No surprises the other week when Mavis Mullins won an award as the Māori businesswoman leader of the year. From her start in shearing, she has branched out into all sorts of major enterprises, as the chair, director or trustee. It’s some CV. And still includes shearing. Here Mavis tells Dale Husband how it came about.
My childhood was spent at Kaitoki, just outside Dannevirke. My Dad was Punga Paewai and he farmed ancestral land that came through his mum, Mavis Barclay.
It was one of those joyous upbringings where there was sheep and lambs and feeding out at the back of the tractor and walking to school. No car to pick you up, so you walked home in the rain and played in the puddles and stuff like that. Kaitoki was a lovely place to grow up.
There were neighbours all around because it was a marae settlement, a pa settlement, so we grew up with others such as the Lilo, Rautahi, Tawhai, Chase, Hape and Karena families.
We were all there together. I’m looking out the window today because we still live here – and I can see the kainga and sites of some of those families. That’s quite a nice thing.
And let’s hear a bit about your parents and grandparents.
Dannevirke was my Dad’s turangawaewae. My Mum was Josephine Whanarere from Kaiwhaiki up the Whanganui River. So we always had that close, warm relationship with our whanau up there.
But the grandparents I really grew up with were my Dad’s parents. His Mum, Mavis Barclay was a wonderful woman. She didn’t actually have a lot of Maori in her but she spoke fluent, native Maori with a lovely, soft lilt. Almost like an Irish lilt.
She had two husbands. Her first husband, Nireaha Paewai, died at an early age and left her with eight children. Then she married his brother who had been widowed as well. He was Lui Paewai. People all over New Zealand knew that name because he was one of the 1924 All Black Invincibles and was best friends with George Nepia.
When we were growing up, rugby and shearing were the centre of our universe. Mum and Dad had six of us, four boys and us two girls. And later they whangaied a mokopuna so there’s seven of us: myself, Punga, Justyn, Raylene, Joseph, Larry and Kama. Also, because Dad was the eldest son, we had his younger siblings as a big part of our whanau group too.
You were a farming family?
Yes. Sheep and beef. And this goes way back to our grandparents. Farming then wasn’t farming now. To supplement the farm income, they all went shearing and scrub cutting. So we were brought up being lumbered around to the sheds and camp-outs up in Weber or Porangahau or Hunterville where my Nan was the cook and my Mum and Dad worked in the sheds. As kids we had a wonderful time – roaming around between the sheds and the shearing quarters, and everyone was aunty and uncle. There’s some really sweet memories from back in those days.
Dannevirke South School. We’ve got mokopuna who now grace the steps of that school. And, because my Dad’s family were of the Mormon faith, I was lucky enough to be able to go to Church College in Hamilton. That was a fabulous opportunity and a fantastic time. – and, even though I didn’t like being away from home, it really was a home away from home.
I mixed with a whole range of people from as far afield as Pipiwai, Moerewa and Kaeo in the North to Invercargill in the South. The Mormon Church had spread into the Pacific, so Tahitians and Rarotongans were there too. It was a real mix. And with American teachers, it was something quite different.
I had five years there, up to the 7th form – and then ventured out into the world of tertiary education at Victoria University. Unfortunately, I didn’t last long there. It was just too much too soon for me. So I headed back to Dannevirke. And that’s where I met the love of my life. He was working for my Dad. Dad and his brothers were shearing contractors and there was this very handsome young presser who caught my eye. Koro Mullins. And the rest is history.
Do you think school-leavers can benefit from having a break from study before they go off to varsity?
I do. In my case, I was born and bred in Dannevirke, so it was a closeted, protective, embracing kind of environment. Church College was pretty much the same. And then, all of a sudden, off to Wellington where there was none of that.
Another thing I sometimes smile about, is that this was in the heyday of Nga Tamatoa. So it was a very political Wellington. Always was. And some of the Maori leaders we recognise today were young people I remember back then. They were very strong advocates. But to me that was almost threatening. It was just too scary for me at that stage. I had no appreciation of it. I just didn’t get it. So I ended up coming back home to work. And that break was good for me.
I think we have a need to do stuff before we actually commit ourselves to that academic study. Those of us who did drop out all went back and completed qualifications – and probably in a more diligent way. So, no regrets. A break doesn’t hurt.
Even when our own children turn to go on a path that may make me roll my eyes, I just keep thinking that everyone has their time and place and will get to it when they’re ready.
Where did the reo sit with your family?
My Nan was a beautiful native speaker. But my Dad came through at a time when they were forbidden to speak Maori at school. They were part of the generation that believed that the future for their children depended on them having the “Pakeha tool”. Being fluent in English.
We heard the reo as we grew up. But it wasn’t always around us. Up the river was different. We were always left out because, without the reo, we didn’t know what the heck was going on there. But that’s why you have cousins. They let you know.
The reo didn’t really come back into our whanau until we had children and kohanga reo came about. I was the inaugural secretary of two kohanga that started here in Dannevirke. Taniwaka was the first and then Kaitoki – both of them still operating today. So our reo came back in. It’s just that, if you want your children to have the reo, you have to make an effort yourself.
Did you and your handsome man have a brood?
Yes. We have a brood. Four adult children – Tumatahi, Korina, Aria and Punga. They have families of their own now and there are 14 lovely mokopuna. And I keep thinking that you don’t have to be Angelina Jolie to have a rainbow family. We’ve got everything from velvet chocolate black to gorgeous gingas with their blue eyes. It’s a beautiful thing to be a grandparent and to have that second shot with a little bit more wisdom … hopefully.
You’ve been acknowledged for your business nous and success in all sorts of areas. Where did that business expertise come from?
Business was always there in our family, and the shearing was a big part of it. We didn’t have an office. That was the kitchen table. And there were no office hours, so the phones could be ringing anywhere from 4 o’clock in the morning until 10 at night. And us kids became, kind of informally, the P.A. – writing down messages, running errands and supporting our Dad.
He’d come in wanting a cup of tea, put a toast on, or whatever. And catch up on the messages. All that was just a part of growing up – and we sort of fell into it. I did all the wages for my Dad. That was interesting too. They got paid only once a year. You got squared up once a year, but you could get draws right through the season. Gosh, they’d have a blinking fit if that was the regime today. But that’s how it was then.
Most of the people who came to work for Dad were whanau from either up the river, or Rotorua, or local. It was always very much that whanau thing. Even though the environment has changed and compliance has come into the picture, we still work hard to maintain that feeling of family because it worked so well back then – and it still works really well for us now.
After Koro and I got together, we did a stint travelling around as gypsies, him with his handpiece. That was great fun, but he’s a Te Arawa boy and they get homesick. So we came back home and bought a little bit of land and started farming.
When Koro and I bought the shearing run off my Dad and his brothers, we really did have a desire to make things a bit different. I guess a lot of that came from some of my varsity friends, and others too, who weren’t impressed by the shearing life. They’d say: “Oh yuck”.
But when we looked at the shearing world, we could see that preparing the national wool clip for sale was a huge, multi-million dollar business – and we came to appreciate and value the skills of the people engaged in the work.
So we tried to bring quite a different feel to it. Like changing the language. Instead of being a lousy rousie, you became a wool handler. Instead of being a ganger, you became a team manager. And we encouraged people to dress appropriately for work.
We ended up with a little retail store with all the right gears that our staff could purchase. On tick, I have to say. Most of them. Then pay off through their working time. But at least people started to get that sense of pride. Get some mana back into what had started to feel like a no-end road.
That was exciting stuff doing all of that – and we achieved ISO9002 which is a global quality management system. People said we were dumb doing that for shearers, but we thought: No. We’re worth it.
All that was special for those people who haven’t had chances. Or choices. It’s a neat thing when you can help give them a bit of pride and mana in their endeavours.
We got very involved in training and we still are. It’s about giving people qualifications. Back in the day, it was a lot of work converting training to unit standards. But it’s here now, it’s much better, and it’s well used and well respected. And now we have world champions, so that’s a double better.
You’ve always had a commitment to doing better for our people. But is it that which drives you?
Back when I was starting out, and Dad was contract shearing, probably 90 percent of the staff were Maori – and people did look down on you if you were in the shed. In particular, if you were a woman. That really gutted me. And I thought I want to make something happen, and then, if my girls choose to work in the shed, they’ll never feel they’re being looked down on.
So it’s really been about our children and, in particular, our daughters. And, when you have a family business that recognises the staff as whanau, then everyone is included, and it just kinda grows into something bigger.
Like the other night at the business awards, you look back and think: How did this happen? How did I get here?
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