Peter Cordtz has been a part of Kiwi society where families are doing it hard. But he’s also at home in the financial world where he’s learned the moves you can make with your money, limited though that may be, to help smooth the way for your whānau. You may not expect that from someone in the role of Retirement Commissioner. But the kaupapa of his office is to have us much more clued–up about how we’re handling our dollars. Here he is chatting to Dale.
Kia ora, Mr Peter Cordtz. With that surname, you’re very likely, I reckon, to have an interesting whakapapa, including, no doubt, German and Sāmoan. What can you tell us about the Cordtz clan?
It’s a name that can be a struggle for some people to say, especially as only one of the six letters is a vowel. It’s pronounced Courts, with a slightly soft “t”. But it has come courtesy of my dad, Herman, and his grandfather Max Christian Cordtz, a German who settled in Sāmoa before World War One, when Sāmoa was a German colony.
Max took a Sāmoan wife, Oliva from the Leota ‘āiga in the village of Magiagi, on the outskirts of Apia. And Dad came to New Zealand as a young man in the early 1950s, as part of that early wave of Pacific migration.
We grew up a bit suspicious of Germany and German people as a result of the two World Wars. Has there been any problem for you and your family in carrying that surname?
When I was growing up in South Auckland in the late ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, that world was a very cosmopolitan place. Nearly all of my friends were of mixed ethnicity and many of my mates had Chinese, Sāmoan, or German surnames. So it was natural to have unusual names back then.
My first inkling of these names not being the norm came in the mid-‘80s when I went to Massey University in Palmerston North. I found that the Manawatu was quite a different place. Then, after I got my degree (in applied science), I spent five years in an agri-chemical job covering the territory from the East Cape to Pahiatua.
And I remember in Palmerston North, chatting with an old truck salesman who used to get me work when I was a student. He told me I’d have to be careful “up there”. Because I was “a coconut” (his word, not mine), because I had a German name, and because of my Ngāpuhi whakapapa, which came through my mum.
He said: “You’ve got it all going against ya.”
But, to be fair, in all my time there, and trucking up the East Coast to Gisborne and places like Tolaga Bay and Ruatōria every three weeks, I never found it to be an issue, although it did give me my first real sense of some of the historical baggage that came with my surname.
I have a mixed bag of names, though, because I’m Peter Remo Cordtz, and my first two names are from my Ngātiwai side, in the north, through my mum’s father, Pita Remo Wetere. Mum (Elizabeth) was raised in Ngāitonga, a little settlement a bit further on from Mokau where she’s buried. Those villages are along the Whangaruru Harbour, just south of the Bay of Islands.
So your dad leaves Sāmoa in the 1950s — against the family’s wishes, as I understand it — and he lands in Auckland, and eventually meets your mum, who’s come down from Ngāitonga to the bright lights.
Mum left the north with some of her cousins for much the same reasons that Dad left Sāmoa. Auckland provided opportunities to get work and raise a family and all the rest of it. They met in a factory in Onehunga, as it happened.
I don’t think they were immune from some of the racism of those times, but Dad was here early enough that, by the ‘70s and the Dawn Raids, he was part of the furniture, and had a Māori wife and a home.
One of the things they were able to benefit from in the mid-‘60s was a government home-ownership scheme which allowed them to capitalise their Family Benefit and buy a house. So I grew up in Favona, a Māngere neighbourhood, full of mixed-ethnicity families, lots of young kids, and no fences — truly a free-range upbringing.
It’s now the heart of this city but, at that time, next door to us was a horse paddock and across the road were glasshouses. Favona Road back then was gravel shoulders and open drains, so it was quite a different place and time.
I like the way you describe it. I grew up in a similar situation where the kids didn’t roam the streets but they were sort of welcome on all the properties and a game of footy might go across the lawns of three or four houses.
Yeah, that’s right. And anyone who knows that Favona area will understand that whenever I left home and headed down to Quennelle Ave, a dead-end street, there’d be half a dozen other kids in tow by the time I got there — and there’d be another half a dozen down there already throwing a football around.
So, as you say, you didn’t need to roam because all the entertainment you needed was right there.
You’ve been on record as saying that your dad’s decision to get insurance proved to have a profound impact on your family. I’m saddened to hear that you lost your dad as a young kid, but that decision has had life-altering implications for you, hasn’t it?
Yes. Indeed. As part of that home-ownership scheme that my parents took advantage of in the late ‘60s, I think Dad had to insure his life. And it’s only later in life that I’ve come to fully appreciate how future-focused that decision was.
In effect, my parents decided to forgo a Family Benefit and, instead, to work towards owning their home. So, when Dad was killed in a car accident in the early ‘70s, the life insurance gave my mum the options of either living more comfortably from the insurance payout, or paying off the house.
She chose to pay off the house, even though it was tough for her raising three of us on her own. But that freehold house was really the bedrock for us as a whānau, not just us as an immediate family. Our Favona Road home was a family safety net for our extended whānau and community for the better part of 30 years.
And I’m convinced it was also the reason that I was the first of both my Sāmoan and Māori whānau to complete high school with a bursary and go on to university.
Peter, you describe your home not just as a secure base for your immediate whānau but as a safety net for the wider whānau. Can you give us an example of how that worked?
When I hear the stats around poor housing and overcrowded housing, I know those things are real. But I also know from my own experience that there can be other factors at play in those figures.
In the ‘70s, my best mate left home because of some tensions within his own whānau. So he moved in with us and we spent a good chunk of our upbringing as brothers living in our garage. Behind that garage, was a caravan where my older sister and her boyfriend lived. And, inside, were my younger siblings and a boarder. And the boarder was somebody who my mum worked with at a factory in Māngere Bridge and who needed some support. And our place was part of that.
A good number of us grew up in that well-lived patch in Favona, and not just because we had to but because we chose to — and we had the opportunity to use it as the platform and home that it was.
Now then, what’s the story of how you got into applied science? And how come you headed off to Massey University in Palmerston North?
Well, I grew up across the road from three brothers who were, although I didn’t realise it at the time, the largest and most progressive hydroponic tomato producers in the country. And one day, in 1979, my mate Tony Leota and I were sitting on the front steps wondering what we’d do for the summer holidays. Tony was the guy living with me in the garage.
So we thought we’d walk across the road and ask for a job. And soon we were working there on Saturdays and school holidays, in their market gardens and glasshouses.
At high school (Māngere College), I felt sorta cursed because I kept passing exams and my mates were all leaving and getting apprenticeships or going to the freezing works and earning money. And, when one of them drove up at Māngere College in a black Valiant Ranger, I thought: “Man, I’m in the wrong place. I need to get out there and start earning some coin and getting some toys.”
But then, when I got UE accredited, I kinda got bullied back into the seventh form in 1983, because no one thought I should leave. And I started thinking about what I should do to get rich. I decided that computers were the way of the future so, the next year, I started a computer studies programme at ATI, the Auckland Technical Institute (now AUT).
And I did six months of that before I realised the last thing in the world I wanted to be was a computer programmer. I was surrounded by young people who had a computer at home while I got to tutu with one at school from time to time, and they just spoke a different language from me. I just felt all out of sorts in that space and didn’t feel that I belonged there.
Luckily, I managed to convince my mum to let me drop out, although no one was prepared to let me go and drive trucks with my uncles, which was my next great plan. But then Mark Tregidga, one of the brothers who owned PTO Growers, encouraged me to work full-time with them while I figured out what to do.
I found out later that my mum had reached out to him, concerned that I was about to throw my opportunities away. And it was because of that intervention and working there that I ended up following Mark’s son to Massey to do a degree in applied science, with horticulture as a major.
After Massey, I spent the next eight years working in the agri-business sector, the first five of them based in the Hawke’s Bay working for the Dow chemical company.
Through your school years, did you feel on the outer for being the goody-two-shoes or the brainbox at the front of the class? And was there some peer pressure on you to slacken off on your classwork?
To be fair, my mates never gave me a hard time for passing exams. In fact, a few years ago I caught up with a bunch of them for a couple of beers and I told them I could never figure out why I was able to hang around with them, given that they were the cool fullas and I was, on the face of it, the geek. But I was one of them and it was never an issue. It’s just that, at times, I did feel a little bit out of place.
Another aspect of your life, Peter, has been your career as a footballer. As I recall, you weren’t too shabby in admin and management either.
“Career” is probably a generous term for my time in sport, but I grew up in a family where you applied yourself vigorously to either basketball or rugby league. My older brother, Jake, was a basketball legend in Māngere and across Auckland. And so I had a natural leaning towards basketball through school and into my teens.
But I tapped out at only 5ft 11 and, on court, seeing I had the finesse of a rhino, I was never really the star point guard that my older brother was.
With rugby league, I didn’t start playing the game seriously until I was at Massey. And the reason I played rugby league was because my first year down there was a real struggle. After leaving the safety of South Auckland, the Manawatu in the 1980s was like a foreign landscape to me. There weren’t too many brown folk around at that time, and particularly not at university doing applied science degrees.
So I hatched a plan to reconnect with the mothership by hooking up with a local rugby league club. The one I found was the Tainui Bulldogs in Palmerston North and I’m still grateful to the Manawatu rugby league community for helping me survive and feel at home.
That time with the Bulldogs led on to another 10 years as a player, including with the NZ Universities team and the Taradale Eagles, some rep footy for Hawke’s Bay, a game for Central Districts against the Warriors in 1995, before their first season in the NRL — and then three years of premier Auckland club footy with the Northcote Tigers.
Making a professional career in rugby league was never an option for me, unlike it has been for my famous nephew Ruben Wiki, who’s still the most capped Kiwi of all time. He’s my sister Etesa’s son.
Education and a career were far more bankable for me, and they also gave me the opportunities to work in the game for 10 years managing a joint venture development trust for the Warriors and New Zealand Rugby League. And I spent seven years as the general manager of New Zealand Rugby League (NZRL).
So it’s been a long association with the game at all sorts of levels, and that has continued with all three of my sons playing for my old Tigers club. It’s a little clichéd, but rugby league is more than a game. It’s a community, which is what I’ve loved about it.
Your background has meant that you’ve built up a good deal of expertise in an area where most of us, me anyway, have serious shortcomings. That’s in what they call financial literacy. I imagine that’s what was behind your dad’s decision all those years ago to take out life insurance.
But is financial literacy a skill belonging to the rich, mainly because they have so much more experience dealing with money? And because they have an incentive to protect their patch?
I’m not sure I’d go as far as saying it’s about the rich protecting their patch, but there’s definitely a systemic failure to help Māori and Pacific communities understand how they can make money work for them in the same way that a lot of Pākehā-Pālagi have done for many years.
In the course of my basketball career at Māngere College, we had midweek games at King’s College, and that was always an eye-opener for us. That King’s world was, in a way, only just over the fence. But it was so different. And I’ve no doubt that one of the differences between their students and us Māngere boys was that they mostly came not only from wealthy homes but from homes where money was talked about.
Much of my work here at the Retirement Commission these last four years has been around how we can help normalise not just talking about money but also about making money work for us — and understanding the machinery of money in a way that we can build wealth. And it’s not about being rich for the sake of being rich. It’s about wellbeing and using money as an enabler.
Many of our Māori and Pasifika families must find a lot of the financial language beyond them because they’ve never had much of a chance to learn that language. But one term we all need to understand is compound interest, because that can be a killer, can’t it?
Well, it can be a power for good or evil. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that “compounding interest is the eighth wonder of the world”. I think he’s right. And if you don’t understand what’s happening, you may find that you’re paying interest on top of interest and penalties and all the rest of it.
One of my colleagues sees an analogy between fire and debt. When debt, like fire, is harnessed and controlled well, it can provide warmth and food and protection. All those good things. But, if you don’t stay in charge, it can rage out of control and put you in all sorts of trouble.
All these and other financial realities are routinely learned by students who choose careers in finance, economics, accounting and so on. But it’s important that the other kids who are going into the social sciences or arts or trades or whatever, also learn how to make money work for them. So that’s an important part of the focus of the work that we’re doing in schools.
Making money less mysterious and more relevant and more accessible isn’t just our kaupapa. It’s the kaupapa of the government generally — and of the financial services sector, too, including the NZ Banking Association, who understand the importance of making their services more accessible to communities who have felt alienated.
And now that there’s this extra impetus with housing developments, more and more Māori and Pacific families are getting into discussions about mortgages and principal versus interest, and stuff like that.
Like many others, I can’t help feeling stupid when I sit down with a bank manager. So how are those who are really on the outer supposed to feel?
One of the reasons that many of the more vulnerable whānau turn to third-tier lenders and shop trucks is that they’re treated nicely. They have things done for them, and aren’t made to feel stupid. There’s a whole lot not to like about those business models because of the interest rates and penalties and all the rest of it. But those business models work partly because customers don’t feel alienated.
There’s a bunch of players at various levels and we’re interested in helping more of our people to keep clear of crisis management.
How do people respond to you when you tell them you’re New Zealand’s Retirement Commissioner? What do they make of that?
Well, they often look a little sideways at me — especially my mates! — and they sometimes can’t see why the Retirement Commission is taking an interest in things like home ownership and in school and community programmes. But getting a better grasp of a few financial realities can pay off at a personal level.
And then there are the bigger and broader questions about the economy, about how superannuation works — and if it’s sustainable. The fact is that superannuation today is sitting at $39 million a day. It’s the biggest benefit in town. It’s universal. We’re all eligible for it at the age of 65. Costing $39 million a day. And, because the New Zealand population is aging, in 10 years it will double. Then, in 20 years, it trebles.
As it stands, it’s five taxpayers for every superannuitant. But, with the population aging, the ratio is on the way to becoming two taxpayers for everyone on superannuation.
And there’s another factor to bear in mind. That’s the birthrate — the number of live births per 1,000 in any given year. For Pākehā New Zealanders, it’s 1.9, and for Asian New Zealanders, it’s 1.4. But the Māori figure is 2.4 and Pasifika is 2.6.
So the incomes of Māori and Pasifika taxpayers are going to become more and more important. And, if a high proportion remains anchored in low-skill, low-wage jobs, the numbers simply aren’t going to work. Nationally, they won’t stack up unless we lift the bar for Māori and Pasifika.
It’s not a minor issue, is it?
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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