The chair of Miraka, the first Māori dairy manufacturer, says education is the secret to his business success.
As a middle child growing up in Naenae with three older siblings and four younger ones, Kingi Smiler was encouraged to learn from a young age.
His parents – who were high school teachers – had high expectations of academic achievement.
“When I was brought up, the people of my era used to talk about being able to walk in both worlds,” Smiler says – te ao Māori and Pākehā society.
He says education opens opportunities to those capable of taking advantage of them.
“Even so, you need to be able to read and write, and it’s always good to be able to do your numbers,” the former chartered accountant says.
Smiler has always been good with numbers – and the numbers stack up for Miraka.
The Māori dairy business is one of New Zealand’s largest export businesses, with more than $300 million of exported goods.
It’s said to be the first dairy business to use renewable geothermal energy, and has one of the world’s lowest manufacturing carbon emissions footprints.
Miraka’s plant uses geothermal steam, emitting 92% fewer carbon emissions than comparable businesses. It describes its annual carbon emissions savings as equivalent to taking 7000 cars off the road.
Miraka was established 13 years ago by Māori trusts and incorporations. Smiler is also the chair of Wairarapa Moana Incorporation, a founding shareholder in Miraka.
He has been in the agribusiness industry for several decades, applying his technical skills to enable Māori economic development on Māori land.
Smiler was recently inducted into the NZ Business Hall of Fame alongside other pioneers of NZ business Kelly Tarlton, Wally Stone, Theresa Gattung, Ted Manson, Michael Barnett and Sir Paul Adams.
The awards have run for over 30 years and are organised by the Young Enterprise Trust, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes enterprise for youth to contribute towards transforming NZ’s future economic and social prosperity.
Smiler has been mentoring Ngāpuhi Krause, one of the aspiring entrepreneurs involved with Young Enterprise, and she introduced him when he was inducted. On the night, Krause said Smiler was a quiet but significant contributor to Aotearoa.
“Kingi has worked tirelessly to encourage and contribute to initiatives that grow the commercial, social, economic and environmental wealth for his whānau, hapū and his community.”
Smiler says growing up, he had rather played sports with his mates, particularly rugby and cricket. His entire whānau were young athletes; his siblings were swimming champions, and he played for the rugby first XV.
“We were brought up in a competitive environment, and we were always keen on our sports, with our dad coaching us, who was a fantastic sportsman himself.”
He did just enough to pass his papers.
Smiler says his father was very academic; he had completed a BA at Auckland University and gone on to Victoria University and did an MA in English and maths.
In 1966, when Smiler was 10 years old, his beloved dad passed away, and his mum decided to send young Kingi to Scots College in Wellington, not the local school in Lower Hutt.
At Scots College, he made strong connections. While he was later studying accounting at Victoria University those ties helped secure him a job at a firm, and that led to an offer to work overseas.
Smiler spent about eight years in Canada working for Ernst & Young (now EY) as an auditor and then in business restructuring.
“I had to do the Canadian examinations to get the Canadian CA [now called the Chartered Professional Accountant certification programme], and they had a much wider perspective and high standards,” he says.
He returned to NZ, and in 1990 Smiler was made a partner at Ernst & Young in Wellington. He left the firm in 1997 to strike out in a bold new direction and support his whānau and hapū, at his mother’s insistence.
“My mother would always volunteer me to get involved with our whānau land interest, nominating me to be a trustee when I was in Canada,” he says.
Her vision and determination paid off as Smiler became more heavily involved in trust matters, and that contribution continues 25 years later.
He was also part of the Federation of Māori Authorities that fought to enact changes to Māori land leases held in perpetuity, particularly in Taranaki and Wellington.
“We were part of a group that got all those rules changed to make it more commercial for those particular leases.”
Not only did he become a trustee, but he soon chaired the trust that decided to pool land interests and use them to build Miraka.
Three organisations combined assets worth about $750 million.
Smiler says this has given the whānau more opportunities by growing their assets through Miraka.
“The returns for the whānau over the last 20 years … [with] many, many times, very significant growth, has been very high.”
He’s proud to have been a part of the reinvigoration of the Ahuwhenua Trophy – a competition for Māori sheep, beef and dairy farmers – 20 years ago.
It was launched in 1933 by Māori leader Tā Apirana Ngata and the governor-general at the time, Lord Bledisloe, but interest waned, and the last of the original competitions was held in 1990.
The competition was relaunched in 2003 and three years ago horticulture was included, bringing even more life to the competition.
“Well, Lord Bledisloe donated these calves for the Ahuwhenua Trophy competition, and that’s the legacy of the history that we were developing. It was good to take it to the next level and now be recognised as the premier competition of Māori farming,” Smiler says.
He wanted to highlight and profile the great work Māori farmers are doing to “demonstrate to the rest of NZ that they’re now right out there leading the way”.
Smiler says Māori farm differently, with the value of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) at the forefront.
“Our generational thinking is that we’re the kaitiaki [guardians] for the next generation.
“That’s how we farm, and that’s how we tend the business and look after it, which is normally not typical for the Pākehā competition, right? And we absolutely have a different view of the world.
“I mean, we call it kaitiakitanga, they call it stewardship, and others call it governance.
“Māori farmers are kaitiaki taonga [guardians of treasure], building that sustainability and resilience because we know we want to pass it on to the next generation. That is a big driving force for how all that growth occurs, which you don’t typically see now.
“When the others want to exit or retire, they sell the farm, which is different to us; we know we’re passing on to the whānau to take over the farm.
“So, we build for the next generation, who are then building for the next generation.”
Smiler says the Pākehā dairy farmers who supply Miraka have adopted Māori values, “the Miraka Way”, and they’ve seen the benefits on their farms.
He says it is about blending values and skills to build a bicultural family.
Smiler was chair of Kāhui Wai Māori, a group brought together in 2018, and worked alongside the likes of Dover Samuels and Annette Sykes to influence the Essential Freshwater policy.
He says it was a huge achievement to get the legislation changed three years ago because the new law recognises tikanga Māori. Mahinga kai (the value of food resources and their ecosystems) is now compulsory, affecting how targets are evaluated and how limits are set in the regions.
“Those new rule changes are now really starting to underpin how they operate the Environment Court with a Māori worldview now, about how they view wai [water] – it is all now part of the regulations.”
Smiler says he’s enjoyed the challenges he’s faced throughout his life and embraces stress.
“I enjoy the stress. I just see that in the challenges, there’s lots to do and lots of problems to solve. I just approach those in a positive light and focus on resolving them. I tend to just absorb all of that without letting it overwhelm me.
“For the most part, I don’t lose any sleep over it.”
He’s still a keen sportsman. Smiler competes in Ironman and has been actively competing in national and international competitions for 20 years.
Training for the Ironman in Wellington is a breeze for Smiler as he lives at the top of Brooklyn; its high viewpoint has beautiful scenery of the south coast.
“Windy Wellington, we’re used to that; we always love coming back to Wellington.”