Former Air Force engineer Warner Cowin talks potential for the Māori economy and how his military background has helped his clients score large Government contracts.

What does your business do?
Height works with engineering, defence and technology businesses to help them win big Government contracts and we also help Government agencies buy those services. The bulk of our time is spent on infrastructure. I started the business five and a half years ago and it grew out of my garage with just me and my wife and now we have a team of about 12 people.

We're based in Auckland but now work all around the world. We've done work in Australia, Asia Pacific and I've just got back from a trip to Canada and the US.

What was the motivation for starting the business?

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For me, it was to get out of the corporate world at the time and to try define my own destiny.

When I came back to New Zealand I got frustrated in a corporate sense in that I didn't really know where I was going and the only way I could own my situation was to start my own business. I wanted to build a business that gave me the flexibility of time so I could spend more time with my family, and also recruit and work with people I like spending time with.

Tell me about your background and how has it helped your firm?

I started out as an engineering officer in the New Zealand Air Force. I was in the air force for about six and a half years and did a number of tours and did my final tour as a UN peacekeeper in East Timor, supporting the helicopter squadron there.

I did my engineering degree, then I went travelling around the UK and Asia for about six and a half years and then got into construction, running construction jobs, before I ended up working in at a large Australian corporate running their business. I've been brought up on a diet of military and corporate and then decided later in life to actually do something different.

Do you think your military background has given you a unique advantage?

Yes. Business is absolutely about people, and the officer training that I had in the military was fundamentally that. You have a very defined mission and it's about putting people and resources in safe directions to make sure that you achieve that mission and look after your team.

What does your business do to help the community?

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We support a programme called Resettlement which helps military veterans transition into the civilian world and give them skills and inspiration to start their own businesses. One of the things we do is talk about our military experience. The hardest day that you have in the military is going to eclipse anything you have in the civilian world.

We volunteer our time quite a lot. We also recently started supporting Kōkiri which is an initiative that support Māori entrepreneurs. What's unique about our business is that we are a Māori-owned business and I really believe there's an opportunity to grow an entrepreneur Māori economy.

Left to right: Flight Sergeant Mike Cannon, Squadron Leader Dave Vandersloot, Flight Lieutenant Warner Cowin, kneeling Corporal Buck Rodger deployed in East Timor in 2001. Photo / Supplied
Left to right: Flight Sergeant Mike Cannon, Squadron Leader Dave Vandersloot, Flight Lieutenant Warner Cowin, kneeling Corporal Buck Rodger deployed in East Timor in 2001. Photo / Supplied

What's the current state of the Māori economy and what's its potential?

The potential is huge. The New Zealand Super Fund has put up its hand to be an investor in the Light Rail in Auckland but there's no reason that some of the large iwi collectives couldn't be considering that as an option as well. The challenge that we have with the Māori economy is how do we diversify our revenue base and how do we add value and get involved in some of the larger investments?

The other element to it is for young Māori to consider entrepreneurship as a legitimate career path. Māori are inspired a lot by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk but we don't have those kinds of role models here in New Zealand but young people should be looking to do that as opposed to going to university or a trade. We could potentially have the next Facebook or Amazon come out of Kaikohe, or anywhere in New Zealand.

How much competition are you facing?

There's lots of people that do parts of what we do but we have found that by being really niche and focused on the defence, construction and tech sectors then we can define our own market channel.

What advice do you give to others thinking of starting their own business?

Start with what you are passionate about. Money is a byproduct of passion and it shouldn't be the only driver to start something new.