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Kea World Class New Zealand Award winner Rachel Taulelei is passionate about protecting the precious providence of Aotearoa and the premium status our brands enjoy in international markets. She’s even more excited about what the future holds for Kono and its people.

Reaching ‘World Class’ New Zealand status requires an exceptional bio and outstanding leadership qualities. Rachel Taulelei, chief executive of the Māori-owned, Top 100 New Zealand food and beverage company Kono, fits the criteria impressively – which is why the judges awarded her one of the coveted Tall Poppy statuettes at this year’s Kea World Class New Zealand Awards at Auckland’s SkyCity Convention Centre.

Taulelei, who cut her sustainability teeth on her Wellington-based seafood company Yellow Brick Road, knows she is following in the remarkable footsteps of previous winners; is grateful for the nomination by her peers, and humbled by the recognition of the judges.

“Considering the calibre of the awards and of past recipients, it does make one feel very special and proud,” she says, adding that she regards the award as recognition of a cumulative and collective effort by her whānau and team over a number of years, not just an individual effort.

Speaking to NZBusiness before the Awards night on June 20th, Taulelei says she’ll use the night to reflect on the importance of values-led leadership, and the collective responsibility for building the nation.

“It’s important to celebrate the amazing nature of our country and both our individual and collective achievements. But equally we need to be very real about the challenges we face as a nation, some of which are crisis-oriented, and the need to be relentless in our desire to address the iniquities in our country.”

It’s important to understand what your role is in addressing those challenges, says Taulelei, because if you have the ability to positively influence others, you should look for opportunities to do exactly that.

In her time at the top at Kono over the past four years Taulelei is particularly proud of the change in the culture of the business and the embracing of its “core and common” values. “This is manifested in all sorts of ways through the entire company,” she says, “and I find that very, very rewarding.

“It’s one thing to create a set of values and pop them on your website or up on your wall – it’s another thing entirely to bring them to life and see people owning and enacting those values, so they become your common vernacular.”

Kono’s values are all Māori in their naming and meaning, with concepts such as Kaitiakitanga now very well understood across all the company’s many activities, she says.

“Our focus in this space is changing peoples’ perspectives around the inter-generational outcomes we’re striving for,” she says, which are linked into the company’s purpose – to preserve and enhance their taonga (treasure) for the benefit of current and future generations. Their guiding document, Te Pae Tawhiti, outlines the vision for the next 500 years.

People today have a far greater understanding that assuming a short-term, individual perspective on the world is incredibly limiting, Taulelei believes. “A long-term collective perspective broadens your ability to contribute to society, and think beyond yourself.” This is what’s hard-wired into their people, she says. “So while we have a long-term plan, we now work very hard on what the intergenerational goals might be – which indicates whether you’re moving in the right direction.”

Having the right values to aim for makes her job easy, Taulelei adds, especially when it comes to making tough decisions.

It’s about appreciation

Time spent as New Zealand’s Trade Commissioner in Los Angeles cemented Taulelei’s appreciation for the calibre of New Zealand’s produce. She became a passionate advocate of New Zealand’s primary industry and has now spent 20 years promoting Aotearoa New Zealand as a world-class producer of food and beverages. She is equally appreciative of the unique environment in which we catch, harvest and process our food products – and is “in awe” of the people who produce them, and their stories. “The more they love what they do, the better their products,” she says. “And I’ve never met anyone in the farming, fishing or horticulture industry who doesn’t love what they do.

“In LA I saw how well people regard us internationally, and the respect they have for the country. It’s there where I developed a deep affection for our country’s providence story.”

Of course, the impact of climate change on that story can’t be ignored – and while New Zealand can’t solve the problem on its own, it can contribute to a solution, Taulelei believes – one that addresses such things as the rising water temperatures affecting aquaculture, building housing on productive land, water availability, biosecurity, and protecting New Zealand’s social licence to work internationally on protecting our premium status in the world of food and beverage.

In terms of Kono’s initiatives, Taulelei says they have always been customer led and market driven. They’re constantly investing in that space. The goal is to know their partners and customers so well that they can not only provide the best service and products, but almost predict their needs going forward. The key is to be a part of each other’s business, she explains, and not just rely on one touchpoint. It’s about having a whole-of-organisation approach to each customer; to gain a real insight into their needs.

“Understanding your consumers better allows you to remove any ego from what you’re doing and see things from their perspective,” she says.

Career highlights

Looking back over her career, Taulelei is proud of the influence she has been able to exert during her time as trade commissioner, and then particularly as CEO of Yellow Brick Road, where she encouraged conversations around what good, responsible and sustainable fishing looks like.

“Yellow Brick Road remains a relatively small business, but its influence has gone far beyond its actual size,” she says.

With Kono she enjoys the ability to help influence peoples’ thinking with the stories behind the brand. It’s really about the magic of Māori people and culture; of realising the potential of the Māori economy and of Māori generally, she says.

Right now they’ve got their eye on the future – building capability and creating opportunities for young people through a range of succession initiatives within Wakatū Incorporation (the parent organisation comprising 4000-plus shareholder families who descend from the original Māori landowners of the Nelson, Tasman and Golden Bay regions).

And Taulelei has committed herself to never refusing requests for help from young people, often taking up opportunities to pass on advice and direction. She’s aware of the complexities of our young people’s lives and what it takes for them to ask for help.  

Like all businesses, Kono’s future has it challenges, she acknowledges, particularly as an entity within the primary industry. And there’s the challenge of how best to invest in their people; to take advantage of automation opportunities and the future of work.

Fortunately they’re all challenges that this World Class New Zealander is more than up for.

This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of NZBusiness.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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