Large-scale iwi investment in the New Zealand heartland could reinvigorate rural economy.
Tainui has overtaken South Island powerhouse Ngai Tahu as Aotearoa's richest iwi.
A comparison of latest annual accounts shows the Hamilton-headquartered iwi, which on August 15 opened its new multiplex movie theatres at Hamilton's The Base and is now filling its new Novotel at Auckland International Airport with cup guests, is the country's richest tribe.
Tainui has more assets by dollar value and is making more money, so if a Maori Rich List existed, it would show Tainui laying claim to total assets of $658 million, $5 million ahead of earthquake-hit Christchurch headquartered Ngai Tahu's $653.2 million.
Tainui's net annual profit for 2011 was $23.1 million, ahead of Ngai Tahu's $19.6 million for its latest reporting period of 2010.
With about 600,000 of New Zealand's 4.4 million population being Maori, iwi powerhouses like these have vast potential.
For years, the South Island iwi has been the attractive face of tangata whenua success, leading the way towards riches tipuna could only dream of, as we opened pots of their oysters, flocked to their tourism businesses and marvelled at the sheer size of their vast rangatiratanga (tribal authority) over more than 80 per cent of the South Island.
Biggest was obviously best.
Now, Tainui with far less land and about 60,000 people, has taken top spot and distributed $10.5 million this financial year.
Ngai Tahu owns significant assets and is the most widely diversified iwi since 1998 when it received $170 million in a Treaty of Waitangi settlement.
But now the once-financially riven Tainui is on a fast-paced growth plan, with a 30-year plan for 500ha at Ruakura on Hamilton's outskirts.
Yet chief executive Mike Pohio is a reluctant winner, pointing out that Ngai Tahu has not yet issued their accounts for 2011.
"But even if there is a number that's a little bit bigger than another number, it doesn't matter because it's really, really early days and it would be better not to develop that sort of position but to talk about where we are in the journey. We have to be humble because we have a really long way to go," Pohio says.
Pushed to acknowledge financial achievements, he attributes success to management and systems.
"It's discipline and decision-making from governance through to management. There's a discipline about how we make decisions so there's a higher probability of success and a low probability of getting commercial equations wrong because we concentrate on managing risks."
Tainui got a Treaty of Waitangi settlement in 1995 of $170 million.
While primary industries have unlocked Ngai Tahu's fortunes, land is the key to Tainui's success via the commercially successful Tainui Group Holdings and Waikato-Tainui Fisheries.
By 2020, Tainui plans to have assets worth $1 billion and already its asset base has grown from a mere $147 million in 2002.
Greg Campbell, Ngai Tahu's chief executive, disliked the comparison between the iwi.
"It's not a matter of who's bigger. We generate a lot of cash through our operating surplus. Ngai Tahu has 63 per cent of assets in property but we have investments in tourism, seafood businesses and capital markets so we're a slightly different business," he says.
Auckland's Ngati Whatua is the third-richest iwi, declaring in its last annual report gross assets of $403.5 million but standing to make many millions annually in new land rental deals from Quay Park on Auckland's waterfront, returned to the iwi with a demand for a 15-year rent holiday which has now expired, potentially enriching that Queen Street-headquartered iwi run by Tiwana Tibble.
Iwi take varying approaches to presenting their accounts. Some hold the information close and distribute only to hapu while others post fully audited highly detailed accounts, easily accessible to all on websites.
Tainui's annual report is most impressive at 69 pages, presented like an NZX listed company with full disclosure and transparency and Ngapui also issues a detailed 59-page annual report.
"The big thing with most iwi is they are asset rich and cash poor and most of them don't publish accounts, they like to keep it all in the family and will only distribute information to the runanga," says one consultant.
In 2007, Maori commercial assets were estimated to be worth $16.5 billion, of which $8 billion is in primary industries, according to information presented at May's Maori Economic Summit.
By last year, the Maori economy was estimated to be $36.9 billion.
Some iwi communicators have a plan to deliberately target business media to overcome what they see as ignorance or racism and control the way their news is disseminated. The financial pages are where they see their future, not in the local or regional pages, they say.
Ngai Tahu Tourism, a subsidiary of Ngai Tahu Holdings, operates iconic tourism businesses Franz Josef Glacier Guides and Glacier Hot Pools, Queenstown's Shotover Jet, Dart River Safaris, the Hollyford Guided Walk, Hukafalls Jet in Taupo, Rainbow Springs in Rotorua, Abel Tasman's Aqua Taxi and Kaiteriteri Kayaks. In August the business bought into Rotorua-based farm show and tour business The Agrodome. It exports crayfish, oysters, shellfish, paua and other species and has residential and lifestyle subdivisions.
Tainui and Ngai Tahu, with assets worth a collective $1.2 billion, are the giants of the Maori economy but experts say Ngapuhi, with about 20 per cent of Aotearoa's Maori population standing at around 100,000 people, has the most growth potential of any iwi as it prepares for further settlements following fisheries settlements.
Chris Wikaira, who handles Tainui's communications, points to rural New Zealand particularly in the North Island becoming dominated by iwi businesses.
"You can conceivably see out in provincial New Zealand the biggest game in town, apart from maybe forestry or Fonterra, is likely to be an iwi asset holding company and it's all money that's invested in New Zealand," he says.
One of Ngai Tahu's most successful exports is live crayfish into Asia, a market Campbell says is only just beginning to unlock as China's wealth increases and demand for protein rises.
Some iwi have already looked at buying assets overseas and are investing, one in Australia's primary sector leading an expert to conclude this: once they have dominated parts of Aotearoa's economy, offshore is the next frontier for iwi.