Growing up the youngest of nine children - born to a Tongan father and a Māori-Pākehā mother - has taught Mary Los’e how to navigate challenging situations. It’s a lesson learned from seven brothers and sister. James Mahoney reports.
Now Mary has progressed from the green room to the boardroom - and that journey has been anything but a straight line for this first-time CEO.
In between gigs, she’s worked as a multimedia broadcast journalist, run a newsroom, honed her marketing and communications skills across several government and non-government sectors - including the music industry, banking and housing - before gaining a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Auckland.
She also married, had a child and divorced.
And despite leaving acting at a relatively early age, she often remains typecast in some people’s minds.
“It took a long time for people to stop calling me Ana,” says Mary, who made the move from TV more than 20 years ago.
“I’m proud of the mahi I did as an actor. I spent many years post-Shorty supporting Auckland Playwrights, helping to shape character arcs and workshopping development with writers, I like being in the engine room of creative content. I don’t need to star in a play or film to feel connected to it,” adding she’s eternally grateful for her time on Shortland Street.
“It was a real privilege to be in people’s homes every night, the familiarity gifted me with an ability to easily connect with people, which I enjoy.”
Before the bright lights, Mary’s first move was to journalism. In 1991 she and brother Joe, a former Sunday News news editor and now Kaupapa Māori editor for the New Zealand Herald, enrolled at a journalism course run by Sefita Hao’uli and Bob Wandstraat at Manukau Tech.
“That course has produced many award-winning journos including Niva Retimanu, Barbara Dreaver, Sandra Kailahi and my brother Joe,” Mary said.
She said that at one time, Joe was at Sunday News, Willie (her late brother) was on ZB and Sky and she was on Shortland Street, the siblings covering several media and broadcasting platforms.
“Not bad for three siblings from West Auckland,” Mary says.
She is the youngest of nine children with whakapapa to Rereahu ki Maniapoto and grew up in the heart of West Auckland, Kelston.
“When you have nine kids in a household, it’s precision or it’s chaos, and we had precision,” Mary says, laughing.
Mary says her mum and dad, Kuini and Tavake, instilled structure and discipline and open and free thinking was always encouraged, yet rogue behaviour was not.
“We are rather conservative, and Mum and Dad ensured respect, honesty and humility reigned supreme in our home.”
Mary’s mum did the opposite of the typical Pacific migration story, leaving New Zealand as a 12-year-old in 1946 and going to Tonga with her gran Aunt Mere Ngahei and Tongan gran Uncle Hoani Tonga.
“They were the only Māori living in Tonga at that time. In 1947 Princess Te Puea and Dame Te Atairangikahu [late Māori Queen] went to Tonga and the relationship between the Kingitanga and the Kingdom of Tonga was strengthened.
“A few years later my mother had an arranged marriage to my father, that’s certainly one way to create closer relationships,” she says with a laugh.
Mary’s parents and her oldest three brothers returned to Aotearoa in 1960, to the King Country, where her mother’s whānau are from, and where her next two brothers were born, before the whānau moved to Ponsonby, Auckland.
“They had what my mother referred to as a two-up two-down and sold this home in Wood St and moved to a bigger house on a quarter-acre section in Kelston with lots of space for five boys,” she says.
The last four children, Richard, Dian, Willie and Mary, were born and raised in Kelston.
“We still have our parents’ homestead, which they purchased in 1962 and as a whānau have bought a few surrounding homes too. Our nephew also bought a house up the road. We are very proud of our Kelston roots.”
Mary says there were only a handful of Māori and Pacific families out west in the 60s and Don and Elaine Mann, parents to Kiwi rep Duane Mann, and PMN CEO Don Mann jnr were friends of her parents.
“They moved from Ponsonby to Kelston at the same time. When we see our Mann brothers, we often joke about our parents’ property decision-making.”
Mary’s parents passed away more than 30 years ago. She says as an orphan teenager, she learned very quickly what and who was important.
“Being so young, I don’t think I really stopped to think about the enormity of not having living parents, I just got on with things. It did make me very thoughtful and pragmatic, I didn’t have the bank of Mum and Dad to call if things didn’t work when I was on the other side of the world, I became more self-reliant and easily adaptive to calmly manage whatever is before me. I am very quick to recover and course-correct.”
She says her older siblings made sure their parents’ values lived on in her.
“They worked harder so I didn’t have to, and made sacrifices so I could wonder what dreams I’d like to follow. Journalism, then film school and uni. My besties often joke I’ve had my own personal cheerleading squad from birth.’
She says her siblings have only ever been kind and loving to her.
“They didn’t always get on with each other, yet they all make time for me. As the youngest there is literally nothing left to say by the time it gets to me, so I observed what wasn’t being said and I learned how to bring people to the table from a lowly-ranked, last-to the-trough position.”
In the 90s, Mary didn’t stay in one role very long but loved her stints in television, print and radio. She says she learned to write, sub-edit and read a news bulletin.
“They’re skills I still use today, cutting and splicing to make sense of a lot of information in a short amount of time is valuable.”
She moved to the corporate world in the new millennium.
“I saw the emergence of social media and its infringement on the legitimacy, balance and ethics of how I learned journalism – in my view. It’s an official who confirms a death, not a bystander with a social media platform. I knew it was time to look in another direction and went to corporate comms which, ironically, at that time was considered the ‘dark side’.”
Mary then spent a couple of years out of the workforce raising her daughter, Kuini, then “went back into journalism – radio, then comms again - “a bit of a revolving, evolving door”.
Roles included contracts with government agencies and ASB, Sony and BMG.
“I ran publicity for Che Fu when he first started. In 2016 I led internal comms for Housing New Zealand and for the establishment and transition to Kāinga Ora. I was fortunate to work closely with CEO Andrew McKenzie. I was given opportunities to learn and lead in other parts of the business. I love construction and housing, the security of tenure, home ownership. The benefits for whānau when you have this are well evidenced and I am a product of that.”
“Sef asked me to join the breakfast show, 6am-9am then I would head to my day job at New Zealand Magazines,” Mary said.
“Editor Rowan Dixon was very kind to enable me to do this for nearly a year, I’d get to the office well after 10. As I have learned it’s not easy managing team expectations when one of your people is arriving two hours after everyone else, I will always remember her kindness as a leader.”
However, promotion has not come easily in the corporate world - especially for a Māori-Pasifika-Pākehā female.
“Even in the mid-2010s the boys’ club was unashamedly and overtly present. I was passed over for a couple of roles. I looked at the successful candidates as objectively as I could,” Mary said.
“We led similar-sized teams, had similar experience, yet there was a difference and I determined it was because they had a penis. I needed to get something more potent than the male appendage and I decided that an MBA from the best university in New Zealand should do it.”
Mary says before applying, she discussed the MBA with her brother, broadcaster Willie, who died suddenly in South Africa ahead of commentating on the World Sevens competition in 2022.
“I was very close to Willie, and I always discussed life’s big and not so big decisions with him. He was a good listener and very honest with me. We had a running joke, he’d say, ‘Mary you should go for it, it’s not a singing competition so you’ll absolutely nail it’. And I’d say, yes there’s a reason why you’ve got a face for radio and I was on the telly,” she laughs.
Despite being a single parent and working full time, Mary gained her MBA in 2016.
“I used to read my academic articles to Kuini at bedtime, I couldn’t get the 45 minutes back and 7-year-olds don’t always care what you read – as long as you’re there cuddling with them.
“So I’m not surprised she understands macro and micro economics and texts me when the official cash rate goes up, Kuini calls it ‘our MBA’. And now she jokes about getting her PhD before me.”
Mary says an MBA is really about resilience, “You are under personal and professional pressures, you have to absorb them while maintaining consistent goodness as a human, that’s the real achievement.”
Kuini will follow in her mum’s footsteps to the University of Auckland next month, after spending a few weeks in Europe.
“We are going to celebrate her 18th birthday in Paris. It’s been three years in the making, since Kuini got her first part-time job, it’s important to learn long-term goal-setting,”
While in Italy the pair will reunite with their former au pairs, she says. “It will be a wonderful opportunity to thank them for helping raise her, it really does take a village.”
Alternating between the public and private sectors has meant a variety of roles and when Covid-19 hit, Mary was asked to play a part in the national effort to contain it.
“In August 2020 the resurgence of Covid was impacting Māori and Pacific in South Auckland and the need for a centralised Covid and vaccination tele-healthline to support priority populations was being established.
“I remember Renate Swart, the chief operating officer, saying to me early on, ‘Mary if we don’t have equity at the centre of what we are going to build, we will fail’. She’s not Māori, yet her heart for delivering equitable outcomes is. That short kōrero inspired me to give my all – great leaders conjure that in those around them, don’t they?”
Mary led the cultural service design and integration of the Covid vaccination lines, designing the operating model for the Māori, Disability and Pacific pathways, with cultural engagement first, underpinned by medical excellence. She says a culturally excellent workforce was needed to operate these three lines and they established four iwi partner contact centres, one Pacific contact centre and recruited from the disability sector via Workbridge.
“In a couple of months Renate’s team had built telehealth infrastructure with a trained contact centre workforce of nearly 4000, and more than 500 were Māori and Pacific advisers to culturally support whānau. The dedicated humans running the health system are some of life’s true champions and I got to serve alongside some of them in a crisis.”
Health remains a sector close to Mary’s heart and she has recently been appointed to the board of the Breast Cancer Foundation.
“It’s a cause that is close to our whānau as my mother died of breast cancer in 1994. Like many I have contributed in different ways over the years yet the opportunity to serve on the board is truly special to me and chair Justine Smyth’s commitment to the foundation is inspiring. I’m looking forward to supporting the foundation’s engagement with Māori and Pacific whānau.”
At the end of 2022 the CEO position of the Pacific Business Trust (PBT) became available. Mary says after speaking with the recruiter, she decided to throw her hat in the ring.
“When I considered the average income for a Pacific person is a little over $40k and the average income for a Pacific business owner is significantly higher, I knew I wanted to be part of growing Pacific economic prosperity.”
PBT currently supports 2243 owned-and-operated businesses in New Zealand.
Board chairman Paul Retimanu, owner of Manaaki Management, a hospitality business that has operated for more than 25 years, says Mary’s appointment was a unanimous decision by the panel, and she will oversee the expansion of PBT to the Pacific Economic Development Agency this year.
“Right from the moment we interviewed Mary, we knew she was the person for the role. She is highly strategic yet a solid operational leader who rolls her sleeves up and takes people with her. She cares deeply about her team and the business community she serves and I believe she has the temperament and skills to bring all the people and pieces together. As a first-time CEO, she is knocking it out of the park and in a very short period has exceeded the board’s expectations.”