Leatuao Larry Tupa’i-Lavea’s mother wanted one of her sons to be a minister and at least one of them to be a musician. His brothers took up the musical challenge, achieving success as Adeaze, while he became an ordained minister. He’s a somewhat different model from the ministers of his younger days, though, because as well as being Archdeacon for the Diocese of Polynesia in Aotearoa, he’s also a businessman who owns several petrol stations. Here he is talking to Dale about how he mixes business with theology.
Talofa, Larry. I haven’t met too many Sāmoan guys called Larry. How come you’ve ended up with that name?
Well, there’s a long story behind that. When I was born in Sāmoa in 1971, I was baptised as Leatuao Tupa’i.
In our culture, we’re named after titles we inherit. My father’s village is Niusuatia in Upolu. My mother’s village is Safotu in Savai’i. My dad’s dad’s name is Tupa’i Logovi’i, so that’s how I ended up with Tupa’i as my surname.
There are two significant titles I inherited. Tupa’i, a high chief orator title held by my grandfather. And Tuilimu, which is the Sa’o title, or the principal head chief of the extended family. And Leatuao is the name we give to the poles that support the roof of the fale.
So you must’ve become Larry when you came to New Zealand?
That’s right. We migrated to New Zealand in 1978. But my father came ahead five years earlier to set everything up for us when we came to live in Hamilton.
One day, when I was nine, I was on my way home from Nawton Primary School, and as I walked past this shop called the Underpass Superette, I saw that they had a separate area for arcade games.
I walked in and asked: “Can I sweep your floor — morning and afternoon — if you give me 20c to play Spacies?”
Now, this superette was co-owned by a Māori man called Jim Phillips. He agreed to the deal. So, I swept floors and played Spacies for about three months.
Then one day, he pulled me aside. “Boy,” he said, “how come I give you all this money and you still got those holey shoes with your toes sticking out?”
“Yeah, yeah, nah,” I said. “I just like to play the games.”
So, he told me off. And then he took me under his wing. I wasn’t very good at school, but he helped me with maths and English. Looking back, I can see that I learned Retail 101 at the superette — and every week Papa Phillips would put together a massive box of shopping that helped feed our family of six and others who my parents opened their home to.
I kept that work up for two or three years until, one day, Papa Phillips said he and his business partner were going to sell their shop.
I got upset because I couldn’t see how I was going to feed the family. I was 12 at the time, so Papa Phillips took me down to McDonalds, and I filled in the application form.
The boss there was a man named Brent Rush. Big guy, and blind as a bat. He had such thick lenses in his glasses that his eyeballs appeared twice as big as normal — and that freaked me out.
Anyway, when he looked at my application form, he couldn’t pronounce my name. It didn’t matter how I tried to coach him. You know, I broke my name down into syllables. First of all “Le-ah”, then “Le-ah-two-ow”. But he couldn’t get it. In the end, he goes: “I’m just going to call you Larry.”
So, that’s how I became Larry. That was about 1982. And, to this day, 99 percent of the people who know me, call me Larry.
Then, about 20 years ago, I went to St John’s Theological College in Auckland. And because we were learning about identity, I decided to reclaim Leatuao, while still keeping the Larry name. And I made it official. By deed poll, I became Leatuao Larry Tupa’i-Lavea.
Lavea is another inherited name. That’s a high chief title from my mum’s village. Her father is Lavea Feterika.
Now, what about your mum and dad? How did they get together?
Mum was Selepa Malaefono Lavea Feterika Tupa’i. And Dad is Lesā Asomuaalemalamala Samuelu Tupa’i.
In the late 1960s, they were both in Moata’a, a village near Apia. I think Mum did some part-time work at a bar there.
Anyway, they met, fell in love, and got married in 1969. I came along in ’71. And like most, if not all of our people at that time, their dream was to come to New Zealand to set up a brighter future.
Education was their driving force. They prayed for their children to be educated and successful.
So, Dad left Sāmoa six months after I was born. He worked in Hamilton as a factory hand, and did carpentry, and he sent money back to help us. He set things up and then he came for us in June ‘78.
I understand, Larry, that your mum was quite a special lady.
She was. When she was a little girl, there’d been an accident. She’d had a fishing spear go through one of her knees. She then contracted polio, and from the age of five, she never walked again.
So, she raised five children on her bum and on her knees. Nothing stopped her. She was always on the go — active with us kids, active with family, even travelling between different villages in Sāmoa.
I remember that her knees were like the soles of my feet. And it wasn’t till about eight or nine years after we came to Hamilton that she was eligible to get a wheelchair.
As a young boy, I remember Mum waking us up, getting us ready for school, taking us to the bathroom. All of those things that a normal mum would do for their kids, our mum was doing for us.
She never complained, never talked about her disability. Never did the self-pity thing. All she shared with us was: “I love my children. I love you son. You’re going to do well at school. You’re going to do well for the Lord. You’re going to do well. You’re going to do well. . . .” She just kept speaking life into us.
Mum was a born leader. She taught us how to sing, how to move, how to stand up tall, how to be confident. And she taught us values. Love. Kindness. Respect. Being patient. And just looking at everyone as equals.
But I also remember hearing people talk about Mum’s disability. And it always came back to this: that her disability was a punishment from God. That she must’ve done something wrong in her past and this was God’s punishment for her.
So, they never saw Mum as a whole person.
As a teenager, the more I kept hearing this stuff from various people, the more angry I got. And I’d lash out. But Mum was always there to manage the whole thing. She’d always say: “Why do you let those people get to you? Don’t let them. Just smile and forgive. Smile and forgive.”
It’s awesome to remember her and what she poured into us. And her legacy lives on. We carry on this way for our children, and in what we try to do for our communities.
That’s beautiful. Fa’afetai lava. Can you tell us more about your early days in New Zealand?
When we first moved to Hamilton, we stayed with a lady called Aunty Masi Nonoa. She helped us get settled and learn as much as we could, until Mum and Dad found their own place in Nawton.
I could speak English because, while Dad was in New Zealand, Mum, my sisters Vaovai and Upu, and I all stayed with my father’s first cousin Se Apa, who later became Tupa’i Se Apa, Sāmoa’s attorney general.
His wife was a Pālagi woman, Jan Fitzgerald — and Aunty Jan taught me English.
So, when I went to Nawton Primary, I still sounded a bit freshie, but at least I didn’t come in cold.
Like many Sāmoans, music and faith loomed large in your life.
Yeah. Mum prayed that one of her children would become a minister, a faife’au, and at least one would become a musician.
So, as the eldest, I ended up training to be an ordained minister with the Methodist church.
And my two baby brothers, Feagaigafou and Logovi’i — better known as Nainz and Viiz — are the musicians. They’ve done pretty well, too. Their R&B group is Adeaze.
So, we made Mum’s dreams come true and we’re all deeply into our Christian faith.
So you went from McDonalds to the ministry?
Yes. I was working for McDonalds while I was at Frazer High School, and when I left school, I moved into a full-time job there. I was lucky enough to move through the ranks, and I ended up spending about 15 years working for McDonalds in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore.
But I also had this growing sense of a call to the ministry. So much so, that I applied for training as a Methodist minister. I was accepted and I began full-time theology study at Auckland University in 1999 as an independent student, then received a full-time scholarship as a Trinity Theological College student.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Theology degree and a Diploma in Practical Theology in 2000. Then I got ordained and was appointed as the Regional Superintendent for the Methodist Church on the North Shore.
I was based in the Northcote parish, and I became deeply involved in the Northcote community. We managed to bring all seven of the North Shore Polynesian groups together and we set up the North Shore Pasifika Forum as well as the North Shore Pasifika festival during my time in that role.
I was a minister, and I was paid a stipend. But I was also keen to explore what practical theology might mean to me in understanding God in everyday life.
I didn’t want to be the minister of my childhood — Pālagi or Sāmoan! I wanted to work full-time as a Pacific community liaison worker for North Shore City Council and be an unpaid presbyter for the Methodist Church.
But the church said no. So, I took the plunge, quit my paid work with the Methodist church and went out into the world, as it were.
Good on you for taking the plunge. How did it go for you?
I ended up doing a graveyard shift at New Zealand Post, from 9pm to 7am.
Then, I also had a contract with Arthritis New Zealand to write a Pasifika strategy, so I did that from 9am to 3pm for about nine months.
But burning the candle at both ends almost killed me. So, I began to apply for jobs — and I applied for heaps — but I kept getting “Thanks but no thanks” replies.
Then I saw an advertisement for an operations manager role with a company called Western Gas. I applied and got an interview — and I recall spending my last $130 on a new blazer, trousers, shirt and a tie because that was my 137th application. I thought: “Well, I’ve got nothing left to lose.”
I was actually pretty depressed by then. I’d thought I wouldn’t have a problem finding good work. After all, I had a degree. But I learned that there’s not much demand for theologians.
So yeah, I had this interview with a man named John Lambert — and he was the only one who didn’t start out with the typical questions, about my experience and qualifications and yadda, yadda, yadda.
Instead, his first question was: “Who are you, and why are you here?”
We just had a talanoa, and I poured out my life. I told him my story. Two weeks later, he rang and said: “You’re the least qualified person I interviewed. But, in terms of the values that I believe in — around family, helping people and trying to make a difference in life — you’re the most qualified. You’ve got the job.”
I ended up working with John for almost nine years, until a vacancy came up to become a retailer for Z Energy. He encouraged me, he pushed me, to go for that.
I was accepted, and that’s when I started Aiga Energy Limited. I chose “Aiga” because of my mother. She believed in being a family to everybody, whether you’re blood or you’ve just met. If they walk into your life, they’re all to be considered part of your family.
Aiga Energy started in January 2016. The sad thing for me is that Mum had died just three months earlier, on September 16.
The night before she died, I’d had a call from my cousins in Christchurch to tell me that their father — my mother’s older brother — had just died. And they specifically urged me to go and tell Mum in person.
It was about 10pm or 11pm, and I was tired and cold. But, really, these were just excuses. So, instead of going to see Mum, I rang and let her know that her older brother had passed away.
We talked. We had a plan. I was gonna fly down to Christchurch the next morning. But I didn’t get to fly to Christchurch then, because my baby brother, Logovi’i, rang to say that our mum had died, 12 hours after her brother.
That’s really tough, mate.
Yeah, to this day, one of my biggest regrets was not going to see Mum when I had an opportunity to do so.
I never make excuses for anything now. I learned the hard way that you better make yourself available to those who matter most to you. Always. Because you never know.
So, I rang my cousins in Christchurch, told them what had happened, and said I needed to bury Mum. We buried her on the Saturday, then my two brothers and I flew to Christchurch that evening. We buried our uncle on the following Saturday.
Then, that evening, I flew back to Auckland. Because the next day, Sunday 27 September at 10am, I was being commissioned as the Archdeacon for the Diocese of Polynesia in Aotearoa New Zealand in the Anglican Church at Te Karaiti Te Pou Herenga Waka.
It’s been just go, go, go ever since. And it’s only in the last 12 months that I’ve finally got to grieve over and make peace with Mum’s passing.
So, these days I’m a non-stipendiary Anglican priest and an archdeacon for our people here in Aotearoa New Zealand — and I work full-time operating Aiga Energy with my wife, Helen.
Thank you for that kōrero, brother. And what led you to move on from Methodism and become an Anglican clergyman?
Winston Halapua (archbishop and the former Bishop of Polynesia in the Anglican Church) is what happened! I met him when I was a Methodist student, and he was fascinated with my Tupa’i name. I shared the story with him, and he in turn told me about my uncle Tupa’i Se Apa’s story in the Anglican Church. I was proud and wanted to carry on the legacy!
Winston asked me to help the diocese and I did. I also promised him that when he finished his tenure as the archbishop, I would resign from the diocese and support from the background. He made me break that promise and told me that I’m still needed in the diocese, especially in the 3T (Three Tikanga) partnership. I believe that to be my calling, and here I am.
I gather that you’ve got some other irons in the fire, too.
My wife Helen and I love to help young people get into their own business — to build young Polynesian entrepreneurs. We bought into a cleaning franchise business with Jani King to provide work for the husband of an Indian woman who works at our Aiga Energy business, who’s like a daughter to us. As a consequence of the husband’s hard work, eight Polynesian couples have benefited from being owner-operators of their own franchise business with Jani King.
Helen and I have helped other young people into their own dairy and lawns and gardening businesses.
So, my heart went out to him — and Helen and I have also set up some other businesses with Supakako. We’ve opened Tasi Markets in West Auckland, and another in Papakura, with another four hopefully opening before the end of the financial year.
The idea is to give back to our families in the islands. We want to enable our people, firstly in Sāmoa, to go back to their lands, to tend their plantations — and then we buy their produce from them and sell that directly through our stores and on to different retailers. We’ve started in Sāmoa, but then we’ll be moving into Tonga, then Fiji, and then on to the other islands.
We’re franchising Tasi Markets, and we’ve earmarked two young Polynesian couples who’ll become owner operators of Tasi Market Papakura and Tasi Market Massey.
It’s about giving our young people a head start into entrepreneurship and in life.
The thing is that there’s not too many of us around. We have lots of our people in sports and in arts, music and acting. But not too many in business. And that’s a deep passion for Helen and me. We want to help as many as we can to become owners.
So, we reinvest all of our profits into that. And we use our own money to fund people into business.
By the sounds of that, and your appetite for helping others, you’ve got a bit of Jim Phillips in there.
I have. Papa Phillips and the Underpass Superette is where it all begun.
Congratulations, mate, on all that success. I understand you’ve now got a few Z Energy centres — and that there’s a community side to Z as well.
Yes, we own eight Z stations. And yes, one of the attractions about Z Energy is their understanding of how to help local groups.
They have a programme they run each year called “Good in the Hood” which is an opportunity for all of the Z retailers to select four local community groups that they want to support.
So, for me, that’s 32 community groups I can support.
Congrats. And congrats to your young brothers, those two young fullas who’ve made it big as singers with Adeaze.
You know, anyone’s success belongs to a whole island of people. That’s one thing that Mum taught us. Never forget that your success is dependent on every person connected to you — and who’s helped you.
I’m profoundly grateful for the people, outside of my own family, my wife and children, who’ve been there at the right moment and helped to shape my life for the better.
I think of Jim Phillips who took me on board as a nine-year-old and treated me like I was his own son. Brian Old, the owner of McDonald’s Hamilton, who employed a 12-year-old so I could help provide for my family. Brent Rush — I’m Larry, thanks to him, and I’ve come to see that as a positive thing. John Salmon and Susan Adams were theological mentors. Brian Valentine supported and helped many Polynesians, even those with bad credit, into owner-operator franchises.
And especially John Lambert, my old man without whom there’d be no Aiga Energy. He really supported me. In fact, he loaned me half a million dollars interest-free, to get me started.
So, all the businesses that we’ve helped set up for our staff members and other people have started with interest-free funding. We do loans for our people and it’s always interest free.
That’s because you never seek to make a profit out of something when someone else has already given you that blessing for nothing.
That’s the concept of “passing it forward”. For Polynesians, that concept is as old as the hills. It’s in our genes.
It’s really important for our people to remember our blessings. Remember how we got them. Remember how we continue to be blessed. And then be a blessing to others.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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