the ability to deal with tough times.
Like when I was with the Warriors. I got to experience two grand finals during my time there, but it’s the tragic drowning of Sonny Fai in 2009 that I reflect on the most.
What do you make of the great season that the Warriors are now having in the NRL?
I’ve always believed in the power of the club to change people’s lives for good, whether they’re the athletes, their whānau, or the ordinary fans and sponsors sharing the feel-good vibe of success. There’s no better example of that than what we’re seeing now.
The club will be 30 years old soon. So you’ve now got three, maybe four generations of whānau who organise their whole lives around following the Warriors, like a religion. They’ll always be my team.
The media is influential too. It’s a tool for empowering our Māori and Pasifika people. And you’ve become involved as the CEO of the Pacific Media Network (PMN), which marries in with what we’ve been doing over the last 40 years to ensure that Māori, and Pacific too, have a voice in New Zealand journalism. What do you see as the goals of PMN and what inspires you to work in it?
I was asked in late 2019 if I’d consider applying for the role of CEO, but it wasn’t until we were in lockdown in early 2020, that I started to think about it. We were faced with Covid, and two of the mainstream organisations (NZME and Stuff) were looking to merge. You had the big magazine companies falling over. And then you had Kris Faafoi, the broadcasting minister at the time, starting out on a big plan to merge RNZ and TVNZ.
And I thought that, if ever there was a time for an organisation like PMN (and the same would apply for all Māori media entities too) to stand up and show the value of why it was originally set up, it’s now.
I’ve always been a big consumer of Māori media, going back to our earlier heroes like Derek Fox, Whai Ngata and Tini Molyneux — and then Waatea and the iwi stations. So, I understood the value of a “by Pacific, for Pacific” approach.
It started with Radio 531pi in the early 1990s, which was set up on the notion of service and volunteerism — and built with the castoffs of analogue media as the mainstream media moved to digital.
It’s a privilege to lead this organisation. It’s one of the most diverse media organisations in Aotearoa. We broadcast in 11 different languages — or dialects of Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, as some would say. There’s no other Pacific organisation like us in the world.
But gone are the days when we expect our people to work for minimum wage or as volunteers under the notion of tautua (service). I feel a responsibility not just to protect PMN but also to care for those who’ve dedicated their life to this kaupapa.
Another success story has been in rugby league with Mate Ma‘a Tonga. Here we’ve had this small nation (with a population at home of just over 100,000) punching way above its weight in international rugby league and doing marvels for Tongan confidence and pride. And as you touched on earlier, your whānau has had a lot to do with that pride.
Yeah. It’s been huge. And the thing I love is seeing our young people stand proud in their Tongan identity. We’ve watched the thousands and thousands of Tongans around the world claiming their identity and showing their pride in our team.
That was always my Uncle George’s dream when he sought permission from King Tupou IV to establish Mate Ma’a Tonga, way back in the 1980s. It’s been many years in the making but we’ve been able to see his dream come to fruition.
It was amazing. Just so you know, I danced in the rain for Tonga in the clogged streets of Ōtāhuhu. I just loved it, bro. We’ve got a café in Ōtāhuhu now with giant-sized images of the players on the walls there. Karen and I went up there for a feed the other day and we thought it was beautiful. Just magic.
I haven’t asked about the most satisfaction you’ve got from various aspects of life, but it may be being a dad. You’ve got kids, Don?
I have two. My wife is Louise Gray. She’s a lifelong police officer and police administrator, and we met in the police. When I left the police to work in professional sport and with the Warriors, Louise was sacrificing her police career at the time to raise our kids. But these past 10 years has been her time to shine and work at a national level near the top of the police executive.
We’ve been married over 30 years, with two daughters. They’re both amazing women and we’re very proud of them. Sarah graduated with a degree in law and Māori from Victoria. She’s a barrister and is now in the leadership team at Mainfreight. She’s probably one of the few lawyers with a truck licence. And Olivia has a degree in commerce and computer science and is already in the leadership team of a global agri-tech company, Figured NZ.
As for what’s given me the most satisfaction? All I’ve ever wanted to do is make Mum and Dad proud.
Kia ora, Don. Thank you for sharing your story.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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