Jason Witehira worked his way up from the produce department at New World Edmond Rd, Rotorua, to owning and operating one of Foodstuffs North Island’s key stores – but it can be lonely at the top.
In 1998, Witehira formally became the first Maori retailer to receive a Foodstuffs scholarship from the Auckland group, enabling him to become a store owner. He wasn’t the very first, he explains, but he was the first “who really identified himself as Maori”.
He now knows of some eight or nine Maori store owners besides himself. Some have become good friends and he speaks proudly of how well these skilled businesspeople connect with their communities. He singles out Damon Jakeman, owner and operator of New World Tokoroa, for special praise.
“[Tokoroa] is very Maori, in a very forestry, very physical, staunch way – and Damon’s a big man in his own right but he’s a really good grocer.”
Witehira fell into retail when he left school in 1984, aged 16. He sat School C Maori in the morning, and then in the afternoon, saw a job in produce advertised in the supermarket’s window. He was working as a means to an end, but soon discovered retail suited him: “I actually found I really liked my job, I liked dealing with people. You had truck drivers, you had customers, you had staff. It was quite diverse in that area. And I also found that on the physical aspect side, I was pretty good at the work.”
Within two years, Witehira had been promoted to produce manager. He worked for up to 13 different supermarkets across the upper North Island as he rose through the ranks, finding plenty of mentors along the way, but says his biggest influence has been his partner.
The pair were married at 19, and remain together. “My wife’s still my best friend, my only boss – big boss.” Witehira has four children and five grandchildren. His oldest son now works for him in the store.
One early mentor made an impact by saying Witehira should “cut your hair and get that chip off your shoulder, as far as a Maori worrying about the world of what was or what is.” During his career, Witehira has experienced his share of prejudice and unpleasant situations, but over time, he’s learned the maturity to turn the other cheek when faced with race-based rudeness from customers.
When Witehira spoke at a prizegiving for a Decile One school recently, he emphasised the importance of attitude.
“It's not about luck, it's not about whether dad's got money or you've got no money, it's all about your own personal attitude to succeed. Because it's actually quite lonely at times, when everyone's looking at you for strength, advice and direction. You're just as human as everyone else and sometimes you don't know, but you can't show that you don't know. You've got to work through it.”
Part of Witehira’s commitment to his culture is learning te reo. His father, now 72, was beaten for speaking Maori as a young man and was forced to speak English.
“I never learned Maori growing up because he wouldn't teach us because he had it drilled into him that it was worth nothing,” Witehira says.
He is saddened that generations of Maori missed out on their language, but is optimistic about te reo’s revival. Witehira also has hard-won wisdom to pass on to non-speakers: “My dad said to me, 'You do not have to speak something to be something.' Because everything's in here. It's about who you are and what you've got to offer, not about how you speak it.”
Witehira is a member of the Ngapuhi tribe. In tandem with his rise through Foodstuffs, he has become increasingly involved with tribal politics and is now on the tribe’s assets board. He is also excited about his work as deputy chair of Callaghan Innovation’s FoodBowl board, which seeks to develop Kiwi food and beverage products.
Making it to the top within mainstream commerce, outside the Maori economy, has involved “no favours and more challenges”, Witehira says.
“I'm not hung up about it, my feet are still firmly on the ground and I know how privileged I am to have that opportunity. But when you're starting to speak, present at schools and things like that, that's where you start to see that it's actually part of your responsibility to share.”
His primary ambition is to maintain Victoria Park New World as “a shop that Foodstuffs can be proud of”. The Maori word pataka means ‘food house’, says Witehira, who believes Foodstuffs’ core values share many similarities with a Maori worldview. Witehira also hopes to one day be appointed to Foodstuffs’ board of directors.
It’s important to Witehira to clarify that although his story is inspiring, he’s by no means unique.
“I'm really proud of what I've achieved but I ain't special. There's other people that've done it as well. Sometimes you get highlighted because you're a Maori and I'm very proud of that but I'm still not special. You've got to try to get that balance.”
The Maori population within New Zealand is growing fast, and is likely to make up a greater share of New Zealand’s population in the future. The influence of this group is also on the rise - Statistics New Zealand’s latest Business Demography report shows an upward trend in Maori enterprises and their employee numbers.
As of February 2015, there were 1,050 Maori enterprises employing 10,300 staff. The report says 76 percent of Maori enterprises were concentrated in rental, hiring and real estate services; agriculture, forestry and fishing; and financial and insurance services. A 2015 report from Te Puni Kokiri puts the gross domestic product from Maori producers for 2013 at $11 billion – of this, retail trade accounted for $497 million.
The same report measured the total Maori asset base for 2013 at $42.5 billion, with retail trade comprising $711 million (1.6 percent). The Maori economy’s strongest sector is agriculture, forestry and fishing.
Tribal groups are growing in power. Particularly relevant to the retail industry is Waikato-Tainui, which is worth $1.16 billion. It owns Hamilton malls Centre Place and The Base.
Witehira is very optimistic about the future of multiculturalism within New Zealand. Besides the obvious benefits of greater diversity, Witehira says Maori can play an important part on company boards as iwi connections can be helpful for companies seeking to acquire land.
He believes Maori can also contribute to the global development of ‘New Zealand Inc’:
“You've got, obviously, China that's looking for food that's safe. You've got all the iwi up and down the country that are not too bad with the old funds now that they've settled. They've got the land. They've got the resources. They've got the quota for the fish. So there's actually a very good sounding board globally to connect up with Asia.”
Witehira remarks on the irony of Maori, with some studies indicating their genetic roots may lie in Asia, reconnecting with that part of the world: “If you look at another cycle, it's actually quite ironic how it can all flow through.”
This story originally appeared in NZRetail magazine issue 742 February / March 2016