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Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Harnessing the Maori economy

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Ngai Tahu leader Mark Solomon has a question for business leaders: Are you ready to invest with iwi? Photo / Simon Baker
Ngai Tahu leader Mark Solomon has a question for business leaders: Are you ready to invest with iwi? Photo / Simon Baker

Ngai Tahu chairman Mark Solomon relishes telling a somewhat apocryphal tale to illustrate how New Zealand business needs to wake up to the reality of the Maori economy in 2011.

In December, he and three other Maori leaders - Tainui's Tuku Morgan, Auckland "Whatuas" leader Naida Glavish and Ngahihi o te ra Bidois from Rotorua - were invited up to Auckland by Te Puni Kokiri to a meeting hosted by Sir Ron Carter.

Present were the banks and about 40 major companies.

The topic was public private partnerships - a subject dear to Solomon's heart as that year he had published a paper on iwi and infrastructure investment.

There was also a big banner asking: "Are iwi ready to invest?"

As Solomon told me at last week's high-powered Maori economic summit, he challenged the influential Auckland business audience, saying: "Your question's back to front.

The question isn't 'are iwi ready to invest?'

"The question is 'are you ready to invest with iwi?' as we have stood in front of you for 150 years and been absolutely invisible.

"If you do wish to work with us, then you need to change the way you wish to do business. We're kaupapapa based. We are more relationship based than you are and if your kaupapapa doesn't match ours then to be blunt we don't want to work with you."

The quartet then broke down their asset base. Morgan represented Tainui - asset base roughly $715 million; Ngai Tahu - $750 million; Glavish - representing three Auckland tribes - $500 million; and Bidois represented a trust which has a joint venture with Mighty River Power - $463 million.

"The point was the four of us standing in front of these people were worth $2.3 billion."

It's a story that will grow in the telling as Solomon, other iwi leaders and those leading Maori incorporations and trusts leverage a rapidly growing Maori economic asset base.

Ngai Tahu is already involved in some cutting-edge investments.

It is co-investing with China's Agria in PGG Wrightson, is now looking at another "alliance" for the proposed new ferry terminal and port at Clifford Bay, and made an unsuccessful bid with the New Zealand Superannuation Fund and Australian-based investor Duncan Saville to buy South Canterbury Finance's business.

But these are just the first steps in some major moves to co-invest with other capital market players in New Zealand assets.

Of particular interest to a financially strapped Government is the fact that iwi have also made it clear they are prepared to receive shares in state assets as part settlement of Treaty claims.

As Solomon puts it: "What we want is a good, long-term, safe return and what better than to allow us to invest in our own infrastructure or into SOEs?"

He positions Maori as the perfect business partner for the Crown.

Maori will never leave the nation. Everything they do will stay here. Earnings will be reinvested into the community and won't go overseas.

Ngai Tahu has also proposed that several iwi co-invest within larger consortiums to take bigger investment stakes.

In Ngai Tahu's case it is investigating an A and B share class structure so individual tribal members can co-invest alongside the collective in the iwi's holding company.

At Thursday's summit, Berl senior economist Ganesh Nana focused minds with new research which puts the Maori economic asset base at $36.9 billion.

This is way up on previous estimates - including those presented at the 2005 summit - because it also includes assets under the direction of Maori business owners and the self-employed.

Some iwi - such as Ngai Tahu and Tainui - are clearly ahead of the collective investment game.

But perceptions over three fundamental issues - governance arrangements, property rights and mandates and commercial value creation - still affect the ability of Maori enterprises to access the capital markets.

It is widely believed in Maoridom that the Capital Market Development Taskforce, which was chaired by Rob Cameron, gave only a brief focus to Maori capital markets issues.

Banker June McCabe, who leads the capital markets programme within the Maori economic taskforce, has a raft of projects underway: in particular a Maori Venture Capital Fund which is taking shape.

A Maori Innovation Fund is another project under development which will help to underpin plans to invest more in research and development to drive growth in the science and innovation space to create higher-value jobs.

The New Zealand Venture Investment Fund and the Superannuation Fund both support the work but downstream proof will be in whether they become cornerstone investors.

McCabe says the focus will be on export/high growth Maori businesses to start with and it will involve Chinese investors who want food production, not land ownership.

McCabe is focused on the "how to" mechanisms to unleash asset potential - understanding risk and how to create value and work on an economic model that embraces collective assets, private Maori capacity, embeds tikanga values and expects performance on a bottom-line basis.

The overall vision is huge. An indigenous hub - which builds on the concept of an agricultural hub - which would present a globally appealing story to attract international capital. It's a long-term vision.

A scoping study by Burleigh Evatt Consulting recommends promoting a dialogue on developing a shared understanding about a standard Maori enterprise commercial model, a knowledge resource on commercial matters built from Maori enterprise experiences, investigation of alternatives to over-the-counter markets for shares and investigation of a collective treasury management facility.

Burleigh Evatt says the question of the benefits of tradability of shares in Maori enterprises is controversial.

"The benefits of more accurate pricing, performance monitoring and facilitation of ownership change are advocated by some and opposed by other who see this as contrary to Maori values. Shares in Maori incorporations may be traded subject to limitations on who may hold shares."

Typically, a share value is struck annually and the trading is on an over-the-counter basis with the incorporation matching willing buyers to willing sellers.

Some incorporations may deal in their own shares as a principal.

While the consultants say these arrangements lack transparency, they are also unresponsive to market-relevant news.

They say technology has made it possible to create private trading posts as an alternative to over-the-counter markets at low costs.

Trading posts may be a step in the direction towards a Maori capital market that specialises in transactions in claims on Maori enterprises and may in the future permit capital raisings and other capital market transactions.

McCabe says more work is underway on this proposal, which she dubs "Maori X".

In the meantime Ngai Tahu leads the way.

- NZ Herald

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